The Etsy Blog

Facts and Fancies: Letterpress handmade and vintage goods

FFL_brandi_bio.jpgOur 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.

FFL_MAGPLATES.jpgFor 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.

Magnesium plates


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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  • Ayca

    Ayca says:

    Lovely shop!Great article! Thanks for sharing :)

    5 years ago

  • girltuesdayjewelry

    girltuesdayjewelry says:

    Beautiful work! Thanks for this interesting glimpse into the art of letterpress!

    5 years ago

  • Laurasbox

    Laurasbox says:

    Great Article....Nice Cards!!!!

    5 years ago

  • pasin

    pasin says:

    Love all of them Thanks

    5 years ago

  • sarahknightdesign

    sarahknightdesign says:

    I LOVE LETTERPRESS:)) Makes me happy!

    5 years ago

  • warmnfuzzies

    warmnfuzzies says:

    I have always wondered how this was done. It looks like it takes a lot of practice to get really good at it. Very interesting.

    5 years ago

  • DeepBlueNotion

    DeepBlueNotion says:

    That's amazing! I would love to try it sometime!

    5 years ago

  • CarryTheWord

    CarryTheWord says:

    Very interesting article!

    5 years ago

  • kissadesign

    kissadesign says:

    I love to see some of the innerworkings of processes such as this! Thanks for sharing!

    5 years ago

  • WeeBindery

    WeeBindery says:

    Bravo! Fantastic article!! I loved it!

    5 years ago

  • ArtisticIntentions

    ArtisticIntentions says:


    5 years ago

  • artbooksandcanvases

    artbooksandcanvases says:

    That is such a beautiful way to express your art. I love the history behind the press and you seem to have a real passion for it. Thanks for sharing with us!!

    5 years ago

  • monkeyminddesign09

    monkeyminddesign09 says:

    Love it! I love letterpress and Sweetharvey! Brandi great illustration... one day I want to have a letterpress printer.

    5 years ago

  • NanLawson

    NanLawson says:

    i heart letterpress - but man so complicated! loooove the end result though.

    5 years ago

  • trulyvera

    trulyvera says:

    Neat! Great work!

    5 years ago

  • papercutworks

    papercutworks says:

    I too find this print method to be most beautiful. I'm glad I was able to learn a little bit about it today!

    5 years ago

  • shopdomestica

    shopdomestica says:

    Brandi aka Sweet Harvey, this was awesome - thank you so much. Keep printing some of the coolest letterpress ever!

    5 years ago

  • verityunmondoaparte

    verityunmondoaparte says:

    I love letterpress...very nice story in this article, I'd like to read it ^_^

    5 years ago

  • Garden22DesignStudio

    Garden22DesignStudio says:

    such an interesting article. I've always wondered how this works. Thanks!

    5 years ago

  • janellelile

    janellelile says:

    I love how letterpress turns an image into a 3-d object. I can't help but want to touch the paper.

    5 years ago

  • vandaliastreetpress

    vandaliastreetpress says:

    Thank you for sharing the in's and out's of a beautiful craft and wonderful process.

    5 years ago

  • TanjaDesign

    TanjaDesign says:

    Great article! I didn't know it takes so much work to print with letterpress!

    5 years ago

  • MelroseFields

    MelroseFields says:

    Lovely work. Thank you for sharing the letter press process with us.

    5 years ago

  • SeasationalShells

    SeasationalShells says:

    Very cool! Thank you for sharing!

    5 years ago

  • thriftstore

    thriftstore says:

    Such a nice story!

    5 years ago

  • mucar

    mucar says:

    Fantastic article!! I loved it!

    5 years ago

  • worksofwhimsy

    worksofwhimsy says:

    I've always been curious about letterpress printing. Thank you for educating me.

    5 years ago

  • bedbuggs

    bedbuggs says:

    Fun article....beautiful finds!

    5 years ago

  • ParkersPrints

    ParkersPrints says:

    I love letterpress, great article, great seller too! :)

    5 years ago

  • creativityismessy

    creativityismessy says:

    I just love the look of letterpress! Amazing! Thanks for the article!

    5 years ago

  • hempcouture

    hempcouture says:

    Gorgeous work! Thank you for sharing!

    5 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery says:

    Interesting article I've always wondered how you do letterpressing.

