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Re-examining the Letterpress Machine

January 27, 2014 General 0 Comments

Re-examining the Letterpress MachineBack in the 1500s, the letterpress machine made the printing process easier, and led to the development of the mass production of books. Prior to this, printed books were expensive and a rare commodity. By the 18th century, the letterpress was still the machine of choice to print books and newspapers.

During the 19th century, offset printing replaced the letterpress. It was simply too slow for mass production. Each sheet of paper had to be fed into the machine, usually one sheet at a time. To compose the template for printing, individual letters were arranged on a board similar to the way scrabble letters are arranged to spell a word. Then, the words were inked, and run through the printing press one piece of paper at a time, usually by hand. If you wanted multiple colors, you would have to repeat this process again and again to ink the words in each color, unless you had a machine that allowed you to ink two colors at a time. Offset printing, on the other hand, uses large ink rollers to ink the template onto a large blanket which then passes over large rolls of paper. The letterpress was forgotten — deemed an artisanal practice.

The Comeback

Now, the letterpress is making a comeback. One of the most popular new ways to use it is for designing wedding invitations. Similar to embossing, the letterpress leaves an imprint in the paper around the type and images, which is a byproduct of its raised, movable type. Ironically, when the letterpress was popular, this effect was not viewed as interesting or beautiful. Now it is viewed as a sign of quality old-fashioned printing.

The remaining letterpress machines have made letterpress printing a fine art, and art and design schools have noticed. Small graphic design companies and printing companies have again started to use the letterpress to print small runs of packaging, invitations, tags, greeting cards and business cards.

The demand for vintage letterpress printed materials is high, and the supply is relatively low. You're lucky to find a letterpress machine in working condition because they are no longer in production, but it's not impossible, though they can cost thousands of dollars. The good news is that companies have begun to create cheaper, modern table top versions of the machine. These can be purchased for as little as a hundred dollars.

So, if you are looking to add a unique quality to your graphic design or printing repertoire, think about adding the fine art of letterpress printing. It's well and truly back.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.


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