It all started with movable type.
Letterpress, once the standard method of printing, was almost lost due to the age of digital reproduction.
Any good letterpress background starts with the introduction of Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg was the visionary who invented a system of movable type and a compatible printing press that enabled mass duplication of the printed word. In Europe, starting in the 1450’s and for the next 500 years, Gutenberg’s revolutionary movable type was the method that most mass-produced printing was achieved.
Letterpress printing had a good long run, but around the 1950’s, technology began to progress rapidly, and so began a slow decline of the process. New techniques like offset printing came onto the scene and added such unfortunate things as “speed” and “efficiency” to the printing experience. Even with the improvements that the 20th-century brought, letterpress was still a slow and methodical process that required the labor of many skilled craftspeople. Letterpress hung on commercially into the 1980’s, until computers, copy machines and digital presses dealt the final blow. Sadly many letterpress machines were melted down for scrap in these dark years. What happened next was unexpected, and very interesting.
Right as the Internet revolution hit us full force in around the year 2000, interest in letterpress printing began to re-emerge. As technology pushed us further away from the hands-on traditions of printing and graphic design, curiosity for the old ways was growing. Graphic designers began to realize that letterpress printing could help them express a quality and authenticity that just can not be replicated with modern methods. Luckily there was still a lot of letterpress gear out there that hadn’t been turned into toaster ovens. By this time it was available at affordable prices, and sometimes scrap value. Because of this new financial accessibility of equipment, start-up artists and craftspeople could get their hands on some of the best letterpress equipment ever made. This renaissance did not just start up where letterpress left off though; Instead, a new way was found to combine modern digital design techniques in a way that embraced the advantages of new technology while retaining the traditional hands-on quality of a beautiful old craft.
The most notable new addition to the letterpress process was the development of the photopolymer plate. Letterpress is a “relief” printing process. This means that the printing surface is raised to accept ink, and then pressed directly onto the paper to create a reproduction of the image. The raised surface can be anything that fits into the press. Movable type, carved wooden blocks, or, in this case, photopolymer plates. These plates can faithfully reproduce digital artwork in extremely high detail. Photopolymer plates are also made of a very strong material that can easily resist the tons of force that are applied by letterpress presses. In fact, they are stronger than movable type, and less prone to damage when pressed with enough force to imprint deeply into paper. Thus, the modern and now iconic “deep letterpress impression” was born. When combined with soft cotton paper, photopolymer plates allowed this new generation of artists to print beautiful, tactile stationery, invitations and art prints, with a signature deep impression that is only possible with letterpress printing.
The deep impression that is created during this process helped to differentiate letterpress from other printing methods available. With these deep impression that you can see and feel, you know you have a real, authentic letterpress print. The true craft of the process is able to shine through; It was no longer just a method to get ink on paper. At this point it had been made clear that letterpress is, and always was, a form of artistic expression.
Once a method for mass production that met its demise due to its slow and time-consuming nature, letterpress was reborn and has been allowed to gain new respect for its very special qualities. Because of it’s need for hands-on skill, it’s connection to the past, and its unmistakable tactile impression, letterpress is here to stay as one of the most authentic techniques available in the graphic designer’s toolkit. Much of the surviving letterpress equipment is in the hands of people who cherish the machines and process. These craftsmen and women are keeping them well-loved and well-oiled, carrying on Gutenberg’s printing tradition in new and interesting ways.