A Guide to Letterpress Printing: What it is and why is it important?
Letterpress Printing Guide
Source: Design Shack
Letterpress printing is an artform that’s been around since 1450. Credit for its creation goes to a German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg. Also known as relief printing or typographic printing, letterpress is more than an artform; it’s a tradition. Different parts of the world have contributed to the methods, techniques and tools used in this process.
From giant, car-sized print machines which ran on a simple principle of making a print impression on a flat surface using blocks of texts, letterpress has come a long way. Now, its relatively small descendants can be found sitting peacefully in schools, community stores and offices.
Contemporary printing businesses owe much to the ancient, noisy and much-too-large space-consuming letterpress machines that started the print revolution.
This guide will introduce you to the different types of letterpress machines, their built, workings and what you need to know before buying your own letterpress; setting it up and creating flawless prints all by yourself!
Types of Printing Presses
Source: Journo Gyan
- Platen Press
This type of printing press gets its name from one of the two main parts its constituted of: a platen, which is a smooth surface where paper to be printed upon is placed.
The other important part is what’s called a bed where the form is locked in there. Here, a form is an image or a block of type that is to be printed on, whereas a type refers to all the letters of a given font (explained further below).
Both platen and bed are flat surfaces. When these two flat surfaces meet, it creates a printed impression. Ink is picked up by rollers from an inking disc. This ink is transferred over a form when the rollers roll over it on rails.
Because of the way platen press opens and closes, it goes by the name of ‘clamshell,’ too.
Types of Platen Press
The above-mentioned form and structure of a platen press can work in different ways. Following are two main types of platen presses:
- Tabletop Platen Press
Source: Boggs Equipment
First produced in early 1800s, tabletop platen press was the first go-to choice for children and hobbyists due to its simple, portable structure. When it comes to prices, tabletop platen press is a pretty reasonable buy.
With a basic platen press structure as described above, a tabletop platen press is fairly small in size. But it can vary from small, business-card sizes to heavy-duty, large-size models. No matter the size, though, it’s a powerful printing tool. There’s a large ink disc hoisted at the top.
Acting as an ink reservoir, the disc keeps rotating during printing, to evenly spread ink on paper. Two rollers are located on top of a press bed, with two grippers gripping the paper in place while printing. In the case of a platen press, metal bars serve as grippers. At the free end is the handle, for easy carrying of the machine.
How it works
Following the basic working principle of a platen press as described above, this particular press has one modification: instead of the two flat surfaces—bed and platen—coming together to form a printed impression, a lever cranks them together in a tabletop platen press.
Given its small shape and size, its main use involves printing business cards, invitation and/or post cards. Such presses are most likely to be found at places like antique shops, online stores, flea markets, a printing fair, etc.
Hohner, Sigwalt, Golding Official, Craftsmen, Chandler & Price Pilot, Excelsior, Baltimorean and Kelsey.
- Full-size Platen Press
Source: Handset Press
This is also called a job or jobbing platen press. It’s what came after the tabletop platen press, following mid-1800s.
A smaller ink disc, as compared to a larger one present in a tabletop platen press, is located at the top in a full-size platen press. Below the disc is a throw-off lever, close to the press bed. This lever controls the degree of contact between a form and platen during printing in a cylinder press.
It makes an impression when the press is in ‘print’ position. No impression is made if it is in ‘trip’ position. Two grippers hold the platen in place. There’s also a feed board or feed table, with a delivery board below it; the former being an area where a stack of papers (to be printed) is placed.
Two rollers are located on the bed’s top. A large fly wheel located on one side is the hallmark of this kind of model. There’s also a foot treadle on the bottom.
How it works
When it was first created, this type of platen press consisted of a treadle that was powered by foot. The function that a lever served in tabletop platen press was served by this treadle to make a full-size platen press work.
That treadle was then replaced by a powered line shafts in the early 1900s…which were eventually powered by motors later on.
These models were not gotten rid of that easily. Due to their versatility, these press models were manufactured in such bulk that even after modernizing and modifying them during the mid-1900s, their basic form still remains to be in use, particularly by contemporary letterpress printing shops, school print shops and hobbyists.
In some shops making use of this mode, the treadle is reattached by removing the motors as precautionary measures. However, their original versions can still be found in large printing shops that mainly use them for perforating, scoring, foiling, die cutting and other such purposes.
