What is Letterpress?
Letterpress printing is a hand operated print technique from the 15th Century that coats ink onto raised metal type, (letters), with rollers and then transfers that ink to the cardstock by pressing the card and the raised metal type together. The ink transfers to the cardstock and you are left with an inked print called an impression. If you set up your letterpress machine so that the metal letters push deeply into the paper, you are left with an inked deboss which you can also feel with your fingers. It is a truly beautiful way of printing.
We combine traditional print with modern technology and design, which allows us to take any digital design on a computer and produce custom raised plates. We do this for every job, so it is now possible for us to incorporate custom drawings, graphics and flourishes as well as traditional and modern typefaces and fonts.
What makes Letterpress so special?
The beauty of letterpress is all down to the unique way the prints are produced. The methods and limitations of this print technique actually all work to the overall benefit of the final product.
Debossed print you can feel
Because letterpress is a form of relief printing, (printing off a raised surface), there is physical contact where the design pushes into our soft and puffy cardstock. This leaves the gorgeous and tactile deboss, (pushed into the paper), that letterpress is now famous for that your fingers can feel. Incidently, when the print sticks out of the paper, that is called an emboss.
Quality of cardstock
Offset printing, (indirect contact of the design with the paper), and modern digital printing are much faster and led to thinner and thinner paper being used. Although these drastically expanded the options in terms of designs that could be printed, the paper became smooth, featureless, limp and homogeneous.
We really prefer the special feel of 100% cotton rag cardstock. It’s very hard to describe a tree-free paper, but the soft and puffy cardstock has a unique feel about it over tree-based paper. The length of the cotton fibres result in a stronger card that is also softer. Our house cardstock is the best available. It is also produced from upcycled fibres from the textile industry, so is green. Because cotton fibres are naturally whiter, brighter, more durable and permanent than wood fibres, it requires very little bleaching. And at the end of its life, the fibres are still long enough to be mixed with tree fibres and recycled once more.
Why not use the best when you have the option to, that’s what we think.
Thickness of cardstock
Offset and digital printers have a limited amount of space that the paper must fit in. With letterpress, the movable metal type swings towards and away from the cardstock, so we are able to use much thicker card. It is this thick cardstock that feels special in the hand and one that everyone immediately associates with traditional quality. This understated quality actually speaks for itself when combined with the unique letterpress deboss and allows you to purvey quality without the need for a loud and shouty design or any printing gimmicks.
Being able to print on such a thick cardstock then also allows us to edge-match. Just like books used to be gilded with silver or gold on the sides, our thickness of cardstock allows us to do the same with accent colours. Although this process is possible with thinner cards, the effect is greatly diminished when the card is not in a stack, so we only recommend this with our thicker cotton cardstocks.
Every time we print a colour, we have to create a print plate for that colour, mix the ink and then manually run the cardstock through our hand-operated letterpress printer. To print a second colour, we have to do exactly the same. Each time the process is carried out, we have to register the job, physically print it and clean up the press, (not something you have to do with your own descktop printer)! This is a very labour intensive and premium print technique, so many colours could get expensive. So typically, most the prints are going to be one and two colour jobs, with perhaps the odd three colour job thrown in.
This limitation of colours actually drives creativity and good design. So you find that without the crutch of modern print techniques, designs for letterpress are typically superior. Less is more, as they say.
We can make a plate and then run the job without any ink added at all. This produces what is called a blind deboss. Blind embosses can add so much to a design with gorgeous texture and subtle accents.
Smaller print areas
Because letterpress is a physical process, the print that results is also governed by physics! We create a certain amount of force when we print and if we try to print large solid areas of ink, this force is divided by the area. This creates the typical varigated printes that letterpress is famous for. With careful design, we can control this and fonts and fine lines with much more even ink coverage. So most the letterpress prints in small format, (5″x8″ or less), have consistant coverage.
Each time we print, we manually position the cardstock and then manually apply the pressure. This results in a lovely unique print each time. Like bank notes that have serial numbers, every print looks the same but each one is also different. This adds a certain special quality to items produced by letterpress
Amount of Care
Because letterpress is very much a physical and mechanical process, as the designer and printer we are intricately involved with every step. We see and recognise every detail and aspect of the print that most would not and are emotionally involved throughout. In essence, Letterpress is as much a science as it is an art and very much a labour of love. You can be assured that each print from Bespoke Impressions is as special as the next and we will take the utmost care to ensure your prints are as special as you hope they will be.