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How Letterpress Works!

Wondering how that magical texture is created ONLY by letterpress? There’s two methods…

  1. PRINTING LETTERPRESS WITH HAND SET VINTAGE TYPE:

There are two ways to print with letterpress. One is with physical lead type, set by hand. To set type by hand it requires the printer to own cabinets of type. These cabinets have multiple drawers, each drawer houses a different font in it’s particular size (i.e. Times New Roman Size-10pt). For example, we have a cabinet of type that houses four fonts spread across twelve drawers. Each drawer houses one font in one size. Memorizing where each letter is located within the drawers is its own feat, I’m proud to say I’ve gotten pretty good over the years:) Once the printer has decided which font(s) they want to work with, they grab their trusty composition stick. The composition stick is an “L” shaped tool used by the printer to assemble each letter, one-by-one. You can view photo’s of our type drawer’s and myself assembling type with a composition stick on our “Gallery” page. Once the type has been set fully it is then locked into place within a large metal rectangle, called a “Chase”. Using rectangular pieces of wood called “Furniture” the printer secures a previously free-floating arrangement of type (typeset) into the chase. Once secured, the chase is locked into the press. Next the printer prepares to measure where their paper will need to lay in order to register perfectly where the typeset will hit (i.e. Left, right, or center alignment to name a few). Once the paper is registered, the printer prepares the ink by hand mixing color by color, typically using a Pantone color guide to tell them what percentage of inks to mix together to achieve the desired tone. Even black in letterpress printing is typically a mixture of more than just black. The printer then prepares their stack of paper to be cut to the proper dimensions and printed. I typically print from a Chandler and Price 10X15 Press, made in the early-mid 1900’s.

With letterpress printing, each layer, or color, must be printed individually. If a client is having a business card made that requires two different colors, this whole process must be repeated after cleaning the press for the new color. Likewise, if your card is printed on the front and the back.

This labor intensive process is what makes letterpress printing so expensive. The cost of the ultra thick paper isn’t a small matter either. There is a lot of time involved in typesetting and even the most experienced typesetter can spend hours on a certain typeset only to find that they do not like the way the fonts look together or that they are one ‘p’ short of finishing a sentence or that their drawer only has two “3’s” and the phone number needed requires three! Simple things you may never think of can be huge hick-ups in the letterpress room.

2. PRINTING LETTERPRESS WITH DIGITAL DESIGNS:

You may have noticed that my portfolio has a number of logos, designs and specific fonts not available from our “In-house Font Menu”. In order to achieve printing digital logos and designs, ALL letterpress printers print from plates. Sometimes these plates are made from copper, and sometimes they are made from polymer (plastic). We choose to use polymer for 200-500 run jobs as they are very durable and more cost effective for most of our clients. First, a digital design is made in Illustrator. Once the file is “print ready” we send it off to our favorite plate makers (they’re located in Syracuse, NY). I typically describe the plate as “braille like”. It is a relatively thin sheet of plastic and your design is raised on top, like braille. The back side of this plate is sticky. The plate is attached (sticky side down) to a large metal block that gets locked into the press. From here, it’s the same process as described above. Registering your paper, mixing your ink and prepping your paper by cutting, then printing. All in all this process takes just as long, if not longer than type setting. You are typically paying someone to design your work digitally, paying for the plates and the press set-up, ultra thick paper, ink and break down. Multiple colors and layers also require this ENTIRE process to be repeated between EACH color/layer. For example. If you have a business card that is two colors on the front and one color on the back, this process is repeated three times! Again, this is why the price of letterpress may make your jaw drop. But trust, the attention required before, during and after this kind of printing, is hours and hours of labor and LOVE. It’s why when clients, friends, and recipients of any kind receive a letterpress good or card, their jaw also drops. It’s special, It’s WORTH IT. It’s why I’m so passionate about letterpress and working to keep the art alive in Tampa.

Thank you to everyone curious enough to read this far. You are golden. If you have more questions about the process, check out the “Gallery” page and feel free to contact me via e-mail with any specific questions.

-Sarah

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