A recent visit to a friend’s home was a much anticipated event. Not just for the great company and excellent food we were promised, but for the opportunity to see something she owns. After warm welcomes all around, I looked around to see if I can spot it. There it is! Sitting in the corner of the room on a small bench of its own was an antique printing press—a ;etterpress. A small one, but a letterpress, nonetheless.
In the history of printing, letterpress was the only printing technique until the 20th century. It was achieved by applying ink to raised letters and then pressing paper onto the letters to transfer the ink. In the last 80 years, modern, high-speed techniques of offset and now digital printing have all but replaced the letterpress for commercial reproduction.
Letterpress is unique. By printing on thick card stock, the image (text or design) presses into the paper, giving a deboss (the opposite of emboss) as it laid down the ink.
Letterpress is a technique that speaks of tradition, of a bygone era. It continues to be used for high-end invitations, announcements and specialty print jobs where a vintage or handcrafted look is needed. For a long time I viewed it as just another treatment available to me. My attitude changed with that visit.
I’m told I was grinning like a kid in a candy shop as she showed it to me and we talked about what it can do. Eventually, my friend invited me to try my hand at using the press! I carefully chose the letters and fit them into the chase, loaded it into the press and positioned the paper. I pulled the handle—and then admired my handiwork.
Why all the excitement? I used to ask myself the same thing. There are a couple of reasons:
Letterpress is sensual. Because of its dimensional qualities it is tactile, begging you to touch, to explore it from several angles to see how the light hits the indents and ridges. Best results are achieved when pressed on a thick card stock. The texture of the stock adds to the sensual nature of the piece
Letterpress is handcrafted. No two pieces are identical. With each impression, the ink will lay down with ever-so-subtle-differences because of how the roller refreshes the ink and how much pressure the operator applies. When working with two or more colours, how well the piece is positioned for registration can also be a factor.
Now I understand the value of letterpress as a technique for certain projects. If you want to say to your audience that you have taken special care and time to present this, that you are one of a kind and original, then consider letterpress as a technique. It can be used in a number of applications: business cards, announcements, invitations, information cards and bookmarks, to name a few.
The one thing to remember is that letterpress is the domain of spot colour printing. But, with the right application, nothing beats it.
Foil stamping is a similar technique and it can be a cost-effective alternative to true letterpress. By pressing a thin layer of pigment from a foil sheet onto the paper, it gives a similar look to traditional letterpress. You get the dimensional effect, but there isn’t the variability of colour in the impression.