What is Letterpress?

If you’re like us, when you first heard the term ‘letterpress’ you weren’t sure exactly what it meant, but were very interested to know more.

Basically, letterpress is when you press ink and type into paper to make a print.

What you don’t really get from this definition is just how many different kinds of letterpresses there are. You’ve got AdanaVandercookHeidelberg, and Chandler & Price, among others, and for each manufacturer you have different models. Some use different type heights, some are enormous, and some can fit easily on a desk or end table. A few of these companies are still manufacturing letterpress machines, but many of these presses are only available secondhand.

We’ve got an Adana 8×5 Hand Printing Press, which was Adana’s most popular press (because it’s awesome). Unlike a lot of letterpresses, this one is small and powered entirely by hand, which makes it popular. Sadly they don’t make them any more, but you can still buy them here and there, and most have been lovingly re-built and restored.

Our beloved Adana 8×5.

Once you’ve got the press, there are still a number of different ways you can go about printing things. For example, you can print using movable metal or wooden type, or you can print using hi-tech, custom-designed polymer plates.

Photo © Melissa Coe over at boxcarpress.com

Some movable type in its chase.

Photo © Carrie Valenzuela over at boxcarpress.com

An example of custom polymer plates.

At To the Letterpress! we’ve decided to only use movable type, partially for environmental reasons (polymer plates are often used once and then thrown away), and partially because we just think that movable type is cool. You never know what it’s been used to make before, and it just feels great in your fingers.

If you’re looking for a place to start doing some more research letterpress printing, Wikipedia has a concise if somewhat dry definition:

Letterpress printing is relief printing of text and image using a press with a “type-high bed” printing press and movable type, in which a reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper to obtain a positive right-reading image. Chinese first invented movable type. It was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. In addition to the direct impression of inked movable type onto paper or another receptive surface, letterpress is also the direct impression of inked printmaking blocks such as photo-etched zinc “cuts” (plates), linoleum blocks, wood engravings, etc., using such a press.

I always prefer getting my information in video form if I can, so here are a couple of great videos that also give you a good idea of what various different kinds of letterpress printing involve:

If you’re interested in our process, check out our more recent post on how it’s all done. In any case, thanks for reading, and we hope to see you over on our Etsy shop, our Facebook Page, and/or our Twitter feed!


One thought on “What is Letterpress?

  1. Pingback: This is how we do it « To the Letterpress!

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