Why letterpress is my favorite printing method

I love-love-love letterpress prints. It leaves an impression (literally) when you give or receive something that gets put through this print process. It takes a business to a level above what standard printing could do.

Starting back in December, I had decided that for members of the Compass of Design Community, I would send them a little token of appreciation. So…

Since I’ve not worked with any printing companies before, I wanted to experiment a bit and do a trial run of lapel pins, stickers, and letterpress cards as a way of learning a bit more of print design.

If you missed any of my recent newsletters or articles on that, I will be releasing those items beginning next week.

I got to work with the good folks at Rise and Shine Letterpress to create these backing cards for a recent run of custom lapel pins for the community members.

I am delighted with the company and the experience that I had working with them. The cards are made with exceptional quality.

They were kind enough to share a lot about the letterpress process with you and the other readers of the Compass of Design!

So what is letterpress printing?

Though it is going through a recent resurgence, letterpress is a form of a very, very old printing technique that stemmed from the original printing press.

Yeah. Antique… and awesome…

Think back to any knowledge you have from your history class about the invention of the printing press. This process created a lot of the terms that we have with modern typography today.

The printing press was created to bring consistent printing in mass quantities to things like books and newspapers back in the mid-1400s. Some 600 years later, even though the standard process for printing on materials has changed, we’ve been designing for mass print distribution for over half a millennia.

The art of letterpress was often seen as “bad printing” technique. With newspapers and books, having any impression at all on the paper was a bad thing. However, with the applications of illustration, hand lettering, and typography, the art of letterpress became prominent as a type of printing that you could feel and touch. Yet, printing paper with too much of an impression is destructive to both the machines and the type sets and frankly can end up looking tacky.

The process

It takes a lot of dedication to produce letterpress today compared to how we work with digital printers. Though it was standard back then, with current printing methods, you only have minimal setup, and you can start printing from computers.

The printing presses that these designers use are usually very complicated which requires a lot of manual setup to prep a run of prints. It might be that “Hands on” nature of letterpress that draws a lot of designers to it. There are constant adjustments, ruling, measurements, tests, and more tweaks until you have the press set up for one of the plates.

Ryan Howell from Rise and Shine was kind enough to go through the process with me when making the Compass of Design prints. He shared a good portion of these beautiful photos with me as well.

I had chosen these specifications for my letterpress pin card

Ink

“We mix the ink from the base Pantone colors, which are mixed by weight. We use a lab scale to weight the can and remove the exact amount of ink needed for each color. It is carefully blended by hand using an ink knife on a slab of granite. Care must be taken to ensure the base colors are thoroughly blended. ” — Ryan

The color of the ink can be chosen by using Spot Colors, CMYK or more often using the Pantone system (a form of spot color). With the colors you want, it’s essential to choose colors that are approved for printing. Using RGB colors doesn’t always translate well when it comes to ink. So make sure that whatever colors you select for your brand or other design projects play nice when applying it to where the design is used.

I completely forgot to give him the Pantone color for my print and had to come up with a close alternative on the fly.

However, it all turned out spectacular in the end.

Drawdown

“We make a drawdown on the paper to test the color. This lets us see through the ink film to make sure the color is a match. Our scale is fairly accurate so the colors are usually pretty good. Sometimes we have to adjust a bit for differently-colored papers or to accommodate thicker or thinner ink films for certain artwork. ” — Ryan

The way that the ink works is that to get more vibrant colors, more ink needs to be applied. This method means that the color is an additive color and thus it can be more challenging to print lighter colors on darker paper, where foil may be the safest option to get a brilliant print on dark or colored paper.

The peeps at Rise and Shine would have the best coloring recommendations when it comes to design choices you’ve made.

Plates

“ The ink is printed with a photopolymer plate, and the foil is printed with a copper plate. We make our own photopolymer plates, but the copper plates are ordered from a specialty die maker equipped to precisely etch copper. Because foil stamping is done with heat, it is important to remember to apply heat-compensation the copper die, shrinking the artwork ever so slightly. Copper dies expand when heated, which would throw the design out of register if we didn’t take this step. ” — Ryan

I actually didn’t know about the process of foil stamping, so when Ryan told me that they actually (very very slightly) shrink the foiled artwork, I was even more impressed that the print turned out precisely as I could have envisioned it (Actually much better).

Photopolymer is one of the newest additions to the printing press. Remember though that’s relative to the 600 years that these presses have been around. “New,” meaning the 1980s. Photopolymer is made with a material that reacts to Ultraviolet Light. This method of plate making has become the standard because of it’s ability to capture minute details and retain shape enough during the tons of pressure required to make a deep impression in the paper.

