What is Letterpress and how has it Changed Over Time?

Musings of a Printer
Joey Gross
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We are a letterpress print shop so it would make sense to assume we are a couple of guys in here working on old machines and printing presses, pulling type out of drawers similar to the ones you’d find hanging on a wall holding knick knacks in your house. While the old machines and printing presses might be true to some degree, we definitely aren’t pulling out lead type with tweezers and locking it up for printing. While traditional letterpress was done this way, our shop has more a modern day take on the craft of letterpress printing.

he way printing used to be done is a typesetter who was maybe getting ready to layout a form for their local newspaper would take out a drawer full of type, broken down letter by letter and made of lead. He’d pull the drawer out of his type cabinet and place it on his workstation to begin the process of setting type. This was often done with tweezers because the type was so tiny it was difficult to pick up with just your fingers. The composer would also have some sort of magnifying glass so they could see the tiny letters. The process, as you can imagine, was very tedious and time consuming.

There were other machines engineered to speed up the process, such as the Linotype, which would cast an entire line of type out of molten lead, but even still that was just one line of type out of several pages and paragraphs. The machine itself was big, clunky and very dangerous for the operator.

Thankfully technology has shifted and we have other methods to achieve that beautiful letterpress look we all love. With image setting, film output and darkroom processes that were developed for the age of offset printing, we now have the technology to develop UV light sensitive photopolymer material for our printing. What’s great about this process is we can now take digital files we design typically in Adobe Illustrator and we can output the artwork to a film negative, vacuum seal the film to the photopolymer, expose it to light and wash it out with tap water to create a raised or relief plate for printing. The entire process just takes a few minutes and there are no chemicals involved. See the picture here as a comparison of what the plate looks like and what gets printed.

Companies like Boxcar Press out of New York are pioneering certain aspects of this process to make it even more user friendly for the press operator. They developed a system called the Boxcar Base, which is an aluminum base with a grid on it to line the plastic plate on and stick it to the base with double sided adhesive. The plate then gets put in the press and it’s ready for ink and printing. Modern meets old antique printing presses and the outcome is beautifully printed paper goods. While set up is faster than setting type by hand, there is still a fair amount of work involved.

We have to make the plate, mix the custom Pantone colors for printing and print each color one color at a time. While it’s a time consuming craft, it’s a true labor of love. The outcome is always what makes this craft worth while. Seeing the impression in the paper and subtle inconsistencies in the ink, it’s something that simply can’t be replicated.

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