TODAY'S HISTORY LESSON:
Way back when, any type of writing that was "mass produced" was simply written by hand, over and over. Books, manuscripts, etc. There was no assembly line, no machinery driven printers. Can you imagine? During the mid 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg got his thinking cap on in efforts to solve this issue. ...and boy am I glad he did.
"WHO IS JOHANNES GUTENBERG?" ...the only Jeopardy question I've ever gotten right.
Gutenberg invented the method of letterpress printing. Using metal casted letters, ink, and pressure, text was able to become mass produced! Imagine how you use a simple wooden stamp. An image or word was made in to a stamp by hand carving or laser etched. You tap the stamp on an ink pad, then stamp it on paper. It's a similar conceptual process. Metal letters, carved linoleum, or wood blocks are placed inside a press. Rollers are inked to cover the raised surface of your type or block cuts, paper is pressed on to the inked surface of your text/block leaving an impression in your paper. In opposition to modern day digital and offset printing, letterpress printing holds a timeless appreciate for the one-of-a-kind art is truly is.
WHAT GOES BEHIND THE SET UP?
There are all different types of letterpress printers. I run a Chandler and Price platen press (below). It's about 100 years old and I can work this one better than my Best Buy Epson printer.
Many printmakers still use what's called moveable type, cast iron letters that you set in to place to form your word, sentence, paragraph, etc.
ONE COLOR AT A TIME
You mix your ink just like you'd mix paint. You can patch just about any pantone color or even order a custom pantone match. Each color is run separately. So if you have 100 invitations with two colors, you'll set up the first color and artwork, run 100 of that color. Clean your press. Mix the second color. Set up that run, then print the second color. ...totally 200 runs.
Once your materials are set up in the press, you can test your impressions, color, etc. and then get to work! My particular press runs off of a motor. There's a clam-shell action that happens where the paper reaches the inked type and stamps or impresses it in the paper. There's a quick scene in this video that shows the press running.
Letterpress is simply appreciated for it's tactile impression it leaves in the paper. You cannot deny its method against digital and offset printing. It truly does stand on its own.
Over the years, there have been a number of ways to transfer text and imagery to a press bed. Moveable type is still commonly used for many printmakers. However, polymer plates (or other similar materials) are often used for its ease and flexibility. Using laser-casted polymer plates allow any vector, created with fonts or from the sketchbook, to become a printable plate. This is great for handlettering, hand-drawn imagery, and graphically designed pieces to originate the final piece.
The above photo is a letterpress printed piece that began as a sketch. The sketch was digitized and formatted to be made in to a polymer plate. The plate was then set up in the press, similar to the way moveable type is set up, then printed.
Of course, there are 100 steps in between. There's ink mixing, color matching, press setting, packing backers to set, gauge pins to line up, paper to measure, etc. etc. etc.
For anyone in the market for letterpress printed work, this is a good insight to the setup and labor that happens prior and during printing. It's surely a labor of love that stands as an art in its own.