What is Letterpress?

Vandercook SP-15 rollers and polymer plate

We love, live and breathe letterpress printing at And Here We Are, and it's a huge part of our business. But many of you might be wondering, just what is letterpress, exactly? What makes it so different from other kinds of printing, and why is it so special?

Letterpress printing involves pressing an inked surface onto paper, which can be adjusted to leave an impression. It's one of the oldest forms of printing (Johannes Gutenberg, anyone?), but went out of fashion as better and faster technologies came onto the scene in recent decades. Most letterpresses are no longer in production, and they are harder and harder to come by. Our Heidelberg Windmill was made in 1970, our Vandercook SP-15 was produced in 1961, and our Chandler & Price Pilot press dates back to the early 1900s. And they're BIG! And HEAVY! 

Traditional letterpress uses metal and wood moveable type and metal blocks. Since most of our prints are custom design or lettering, we usually print from a polymer plate. We can print on just about any paper stock, but usually use special cotton-based paper that really takes a deep impression. We create one plate for each color in a particular print; if you've ever screen printed, it's a similar idea. This means for each color in a piece of art, we ink up the press in that color, lay out the artwork and run the paper through. For the next color, we have to clean off the rollers, set up the next plate to line up exactly to the last one, and run each sheet of paper through again. 

Operating a Vandercook SP-15 letterpresssplit fountain ink on Vandercook SP-15

Sometimes we create what is called a "split fountain," where we put multiple colors on the rollers at once to create a cool gradient effect. Since the ink is not opaque, we can also create additional colors and effects by "overprinting," or overlapping the ink colors. Here's an example where we turned 3 colors into 6:

Custom letterpress wedding suite by And Here We Are www.and-hereweare.com

Most of the cost in letterpress is in the setting up, so the more pieces you print, the less each individual piece will cost. Plates can be expensive, and we need one for each color. Then there is the measuring and lining up of the artwork onto the paper (it needs to be perfect for the colors to line up correctly and for trimming), and between each color we have to do all of that again, plus clean off all 5 rollers and re-ink them. Once that's all set up, we feed each piece of paper by hand into the machine, one at a time. It's a very tactile and hand-on process, and F-U-N. And the result is a one-of-a-kind, true work of art. 

 

Want to see more? Want to learn more? Reach out to us— or better yet, visit our studio!