What’s so special about Letterpress?
Maybe you’ve seen us talking about letterpress, you’ve seen us talking about our Heidelberg we’ve named Edith, seen the results, or how excited we were to be printing our coasters or letterpress holiday cards and of course wedding invitations. We realize however, that if you don’t know what we are talking about, you probably don’t know what makes it so special or really care. Today we’d like to give you a little background and answer some common questions to help you understand why we get so excited about letterpress.
Letterpress printing requires a lot of steps but overall the process is pretty simple and after you’ve learned a little bit about how it works, you’ll have a more solid foundation to figure out what’s right for your project.
What is letterpress?
The art of letterpress printing involves applying ink to a raised surface and then pressing it into paper. The end result is a beautiful, luxurious and crisp imprinted image that you can feel!
Letterpress was the most common form of printing from the 15th to 19th century but was replaced by offset lithography which is a much faster process.
Why should I choose letterpress printed invitations or cards?
Letterpress isn’t for everyone. It will never be the budget option so on the surface, it may be confusing as to why anyone would want it. Simply put: letterpress printing is about creating something to keep forever. Sure, we all throw away “snail mail” when we get it but letterpress printed cards isn’t that kind of mail.
Letterpress printing has some distinct advantages in that it provides high-quality and one-of-a kind craftsmanship. It takes talent and skill to get good results. Because text and images are actually pressed into paper, letterpress printing creates crisp, clean lines and bold patters that have great visual definition compared to most other printing techniques. The rich texture created by the impression adds a level of intimacy and uniqueness to each printed piece.
Another advantage to letterpress is that it works very well with extra heavy cardstock and treeless (cotton) papers, paper options that some other printing techniques cannot do. Cotton papers have a unique feel compared to traditional tree papers and combined with letterpress printing, the look and feel is truly something special.
Here at Raspberry Creative, we are paper people so we are maybe a little biased but we all have those special details that we remember from a major life event. Why can’t stationery be one of those details that you remember 50 years later?
Our clients tell us all the time that they want to keep one of their invitations for themselves for a scrapbook or photo album. When you look back on the invitation with your children or grandchildren and they run their fingers over the impression and feel the weight of the stock, they are going to know that it represents a momentous occasion and how much your marriage means. Every detail and choice matters.
So, how does the whole letterpress thing work?
The first important thing to remember about letterpress is that it is a hands-on process. It is as far away from a digital printer as you can possibly get in the printing world. Each piece of paper that becomes an invitation or response card will be handled and modified multiple times as it goes from a raw piece of paper stock to a finished invitation suite, thank you card, program cover, etc.
In a nutshell, with letterpress printing, a plate (raised surface) is inked and then pressed onto a piece of paper. Historically, impression in the paper was considered bad form, but today that impression is what has become the most notable effect of this printing technique.
Designs can be laid out with handset type but most commonly today, digital files are created and then turned into photopolymer or metal plates.
Creating & Choosing a Design
Here at Raspberry Creative, I either draw the imagery by hand or create something digitally and then adjust the text, fonts and colors to suit our clients’ style and needs. Letterpress a fairly new service for us but we have samples that clients can request so they can see and feel the impression, the paper and print quality in person. Letterpress is a tactile process and it’s always better in person!
Laying out the designs
Like with other printing techniques we use, once a design is chosen we go back and forth with the client via email to make changes until they are 100% satisfied with the design. At that point we order photopolymer plates (flexible, recyclable plastic with self-adhesive backing) from the awesome people at Boxcar Press.
Once the plates are in, we are ready to print! We attach the rollers, set up the plates, make the necessary adjustments to the press based on the thickness of the paper we are printing on and lock the chase into the press. Our press is a 1970’s Heidelberg Platen or “Windmill” that we have lovingly named Edith. Per the name, it’s a platen press and automatically feeds the paper by itself.
Once the press is all set up and the chase is locked and paper loaded, we are ready to ink the press. We allow the drum to run to evenly spread the ink. Once the drum is evenly inked we allow the rollers to engage to ink the plate. We make one final inspection to make sure the rollers are adjusted to the correct height and then it’s time to let Edith do her thing. We will typically run a couple, check registration, ink, impression, etc. before running the entire job.
As the paper is pressed onto the inked plate, an impression of formed where the ink is transferred to the paper. For multiple colored projects, each piece of paper is fed through the press once for each color. Once the first color is printed, the press, rollers and plate are cleaned and the process starts over again for the second color.
To give you a sense of numbers, 125 invitations with three colors will go through the press 475 times!
Speaking of color, letterpress also offers the ability to print with metallic inks like gold and silver.
Trimming, finishing, and out the door
Once we have everything printed, we bring the cards back into the shop and trim them all down to size. We print everything we can with crop marks so that it’s as easy as we can make it for ourselves to trim to the right size.
This is also the time when we would add the extra details like ribbon for belly bands, punch holes or cut and line envelopes, etc. Once everything is done and inspected on last time, we wrap it all up, pack it all up and ship it to our awesome client.
Addressing, assembling and mailing
The last part is up to our clients. They may choose to have us print them digitally or hire a calligrapher or they may have their bridesmaids or mother help them stuff and address envelopes. You can also choose custom, vintage or new postage as one of the last stationery details.
Now that you know how it works, how far in advance do you need to order your letterpress invitations?
For wedding invitations we suggest somewhere between 6 and 12 months. We like at least 6 months for our non letterpress wedding projects as well so it really doesn’t require additional planning. Just be sure that regardless of your plans for invitations that you give yourself enough time to decide on layout and wording and then get them mailed out. We also find that late summer and fall weddings are the most common for us so booking early gets you on our schedule in plenty of time.
Planning ahead for your invitations will also make your life easier as you get closer to your wedding because you will have so many other details to be worried about as the clock ticks down. If you are in a rush, jut remember the old design adage: cheap, fast, or good – pick two. We are able to do rush projects, but it wont be as budget-(or sanity-) friendly as giving yourself and us enough time.
We’ve painted such a pretty picture so the next question might be why everything isn’t printed via letterpress.
The simple answer is cost, turnaround time and flexibility. The cost of maintaining the press and just the time to maintain it by keeping it cleaned and oiled and running smoothly. The cost to have plates manufactured and shipped to the shop added to each printed piece is high making it more expensive for us as the print shop and our customers as well. Letterpress printing is also very time consuming because there is a lot of time required to set up the press for each ink color and then clean up time not to mention the number of passes through the press for multi-colored projects.
Letterpress printing is a complex procedure requiring specialized equipment, materials and skills but if you choose letterpress printing for your project, the end result will be extraordinary.