Your Guide to Letterpress Printing: What is it, what's the history, and how does it work?

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Joey Gross
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Your guide to letterpress printing

Letterpress printing has been at the heart of all printing for over 500 years and was the main form of printing until rotary presses made industrial printing possible, and it wasn’t long after that when computers and printers came along.

But what makes letterpress printing different from the types of printers we have in our home? Why is it still in use? Read on to find out!

What is Letterpress Printing?

Letterpress printing was the first form of printing ever invented and involves using raised letters and shapes on a stamp or a plate that is then pressed onto the paper or card. Usually, metal letters and shapes are used on the plates, but wood and stone have also been used.

Kluge Foil Stamping Press

What is a Letterpress Machine?

A letterpress machine is a machine that takes the type or design and presses it into the paper or cardstock, using metal, wood, or photopolymer “stamps”. This process creates a depression in the paper and prints the ink into the paper.

Who Invented the Letterpress?

The letterpress was invented by a man called Johannes Gutenberg [link:] (1400 – 1468), who invented the printing press in (15thcentury). He is attributed to starting the printing revolution in Europe, thanks to his introduction of mechanical and movable type printing, which in turn laid the foundation for the knowledge-based economy we have today, and the easy distribution of educational materials.

Gutenberg invented his printing press sometime between 1448 and 1450, when the press is known to have been in operation and he and a few employees began mass-producing various texts, many of which were for the church.

It was this invention that made the mass-production of books and newspapers possible and made books economically viable for both publishers and readers. In Gutenberg’s time, he used metal alloys and hand molding to cast the type. Gutenberg and his printing press are also responsible for what’s known as the Gutenberg Bible, as he was the first person to print a version of the Bible.

Gutenberg’s earliest printing process isn’t well known, but it is thought that typesetting each plate would take hours, then they had to ink the type, print, hang up the sheets, and much more.

What Does Modern-Day Letterpress Printing Look Like?

Nowadays, letterpress printing involves starting at the computer to choose fonts, add decorative embellishments, patterns, and anything else you desire. The use of a computer for the design means that even complicated multi-color designs can be produced quickly.

In the 1980s letterpress printing had largely been replaced by larger, industrial processes, but now the letterpress has been revived and is used to give the printed item a certain look, feel, and quality. There are many printers who have fallen back in love with the letterpress and use 3D printing to recreate the ornate wooden blocks once used by printers hundreds of years ago to set their type.

Regardless of the way the plate was created, it is then fixed to a metal base and locked into the letterpress machine. The chosen ink color is then spread evenly onto metal rollers. Once everything is ready, printing can begin. The chosen paper or cardstock is hand-fed through the press to create the desired design. It is then put aside to dry. For many designs, the paper will be fed through the machine a number of times to achieve the desired result.

Letterpress printing is now an art form, rather than the necessity that drove Gutenberg to create it in the 15th century. It’s what shows the person or people you are sending your paper or card invitations, business cards, or other products that you truly care about what you are doing and the message you want to send.

What Effect Does Letterpress Printing Give?

Nowadays, letterpress printing is mostly used on invitations, business cards, and greetings cards. The type and embellishments printed give deep impressions (known as debossing) in the paper or card, and so gives the printed materials a tactile quality that simply can’t be achieved by other means.

This style of printing used to wear through the type extremely quickly, so now photopolymer is largely used instead of metals and woods. This photopolymer allows designers to easily use digital tools (such as Adobe InDesign, or even Microsoft Word) to create their designs and can be reproduced quickly if it gets worn through.

Where Can I Order Letterpress Printed Products?

There are plenty of printers who still practice the art of letterpress printing, which has become extremely popular for greetings cards, wedding invitations and stationery, and artisanal branding for businesses. If you are in the US, we of course recommend working with us! We are a full-service print shop based in Kansas City, Missouri, and we love the process and craft letterpress printing offers.

As explained above, we work with digital files to create the plates to achieve the design you want, so almost anything is possible with our letterpress printing technique. If you’re looking for beautifully crafted wedding invitations, we have you covered – our in-house design services are here to help you create anything from simple save-the-date cards to all the printed pieces you need for the big day.

Interested learning more about letterpress printing and how it's done? You would make a great fit for our new workshops! Find out more here - Public Workshops

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