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Facts and Fancies: Letterpress

May 17, 2010

by sweetharvey 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 said 7 years ago

    Lovely shop!Great article! Thanks for sharing :)

  • girltuesdayjewelry

    girltuesdayjewelry said 7 years ago

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

  • Laurasbox

    Laurasbox said 7 years ago

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

  • pasin

    pasin said 7 years ago

    Love all of them Thanks

  • sarahknightdesign

    sarahknightdesign said 7 years ago

    I LOVE LETTERPRESS:)) Makes me happy!

  • warmnfuzzies

    warmnfuzzies said 7 years ago

    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.

  • DeepBlueNotion

    DeepBlueNotion said 7 years ago

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

  • CarryTheWord

    CarryTheWord said 7 years ago

    Very interesting article!

  • kissadesign

    kissadesign said 7 years ago

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

  • WeeBindery

    WeeBindery said 7 years ago

    Bravo! Fantastic article!! I loved it!

  • ArtisticIntentions

    ArtisticIntentions said 7 years ago


  • artbooksandcanvases

    artbooksandcanvases said 7 years ago

    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!!

  • monkeyminddesign09

    monkeyminddesign09 said 7 years ago

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

  • NanLawson

    NanLawson said 7 years ago

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

  • trulyvera

    trulyvera said 7 years ago

    Neat! Great work!

  • papercutworks

    papercutworks said 7 years ago

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

  • shopdomestica

    shopdomestica said 7 years ago

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

  • verityunmondoaparte

    verityunmondoaparte said 7 years ago

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

  • Garden22DesignStudio

    Garden22DesignStudio said 7 years ago

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

  • janellelile

    janellelile said 7 years ago

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

  • vandaliastreetpress

    vandaliastreetpress said 7 years ago

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

  • TanjaDesign

    TanjaDesign said 7 years ago

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

  • MelroseFields

    MelroseFields said 7 years ago

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

  • SeasationalShells

    SeasationalShells said 7 years ago

    Very cool! Thank you for sharing!

  • thriftstore

    thriftstore said 7 years ago

    Such a nice story!

  • mucar

    mucar said 7 years ago

    Fantastic article!! I loved it!

  • worksofwhimsy

    worksofwhimsy said 7 years ago

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

  • bedbuggs

    bedbuggs said 7 years ago

    Fun article....beautiful finds!

  • ParkersPrints

    ParkersPrints said 7 years ago

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

  • creativityismessy

    creativityismessy said 7 years ago

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

  • hempcouture

    hempcouture said 7 years ago

    Gorgeous work! Thank you for sharing!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 7 years ago

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

  • maggiemaevintage

    maggiemaevintage said 7 years ago

    beautiful display!

  • manvsgeorge

    manvsgeorge said 7 years ago

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

  • NaturalAmber

    NaturalAmber said 7 years ago

    Very lovely shop! Thank you for sharing your story

  • jewelrybyjackie

    jewelrybyjackie said 7 years ago

    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!

  • rubypaperco

    rubypaperco said 7 years ago

    Wonderful story! Letterpress is so beautiful.

  • BambuEarth

    BambuEarth said 7 years ago

    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!

  • DotD

    DotD said 7 years ago

    Interesting Process with a lot involved. Enjoy your shop!

  • YesterdaysMemories09

    YesterdaysMemories09 said 7 years ago

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

  • KMalinka

    KMalinka said 7 years ago

    Wonderful display!

  • juliepeach

    juliepeach said 7 years ago

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

  • jacksoncreekpress

    jacksoncreekpress said 7 years ago

    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.

  • SmilingGirlStudio

    SmilingGirlStudio said 7 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing and inspiring!

  • missive

    missive said 7 years ago

    Indeed a painstaking process which I am quite familiar with!

  • Serrelynda

    Serrelynda said 7 years ago

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

  • SleepDreamPlay

    SleepDreamPlay said 7 years ago

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

  • bellsandeddie

    bellsandeddie said 7 years ago

    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.

  • pileofstones

    pileofstones said 7 years ago

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

  • LuRuUniques

    LuRuUniques said 7 years ago

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

  • tasifashion

    tasifashion said 7 years ago

    Fantastic art and a great article!

  • polkadotmagpie

    polkadotmagpie said 7 years ago

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

  • DevineDesignStudios

    DevineDesignStudios said 7 years ago

    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.