    5 years ago

  • maggiemaevintage

    maggiemaevintage says:

    beautiful display!

    5 years ago

  • manvsgeorge

    manvsgeorge says:

    Excellent overview, and lovely letterpress examples. I love letterpress -- it's so satisfying both to the eye and to the sense of touch.

    5 years ago

  • NaturalAmber

    NaturalAmber says:

    Very lovely shop! Thank you for sharing your story

    5 years ago

  • jewelrybyjackie

    jewelrybyjackie says:

    WOW! This is truly an art unto itself! I am so inspired and in awe of this tallent.... I would love to try letterpressing someday!

    5 years ago

  • rubypaperco

    rubypaperco says:

    Wonderful story! Letterpress is so beautiful.

    5 years ago

  • BambuEarth

    BambuEarth says:

    I love the look of letter press... Always have. Thank you for such a great story. I have such an appreciation for the art form!

    5 years ago

  • DotD

    DotD says:

    Interesting Process with a lot involved. Enjoy your shop!

    5 years ago

  • YesterdaysMemories09

    YesterdaysMemories09 says:

    Great article. Had no idea this type of printing was still done. Beautiful.

    5 years ago

  • KMalinka

    KMalinka says:

    Wonderful display!

    5 years ago

  • juliepeach

    juliepeach says:

    I am sooo glad this old skill is coming back! And I love the way she uses it for her original art.

    5 years ago

  • jacksoncreekpress

    jacksoncreekpress says:

    Great feature. Thanks for spreading the gospel. The article is well written, but the cross-section of stores linked at the bottom are all nu-school. Would have been nice to see some old-school (hand-set type, carved blocks etc) in the mix. Overall, nicely done. Thanks.

    5 years ago

  • SmilingGirlStudio

    SmilingGirlStudio says:

    Thank you so much for sharing and inspiring!

    5 years ago

  • missive

    missive says:

    Indeed a painstaking process which I am quite familiar with!

    5 years ago

  • Serrelynda

    Serrelynda says:

    I have learned something new and interesting today! Thank you....

    5 years ago

  • SleepDreamPlay

    SleepDreamPlay says:

    i have always wondered about this process. thanks for sharing.

    5 years ago

  • bellsandeddie

    bellsandeddie says:

    did this in college...loved it. we also etched copper sheets and pressed the ink in the etched areas and ran through roller presses. i still have those copper plates! gotta dig them out and frame them.

    5 years ago

  • pileofstones

    pileofstones says:

    Thanks for sharing this process, I now have a little peek at all that goes into your lovely work.

    5 years ago

  • LuRuUniques

    LuRuUniques says:

    This was very interesting to someone who knows nothing of this process. I really like the examples. Thank you for sharing.

    5 years ago

  • tasifashion

    tasifashion says:

    Fantastic art and a great article!

    5 years ago

  • polkadotmagpie

    polkadotmagpie says:

    Sweetharvey, what a lovely glimpse into your letterpress life. And a face with your shop. Fab work!

    5 years ago

  • DevineDesignStudios

    DevineDesignStudios says:

    I have a deep respect for traditional printmaking. It requires trade knowledge that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. The pieces selected for display are great examples of well executed traditional printmaking through the modern voice and perspective.

    5 years ago

  • DevineDesignStudios

    DevineDesignStudios says:

    I love traditional printmaking since the trade processes and equipment have remained relativity unchanged for centuries. Featured artworks are great examples of traditional printing executed through modern eyes.

    5 years ago

  • indiehandmade

    indiehandmade says:

    Definitely magical results, Brandi! So awesome for you to share your process!

    5 years ago

  • vitamini

    vitamini says:

    Thanks so much for the story! I took a beginning letterpress class last summer and absolutely loved it. It's my goal to someday have my own letterpress. In the meantime, I'll just have to keep taking classes... :) Thanks so much for sharing your work, Brandi!

    5 years ago

  • whyte

    whyte says:

    Loved reading about this process! How fascinating, wonderful work!

    5 years ago

  • candacejean

    candacejean says:

    I *LOVE* this article! I have a little Kelsey 4x6 clamshell that is waiting for me to pull it out and use it. Poor little press.. it's been sitting for a good two years. I love the traditional art of letterpress!

    5 years ago

  • ClaudiaLord

    ClaudiaLord says:

    This article is great! And your artwork is beautiful!

