Letterpress Basics: 580 years in the making

Letterpress is making a comeback in the digital age thanks to a general renewed interest in the handmade, and to the digital re-invention of the medium with computer-generated plates. A letterpress is able to make a more precise and distinct print that offset or flexo presses can struggle with.

The basic process

Letterpress begins, as the name would suggest, by gathering your types together with number, upper and lowercase letters, special characters, ligatures, punctuation, and spaces in a particular point size and style. Oftentimes typefaces can be decades (or even hundreds of years!) old, and may be missing characters through time. Typically, these are made of wood or lead, but some are experimenting with new materials, like 3D printed lettersets.

This is where leading comes in. Setting the type on composing sticks one character at a time, and a piece of lead (hence “leading”) is set between lines. Once everything is set, it gets locked onto the chase (metal frame) to be placed into your press.

Wooden blocks are often placed in the spaces between the frame and the type to lock it in, and quoins (metal-toothed wedges) apply pressure and tension to lock everything together.

Ink rollers typically coat the type with ink as the press runs, while paper is fed into the press and a clamping motion allows the ink to print on to the paper

Types of letter-presses

Platen Press

A platen letterpress is made up of 2 flat surfaces, the bed and the platen. On a platen press, the ink is distributed onto a metal disk (platen), and rollers grab ink from the disk to ink the type. The type is set onto a chase and inserted into a press, while a treadle powers the press and spins the large flywheel. Platen presses are typically used for short run prints, like invitations or stationary. Platen presses that are larger are used for die-cutting, embossing, and foil applications.

Flatbed Press

The type is locked on the bed of the press. Ink is applied to rollers that spin in place, and the paper to be printed on is placed at the top of the press and held in place by grippers. The printer then moves the rollers and piece of paper across the press, over the type. The rollers then crank back to the top of the press and are ready for the next sheet. These presses can do one or two color impressions.

Rotary Press

Rotary presses are used for their ability to produce high volume runs. Not typically used in the standard Letterpress Shop as they are used in commercial and specialty printing with sheet-fed and web-fed designs. The plate is a cylinder and paper is run through at a higher speed. The operator can adjust the print heads and come up with color matches faster without having to change anything within the press, with less setup and less waste than a flexo press.

Sheet-fed rotary presses, the plate is mounted onto a cylinder where a roller applies ink to the plate. The paper then passes between the plate sulinder and an impression cylinder, producing the printed impression onto the paper.

Web-fed presses are used in printing applications like newspapers, labels, or wallpaper and are the highest speed and most accurate process. The printing process is the same, but the substrate is a continuous web unwound from a roll.

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