Letterpress Printing Techniques
Every morning this week, I’m running a series of guests posts about different printing methods – so if you’ve ever wondered why certain printing methods are best for certain kinds of designs (or cost more than others), this is for you! You can read the previous installments covering digital printing, engraving, screen printing, letterpress printing with antique type, and foil stamping all right here. Today Kim and Kyle from are here to walk us through modern letterpress printing!
This is the Vandercook SP-20. In this press’s first life it probably pulled proofs of pages for a daily newspaper. Today, these presses are sought after for their quality and large printing size.
The plate is affixed to a machined metal base which is in turn locked into the press.
Printing begins. This plate prints an area half the size of the sheet. The sheet of paper is hand-fed through the press twice, once from each end of the paper. This produces 8 cards per sheet in a process called a work-and-turn. The 220 lb Crane Lettra paper, double than the standard 110 lb weight (and more than twice the cost), allows for a deeper impression on both sides, which was desired by the client.
All presses have a system of registration. Consistent placement of every print on every sheet is a must for quality printing. This design, like most we produce, has cross-hair trim marks made into the plate that serve not only as cutting guides, but printing guides as well. After this print run dried, a third printing run was made on the reverse of the pages.
Cutting! Printing is finished and the job is ready to cut. We usually die cut our business card jobs, even when the job doesn’t call for an unusual shape. Our business card die cuts four cards in a single pass. The press is outfitted with a metal die-jacket for protection, and the die itself is made up of metal cutting blades surrounded by protective foam pads. (Ed. Note: We’ll be covering die cutting in greater detail tomorrow!)
The design for these cards utilized a random, non-repeating pattern and intentionally transparent colors. The four cards together create one overall design, but each business card is unique.
Tips and Advice
Letterpress printing takes some time. In our shop, each page is fed by hand, and each color of a print job can be several hours on press from start to clean-up. Add to that designs that need to be sent out to be made into plates. A two-week turn-around is common.
Letterpress excels at printing fine type and line work. Letterpress printing is not ideal for solid fields of color. Most large solid shapes result in the color printing ‘salty’, a term used to describe the texture and color of the paper showing through the ink. Your printer can tell you what is possible on their equipment.
While letterpress was never intended to be printed with a dramatic impression, or deboss, into the paper, it is often the most desired feature today. Printing like this will quickly damage wood and metal type, but polymer plates are more durable (and more easily replaced). Certain papers show off this impression better than others.