Letterpress printing is an age-old technique that has stood the test of time and technology. It is a relief printing process of printing text and images using a press with raised plates. The practice of letterpress printing has a fascinating history and has been used for centuries to create beautiful and timeless works of art, from books to posters and beyond. This blog will delve into the origins, the method and examples of letterpress printing.
Kelmscott Manor depicted in News from Nowhere,
Scanned from Pamela Todd, Pre-Raphaelites at Home, New York: Watson-Guptill, 2001
History of Letterpress Printing
Movable type is one of the most significant inventions in the history of printing. It refers to a method of printing that involves creating individual pieces of type, each bearing a single letter or character. These pieces can be freely arranged and rearranged to form any desired combination or line, allowing for greater flexibility and efficiency in the printing process. The credit for this invention is attributed to the Chinese artisan Bi Sheng, who first created it in the 1040's AD using ceramic type. Johannes Gutenberg developed a more advanced system, known as modern movable type printing, and it began its commercial use in 1454. It revolutionised the printing field and enabled the mass production of books, newspapers, and other printed materials. Gutenberg used a wooden printing press closely modelled after a wine press to produce prints. The letters were inked with leather-covered ink balls. Then the paper was carefully positioned by hand before being subjected to pressure from above using a long threaded screw on a padded surface.
Letterpress printing then moved from Europe to America in the late 17th century. The letterpress remained in everyday use until the 20th century, when newer printing technologies, such as offset and digital printing, replaced it. Offset printing offered significant advantages over letterpress printing, such as printing large quantities faster and more consistently.
Printing Text Using A Traditional Letterpress
We're going to describe the traditional letterpress process for printing text. The first step is to 'set the type', which refers to arranging individual metal or wooden blocks with letters, numbers, and punctuation marks into words and sentences. The type is then locked into a frame or chase, a rigid structure that holds all the type in place.
Once the type is set, ink is applied to the surface of the type using a roller or hand-held ink ball. The ink adheres to the raised surfaces of the type, leaving the recessed areas clean.
The paper or substrate is placed onto the type, and pressure is applied using a press. The press compresses the paper against the inked type, spreading the ink onto the paper and leaving an impression of the type. A skilled printer can adjust the amount of pressure and ink to achieve the desired results.
How is Letterpress Printing Used?
William Morris, a British artist, textile designer, and writer, is known to have played a significant role in reviving traditional craftsmanship in Britain. Inspired by a talk by Emery Walker on 'Letterpress Printing and Illustration', Morris and Walker founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891. He printed his books using letterpress and took special care of all elements of the book's construction, and these titles are considered some of the most beautiful ever made. (Read more on the V&A website!) Today, letterpress printing is used in premium paper goods to elevate their format and lend an air of design-led elegance.
Letterpress printing can produce highly detailed, intricate designs and vibrant, bold colours. The raised type's tactile quality and the ink's texture on the paper give letterpress printing a distinctive look and feel. Traditional letterpress printing remains a beloved craft practised by artisans and hobbyists worldwide. Contemporary artists and art lovers have also inspired a resurgence in the letterpress, and today, access to technical courses, print shops and products created by letterpress are readily available. Why not give it a try for yourself?
Kelmscott Press logotype
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