    5 years ago

  • artwithallie

    artwithallie says:

    Thanks Brandi for the story of your process. You are very talented. I fear my patience would not last and I'd end up doing some horrid damage to a printer if I was lucky enough to have one! Good thing it's yours...not mine!

    5 years ago

  • lifePOINTimages

    lifePOINTimages says:

    Amazing! what skill!

    5 years ago

  • poppycottage

    poppycottage says:

    love the artwork!

    5 years ago

  • JoannasPhotography

    JoannasPhotography says:

    So interesting! I have never used letterpress myself and always wanted to see the "behind the scenes". Thanks for sharing! p.s. beautiful creations!

    5 years ago

  • 6catsVintage

    6catsVintage says:

    printing requires some many talents all wrapped into one person, your description of the process really highlights that. love the soft colors in your example. very nice.

    5 years ago

  • JeansVintageCloset

    JeansVintageCloset says:

    love Mademoiselle Gift Tags, Thanks a Bazillion, the leaves were falling, gentle beautiful, soothing artwork

    5 years ago

  • fashionandfate

    fashionandfate says:

    Great article and beautiful work! :)

    5 years ago

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns says:

    This was a very interesting article I had been wondering about letterpressing your work is really beautiful.

    5 years ago

  • OverTheLuna

    OverTheLuna says:

    LOVE this article. We have always wanted to get a letterpress/someday be able to make our own cards, art, etc. with one. Thanks for explaining the process!

    5 years ago

  • adrienneaudrey

    adrienneaudrey says:

    Beautiful work! Love letterpress art!

    5 years ago

  • undermyfeet

    undermyfeet says:

    I am to tried to say, I love letterpress work.

    5 years ago




    5 years ago

  • timeforteame

    timeforteame says:

    I have just started daydreaming about getting a letterpress...thanks for the insight. It looks like i will have a lot to learn!

    5 years ago

  • Thestorybookcottage

    Thestorybookcottage says:

    Great article. Nice work! I love the blue and white coasters.

    5 years ago

  • rollandtumblepress

    rollandtumblepress says:

    Very nicely done article.....and great photos, would have been nice to mention that there are more than just photopolymer and magnesium plates, though......we use all our own illustrations, also hand drawn...but printed from hand cut wood and lino blocks.......really appreciate the coverage of the process. Thanks so much!!!

    5 years ago

  • Iammie

    Iammie says:

    Beautiful, love it.

    5 years ago

  • TheGardenRoom

    TheGardenRoom says:

    Lovely colors!

    5 years ago

  • tialys

    tialys says:

    Thanks so much for this information. I have some antique letterpress wooden type that I display in an old printers' tray but also use occasionally for hand-stamping. It was great to read about the proper process and see how much work goes into the finished article.

    5 years ago

  • tialys

    tialys says:

    Thanks for this information. I have some antique letterpress wooden type which I have on display and also use occasionally for hand stamping. It was good to see the proper process in action and to discover the amount of work that goes into the finished print.

    5 years ago

  • polkadotsandblooms

    polkadotsandblooms says:

    I am in absolute awe of letterpressed, the results are truly beautiful and as Brandi sais 'magical'. Thank you so much for your article, Brandi, it gives me a much better understanding of the process and I think I will appreciate letterpressed items even more.

    5 years ago

  • reiter8

    reiter8 says:

    Wow. Having witnessed a printer using a letterpress, I appreciate the beautiful results. It's not easy. I love the feel of a letterpress card - nothing like it.

    5 years ago

  • julessabjewelry

    julessabjewelry says:

    I love the little baby bundle card! I just learned that a very good friend is expecting so I'm off to check out the card! Fantastic work and I applaud your skill and patience to create these wonderful items.

    5 years ago

  • VelveteenHabbit

    VelveteenHabbit says:

    I never fully the labor involved-truly a labor of love and the details!!! Every single one is amazing!! I have an affinity for the vintage/lacey/victorian: "corny", the "squeeze", the wedding invites of goldenrectanglepress, sycamorestreetpress and the falling leaves! WOW!

    5 years ago

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts says:

    Interesting article and beautiful work!

    5 years ago

  • craftpile

    craftpile says:

    You had me at 450 times! Beautiful work!

