The Letterpress Printing Process Posted on 19 Mar 16:00

Letterpress is the use of moveable type to create words and texts, with the origins of the process traceable to China in the 11th century. Johannes Gutenburg developed the process in medieval Mainz in the mid fifteenth century, famously printing his Bible. The process spread rapidly, and was refined further, as the printing press spread across the cities of Europe.

Further refinements to the process followed, and by the time of the industrial revolution the presses were becoming mechanised and automated. 

The Print Works has an extensive collection of large movable and reusable letterpress type, and Jack has been cataloguing the collection in recent years with the assistance of National trust volunteers. I was able to select Typefaces that I liked, and Jack was able to advice on practicality and availability. 


Tony, Jack and I had a series of conversations about the work as part of the initial design process, before our Paper Tiger Letterpress cards were typeset by hand by Jack using display type. This part of the process is known as composition. The compositor (Jack) uses a type galley to arrange the type into the required design.


Other pieces of metal known as furniture are used to pack the galley and ensure the design is secure and laid out accurately into a chase, which is the steel frame used on the printing machine.


After the cards had been typeset using display type, a proofing process was carried out using a 1860s Columbian Press. This press is sometimes referred to as the Columbian Eagle Press due to the large castle iron eagle used as a counterweight on the lever. 

I had selected a palette of colours that I wanted to use on the cards, and Tony guided me through the print process to ensure that the colours would work together in print. For some designs we ran a couple of different. Once we were happy with the colours and designs, the cards moved onto the print process.


The Print Works use a 1953 Original Heidelberg press for work like this. The cards in this range are all two colour prints, which means they need to run through the press twice. The colour combinations also allowed us to effectively create a third colour where the two base colours overlap.

Printing on machines like the Original Heidelberg is a skill, and also an art. Tony has worked with machines like this for many years, and is able to produce high quality finished across a wide variety of media. The core challenge on a Letterpress machine is ensuring that there is enough ink to ensure consistency on the printed paper or card. Too dry, and the image lacks the colour required, too wet and there is a risk of smudging and causing issues when stacked for drying. Each Letterpress sheet usually has some debossing - a slight indentation in the paper or card from the point where the inked forme presses onto the paper.

Finally, our Letterpress Cards are creased, matched with their envelopes, and we protect our cards in a biodegradable cellophane bag.