Gordon Franklin, Pearl, Golding Jobber, Chandler & Price.
- Cylinder Press
Source: ClipArt ETC
Before they went to bigger, faster machines for printing on larger surfaces, proof prints of forms were created using what is called a cylinder press. Primarily a proof press, cylinder presses are simpler to install and set up, work with and safer to operate as compared to platen presses.
One sheet at a time can be printed using a cylinder press. This makes this type of press more suitable for local community print shops, school, profession/amateur artists and the likes.
Following are the main types of cylinder press:
- Tabletop Cylinder Proof Press
Source: Briar Press
This is the simplest type of a cylinder press, for it comprises of a few basic parts and no motor. It is basically just a flat, long press bed with rollers on both sides.
Grippers holding paper in place during printing are made of flat metal discs. There are two handles on top for easy lifting and carrying. Rails on either sides hold everything in place.
How it works
A simple working principle for a simply-constructed device. To print using a tabletop cylinder press, a form is locked up on the main part—a flat bed—then put ink on the form using a roller, called a brayer, by hand.
Then a plane sheet of paper is placed on top of the form. And that’s it!
This type of press is also used for letterpress printing and general relief printing. Tabletop cylinder press was once commonly found in basement departmental stores, who used it to quickly print cheap sale signs. This press is not that expensive, is fairly portable and does not take too much space.
Such features make it a good starter press. However, it’s not ideal for use in printing of delicate type, nor images and/or precise registration prints, the latter being a printing process involving lined up sheets of paper printed on at a specific place, either in bulk or one sheet at a time.
Atlas, Sirio, SignPress, Morgan Lino Scribe, Triumph and Nolan.
- Precision Cylinder Proof Press
Source: Letterpress Commons
A little more refined than its counterpart, the tabletop cylinder press, precision cylinder proof press is also commonly used in classrooms as well as local community shops.
A precision cylinder press is often found containing motorized rollers. The top starts with a feed board, followed by paper guide and grippers. The rollers along with an impression cylinder together form a ‘carriage.’
It travels down press bed as printing occurs. Below the carriage and top of the press bed is a head dead bar; the bottom of the press bed is a dead bar. During printing, a head dead bar stops the grippers from smacking against the form. It’s also known as a register bar.
All the bars are held in place by rails on either ends, so the bars don’t slide off. There’s a separate, small trip level from ink rollers, aside from the larger trip level. The foot of the machine contains a gripper pedal. All-in-all, it’s a fairly huge model that takes up quite some space.
How it works
Same as with a tabletop cylinder press, a form is placed on the bed in a precision cylinder press, too. Then the motorized rollers apply an even and regular amount of ink on to the form. A sheet of paper then passes over the form on a rotating cylinder.
The cylinder, as it passes over the form, applies pressure, which can be adjusted according to printing needs. This is where a precision cylinder press gets its name from and what makes it an ideal choice for printing on various paper types.
As the name implies, this type of press can be used for printing tight registration, fine, delicate printing including images, and it can smoothly print in bulk, thanks to the precision cylinder proof press.
Since this press type has the advantage of being the gold standard given its high quality, modern letterpress finishes, it is mostly the first choice for private print press companies and artists alike.
Canuck, Reprex, Asbern, Challenge and Vandercook.
Which is the Appropriate Printing Press for You?
Source: Eva de Laney Blog
Now that it is evident that there are more than one type of presses out there, each catering to different printing needs, you must be wondering which one is the right printing press for you.
If you intend on going to a commercial studio for printing, chances are, they are most likely to have a wide variety of presses available at their disposal. So, you will have a lot to choose from.
That is why it’s essential to have some factors in mind that you can check off your list before making the choice to go with a certain kind of press.
Factors to Consider
Some of the main factors to consider before purchasing a letterpress are:
- What you will be printing?
Naturally, this is the most basic and initial step in deciding your press needs. What are you going to print? If it’s a huge concert poster or flyer that needs to be created from wood type, a press type such as a platen press will not be an ideal choice in this case.
If it’s delicate, glossy, vibrant-colored images you need to print, a press type like a tabletop cylinder press just won’t do either, but a precision cylinder press certainly will. The first step is often the hardest.
