Letterpress isn't debossing

Letterpress printing was all about pounding deep grooves down with the ink, right? Wrong! Like handcrafted pottery and bread you could kill a burglar with, the flaws didn't become desirable until the tech was commercially dead. [Economist]


  1. But modifying the printing stock has a very long tradition, nonetheless. The mechanization of typesetting and lithography relegated these forms to the “old fashioned” manual printing processes. And of course, with commercial publishing moving on yet again, old techniques are rediscovered by those “artisanal” types.

    If you have a chance to do some manual typesetting and printing in a museum, try it out. It makes you admire old books, and the causal creation of graphics and type on a screen, all the more.

    1. I’m imagining the “artisanal” types of a century from now waxing poetic about the quaint technology of a laser projecting a page image onto a rotating drum which is used to fuse toner onto *actual paper*…

    1. [Letterpress printing was all about pounding deep grooves (in the paper) down with the ink, right?]
      Intaglio would be ink in the grooves of the plate run through an etching press.

      That said, I have worked in letterpress printing for more than 25 years and I have always loved it! The look and feel of the printed piece, the machinery, the tools, the process, hand set type, wood cuts – everything! At the shop I work in, we have seen a boom in recent years from designers and, yes, they seem to want us to hammer the piss out of the sheet – oh, and not see the impression on the opposite side!

      When I apprenticed to a letterpress printer in Seattle long ago, I was taught to kiss the sheet lightly with the proper amount of ink and not pound it in. We did use some polymer plate back then, but mostly it was lead type or magnesium cuts – both of which are soft and damage easily when hit too hard. It still had the look and feel of fine letterpress printing with a level of elegance inherent to the process. Big, deep impression seemed amateurish at best, if not just poorly done.

      Things change, I suppose. Studio On Fire certainly does GORGEOUS work and with impression you can fall into it’s so deep. Goddamn, I love their work!

  2. My favourite line from the article is the last one:

    “Nowadays, with inexpensive photopolymer plates, type need no longer lightly brush against paper—it can go in for a full-blown snog. As with many things in the modern world, subtlety is lost.”

    I love dry wit in The Economist.


  3. Yes, wrong. But anyone who thought that probably also thought that little people lived inside the television set. It’s a fundamental failure to understand the technology.

  4. @Church: Rob Beschizza means pounding grooves down in the paper, not the plate. If you have a plate with grooves for ink, it’s intaglio; if you’re using a raised plate to pound ink into paper so hard it makes grooves in the paper, it’s letterpress. Groovy!

  5. Can’t login for some reason?

    Anyhoo, “letterpress printer” up in here! Commercial printer by day, Ludlow linecaster by night.

    I’m reading a Bruce Rogers book now, and he speaks of the BENEFITS of deep impression to design. Again, it turns out nothing is new. B.R. promotes crash printing, and photo-polymer has been around since the 1960s.

    I personally prefer to draw a line at “print INTO the paper, not THROUGH it”, but to make clients happy sometimes I have to provide mega-bruise action.

    For the sake of shameless self promotion, I’d like to point out that the company I print for now just launched a new website today. http://www.bdesignsletterpress.com . I will be blogging about printing and my archival work there, probably on Fridays.

  6. I’m with papiermeister. This may show my age but I can remember handsetting type one letter at a time using the California job case and printing on a platen press. Back then, we printed with only enough pressure to imprint the ink. Too much pressure would quickly wear out the type faces. There is something very satisfying about using the old mechanical methods.

    I see now that specialty printers are going back to letterpress printing with enough pressure to leave an impression on the stock to prove it was letterpress versus offset or digital printing. It has become an artform.

  7. Reminds me of screenprinting. I spent countless hours perfecting my craft to get as perfect an impression of ink on the paper without flaws, and a lot of time lining up screens for perfect registration. If it wasn’t for the vibrant colours and metallics, people would assume my work was offset or inkjet printed.

    Sadly, others spend countless hours adding digital flaws to their separations and poor registration to make their screenprints “more authentic”!

  8. Same thing with film! camera techs worked for years trying to solve jittery cameras and lens flares and all the other annoyances. And when they go digital and nearly completely CGI, THEY ADD THE FREAKING THINGS BACK IN so it looks “real”. RAGE.

  9. I think part of the problem is people’s expectations and how bite impressions are often represented. Printers love to show their letterpress work in extreme macro photography. We do it ourselves.

    A 9 point character looks like a crevasse on the far side of the moon when photographed at 100x magnification. Customers see this stuff and don’t know how deep their little heart shaped logo should really go. Then they receive their finished printed piece with a perfect subtle bite in the paper and think it should have been at least 1/8″ to 1/4″ deeper.

    Even a tiny flea looks like a man-eating monster with extreme side-lighting and magnification.

  10. The debossing effect may be wrong in the sense that it’s not traditionally what the the craftsmen strived for, but I don’t think the revival is really about a return to historical accuracy. Debossing is elegant and tactile in a compelling way that contemporary printing methods just don’t give you. It’s ironic that the author ends the piece by decrying the lack of subtlety, when letterpress work is often a breath of understated relief (ha!) in a world obsessed with 4-color gloss.

    Cranky Pressman: you have paper that’s more than 1/4″ thick?

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