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What is letterpress printing?

Simply put, letterpress printing is a form of relief printing, where the text or image is on a raised surface, similar to a rubber stamp. Ink is applied to the raised surface and then paper is pressed directly against it to transfer the text or image.

Letterpress printing is characterized by the precision and sharpness of the image elements, high ink saturation and a slight relief on the reverse side of the sheet.

History of letterpress print

Despite popular belief, movable type printing was invented in China in 1041, and four centuries later in Europe

Although the exact details of the invention of letterpress printing remain unclear, most scholars credit Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, around 1440. His invention of an adjustable type mold made it possible to cast many types at once and thus print books at an unprecedented rate

Letterpress printing remained the primary method of printing until the 19th century, although these later industrialized presses were radically different machines from those of Gutenberg’s time.

Letterpress printing methods have been in use for more than 1,000 years. Incredible is the passage of years from this type of printing to what is today researched as 4D printing. The first plates were flat wooden boards with a uniform, smooth surface on which the image to be printed was created by incising (hollowing out) the areas that were not to be printed

This type of plate is sometimes used even today for artistic reproduction (woodcut and engraving). The invention of book printing and the extensive development of letterpress printing were first related to the creation of composite plates, consisting of letters and signs fused or cut separately.

Today, text plates for letterpress printing are made by hand from separately cast letters and signs or are made on letterpress machines (monotype and linotype) or phototypesetting machines

The various illustrations of the letterpress are printed from stereotyped blocks made by etching (zincography) or engraving. A distinction is made between primary and secondary plates

Primary or original plates for letterpress printing are flat plates, including type and stereotype blocks, from which they are printed directly

Also belonging to this category are the so-called flexible plates, in which the relief image is made by etching blanks in a metal plate or by “washing” in a photopolymer layer applied to a carrier sheet.

Secondary plates, or stereotypes, are made from primary plates, usually to make multiple copies or to make curved plates for printing on a rotary press

Modern secondary plates are cast metal plates, pressed plastic or rubber plates, or electrostereotype plates.

Tarjeta de visita realizada mediante impresión letterpress
Example of a business card made by letterpress printing

Due to the relative simplicity and speed of plate making (especially for text reproduction), high product quality and high productivity, letterpress printing is widely used for printing newspapers, magazines, books and four-color illustrations

The letterpress printing technique is especially used in the production of items such as wedding invitations, postcards or business cards, as it is easy to achieve a high quality product that will certainly not go unnoticed

The objective pursued with letterpress printing is the same as that pursued with textile printing. To obtain an article with a luxurious appearance, pleasing to the eye and to the touch, that leaves a great positive impression on the person who receives it. Use the appropriate techniques and the right materials to create garments, books, newspapers… of higher quality. By means of silk-screen printing or sublimation these results are achieved but in textile. For the aforementioned on paper, letterpress printing is better.

Letterpress printing can produce high quality work at high speed, but it requires a lot of time to adjust the press to the different thicknesses of type, engravings and plates.

Because of the time required to make letterpress plates and set up the press, many newspapers have switched to offset printing. And many posters have switched to photographic or UV printing

To counter this trend, letterpress printers have developed printing plates made from a photosensitive plastic film that can be mounted on metal.

And so much for our article on letterpress printing. If you are interested, want to expand the content, or have something to contribute, let us know 🙂

You can continue reading other interesting articles on printing types such as lenticular or pad printing.

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