After you’ve narrowed the initial choice down to whichever press you want to go for, other factors might play themselves out.
…because lets face it, you don’t want to run your pockets empty before you’ve even gotten to the fun part (printing, of course). Make sure the press you have decided to go with fits your budget.
- Storage space
Another very important factor to consider before purchasing a letterpress is considering the storage space available to you. Is it going to be enough to house the print press? If not, can you make some space adjustments to make room for your new print press?
- Future printing plans and intentions
Last but not the least, you should also consider what your intentions are/will be for the letterpress prior to buying it. Are you going to use it for personal printing needs only, or a hobby?
Will you start your own printing business? Will you sublet it to a community college or school or a departmental store? All these and any similar future plans you have, or might have, need to be considered.
Basic Letterpress Tool Kit
Other than the factors mentioned above—and any others like them—there are also some other criteria that must be fulfilled prior to purchasing a new letterpress.
They are related to the letterpress itself. Certain components are a must-have in every and any type of letterpress. So, before buying one, make sure the letterpress constitutes of those basic parts, no matter which printing need it will be used for.
Those parts are necessary to have for every kind of printing project
Following is a chart that might come in handy for helping you choose the right machine for your letterpress needs:
- Chase (for all platen presses): A chase is a rectangular frame made of steel, used to lock up a form, generally used on a cylinder press, but otherwise present on a platen and most other types of presses, too. Based on the type of press they are used with, chases can come in various sizes.
- Craft knife: This can be helpful for cutting slits into a tympan paper for gauge pins. It can also come in handy for cutting card boards, strings, etc.
- Drawing paper
- Furniture or reglets: Don’t be fooled by the terminology here. A printing furniture is not what you have in mind when you see or hear the word ‘furniture.’ In printing terms, a furniture, also called a reglet, is a block of wood which has been cut to a certain length and width (generally around 6-12 points thick). It’s a spacing material, used to fill up spaces that might be present in a lockup. Here, a lockup simply refers to a form is tightened into position on a press bed (chase) to prepare it for printing. The process itself, whereby a form is tightened in preparation for printing, is also called lockup.
- Gauge pins: These are small pieces of metal used to hold paper in place on a tympan. They are mostly used in platen press.
- Imposing stone (or table): In a letterpress, an imposing stone, or an imposing table, is a flat and smooth surface made from either steel or marble It serves the same function as a tabletop does, when locking up a form in a chase.
- Ink plate (or table): It’s a smooth surface upon which ink is warmed up and then mixed.
- Line gauge
- Packing paper: Packing is a term given to a bunch of paper sheets or boards, varying in height and thickness. It’s placed under the tympan. Used as a protective material, packing prevents wear and tear on metal type and helps adjust a printing impression. In printing terms,a ‘type’ refers to the letters used in letterpress printing. Made from wood or cast in metal, the letters are created using standard type height, which is 0.918 inches or 23.3 mm.
- Painter’s tape: A form of masking tape.
- Palette knife
- Pantone formula guide (optional)
- Pencil and eraser
- Proof paper: A proof paper is used mainly for proof printing, where a proof print is simply a test print. It’s made on a scrap paper to test the quality and type etc of printing before printing the final product.
- Quoins: Pronounced as ‘coin,’ a quoin is used in preparation for printing; it is an expendable tool used for tightening the form and furniture in a lockup.
- Quoins key: This is a tool used for activating the expansion system that is present on a quoin, that is, for contracting and expanding the quoin.
- Tympan paper: Also referred to as a drawsheet, this is a sturdy, smooth paper treated with oil and used as the top-most sheet of packing. Papers are specially made to be used as tympan paper later on, but they can also be created of other similar paper types, or Mylar (also a sturdy paper type).
Other Letterpress Tools
Apart from the important parts and tools needed within a letterpress machine, make sure to also have the following materials and tools outside of your letterpress, present in your print shop. They can come in handy any minute, whether a machine part needs fixing, is missing or any other such emergency arises. It’s always best to be fully equipped for the task.
- Base: This is a magnetic or aluminum block, used when printing with a photopolymer plate. That plate is mounted on such a base, positioning it up for type-high (height of type i.e. 0.918 inches or 23.3 mm) letterpress printing. An aluminum base is used in conjunction with a plate that’s adhesive-backed. A magnetic base is used with a plate that’s steel-backed.
