“It’s a good thing.”
Don’t worry, that’ll be the first and last time I quote Martha Stewart. Nevertheless, I (reluctantly) give her thanks—not for her cheesecake recipe or the latest place setting tips, but for reviving a classic form of printing I hold near and dear to my heart.
It turns out it was Martha of all people who helped rekindle the popularity of letterpress, the centuries-old relief printing craft—part of an analog resurgence we continue to see today. Back in the ‘90s, her wedding magazine helped elevate the handcrafted feel and appearance of letterpress wedding invitations, driving a renewed demand for the old-fashioned process.
Know your letterpress history
When we think of letterpress today, most people think of a specific craft or process, but for hundreds of years, letterpress printing was just simply “printing.” The process was revolutionary when it was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s, and used wood (and later, metal) movable blocks of type that were coated in ink and pressed onto paper. Over the ensuing centuries, the process was refined and improved, and thousands of new typefaces were created.
By the 1960s and ‘70s, however, letterpress was rapidly being replaced by offset lithography, a primary method used today that delivers a higher-quality product at faster speeds. And as digital printing has continued to improve its capabilities, those old letterpress machines were often relegated to the back of print shops to gather dust.
Yet, just like vinyl albums, sometimes what’s old can be new again, and consumers, designers and businesses are all realizing how this ancient craft fits into a modern era. Glenn Fleishman elaborates in Wired:
“Though letterpress might seem like yet another expression of a society hankering for artisanal, one-of-a-kind goods in an era of endless, identical reproduction, this return to the past is different. Beneath the old-timey patina of letterpress goods is a full-scale digital reinvention that drags Gutenberg’s great creation into the full embrace of modern technology.”
4 reasons to use letterpress on your next project
If you’re only familiar with modern printing techniques, it might be hard to understand when letterpress might be a good fit. But the craft brings a number of benefits that can improve a variety of printed products:
You can print on (almost) anything – No giant rolls of paper here, which means you can use that unique handmade paper for your birth announcement or that extra-thick chipboard for those concert posters. Letterpress can accommodate many different kinds of substrate, making it adaptable to the project you have in mind.
Imperfection is often perfect – This feels very un-Martha, but sometimes the unexpected results and imperfections from the manual letterpress process adds a charm to your piece you can’t get from modern printing. It’s the same reason the pops and crackles add just as much to my enjoyment of my vinyl copy of “Kind of Blue” as Miles Davis does with his horn.
You can feel it in your fingers – Now one of the most recognizable aspects of letterpress is something that would have been seen as poor form back in the day. The act of debossing – pressing the type blocks into the paper to make an impression – gives us that tactile feel that makes the piece seem so handmade and personalized. Whether the indentation is deep (called a bite) or barely there (called a kiss), you can customize not only the look but also the feel in ways you can’t do on your desk inkjet. (Just make sure you specify with your printer what kind of indention you want, or if you want none at all!)
Less is more – Some of the most impressive letterpress work I’ve been a part of was created with just one or two colors. Because the inks are translucent, printers can overlap colors, creating new mixes and designs. And don’t forget that the paper can even serve as a third color. Plus, if you’re debossing, you may choose no ink at all and let the impression make the impression.
Get back to the human touch
Call me old school, but I’m a big fan of keeping these old-fashioned processes alive. While our shop primarily prints offset and digital, we still see plenty of customers coming in to acquaint themselves with our old Heidelberg. Whether it’s custom wedding invitations and save-the-date cards, or even business cards that differentiate your company, letterpress is often the perfect fit.
In a world that feels increasingly electronic, I think many people long for something a little more personal. Writer Amy Adams tends to agree, as she writes in Craftsmanship Quarterly:
“As digital printers spit out perfect, machine-made replications on a large scale, designers and consumers alike yearn for more tactile imperfection. There’s that undeniable touch of humanity to letterpress printing that binds the creator to the ink left behind, connecting them to the reader in a distant, yet intimate way.”
And while I don’t want to admit this, I think that kind of connection is something Martha Stewart would definitely agree with.
Just don’t tell anyone I said that.
Dan Woehrman is owner of Callender Printing, offering full-service printing capabilities – including letterpress, offset and digital – with union craftsmen quality. Share your thoughts on Facebook or on Twitter @CallenderPrint.