Letterpress Printing: Lasting Impression, Lasting Inspiration
Today much of our communication is digital and the printed page feels almost forgotten. But there’s still demand for the tactile quality that something printed brings us. And nothing is more tactile than when it’s printed via letterpress.
Letterpress is a relief printing technique using movable type — individual type pieces such as letters, numbers, and punctuation that can be arranged as needed to reproduce a document. Metal movable type was first created in China in the 11th century, and was refined and improved upon by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. Even though these advancements allowed for a much easier and quicker way to print and distribute information, letterpress remained extremely time-consuming because each letter had to be placed by hand. It took Gutenberg and his staff roughly 3 years to print 180 copies of the Bible.
Later, with the more efficient inventions of lithography, offset printing, and digital printing, letterpress printing fell out of favor until it was recently revived by small craft presses and hobbyists seeking its old-world qualities. Today, metal type is still sometimes used, but letterpress printers often use photopolymer plates which allows them to transfer a digital file to a printing plate, making the process a little quicker and leaving more room for creativity.
So much effort, thought, and planning goes into letterpress creations. Unlike a digital print, you can’t simply send the file to print and be done with it. With letterpress one must consider the paper type and thickness, the depth of the impression, and the registration — or how the document lines up — since different colors will be printed on different plates. Because it takes so much time and work, letterpress is one of the most expensive ways to print. But that’s also what makes it one of the most beautiful, inspiring ways to print. It’s truly an art form.
Letterpress has had a big influence on my design. When you’re holding a letterpressed piece you take in the colors, layout, and the feel of it. You can run your fingers over the impressions in the paper and see letters and shapes take form. Even when I can’t use letterpress for printing, I still want my work to have the same tactile quality — I want a viewer to sense the work and time that was put into the piece.
Have you ever used letterpress printing? What’s your favorite thing about the result?