Letterpress printing

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Part of the series on the
History of printing

Woodblock printing 200
Movable type 1040
Intaglio 1430s
Printing press 1454
Lithography 1796
Chromolithography 1837
Rotary press 1843
Flexography 1873
Mimeograph 1876
Hot metal typesetting 1886
Offset press 1903
Screen-printing 1907
Dye-sublimation 1957
Phototypesetting 1960s
Photocopier 1960s
Pad printing 1960s
Laser printer 1969
Dot matrix printer 1970
Thermal printer
Inkjet printer 1976
3D printing 1986
Stereolithography 1986
Digital press 1993

Letterpress printing is a term for the 'relief' printing of text and image using a press with a "type-high bed", in which a reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper to obtain a positive right-reading image. In addition to the direct impression of inked movable type onto paper or another receptive surface, the term letterpress can also refer to the direct impression of inked media such as photo-etched zinc "cuts" (plates), linoleum blocks, wood engravings, etc., using such a press.

In the 21st century, commercial letterpress has been revived by the use of 'water-wash' photopolymer plates which are adhered to a near-type-high base to produce a relief printing surface typically from digitally-rendered art and typography.


[edit] History

A letterpress

Early Chinese woodblock printing used characters or images carved in relief from before 750AD, and this form of printing was widespread throughout Eurasia as a means of printing patterns on textiles. Printing of images, first on cloth, then from about 1400 on paper was practised in Europe. In the 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg (among others) is credited with the invention of movable type printing from individually-cast, reusable letters set together in a form (frame). This had previously been invented in Asia, but the two inventions were probably not connected. He also invented a wooden printing-press, based on the existent wine press, where the type surface was inked and paper laid carefully on top by hand, then slid under a padded surface and pressure applied from above by a large threaded screw. Later metal presses used a knuckle and lever arrangement instead of the screw, but the principle was the same.

With the advent of industrial mechanisation, the inking was carried out by rollers which would pass over the face of the type and move out of the way onto a separate ink-plate where they would pick up a fresh film of ink for the following sheet. Meanwhile a sheet of paper was slid against a hinged platen (see image) which was then rapidly pressed onto the type and swung back again to have the sheet removed and the next sheet inserted (during which operation the now freshly-inked rollers would run over the type again). Fully-automated 20th century presses, such as the Kluge and "Original" Heidelberg Platen (the "Windmill"), incorporated pneumatic feed and delivery of the sheet.

[edit] Industrial-scale use in the 20th century

Rotary presses were used for high-speed work. In the oscillating press, the form slid under a drum around which each sheet of paper got wrapped for the impression, sliding back under the inking rollers while the paper was removed and a new sheet inserted. In a newspaper press, a papier-mâché mixture (flong) was used to make a mould of the entire forme of type, then dried and bent, and a curved metal plate cast against it. The plates were clipped to a rotating drum, and could thus print against a continuous reel of paper at the enormously high speeds required for overnight newspaper production.

[edit] Rotary Letterpress

The invention of Ultra-Violet curing inks has helped keep rotary letterpress alive in areas like self-adhesive labels. There is also still a large amount of flexographic printing, a similar process, which uses rubber plates to print on curved or awkward surfaces, and a lesser amount of relief printing from huge wooden letters for lower-quality poster work.

Rotary letterpress machine are still used on a wide scale for printing of self-adhesive and Non self-adhesive labels, tube laminate, cup stock etc. The printing quality achieved by the modern letterpress machines with UV curing is on par with flexo presses. Several converters the world over still swear by these rugged machines. It is more convenient and user friendly then a flexo press. Water wash photopolymer plates are used which are as good as any solvent washed flexo plate. Nowadays even CtP (computer-to-plate) plates are available making it a full fledged modern printing process. As there is no Anilox roller in the process, the makeready time also goes down when compared to a flexo press. Inking is controlled by keys very much similar to an offset press. UV inks for letterpress are in paste form unlike flexo. There are various manufacturers of UV rotary letterpress machines viz. Taiyo Kikai, KoPack, Gallus etc. which offer various other online functions like Hot/ Cold foil stamping, rotary die cutting, Flatbed die cutting, Sheeting, Rotary Screen Printing, Adhesive side printing,InkJet numbering etc. The Central Impression presses are more popular then inline ones due to their ease of registration and simple design. Printing of up to 9 colours plus varnish is possible with various online converting processes.

[edit] The rise of 'craft' letterpress

A small amount of high-quality art and hobby letterpress printing remains — fine letterpress work is crisper than offset litho because of its impression into the paper, giving greater visual definition to the type and artwork. Today, many of these small letterpress shops survive by printing fine editions of books or by printing upscale invitations and stationery, often using presses that require the press operator to feed paper one sheet at a time by hand. They are just as likely to use new printing methods as old, for instance by printing photopolymer plates (used in modern rotary letterpress) on restored 19th century presses.

The process requires a high degree of craftsmanship, but in the right hands, letterpress excels at fine typography. It is used by many small presses that produce fine handmade limited-edition books, artists' books, and high-end ephemera such as greeting cards and broadsides.

Printing on a hand-fed Chandler & Price platen press (circa 1890.)

