Invented in the 1400’s by a German printer named Gutenberg, letterpress is the oldest printing process on the planet. Letterpress began as printing for the masses; it was how people used to communicate with each other. It was how people once printed their books, broadsides, manuals, pamphlets, and newspapers. Those early books are housed in libraries and collections and are now cherished like priceless treasures.
But then the twentieth century happened and anything done by a skilled hand seemed old-fashioned, outdated, and way too slow. It was a tough time for artisans. Even back when we began printing in the 1990’s, the letterpresses we loved were still being dragged off to scrap yards to be destroyed. It took the 21st century’s true renaissance of craft to allow letterpress to thrive.
Letterpress printing is labor intensive, and printing takes a long time and requires a great deal of skill. Years ago, letterpress was virtually forgotten in favour of faster and cheaper printing methods better suited to the mass market. However, as fine cuisine is still valued in a nation of fast food, fine letterpress printing is still appreciated for a kind of beauty that can only be made by genuine craftsmen.
These days, letterpresses are snapped up in an instant; so many people now want to practice this way of printing. It’s good to see this historic craft has found a home in the hearts of printers and clients and that the world once again is valuing quality, craft, and the handwork of our history.
Letterpress is relief printing. This means that a raised surface is inked and pressed into a sheet of paper. This raised surface can be metal type, wood type, a photoengraved plate made of photopolymer, magnesium, copper or even a woodcut or wood engraving. The relief is produced by exposing the plate material to ultraviolet light through a negative, and then washing it in a water bath. The unexposed areas then dissolve away, leaving the raised image of the art to be printed.
When the plate is dried, it becomes very hard, holding fine details even over long runs.
Plates from any computer-generated negative, or any art that can be clearly photographed or scanned.
In the finest letterpress, the printed image is sharp and crisp, because a thick layer of ink is placed only in the floor of the impression, leaving the walls of the impression clean. The rich texture of shadow and light created by these clean-walled impressions gives letterpress its unique beauty. The quality of the impression gives a feeling for the paper, just as a woodworker’s craftmanship reveals the character of fine wood.
The well-printed lines sink into soft paper, giving the impression that the smooth paper has been skillfully carved.
Because printing is done on antique printing presses, each printed piece will be subtly unique. No two pieces are entirely the same, as letterpress printing is not an exact science. Subtle variations in position, impression, color and inking are to be expected. These small variations are part of what makes letterpress beautifully unique, trust us we know !
We’re proud to be associated with Smock – the first and only print shop to offer printing on a luxury bamboo paper.
Why bamboo? Bamboo is a truly sustainable and renewable resource. It’s the fastest growing plant on this planet; it grows without pesticides or fertilizers; and it requires very little water to grow. Bamboo also makes the prettiest paper out there. Smock have partnered with a 500-year-old European paper mill to develop this fine artisan paper just for us.
What is bamboo paper like? It’s extremely soft, luxuriously thick, and elegantly textured. It’s also perfect for letterpress. Essentially, imagine the highest quality cotton paper. Now imagine something even prettier and without the pesticides used in cotton production.
We consider bamboo to be a true wonder plant. In addition to not requiring pesticides or fertilizer to grow, bamboo reaches its mature harvestable height in 3 to 5 years (versus 10-20 years for most softwoods). Bamboo generates up to 35% more oxygen than hardwood trees, and absorbs four times as much carbon as hardwood. Bamboo can detoxify wastewater (due to its high nitrogen consumption) and improve soil quality. If that wasn’t enough, bamboo also has natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties too.