Letterpress printing is a technique of relief printing using a printing press, a process by which many copies are produced by repeated direct impression of an inked, raised surface against sheets or a continuous roll of paper.
Letterpress printing was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. Letterpress printing remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the twentieth century, when offset printing was developed, which largely supplanted its role in printing books and newspapers.
Today the use of letterpress type printing is on the decline, being replaced with faster and more efficient printing presses. However, there is a small but thriving business in using old letterpress techniques to make cards, signs and tags in the art printing market.
How letterpress works: Letterpress printing exerts variable amounts of pressure on the substrate dependent on the size and image elements in the printing. The amount of pressure per square inch or "squeeze" is greater on some highlight dots than it is on larger shadow dots. Adjustments must be made throughout the press run to make sure the impression pressure is just right.
Letterpress printing uses type that is raised above (relief) the non-printing areas. In traditional letterpress work, letters were assembled into copy, explanatory cuts were placed nearby, line drawings were etched or engraved into plates, and all these were placed (or composed) on a flat marble stone, within a rigid frame (chase) spaced artistically with blocks, tightened up with toothed angular blocks (called quoins).
Printers' National Environmental Assistance Center
In an earlier blog post we talked about Hale Pai, the printing shop at Lahainaluna High School in Lahaina, Maui, where the first printed paper west of the Rockies was printed.
History San Jose has a Print Shop museum with several letterpress presses. The volunteers are quite knowledgeable about all sorts of printing methods and history.
Susan has a wonderful, small letterpress platen printer in her collection.
Letterpress blocks are fun to work with for more than printing. These wood or metal blocks can be used in all variety of craft projects. We have even seen jewelry made from them! At Vintages we have a large selection of letterpress blocks … both wood and metal … letters, numbers and images … in a variety of sizes. Check us out!