Johannes Gutenberg might be credited with the invention of the letterpress in 1440, but it has actually been around much earlier than that. In fact, printing from movable type had been a practice in China since 1041 before being introduced in Europe!
Traditionally, this process involved arranging individual blocks of letters into a caddy to form words. All the characters are molded and arranged in reverse. As for images, they could be included, but this could be quite labor-intensive because they had to be etched in wood or metal blocks.
Letterpress printing made mass printing possible. For nearly 500 years the style has pretty much remained the same, before modern lithographic offset printing led to letterpress, which eventually became the norm. But nowadays, letterpress has become quite popular again as artisans seek its custom, high-quality finish that litho-prints just couldn’t provide.
So what distinguishes letterpress prints from other types of prints?
Well, they are very tactile, with a debossed effect. The process is manual, which means there’s a genuine handcrafted quality and elegance to them.
Fortunately, there are modern ways to make letterpress much more efficient. Text and graphics could be produced onto flexible relief plates using photosensitive chemicals. Called photopolymer plates, these are what modern printers use to create letterpress plates from digital designs. The result is cleaner and more consistent print but with the same debossed effect.