Letterpress Printing FAQ

What is letterpress printing?

Letterpress printing is a relief printmaking technique. Letterpress printing uses type and images carved or etched into wood, metal, and/or polymer. The type and images are locked into a mechanical press. Rollers apply ink to the raised surface, then the image and paper are pressed together with great force to make a print.

Your boy, Jonny G.
Image courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

Letterpress printing has played an important role in world history. Many cultures made relief prints since ancient times, and moveable type was developed in Asia long before letterpress printing as we know it was perfected 500 years ago by Johannes Gutenberg. He and his associates in Mainz, Germany improved the press, developed a practical method to manufacture metal type, and concocted new inks, sparking a worldwide explosion of literacy. The development of printing facilitated almost every cultural and technological advancement that’s come since!

After dominating the industry for hundreds of years, letterpress printing was largely replaced in the mid-20th century by offset printing, which was faster, cheaper, and more precise. Improvements in digital printing are likely to render offset printing largely obsolete by the end of the decade. But letterpress printing remains popular with artisan printers who enjoy keeping the machinery and craft of letterpress alive, both in historical and modern contexts.

What’s the appeal of letterpress printing?

You’ve read this far, so you hopefully already have some nascent attraction to letterpress printing!

Strangely enough, many printers credit Martha Stewart for the current popularity of letterpress printing. In the 90s, she popularized the idea that the deep impression that letterpress type leaves in the paper is a mark of quality printing. Historically, printers and clients would scoff at a visible impression, but today, clients seek it out.

We’re happy to embellish or minimize the print impression as you wish, but we’d argue the real impression that letterpress leaves is the impression made by the finished piece on the viewer.

Letterpress printing imparts soul into the finished piece. Working with Midwest Ephemera, you’ll see all the work and planning that goes into printing. Every printed piece was literally touched by the hand of the printer, at every step of the process. It’s special… a little bit magic. There’s a story behind it. The carefully-crafted materials and texture, countered with just a hint of imperfection, restore some of the charm that’s lost with modern printing.

What are the limitations of letterpress printing?

It’s not modern technology by any stretch of the imagination. In our case, it’s a fifty-year-old human using a fifty-year-old press designed 200 years ago, based on technology from the 1400s. Our press is hand-fed: one sheet, one side, one color at a time. It’s thankfully motorized (we do have the original treadle to power it by foot, but that’ll cost extra). 

At ten one-color impressions per minute, we can’t compete with the blistering 300 six-color sheets per minute of a modern offset press, just as offset’s ho-hum predictability can’t compete with the handmade personality of a piece we print. 

There are some design limitations as well. Full-color reproduction is possible with letterpress, but there are much easier, cheaper, and more precise ways to do it. Large areas of flat color tend to come out a bit mottled (we call it “saltiness”) on some papers. Because we’re hand-feeding, and printing each color separately, the registration (alignment) of colors is not as precise as offset printing.

But like all craftspeople, we exploit these disadvantages and turn them into advantages. We plan with the process in mind. Limiting (and layering) ink colors, working with available type and illustrations, using unexpected colors, incorporating the paper into the design… it’s an entirely different way of working, and it makes you realize that computers and 4-color offset printing are equally limiting, in their own ways.

I hear it’s expensive…

Letterpress printing is time-, equipment-, and labor- intensive, and we generally use high-quality paper. So it can be expensive, but it’s actually competitive with offset for certain print jobs. It’s also full of tricks and efficiencies that just aren’t possible with offset printing. So it’s sort of comparing apples to… really special apples. You can find more details about our pricing, and how to mimimize expenses, on our “Working with us” page.

How is the design prepared for printing?

Type locked up, with an eagle cut.

Traditionally, individual characters (or sorts) of cast metal or carved wood type are hand-typeset, letter by letter, word by word, line by line, and locked into a forme with borders and illustrations (“cuts,”). The forme is locked (with quoins and furniture) into a chase (a metal frame) that holds the text in place. The chase is then mounted to the press bed.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? It certainly is, but we still do it just like that! We have dozens of vintage metal and wood fonts and can order custom magnesium or copper ‘cuts’ for logos and artwork.

A poymer plate, being inked on press.

Thankfully, modern technology allows a simpler and more flexible alternative. We can design with a computer and make polymer plates that can be mounted to a block that fits into the press bed. It’s not quite as glamorous, but it’s way easier, and the results look the same.

We can do it either way; hand-set or polymer (or even mix them together, with some limitations), depending on the requirements and budget of the job.

What other processes are related to letterpress printing?

The “impression” that’s possible with letterpress printing is essentially a mild deboss, so yes, we can do that (with or without ink, though we recommend at least a tint to help it ‘pop.’ Deeper or more complicated debossing and embossing follows the same general principle as letterpress printing, but we have partners who can do it better and more efficiently. The same goes for foil-stamping (a colored or metallic foil is applied with heat and pressure) and die-cutting (punching out a shape)… though we can die cut small jobs in-house.  We have vast experience working with friends and vendors (friend-ors?) who do silk-screen printing, offset printing, digital printing, thermography, and any other process you can name. Finishing processes, like folding, trimming, drilling, stitching, and binding are done in-house for small jobs, and sent out for bigger ones.

What equipment do you use at Midwest Ephemera?

Bryan with the C&P, on moving day.

Our main press is a 10×15” Chandler and Price “NC” platen press made in Cleveland. Aside from a few minor improvements over the years, these presses didn’t change much from the 1880s until they were discontinued in 1964. Our press has a Zip code (introduced in 1963) listed on the nameplate, so we figure ours was among the last C&P presses made. Documentation from the final few years of the company is hard to find, while there are manuals for the “N” model, we’re not entirely sure what differentiated the “NC,” we suspect it might have offered additional safety features, for use in trade schools. We acquired it in early 2021 an auction from a retired commercial printer in Morris, IL, who bought it a decade earlier from a commercial printer in Maine.

