A Crash Course in Letterpress

Baltimore Letterpress Workshop

A group of ADG designers recently attended a very cool workshop put on by AIGA Baltimore and Baltimore Print Studios on all things letterpress. The one day crash course covered everything from wood type to polymer plates and gave attendees a chance to jump in and get their hands dirty with some of the equipment over at BPS.  Here’s a Q/A featuring ADG designers Allison Rinaldi, Ashley Hooker and Kathe Flynn.

What’s letterpress all about?  Get technical, what is it? (Allison)
Letterpress is a method of printing that began in the mid-15th century when it was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. It uses moveable type pieces to form words that can be used over and over again, so it was a technological improvement from hand-written books and hand- carved books (when people would carve an entire page out of wood and print it as a whole). Letterpress was the main form of printing until offset printing was invented in the 1960’s. Letterpress is still used today, but mostly for more expensive printing projects because it takes a lot of time to set up the press. Today, we combine modern technology with old letterpress machines by designing on the computer and having photopolymer letterpress plates created to skip the step of using moveable type and provide more options for fonts and images. The finished effect of letterpress is tactile and the words are pressed into thick paper, creating a visible imprint.

Sounds like letterpress is growing in popularity instead of shrinking. Is this the next big thing or what? (Ashley)
A lot of people say print is dead, but that’s just bull. Print may be dwindling when it comes to business information and data but it’s booming in other forms of communication and industries.  Letterpress is a great example.  It’s commonly found in invitations and greeting cards; probably everyone reading this will handle some letterpress this year when they receive a wedding invitation in the mail.  Weddings are huge right now which means wedding invitations are huge which means letterpress is huge. It’s here to stay and, in fact, will enjoy even more popularity as industries re-discover it and re-use the technology in new and creative ways.

What surprised you from the workshop?  What did you take away from it? (Kathe)
I’ve always been intrigued by letterpress. When done well, letterpress can produce some of the most beautiful print pieces on the planet. In recent years I have actually started amassing quite the collection of letterpress prints created by fellow designers and artists. When I heard about the AIGA letterpress workshop at Baltimore Print Studios I jumped up and down at the chance to learn the process for myself. Could I do it too?

I was surprised to discover that yes, I can, and while letterpress can be difficult it’s really built on a very simple idea. I found that the difficulties are with the set up, which is mainly difficult because of the time involved. You also really need to pay attention to your work to avoid mistakes, which is a bit of a challenge  because you’re working backwards. Finding and setting the individual letters to spell whatever it is your spelling is definitely more painstaking than striking a key on your keyboard. You have to locate drawers, check heights, lay everything out, and then fill in all of the areas around your design to create a solid rectangle. It’s a lot like putting together a giant puzzle. To fill the spaces you need to measure and measure, and measure some more. The more intricate your design the more time consuming your puzzle becomes.

Once you have everything setup, the actual printing process is super easy and a ton of fun! In fact, I can’t wait to complete a few letterpress projects of my own.


 More pics here!

Fun Fact: Letters, also known as ‘sorts,’ are organized into drawers that are setup so that all of the letters are housed in the same section regardless of what font drawer you pull. Once you memorize the placement pulling letters becomes easy and you can rest assured that you are pulling the correct letter assuming someone didn’t put them away wrong. Prior to spelling items for a document the printer will often check the count for the letters being used, since some will inevitably be used more than others. Running out of any particular letter in the midst of a job could be disastrous and came to be know as being ‘out of sorts.’


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About ADG

ADG Creative is a strategic communications firm specializing in branding, interactive, learning and gaming, and software development. We combine process, experience and extraordinary creative talent to tell our customers' stories in unique, memorable and usually unexpected ways, leveraging both conventional and new media platforms.