- Brayer: This is a roller, which can come in different sizes, held in one’s hand to place ink on a form.
- Composing stick: A tool held in one’s hand, a composing stick is used to set a metal type. Some are easily adjustable and come marked with measurements on them.
- Craft knife
- Form string: It’s used for tying up type before it is locked up on a press and also after it has been set. When type is tied, it doesn’t fall over and jumble up in a heap, thanks to form strings.
- Galley: This is a tray used for string set type temporarily. It’s an optional tool to have, although it might prove really beneficial at times.
- Gauge pins
- Glue sticks: They can be used for 2 purposes; firstly, in creating matrices for pressure printing and secondly, to create mock ups. In the case of mock ups, low-tack glue sticks can be used which allow for repositioning of text and/or imagery until you decide on a final design. You can shift to permanent glue sticks, though, for pressure printing. It should be noted here that in letterpress printing, matrix is a mold used to cast metal type. But in printmaking, it refers to the inked plate made ready for printing (form).
- Imposing stone or imposing table
- Inking plate or inking table
- Leads/leading: Pronounced as ‘ledding,’ it is a metal strip, available in a variety of lengths and thicknesses, which is used as spacing among text lines when setting up metal type.
- Line gauge: This is essentially a ruler with measurements in picas and points, a pica being a standard unit of measurement in letterpress printing. 12 equal points is one pica; 6 picas are equal to approximately 1 inch, or 2.54 cm.
- Packing paper: A selection of papers, with different thicknesses, to be added to the platen to set the degree of impression left after a print.
- Painter’s tape
- Palette knife
- Photopolymer plate
- Plane: It is simply a tiny block of wood which is used to set pieces of type such that they are positioned accurately sitting squarely on their ‘feet.’
- Red pressboard: This is a fairly dense paper board used in hard packing. It is placed over the rest of the packing material, as mentioned above under parts of a letterpress machine; underneath a tympan.
- Reglet rollers: They are used to place ink on a form, as you might already be aware of. However, cylinder presses’ metal rollers come with ink reservoir drum, oscillating drum and rider rollers. Platen presses come with just form rollers, although some models might have metal rollers to spread ink evenly atop a form. Furthermore, form rollers are made from either of these 3 materials: urethane, rubber or a composition (mixture of animal-hide glue, glycerin and syrup).
- Roller-setting gauge: It is mainly used to identify the height of rollers from the press bed.
- Slug: It is a piece of leading that is 6-points or more in thickness.
- Spaces: In print press terms, spaces refer to small, metallic pieces that serve as spacing between type; spaces between words; white spaces after lines of text or when a sentence ends or where a line of text needs to be tightened.
- 3-in-one oil: As the name suggests, this is a multi-purpose oil used for lubrication of a press’s movable parts. It also protects metal parts from rust and keeps a press clean.
- Tweezers: They can come in handy when you have to change letters to set type.
- Tympan paper
- Type case: A storage case which compartments to store different types. One type case stores one font of type; a set of cases is itself stores in a type cabinet.
- Type-high gauge: This is a tool, used for measuring height of printing blocks. It basically determines whether or not a block is at type height or not.
Setting Up Metal Type
Source: St. Brigid Press
As mentioned earlier, in letterpress, ‘type’ is all the letters of a given font. Setting it up in a print machine is tedious yet highly important work (which is when tweezers can come in handy). Printing letters are a hallmark of letterpress printing, as the name suggests; pf relief printmaking in particular.
This process of type and setting it up in a letterpress machine has developed over hundreds of years in various regions of the world. The purpose of it was to store, share and spread knowledge.
Contemporary printing equipment was developed from that underlying need for printed text; it is important, therefore, to know how to print from type: the letters that make up everything. Besides, it offers a good insight into understanding how a letterpress machine works.