  • DevineDesignStudios

    DevineDesignStudios said 7 years ago

    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.

  • indiehandmade

    indiehandmade said 7 years ago

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

  • vitamini

    vitamini said 7 years ago

    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!

  • whyte

    whyte said 7 years ago

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

  • candacejean

    candacejean said 7 years ago

    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!

  • ClaudiaLord

    ClaudiaLord said 7 years ago

    This article is great! And your artwork is beautiful!

  • artwithallie

    artwithallie said 7 years ago

    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!

  • lifePOINTimages

    lifePOINTimages said 7 years ago

    Amazing! what skill!

  • poppycottage

    poppycottage said 7 years ago

    love the artwork!

  • JoannasPhotography

    JoannasPhotography said 7 years ago

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

  • 6catsVintage

    6catsVintage said 7 years ago

    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.

  • JeansVintageCloset

    JeansVintageCloset said 7 years ago

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

  • fashionandfate

    fashionandfate said 7 years ago

    Great article and beautiful work! :)

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns said 7 years ago

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

  • OverTheLuna

    OverTheLuna said 7 years ago

    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!

  • adrienneaudrey

    adrienneaudrey said 7 years ago

    Beautiful work! Love letterpress art!

  • undermyfeet

    undermyfeet said 7 years ago

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


    ZZsROCKnRECYCLABLES said 7 years ago


  • timeforteame

    timeforteame said 7 years ago

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

  • Thestorybookcottage

    Thestorybookcottage said 7 years ago

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

  • rollandtumblepress

    rollandtumblepress said 7 years ago

    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!!!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 7 years ago

    Beautiful, love it.

  • TheGardenRoom

    TheGardenRoom said 7 years ago

    Lovely colors!

  • tialys

    tialys said 7 years ago

    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.

  • tialys

    tialys said 7 years ago

    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.

  • polkadotsandblooms

    polkadotsandblooms said 7 years ago

    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.

  • reiter8

    reiter8 said 7 years ago

    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.

  • julessabjewelry

    julessabjewelry said 7 years ago

    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.

  • VelveteenHabbit

    VelveteenHabbit said 7 years ago

    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!

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts said 7 years ago

    Interesting article and beautiful work!

  • craftpile

    craftpile said 7 years ago

    You had me at 450 times! Beautiful work!

  • fantasiabridalveils

    fantasiabridalveils said 7 years ago

    Lovely work and interesting too! Sounds like fun!

  • kathyjohnson3

    kathyjohnson3 said 7 years ago

    Neat cards!

  • BeesAndTrees

    BeesAndTrees said 7 years ago

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

  • maycouture

    maycouture said 7 years ago

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

  • nowonder

    nowonder said 7 years ago

    Beautiful work! Love these prints and your process!

  • ArtDecoDiamonds

    ArtDecoDiamonds said 7 years ago

    Also love the work.. fantastic!

  • mattallen

    mattallen said 7 years ago

    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.

  • EvenAndy

    EvenAndy said 7 years ago

    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.

  • helenaCRAFTS

    helenaCRAFTS said 7 years ago

    great prints :)

  • AuracaunaDesigns

    AuracaunaDesigns said 7 years ago

    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

  • JustBakin

    JustBakin said 7 years ago

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

  • FerntreeStudio

    FerntreeStudio said 7 years ago

    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

  • littleseeta

    littleseeta said 7 years ago

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

  • threadsoconversation

    threadsoconversation said 7 years ago

    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...

  • whphotography

    whphotography said 7 years ago

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

  • TipsyTimeMachine

    TipsyTimeMachine said 7 years ago

    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.

  • recycledwares

    recycledwares said 7 years ago

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

  • gretchenmist

    gretchenmist said 7 years ago

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

  • RedRobinArt

    RedRobinArt said 7 years ago

    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!

  • Paperkapers

    Paperkapers said 7 years ago

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

  • DiamondSand

    DiamondSand said 7 years ago

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

  • staceyyacula

    staceyyacula said 7 years ago

    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!

  • nourishbb

    nourishbb said 7 years ago

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

  • VibrantTrains

    VibrantTrains said 6 years ago

    Fabulous items.

  • luckybeepress

    luckybeepress said 6 years ago

    Yeah for letterpress! Love your work!

  • byjodi

    byjodi said 5 years ago

    Love this and LOVE seeing your process!!

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