    5 years ago

  • fantasiabridalveils

    fantasiabridalveils says:

    Lovely work and interesting too! Sounds like fun!

    5 years ago

  • kathyjohnson3

    kathyjohnson3 says:

    Neat cards!

    5 years ago

  • BeesAndTrees

    BeesAndTrees says:

    The letterpress really does create a beautiful print. Thanks for the article!

    5 years ago

  • maycouture

    maycouture says:

    Absolulately beautiful cards!!! and great article...Congratulations

    5 years ago

  • nowonder

    nowonder says:

    Beautiful work! Love these prints and your process!

    5 years ago

  • ArtDecoDiamonds

    ArtDecoDiamonds says:

    Also love the work.. fantastic!

    5 years ago

  • mattallen

    mattallen says:

    Amazing shop, and equally great write-up. It's nice to see that this hand crafted art is alive and well. She's certainly a talent.

    5 years ago

  • EvenAndy

    EvenAndy says:

    Beautiful cards! Thanks so much for sharing the time and precision that goes into making each letterpress print. I would love to learn this technique one day.

    5 years ago

  • helenaCRAFTS

    helenaCRAFTS says:

    great prints :)

    5 years ago

  • AuracaunaDesigns

    AuracaunaDesigns says:

    WOW!, now I want a press!! I used to work in a commercial print shop, and I KNOW the smell of the ink... the sound of the rollers... intoxicating! Thank you for sharing your beautiful creations

    5 years ago

  • JustBakin

    JustBakin says:

    I am a secret lover of fonts, and ink....I really like this.

    5 years ago

  • FerntreeStudio

    FerntreeStudio says:

    Just gorgeous! Thank you so much for the insight into the process. I was wondering, what do you think of the new 'tabletop' pseudo letterpress things they have for the diecutting machines like the QuicKutz? How can they possibly make the impression a 1000lb machine does? ha angie

    5 years ago

  • littleseeta

    littleseeta says:

    ooh, i love letterpress! thanks for explaining the process!

    5 years ago

  • threadsoconversation

    threadsoconversation says:

    Brandi, I just met you in Valley Junction on Sunday, I bought a pack of lavender stationary from you at the very end of the day. I started reading this article and then thought, hey those designs look familiar! I didn't even pay attention to your name and photo at the top! Duh...

    5 years ago

  • whphotography

    whphotography says:

    Informative; and wow ... so much work! Beautiful creations :)

    5 years ago

  • TipsyTimeMachine

    TipsyTimeMachine says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It brought back memories of my junior high Graphic Design class when we would print business cards and posters with large wood type and tiny metal type. Linocutting and silk screening classes in art school were so fun, wish I'd done more. We love digging through bins of letterpress advertising blocks for our vintage shop, you never know what you'll find.

    5 years ago

  • recycledwares

    recycledwares says:

    i had no idea what it took to produce an item from a letterpress. thanks for sharing with me.

    5 years ago

  • gretchenmist

    gretchenmist says:

    so interesting to read about the process, thanks for this great article. i'd love to make some letterpress pieces one day!

    5 years ago

  • RedRobinArt

    RedRobinArt says:

    Thanks sweetharvey, for sharing this very informative information. I have a background in Commercial Art and was an Art Director and consistantly around all kinds of presses to see that the projects were coming along well. This is one of the best articals I've seen and it really takes me back in time! Too bad a big one won't fit in my studio! LOVED YOUR STORY!

    5 years ago

  • Paperkapers

    Paperkapers says:

    Great article. Would love to have a go at this, although time consuming. The end products are beautiful.

    5 years ago

  • DiamondSand

    DiamondSand says:

    Fantastic article. Very interesting, i've loved reading about the process! You have a great shop!! :) x

    5 years ago

  • staceyyacula

    staceyyacula says:

    Your illustrations go hand in hand with such a beautiful process. What a great story and so glad you had the opportunity to share it on Etsy!

    5 years ago

  • nourishbb

    nourishbb says:

    I love letterpressed stuff! Interesting to see how it actually works, thank you~

    5 years ago

  • VibrantTrains

    VibrantTrains says:

    Fabulous items.

    4 years ago

  • luckybeepress

    luckybeepress says:

    Yeah for letterpress! Love your work!

    4 years ago

  • byjodi

    byjodi says:

    Love this and LOVE seeing your process!!

    3 years ago