To bring out the best attributes of letterpress, printers need to understand the capabilities and advantages of what can be a very unforgiving medium. For instance, since most letterpress equipment prints only one color at a time (unlike presses for offset printing which often use four-color process printing), printing multiple colors can be challenging. The inking system on letterpress equipment is less precise than on offset presses, which can pose problems with some graphics: detailed, white (or "knocked out") areas, such as small, serif type, or very fine halftone, surrounded by fields of color, can fill in with ink and lose definition. However, a skilled printer can overcome most of these problems. Working with a letterpress also gives you the option of using a wider range of paper, including handmade, organic, and tree free. No other form of imaging on paper allows you to utilize such a diversity of choices. The classic feel and finish of letterpress papers takes printing back to an era of quality and craftsmanship that is not often found in other printing methods today.[1]

While less common in contemporary letterpress printing, it is possible to print halftoned photographs, via photopolymer plates, on letterpress equipment. However, letterpress printing's strengths are crisp lines, patterns and typography.

[edit] The letterpress revival since the 1990s

Letterpress publishing has recently undergone a revival in the USA, Canada and the UK, under the general banner of the 'Small Press Movement'. Interest in letterpress was fueled initially by the use of wedding invitations in magazines like Martha Stewart Weddings, who was the first to use pictures of letterpress invitations in their images. The beauty and texture became appealing to brides who began wanting letterpress invites instead of traditional engraved invitations. Notably, Sue Corral, who began by working at Martha Stewart as an Art Director during the 1990's when letterpress was in its infancy, took notice and started Page Stationery. At the time, presses were affordable and being discarded by commercial print shops, Popular presses are(in particular, Vandercook cylinder proof presses and Chandler & Price platen presses. In the UK there is particular affection for the Halifax built by Arab) became available to artisans throughout the country. The movement has been helped by the emergence of a number of organizations that teach letterpress such as Columbia College Chicago's Center for Book & Paper Arts, New York's Center for Book Arts, Studio on the Square and The Arm NYC, the San Francisco Center for the Book, Bookworks, Seattle's School of Visual Concepts, Black Rock Press and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

Affordable photopolymer platemakers and milled aluminum bases have allowed letterpress printers to produce type and image derived from digital fonts and scans. Photopolymer plates have encouraged the rise of "digital letterpress" in the 21st Century, allowing a small number of firms to flourish commercially, and enabling a larger number of boutique and hobby printers to avoid the complications of acquiring and composing metal type.

Currently, the oldest working letterpress shop is the historical Hatch Show Print in Nashville, Tn. Founded in 1879, "Hatch" (as their following has nicknamed it) creates over 600 jobs annually and receives at least 20,000 visitors through its doors.

In 2009, Shuford Prints (Atlanta, GA) added a letterpress shop. Armed with an Atlanta Print Makers Studio education, Shuford Prints plans to lead the letterpress revival in the southeast United States. Future plans include shop/press tours by fall of 2009 and organization of an annual southeast letterpress festival in spring 2010.

[edit] Current letterpress education initiatives

Several dozen colleges and universities around the United States have either begun or re-activated programs teaching letterpress printing in fully-equipped facilities. In many cases these letterpress shops are affiliated with the college's library or art department, in others they may be independent, student-run operations, or extracurricular activities sponsored by the college. Many are included in degree programs. More information can be found on the College & University Letterpress Printers' Association (CULPA) website. CULPA was founded in 2006 by Abigail Uhteg at the Maryland Institute College of Art in order to help these schools stay connected and share resources.

The current renaissance of letterpress printing has created a crop of hobby press shops that are owner operated and driven by a love of the craft. Several larger printers have added an environmental component to the venerable art by using only wind-generated electricity to drive their presses and plant equipment.

In London, St Bride's Printing Library houses a large collection of letterpress information in its collection of 50,000 books. All the classic works on printing technique, visual style, typography, graphic design, calligraphy and more. This is one of the worlds foremost collections and is located off Fleet Street in the heart of London's old printing and publishing district. In addition regular talks, conferences, exhibitions and demonstrations take place.

Central St Martin's College and London College of Communication run short courses in letterpress as well as offering these facilities as part of their Graphic Design Degree Courses.

[edit] Common Press Manufacturers

[edit] See also

The individual letterforms used to compose a block of text for printing were designed and fabricated by a punchcutter.

[edit] Further reading

  • Bibliography of Letterpress Printing
  • Blumenthal, Joseph. (1973) Art of the printed book, 1455–1955.
  • Blumenthal, Joseph. (1977) The Printed Book in America.
  • Jury, David (2004). Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade.
  • Lange, Gerald. (1998) Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press.
  • Ryder, John (1977), "Printing for Pleasure, A Practical Guide for Amateurs"
  • Stevens, Jen. (2001). Making Books: Design in British Publishing since 1940.
  • Ryan, David. (2001). Letter Perfect: The Art of Modernist Typography, 1896–1953.
  • Drucker, Johanna. (1997). The Visible Word : Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909–1923.
  • Auchincloss, Kenneth. "The Second Revival: Fine Printing since World War II". In Printing History No. 41: pp. 3–11.
  • Cleeton, Glen U. & Pitkin, Charles W. with revisions by Cornwell, Raymond L. . (1963) "General Printing - An illustrated guide to letterpress printing, with hundreds of step-by-step photos".

[edit] External links

[edit] Videos

  • Firefly Press demo [1]
  • Heidelberg Windmill demo [2]

[edit] References

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