The Vandercook, as we found it in its original home in southern Indiana.

We share our space with another printer, Matt Jorgensen of C’mon Home, and we’re currently setting up his 1940s Vandercook #3 cylinder press, which will soon also be at our disposal. These were traditionally used for proofing book and newspaper pages, but now they’re used for small-ish runs of bigger sheets than the C&P can handle. This press was manufactured right here in Chicago, less than a mile from our shop! This model is entirely manually-powered, with cranks to ink the rollers and to roll a carriage over the print bed to make a print.

The Kelsey, at the MWE satellite office.

Last but not least… well, I suppose it is least, of the three presses in any quantifiable measure… is a 5×8″ Kelsey “Excelsior” tabletop platen press made in the 1950s in Connecticut. It’s hand-powered and hand-fed, so it’s best for very small runs of business cards, tickets, postcards, and such.

Aside from the presses, we have three cabinets full of metal and wood type, about 60 fonts (If you missed it earlier, here’s a pedantic deep dive into the specific meaning of the word “font.”). We also have a big collection of random advertising cuts (logos, illustrations, headshots, catchwords, dingbats, symbols). And of course, we have all the other odds and ends needed to set type and print: spacing, leading, quoins, reglets, furniture, galleys, guides, tympan paper, composing sticks, bodkins… you can never have enough bodkins.

Fun fact: We all use terminology and idioms derived from the printing trade so often, they’ve become cliché. (Cliché was originally a printing term! See!? I have an entire page of these nuggets to share with you soon!)

Is letterpress printing sustainable?

We could greenwash you like most industries do, but I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, and I wouldn’t want to be anything less than 100% honest about it: There’s plenty of good stuff to talk about, but a couple things that could be better…

  • POWER: Our C&P press features a treadle for foot power, but it’s far more practical to use its 1/2hp motor. The press (and the rest of the shop) is powered by Chicago residential 120-volt electrical juice. For most jobs, the press is only running for an hour or two. We’re not using any more electricity than your television. And if there’s a blackout, we can crank up some Art Tatum on the Victrola and print by candlelight. (I’m not even joking.)
  • EQUIPMENT: One of the coolest things about letterpress printing is keeping useful, well-built, old equipment off the scrap heap. Almost everything in our shop is between 50-100 years old, and is likely to be useful for another century or two. It’s all changed hands many times between businesses and hobbyists and if it breaks (or is mutilated by termites), it gets repaired, not thrown away. If Midwest Ephemera is an epic failure, we’ll pass all this gear along to the next sucker that wants to have a go at it. When you think about all the other “innovations” that have come and gone in the last fifty years, multimillion-dollar systems that were obsolete a couple months after they were installed, it’s good to know we’ll never have to install a Chandler and Price firmware update.
  • INK: We use a few different inks. Most new inks are vegetable/soy-oil based, though our supplier says some colors (probably metallics?) use a small percentage of petroleum oil. We also have a big stash of second-hand ink from the 1990s, which is likely petroleum-based, but we figure using it up is more ecologically responsible than throwing 100 lbs of perfectly good ink in a dumpster.
Bryan, touring Domtar’s Rothschild paper mill logging operations.
  • PAPER: My dad’s family grew up in a paper town, my grandpa worked at the mill most of his life. Back then, it was an ugly, dirty business. Modern papermaking is much improved. We’ve visited several paper mills (that’s where we go on vacation while you’re at the beach) and have witnessed logging operations first-hand, so we could go on at great length about the paper industry. Industry PR probably paints it a little better than it is, but from what we’ve seen firsthand, the domestic mills that make the papers we use are surprisingly ecologically sound. Wood is responsibly sourced, manufacturing is generally powered with green energy (all paper mills consume mass quantities of water, and thus need to be on a river, so many are hydroelectric- and/or biomass-powered), the chemicals they use are safe, and there’s surprisingly minimal waste. Turns out being efficient and ecological is also profitable. Of course recycled paper is available (and more expensive), and all paper is recyclable. We’re happy to talk about all this in more detail and make sure you’re comfortable with your paper choice.
  • SUPPLY CHAIN: We get most of our paper, ink, and other supplies from small-ish distributors that cater specifically to our industry. Shipping is pollute-y (and expensive) so we do all we can to limit shipping and buy locally when we can. We use domestic suppliers, and avoid Amazon, Uline*, and other unsettlingly-large/powerful companies, which sometimes reduces our options and makes things slower and more expensive, but it’s worth it.
    (*we would like to thank Uline for sending their huge catalogs, the supercalendered paper is great — and free — makeready/packing!)
  • SHOP WASTE: We recycle leftover paper (often using trimmings for another job!), metal, and plastic (through Chicago’s admittedly-kind-of-questionable system). We — as most printers do — throw damaged or scrap type/leading into a “hell box” which is returned to the typecaster to be melted down and re-used. Metal type is made of a lead alloy that is entirely safe if handled properly (please don’t eat our type). We clean the press with odorless mineral spirits and disposable shop rags. We do this in as safe, ecological, and minimal manner as possible (we’re down to 4 or 5 paper towels and a few squirts of spirits per press wash-up!) but we’re looking for a more sustainable cleaning system, both for the environment and for our own health and safety.

As we grow with your support, our larger scale will allow us the leverage and income to address these few remaining ecological concerns, we look forward to someday soon being in a green-powered space and being able to brag about our practices, but in the meantime, we’ll be honest about our challenges and goals.

What else?

Please let us know if you have more questions, as you can see, we can (and do) talk about this stuff all day!