Our story begins in a small Midwest town where a curious illustrator had a longing to bring her digital illustrations to life. One day she watched a movie where a magical machine printed beautiful artwork by the hand of an artist. The machine was called a letterpress and she knew she had to have one! Her name is Brandi Powell. She is a full-time illustrator and letterpress printer and she’s here to share with you the wonderful and amazing world of letterpress printing.
Letterpress is an intensive process that requires time, skill and patience. It started as a 15th century relief printing technique achieved by inking a type-high raised surface and pressing that surface image into paper. The amount of impression or debossing that appears is controlled by minor adjustments made by the printer. Each sheet of paper is individually hand-fed through a vintage printing press one color at a time. Letterpress is an intensive process that requires time, skill and patience.
As with any printing process, the job starts with something to print. Some printers rely on movable metal type, wood type and/or vintage cuts and ornaments to create their work. These printers start their process by setting their type. Each letter of metal type is handset, along with metal spacing material to create their blocks of text. The text block is then transferred from their composing stick to the press bed. At this time they may add wooden type and/or their vintage cuts to finish their design. Once all of the elements are in place, they will use wooden blocks, called furniture, to lock up their form into the press bed for printing.
For those of us who prefer to print our own hand-drawn artwork, there are two options for the creation of custom letterpress plates. Photopolymer plates are the most modern type and are created from a hard plastic material. The second type is magnesium plates, which are metal plates that are generally mounted on a type-high piece of wood. Either option requires the creation of a digital file which is used to create the custom plate.
Regardless of a printer’s chosen printing surface, a different plate must be created for every individual color that is intended for print. Separate plates, or lock-up, might also be needed if the artwork for a one color job is made up of larger, full coverage areas along with thin lines. If that is the case, a separate plate would ensure proper ink coverage for each individual area.
Ink is the next item in question for the printer. The two main types of ink used by letterpress printers are rubber based or oil based ink. Rubber based inks are a matte finish ink that is slow drying on the press, which allows more time before re-inking the press. They are quick drying on most uncoated paper but slow to dry on coated paper. Oil based inks are glossier and dry much faster on all types of paper — however, they could cause roller damage if left on the press too long. Regardless of the type of ink being used, most letterpress printers mix their inks by hand using the Pantone formula guide for color recipes. Generally a set of 15 base Pantone ink cans are purchased and from those all of the Pantone colors can be made.
Cylinder press with color #2
The two main styles of printing presses are the cylinder press and the platen press. A cylinder press is a flatbed press where the printing surface is on a flat surface under a cylinder that holds paper and rolls over the type or image plate. The other type of printing press is called a platen press. A platen press has a flat surface bearing the paper, which is pressed against the flat-inked plate. The size of each individual letterpress varies greatly. However, the majority of full size presses weigh in at over 1000 lbs, or 454 kg.
Now it is finally time to print! For this example we are working on a Vandercook cylinder press. We will be running a 3 color job/run of 150 — 8 x 10 inch sized art prints entitled The Swan. This is how it goes:
Color #1 and color #2
The ink and plate for color #1 go on the press. Make-ready and alignment are done next. Then 150 sheets of paper are run through the press individually. The plate is removed and color #1 is fully cleaned off the press prior to moving on to color #2. That entire process is repeated for every color being printed. Yes, that means for a 3-color job of 150 prints the printer is actually cranking the press 450 individual times. Letterpress printing can actually be quite a workout — thank goodness it is so fun!
Final print, 3 colors
As our story comes to an end, I am reminded of how much I love being a letterpress printer. Letterpress is the most beautiful printing method I could have ever imagined — the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink and the clank of the press are simply intoxicating. Yes, letterpress is expensive and time-consuming, but the results are magical and unlike any other.
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