What is Letterpress Printing? – Principle, Process & Types

Letterpress printing is an extremely well-known relief printing system that takes advantage of the effects of pressure to get imprints. Throughout the process, metal beds/ frames with raised letters and designs made out of wood, lead, or photopolymers are used. These are then dipped in ink to press results onto your offset or cotton papers.

If you are still confused about letterpress printing, then give us a moment to introduce you to its principles, process, & types. You can also try out this amazing printing technology when the need arises!

Letterpress Printing History – Screw Press To Ink Rollers

Although most people tend to credit Johannes Gutenberg for discovering letterpress printing, it was initially found in China. Ceramic was used to manufacture these types, which stood out as an important part of the world’s first movable printing system.

Soon enough, America started building similar inventions, except that instead of ceramic, they used wooden types to build “forms.” This turned out to be more fruitful as wood was much cheaper, letting people switch out their plates without having to worry about the expense. The letter types could also be reused when needed since the pressure applied was not enough to damage them.

As time passed, Johannes Gutenberg then decided to enhance his invention by adding leather-coated ink balls. This applied the ink onto the surface of plates, allowing users to press paper on top and receive their results then easily. Finally, the pressure was applied from the top with the assistance of a large threaded screw, earning it the name of a ‘Screw Press.’

To upgrade the machine even further and make printing jobs more effortless, in the 15th-century, people decided to switch out the screws for knuckles and levers. The same principle was used, but less sweat was required to create copies and prints. Increased speed also played a significant advantage, causing people to use the printing process to make cards, invites, and the like.

Nowadays, ink rollers have been installed within such printers to make the job even easier. These spread out ink onto the surface of types, saving more time and allowing more impressions to be made per hour. In addition, the metal plates and papers can be found on rolls or flatbeds that are moved mechanically with electricity, reducing the need for labor.

How Does a Modern Letterpress Work – Printing Principle

Modern letterpresses work by using three important stages: composition, imposition, and printing. Let us introduce to each to briefly describe the updated principles of this printing technology!

Composition – Putting the Film On To The Photopolymer Plate’s

In this stage, people must develop their plates according to the result they want to obtain. For modern letterpresses, these types are made using photopolymer – a light-sensitive material that gets cured upon exposure to UV rays.

To get their images typeset onto such plates, users will first have to print their hardcopy on a negative film. Once this is done, the printed film should be kept on the photopolymer plate’s surface. The plate and the film should then be exposed to the light, causing the parts that held no black ink to be eaten away.

When the light-emitting UV rays are turned off, the plate should be washed with water and exposed to UV rays once again. This way, the form is created!

As one does not need to carve out the types and letters by themselves, much time is saved. Furthermore, works can also be more precise since human errors are not present in this digital production process.

Imposition – Arranging Photopolymer Plates

During this stage, the photopolymer plates are arranged according to the order that you are looking for. They are then locked into their positions to prevent distorted looks from occurring. Afterward, the printer’s ink rollers will cover the plate’s surface with the ink you are using. Only one color can be used at a time, as this is a rule that users of letterpress printers have to abide by.

Printing

If papers weren’t already installed, you should cut them to the size you want and place them within the flatbed or rollers (depending on the type of machine). You can now proceed to order the print command so that the ink applied on the plate’s surface is imprinted onto your paper.

Through this simple method, users of modern letterpresses can then receive their desired output. At most, 30,000 impressions can be received per hour, but the number may decrease depending on the letterpress you use.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmg7yCEphrA

What is Letterpress Printing Process?

The letterpress printing process can be divided into four easy steps:

Steps One: Assembling Your Plate

Before you begin printing, it is essential that you gather your types and construct the frame according to the appearance you desire. Next, tie your letters and designs together onto the metal bed using your composition sticks, bodkins, and strings. This process is commonly known as typesetting or composition.

Image Source: new Mexico magazine

Step Two: Installing the Assembled Plate

After fixating the types to form a subject, you should start installing your form or plate into the printer. While doing this, make sure that the plate is aligned perfectly with the paper and printing rollers. The slightest mistake in alignment will cause your output to look slanted or different from the way intended.

Step Three: Filling the Printing Rollers with Ink

Using the specified spatula (assigned according to the letterpress printing machine you use), start applying ink to the rollers. Remember to use ink that is compatible with the papers installed in your paper rolls or flatbed.

Step Four: Start Printing with Your Letterpress Machine

As everything is ready, you can now start printing. In this step, the ink rollers will apply ink thoroughly onto the surface of your type, and once this is done, the plate will be pressed onto the paper. As pressure is created, the ink is engraved according to the types’ appearance on the papers installed on the rolls.

You will now be able to access the hard copies created by your letterpress machine. Allow the papers to rest for a couple of minutes to prevent the ink from smudging.