Tool Kit for Setting Type:
Below is a handy tool kit guide for setting up type for your letterpress:
- Case layout chart (optional)
- Chase screws or quoins
- Composing stick
- Form string
- Imposing stone
- Line gauge
- Spacing material
Parts of Type
If you pick up a piece of metal type, one that’s large enough to view easily, you will find that it comprises of the following parts:
Source: Letterpress Commons
- Neck or ‘beard’
- Point size
- Type height
Source: Starshaped Press
When it comes to letterpress printing, measurements are in picas, the standard unit in this case, and points. The latter is used to measure the size of type. You sizes you see when typing on a computer correspond with sizes in metal type in letterpress printing. For instance, look at the following type size examples:
This is an example of 8-point type.
This is an example of 10-point type.
This is an example of 12-point type.
This is an example of 14-point type.
These go up to 72-point type. The type beyond 72-point is mostly cut from wood, because big metal type, corresponding to larger point type, gets expensive and heavy. So, transition is made to use wood type for larger point type instead.
Furthermore, 12 points are equal to 1 pica, whereas 6 picas are equivalent to 1 inch (actually, just a hair short of 1 inch) or 23.3 mm.
Source: Bell Type & Rule Company
White spaces in between words are created using pieces of type metal called spaces. These pieces are smaller and shorter than type. That is why they do not print when set alongside letters, hence giving way to white spaces to appear between words.
How thick a space is depends on what is called an em quad, which in turn is based on the general shape and size of the letter ‘m.’ Every em quad’s 4 sides are of the same point size, a perfect square.
If there is a space larger than an em quad, the one that’s twice the size of a regular em quad is used. For a space even bigger than that, the em quad thrice the size of the regular one is used.
These are 2-em quad and 3-em quad, respectively. Going in the opposite direction, an em quad half the size of a regular one is called an en quad and it corresponds to the general shape and size of the letter ‘n.’
After an en quad come a series of spaces that get gradually smaller in size, all based on and in relation to an em quad. So, naturally, it would follow that a one-third width of one em quad is a 3-to-the-em space, one-fourth of an em quad is a 4-to-the-em space and so on.
After 5-em space though, spaces get continuously thinner and since they’re so thin, they’re called hair spaces or ‘thins.’ For thins, brass or copper strips are used, simply referred to as brasses and coppers, respectively.
Thus we see that spaces in between words are maintained in letterpress by the use of em and en quad spaces. But as far as spaces between each line of text are concerned, metallic strips called leading, as described above, are used.
Leading is shorter as compared to type; it does not print, same as quads, hence contributing to the white spaces in between lines of text.
The thickness of a leading is commonly at a 2-point thickness, but it can also come at 1-point, 3-point and 4-point thicknesses. The one that is at 6-point thickness is known as a slug.
Source: Graphic Design Stack Exchange
The Type Case
As mentioned above briefly, type is stored in a case called a type case. It has different compartments to easily store type in an organized manner. Each case contains within it a single font of a typeface or in other words, a particular type design in one style and size.
For instance, if a typeface is Gill Sans, its type case may contain its font, Gill Sans, 14 pt. Bold. So, one type design in one size and style it comes in. Type cases come in different layouts. The most common one is the California Job Case.
Source: Reflex Letterpress
Steps for Setting Type on a Composing Stick
Source: British Letterpress
The image shown above is what a composition stick looks like. The first important thing you ought to determine before setting type is line length. The longest line you would be setting, or the size of the page, determines the line length.
This way, you will not face a problem whereby your line is longer than your paper’s width. However, to determine this, there are no rule-of-thumbs to follow.
It is simply a process of trial and error for finding out the appropriate line length for your project.
To get started, first you need to select the type you will be using. Find the longest line of your text and then set that on the composing stick to identify the line length.
Here, a composing stick is a tool, one that is handheld, that is used to set metal type. In case the line is too long or too short, even, you might have to select another typeface or type size.
The line would then be reset. After you have identified the most appropriate line length for your project, you can proceed with the following steps:
Source: Reflex Letterpress
Step # 1 – Set the composing stick to the line length you have just determined. On the stick, lift up the clamp so that the knee—the adjustable arm—is released. Slide it up to the correct measurement along the composing stick and insert the small projections’ row in the corresponding slots. Then clamp down the knee into place.
Step # 2 – Take a slug of the same line length and insert it in the stick. Since the sturdiness of the slug will help hold text blocks together when they are moved from the stick, it is recommended to always start and end with a slug rather than with a thinner leading.
Next, place an em quad on either ends of the composing stick, one on each side. This will prevent them from falling off like smaller spacers do when you move a block of text around.