These plates can really be made out of anything that fits in the press that can resist the enormous pressure repeatedly exerted through a print run.

Setting up the plates

“The plate is locked up into a metal frame called a Chase, which is locked into the press. We mount the plate on an aluminum base to get it to type-high, .918 inches, the standard of movable type that letterpress machines are designed for. ” — Ryan

This method of raising the plate to print height goes back to the original process of selecting individual letters for the printing press. These letters were often created in-house or provided by type-foundries (much different than the type foundries we get online). When the plate is in the machine, the design is then inked by an applicator and goes through the fun of being pressed with more pressure than your morning migraines.

The Press

Heidelberg Windmill

“This is 1954 Original Heidelberg, nicknamed a “Windmill” because of its rotary feeder mechanism. It is the standard for letterpress printing and represents the highest level of development of letterpress equipment. Made in Western Germany, it is a precise machine that provides consistent inking and hair-line registration. Though Heidelberg continues to be the largest press manufacturer in the world, these letterpress machines are no longer made. For that reason, we must carefully maintain, oil and cherish these machines because they were the last of their kind. ” — Ryan

There are a lot of machines that are no longer made but still exist out there. Because of the nature of these machines, if you can maintain them, they’ll work for a very, very long time. A lot of them still exist and can be bought relatively cheaply, making it more affordable to start, but don’t forget that it is an investment in authenticity and you’ll need to learn a lot about it before using it to not damage your machine.

Kluge

“The foil stamping is performed on a press called a Kluge. Foil is a letterpress-style process, but it is done using heat and a web of foil instead of ink. A foil print can have impression just like letterpress, and the Compass of Design cards were printed with a deep impression on 100% Cotton Crane’s Lettra paper. Kluge presses are still made, and are some of the best machines for foil stamping. This press is a late-1960’s model that was originally designed to print with ink, but it was converted to foil at some time in its history. ” — Ryan

I’ve seen a very old Kluge press before, and it was impressive (albeit, rundown due to neglect) However, these machines can be adapted to work with foil and are truly impressive to watch. They feed the machine with fresh sheets of paper in a very fluid manner that is mesmerizing to see.

To actually see their machines in action: Check out their video “Made by Hands”

And definitely check out their portfolio of work, their article for “what is letterpress printing”, and see why they make what they do.

Setting up your artwork for letterpress printing, what I’ve learned.

Double check

Your print job will have plenty of details and things that might get lost in the printing because there are minimum requirements. Talk to your printer about what you’ve designed to see how the design will hold up to the printing press.

Choosing Colors and Methods

Your printer should have a lot of experience printing different colors and will know the best ways to apply/achieve the colors, but it’s still best to come to them with the method of choice (most commonly Pantone) and the other methods you want to use for print.

The more colors you choose, the more plates your artwork will need to have made which can increase the cost of the job. However, don’t be intimidated by cost if you’re shooting for quality.

Triple Check

I sent this design below after checking and double checking the proof. However, I ended up (entirely my fault) pushing a design to production with a mistake that will be costly to fix. Instead, I just hope that no one in the future notices (even though I just mentioned it.)

Triple check EVERYTHING. I may make a checklist for y’all later.

Setting up Cut Lines

These were done for me by the printer, but if you want more control over your artwork, you can set your own cut lines, print registers, and bleed areas, just make sure you check with the printer on their capabilities.

Timeframes

I had a short time frame to do this print job. I also probably ordered during a busy month. Just know that letterpress is a process done with a lot of manual labor and constant tweaks and readjusting. You should expect that it takes more than 2 weeks for a return, this took just over 4 weeks.

The Results

Like I had said, I wish I had Ryan’s photography skills

These backing cards are truly beautiful to hold and look excellent under lighting. They got all the minute details of the design as well as a nice quality print done consistent across the whole thing. I’m totally going to them again for my next projects.

I was able to get these to everyone in the community who asked for one, shipping all over to India, the UK, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, China, Russia, all across the US… We’ve truly got an awesome supportive community, and this was a nice way that I could show my appreciation for anyone there both now and anyone in the future who joins. (:

Everyone’s been sending me tons of photos of what they’ve been doing with them. I hope everyone enjoys that little gift. I’ll be doing more stuff like this in the future for everyone who’s in the community (:

Thanks,

— Darian Rosebrook, Compass of Design


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Darian Rosebrook

Brand Identity Designer for @itssomagnetic, running a design community at @compassofdesign. I write to help others grow their skills as designers.

Compass of Design

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