How Does Letterpress Printing Really Work?

December 9 2021

What is Letterpress Printing?

It’s no exaggeration to say press printing changed the world. Before pressing, we painstakingly illustrated every word, and this slow, meticulous process made every book a limited edition. You can only imagine how pressing transformed art, education, philosophy, and critical thinking. We owe everything to print!

There was no going back when impression print caught on in the 15th century. Today, we know it as letterpress, and the technique today is the same as it was in the 15th century (give or take a circuit board here and there).

What is Letterpress Printing? 


Letterpress Printing Machine

Letterpress is a print technique that uses a raised plate covered in ink to impress images onto paper. Letterpress replaced illustrations early in the 15th century and is still widely used today for high-end character print projects.

Qualities of Letterpress

Letterpress is slower, more complex and more expensive than digital printing. Indeed, the comparison is akin to a horse and cart and a car.

But let’s not discount the horse and cart’s charm and character. Two qualities of letterpress make it unique:


Letterpress printing irregularities

Variations in ink application cause irregularity of the ink. No two letters appear exactly the same, giving the image character.


In the olden days, the ‘bite’ (indentation) of letterpress was considered a flaw, with the finest printers able to snuff it out by having the plates ‘kiss’ the paper. Today, however, the bite is considered a desirable character flaw.


How letterpress printing works

There are three main stages to letterpress:

  • Composition
  • Imposition
  • Printing



Letterpress composition

Letterpress printing starts with composition, or typesetting, where text is formed letter by letter, line by line, to make a plate.

Today, photopolymer plates are used, where the letters cure on a photosensitive plate, but before 1980 texts were formed by hand.



Letterpress Printing Machine

The next stage is preparing to print. Imposition involves ordering the plates for the print line so that the works come out in order.



Inking the letterpress printing plate

The plates are inked, ready to print. Media is fed into the printer, and the plate is pressed onto the media, creating the impression. Rollers roll over the plate to add more ink and the printed paper feeds through, collecting in a neat pile.

How is colour added? 


While letterpress mainly deals with monotone printing (one colour), coloured letterpress is relatively common for fancy works.

Colours are added directly to the rollers or to a flat iron plate. Since letterpress can make use of CMYK and Pantone inks, it can produce vivid, bright colours. Alternatively, colour can be added by hand afterwards for hand-finishing.

What is letterpress used for? 


Typoretum Letterpress Print on Gmund Colors Matt
Typoretum Letterpress Print on Gmund Colors Matt

Letterpress is used to make cards and printed materials with charm. While digital printing is flat, letterpress is more dimensional and interesting. It gives prints a vintage look that is very popular on business cards and gift cards.

Because letterpress is more expensive than digital printing, it is reserved for high-end projects like wedding invites and business cards. It also makes a fantastic cover for a book or booklet, popping off the page more than digital print can.

Getting the colours from your image and building your palette...