Step # 3 – Grasp the composing stick in your non-dominant hand and, moving from left to right side, start setting pieces of type, one at a time, upside down. The face of the type should be facing out, with the nick showing across the top and away from you. Use the same hand’s thumb to feel the nick and thereby help slide each type piece into its place gradually.
Source: Don Black Casting Service
Step # 4 – Next, use spacing between every word. Using 3-to-the-em or 4-to-the-em is generally preferred by some.
Source: Don Black Casting Service
Step # 5 – After you are done setting the line, process to filling out the remainder of the line length using spacing. The lines will get printed left justified. In order to center justify lines, use an equal amount of spacing on both sides of your lines. Adding more spaces between words will justify lines fully.
Source: Don Black Casting Service
Step # 6 – Filling out the extra space and protecting lines is not enough; you need to ensure that each line is locked up and prints perfectly. For this, you have to add as many thins as you can and then perform the thumb test, according to which you have to push up on the type line with your thumb.
Ideally, the complete line, along its entire length, should lift up as one unit. If you see single letters lifting up then that means the line is not tightened enough.
To tighten lines, keep adding thins until you reach the point when lines pass the thumb test and start lifting entirely as single units.
Step # 7 – To proceed with setting each line, keep adding above the line you have just finished setting. Once the composing stick has been filled up halfway, place a slug above the last line.
Next, slide the complete block onto a galley. Using your index fingers and thumbs, press the bottom as well as top to support the block type. And using your middle fingers, press on the sides. Pinching the block tightly, slide it, but make sure it is not lifted while sliding.
Step # 8 – At the corners, the walls of the galley will provide some support, so slide the block of text to those corners, all the while keeping the top of the text at the galley’s top.
To prevent the type from falling out, place pieces of reglets or furniture, as they are better called, on either sides of the galley. Like this, keep on setting type on the composing stick and adding it to the top of the galley which is already set…until you have finished setting up the entire block of text.
Also, don’t forget to replace slugs with the appropriate amount of leading in between lines. However, leave a slug at the top as well as bottom of the form.
Source: Letterpress Commons
Source: Excelsior Press
Using a tabletop proofing press, each line of type can be proofed as it has been set. Proofing is advantageous here in the sense that it eases up the process of making alterations before completion of a complete block of text. Besides the tabletop proofing press, you will also be needing a piece of carbon paper, scrap paper and a strong, sturdy magnet. To begin:
- Place the composing stick straight on the press bed.
- Using some piece of furniture or even the magnet, hold the type in place.
- With the carbon side facing upwards, place the carbon paper over the type.
- Then place the scrap paper on top of the carbon paper itself.
- Take a roller and run it across the press. You will now see an instant image of what your lines will look like once printed.
If something is wrong as shown in the image, you can correct it right away, before moving on to final prints. In case carbon paper is not available, the same actions can be performed using a brayer and printing ink.
Steps for Tying up the Form
Source: Kathryn Murray Surface Design
At this point, you will probably have finished setting up type. Next, you need to secure your block of text before it is moved for storage or lockup for printing. So, in order to tie up a form, simply wrap it with a piece of string tied in the form of a tiny twist. This is, quite literally, tying up the form, and where this process gets its name from.
Step # 1 – Leaving almost a 4-inch ‘tail,’ place a string’s loose end on the top-left corner of the form.
Source: Paekakariki Press
Step # 2 – You need to wrap the string round the form 4 times, pulling it tightly all the while you wrap. Also, each strand in the wrapping process should be placed flat against the form’s surface, each strand above the previous one. Neat and orderly.
Source: Paekakariki Press
Step # 3 – Tightly hold the wrapped string in one hand, lift up the ‘tail’ with the other free hand and neatly place it over and above the 4 wrapped strands.
Source: Paekakariki Press
Step # 4 – Next, take a piece of leading or a brass, tuck the ‘tail’ beneath the 4 wrapped strands and pull the ‘tail’ out from below them.
Source: Paekakariki Press
Step # 5 – The excess string has to be trimmed off. Apply a gentle but firm tug on both ends. The form should now be easily movable without the type becoming a mixed jumble or being spilled. The form should slide, though, not lifted.
Source: Paekakariki Press
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