The short answer to “why letterpress?” is: to make an impact, physically and perceptually, on the recipient. Which, you might argue, is… always, right? Well, sure, but therein lie distinctions and factors. Here, then, are some instances where letterpress printing might not be the best solution:
- Multicolor process work
- Photographic reproduction*
- Double-sided printing*
- Extremely quick turnaround
- Bulk mailing
- Exterior (outdoor) printing situations
*Some exceptions apply—please inquire
We will digress here:
There’s no doubt that there’s been a debate, for quite a long time, about the presence of the letterpress impression in and on letterpress printed materials. At the turn of the 20th century, when all mechanical printing was done via letterpress printing, the hallmark of a “good printer” was that their printings left no discernible impression in the paper. We believe that this needs to be taken into historical context, however: at that time, most printed materials were printed on both sides, where a heavier impression on one side of the paper would show through to the opposite side and thereby impair legibility. Also, the majority of printing was done with hand-set, and later, machine-set metal type; as printing with an impression requires heavier pressure, it would also decrease the lifespan of metal type, which was definitely another mark against printing with an impression. We’ve definitely seen some contemporary letterpress work that was printed with, in our opinion, far too much pressure, which in the end, has a detrimental effect on the recipient: too-heavy pressure can call too much attention to the very fact that a piece was printed with too much pressure, making the piece difficult to read.
Today, with so many other printing options available to consumers, the ability to leave an impression in the paper is unique, a signature of the consideration and craft that goes into a letterpress printed item. The interaction of the human eye and hand with the impression, and the creation of subtle shadowing within the impression, suggests that printing with an impression imbues the printed piece with living energy. While of course not living in a sentient sense, letterpress printed pieces possess, we believe, a significant amount of potential energy, which is conveyed in almost subliminal ways. Recipients recognize and feel that the piece in their hands is special, somehow, even if they can’t articulate why. It is our belief that this process embodies the basic humanistic principles of spoken and written language(s): we interact with the printed word conceptually (through the actual content), physically (holding the paper, the book, touching the page or the card, running our fingers across the impressions in the paper), and even, we would argue, metaphysically.
So, who’s right? Impression or no impression? Well, in classic fenceriding tradition, we believe that both camps have valid reasons why that particular process should be employed on a letterpress project. For us here at Smokeproof, the letterpress impression is singularly signatory; it is that thing that establishes intentional, artisanal credibility on a project. And because there are so many other forms of printing that leave no evidence of the printing process on or in the paper, we believe that the presence of that evidence is special. It evokes history, craftsmanship, and difficult-to-articulate artistic and sensory intention. The impression is, in a word, cool. Of course, we will always strive to balance all of the factors on a given project so that the eventual impression, however deep it may be, will be appropriate to the project without hindering quality or legibility. Amen.
Back when type was made of bits of lead rather than bits of zeroes, ones, and light, the procedure from which we take our name was used by craftspersons (called punchcutters) who cut and carved letterforms into steel. These steel punches were used to create matrices, the original molds for a typeface to be cast in lead and to be used in letterpress printing.
The punchcutter would carve the initial shape of a letter onto the tip of a steel rod, called a “punch.” This punch was then hammered onto the tip of another blank punch, thereby creating the negative form of that shape; additional shapes were then carved, and this punch, depending on the letter, could be used to create yet another negative form in another punch. Interior spaces (counters) in letterforms were made by “counterpunches,” heat-tempered punches that had the positive shape carved on their tip, which were then hammered into the master letterform punch.
When the final letterform was ready, the punch would be held over the flame of a candle to heat the surface and to collect soot on the surface. This smoky punch was then pressed onto a piece of paper, and the punchcutter could then check the integrity of the letterform, “printed,” as it were, on the paper. This print was referred to as a smoke proof, a fifteenth-century version of carbon paper; we fused the two words into a compound word to honor this bit of punchcutting history. Plus is sounds cool.
Overprinting allows new colors to be created by the intersection and overlay of two or more separate colors. By carefully planning the design of a printed piece, overprinting can yield more colors than suggested by the required number of print runs. For example, in a finished piece printed in red and yellow (which would require two setups and two individual plates), overprinting selected areas of the image would result in a third color, orange—without having a separate plate and print run for the orange areas.