Materials Typography

To create typography, letterpress printing machines utilize many different materials for each of their component. We will be listing some of the commonly used items for you:

  1. Paper: Uncoated paper stocks are one of the most commonly used types of sheets used for typography. The lack of gloss or shine makes them the most suitable option for the inks used. Aside from this, cotton papers and colored papers can also be used to get textured and bright results.
  2. Types: As of today, types are mostly manufactured with a combination of lead (90%), antimony (6%), and tin (4%). The composition can vary, and at times, some letterpress machines will also use other elements to get their desired results.
  3. Plates: Towards the beginning of its invention, letterpress machines used plates built out of lead or wood as they reacted well with pressure. This meant that masters could be made without creating damage or breakage. These days, photopolymers have replaced them instead as they manage to cure and produce types with their photosensitivity.
  4. Dyes or Inks: Synthetic inks like oil-based or resin-based ones are regularly used to get etch out results in letterpress machines. As technology advances, the ink components change to adapt to better and longer-lasting results.

What is Letterpress Printing Used For?

Letterpress printing or typography is regularly used for getting monochromatic results. Text outputs are commonly printed as they are easy to accomplish with one imprint. So, books, magazines, leaflets, zines, and booklets are frequently printed using this low-cost method. Furthermore, as designs can also be received with one or two imprints as long as you master them properly, cards, posters, invites, etc., are also frequently crafted out using this method.

On the other hand, black and white image prints can also be achieved as long as you limit yourself to line arts or designs. Detailed images, or any images really, are tough to print out as any gradients or shades cannot be formed. The end product ends up being extremely blurry, making it hard to see for all viewers.

Lastly, embossing, stitching, folding, numbering, and stamping are also usually carried out using this printing technology. Platen press machines will even let you use gold leaves or silver foils for achieving metallic calligraphy or designs when necessary.

Letterpress Printing Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages:

  • Typographic printing is known to have an extremely low running cost that decreases everyone’s financial burdens. This means that high-volume prints can be made to gain profits within the first few months. The initial purchasing price can hence, be easily made up.
  • People who utilize letterpress printers can customize their prints uniquely. This is not possible while using other printing technologies like laser, inkjet, or dot matrix.
  • The media compatibility range often seems to be rather narrow when it comes to other printing technologies. However, you cannot say the same for typography since it opens up tons of media options. Many sizes and types like cardboard paper, offset paper, cotton paper, etc., can effortlessly be printed upon.

Disadvantages:

  • During the letterpress printing process, people will usually have to prepare the masters, install papers, and fix the plates. All of this increases the time of printing, decreasing the user’s working pace.
  • Printing images using this relief printing process is rather complicated. Getting the imprints on the master requires a lot of expertise and precision.
  • While printing colored output, a lot of time is required as each color needs to be set separately. Different masters need to be produced for each color, and then you will also need to wait for the ink to dry before getting printing the second color.

Types of Letterpress Machines

We have been stating that letterpress is a relief printing process from the very beginning. However, depending on the surface upon which you are printing or the surface upon which you will place your paper, the structure of the machine can differ. So, letterpress machines end up being divided into three different types:

1. Platen Press

Compared to all the other letterpress machines, platen machines or flat machines are the most flexible and easy to use. They utilize flat surfaces to hold the plates and paper, making the printing process effortless to execute. Pamphlets, letterheads, visiting cards, leaflets, forms, etc., are commonly printed out using this process. Nevertheless, the comparatively slow printing speed stands as a big drawback for them.

2. Flatbed Cylinder

The name states that these printing machines use both flatbeds and cylinders to get you your prints. The paper is rolled around a cylindrical tube, whereas the plate is placed upon a balanced surface. The cylindrical paper rolls are rolled over the plate with electrical energy, creating around 1200 to 4000 impressions per hour. Flatbed cylinder machines can carry out print jobs that require output on larger paper dimensions.

3. Rotary

Rotaryletterpresss machines are more commonly known as cylinder-to-cylinder printing machines. The platen and papers are both presented on cylindrical tubes that rotate on an axis. As both tubes interact, the image on the cylindrical tube’s master gets imprinted on the paper roll, creating 20000 to 30000 impressions per hour. Hence, this process is commonly used for publishing books or magazines.

Conclusion

Since its invention in the 15th century, letterpress printing has kept gaining popularity. And why should it not? Personalized printing option, budget-friendly printing process, a wide range of media compatibility, and quick output delivery – what is there not to love in this extraordinary package?!

So, if you want to explore outside the box, we encourage you to try out these machines. Depending on the type of results you want to achieve, you will be able to find different types of letterpress printing machines. So, check out the article once again to find the perfect one for yourself, and then have a fun time getting your hard copies!