There are so many different styles of printing today, that letterpress printing is now just one of many. However, when letterpress printing began in the 15th century, it was simply known as printing. For over 500 years it remained the best way to print, until modern lithograph offset printing was developed and letterpress printing became a dying art.

Today letterpress printing is a little different to its origins, with hand-set wood and metal type replaced by photo polymer plate used by the majority in the industry. Computers have changed the way the letterpress process occurs now, meaning fonts, designs, embellishments, graphics and patterns are much easier to incorporate into the print. These developments mean the popularity of letterpress printing is on the rise once again, particularly for those who want individual, small run products with a more tactile, high quality finish. The process creates a slightly debossed effect, and the finish is as equally about the paper as it is about the design and ink.

However, one thing hasn’t changed in the tradition of letterpress printing…in the end the printing is still done by hand, one print at a time.

Step one, making the polymer plate…

To create the polymer plates a digital design is printed onto a film as a negative, then with the help of UV light is exposed to a polymer plate. The light-sensitive, water-soluble plastic polymer plate has a clear backing that hardens when exposed to light. What isn’t exposed to the UV light is washed away, leaving the design behind as a raised surface. For designs with multiple colours, separate plates are produced for each colour in the design, and the paper is run through the press with the corresponding plate and colour.

Step two, getting ready to print…

The plates are secured into the press on a machine metal base, which is then firmly fastened into the press.

There are several ways ink can be prepared for the printing process. Ink is mixed by hand, and each colour going into the mix can be weighed to ensure a specific colour is achieved. However, experts in the field have the ability to mix everything by eye to match a specific pantone colour. That takes quite some skill!

The ink is then applied to the press, just enough to produce a solid single colour print, not too thin or not too sloppy.


Step three, printing begins…

A sheet of paper is fed through the machine, and the more pressure applied to the surface of the paper at this stage, the greater the debossing effect. This is often the appeal of letterpress printing, adding to the tactile nature of the finished product.

The ink is allowed to dry, often overnight, before the press is inked up again in a second colour and the paper is fed through once more. This process is repeated until all of the colours have been applied.

The printing process must be closely monitored throughout, as pressure changes and ink quantity can dramatically effect the finished article. As such adjustments must be made throughout the process, which is why this style of printing is more expensive than most others.

Step four, cutting…

After the conclusion of the printing process, when all colours have been applied to both sides and have dried completely, it’s time to cut. Some printers use a technique called die cutting, particularly for business cards even if the card isn’t being cut into a unique shape. This is because they can cut multiple cards with a single pass.


Design tips

  • Ink is laid down uniformly during the printing process, so don’t reduce the opacity of your colours.
  • Less if often more. Overlapping colours will blend and create inconsistent colours. For the best results, don’t use more than 2-3 colours in total.
  • Ask your printer for the minimum detail area size, that way you’ll know how fine your designs can be. Machines vary from printer to printer.

Should you go with letterpress printing?

If the end result you seek is for fine type and line work, then letterpress could be for you. If you’re after blocks of solid colour, a different style of printing could be the way to go. With blocks of colour in letterpress printing, you can often see the texture and colour of the paper showing through the ink, a result referred to in the industry as ‘salty’.

Letterpress printing can be a long process, and time costs money. Often the paper is fed by hand, each colour must be pass through the press separately, and then drying time must be factored into the equation. It’s not uncommon for a job to take a couple of weeks to complete, and when you include the time and expense that goes into the design phase, you’re looking at a lengthy, costly process.

However, there are ways to reduce the costs. A single colour and a basic design is obviously the first step, while the quality of the card you choose will also play a part.


In the end the quality of the finish, when taking in account the ink, design, paper and debossing effect, is usually of the upmost quality and will definitely make an impression on those you show it to. So the next time you hand out a business card that has been created with letterpress printing, you can be sure the recipient will remember you and your business.

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