WHAT'S LETTERPRESS?Letterpress is a historic printing method with origins dating back to the 15th century in Europe and as far back as 1040 AD in China. Prior to its invention, books were very limited because they were being handwritten by monks and scribes. Once movable type was invented, literature was able to be created in multiples and thus enabled knowledge to spread to the people much faster than ever before.
What's movable type, you ask? Well, imagine all of the letters, numbers and punctuation marks of a certain typeface represented as little blocks of lead. One could assemble these characters on a press bed, apply a layer of ink, add some paper and pressure and voilá! You have a printed page. Being that letterpress is a type of relief printing, only the raised parts of the letters - not the blocks that they were attached to - would print.
Historically, it was bad technique to allow any of the letters to make a deep impression into the paper, a trend that has recently become maybe one of the key appeals to letterpress. Nowadays, people crave thick, cotton papers that when printed with a heavy impression, leaves a very tactile and caress-able print.
We print using a Chandler and Price old style letterpress that dates back to the late 1800's. The press weighs about 1,500 pounds and stands about 5' tall. The C&P is a type of platen press, which were the workhorses of the print world before cylinder presses like the Vandercook were invented. Platen presses are known for their unique clamshell-like functionality, where the paper and the inked-up type meet like a clamshell closing. We've added a motor to our our press, since at the time it was invented the press was operated by a pressing a treadle repeatedly with your foot.
Letterpress printing is a very intensive process that requires a lot of time, skill and patience. Setting up the press for a job can be a tedious experience, as every minor adjustment can make a huge difference in the way a print looks. Each sheet of paper is hand-fed into the press and the printer must keep an attentive eye to monitor the pressure, registration, ink coverage, and overall consistency to ensure a quality print. Colors are printed one at a time, which explains why it is more costly to get a more colorful print, since each color equals its own film and plate, plus ink mixing and press set-up and registration.
We print using polymer plates, a recent technology which enables us to create custom designs with the aid of a computer rather than having to rely on setting type or ornaments. The process to create a polymer plate involves exporting a black and white design as a PDF into a film. The film and plate are exposed on a light table and the light that passes through the film to the plate hardens the plate. The plate is then rinsed, and whatever areas have not been hardened by the light simply wash away. The polymer plate is then attached to a type-high base (the height of lead type, .9186") and the raised areas of the plate are inked and printed!