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What is Letterpress Printing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Letterpress printing is a printing technique which has been in use in the West since the 15th Century, when it was used by Johannes Gutenberg to manufacture the Gutenberg Bible. There has been some debate over whether letterpress printing was first developed in the East or West, with some suggestions that Chinese texts were printed using a similar method before the Gutenberg Bible. Letterpress printing remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the twentieth century, when offset printing was developed. It was also an extremely important technological innovation, making printed material available to a wider range of classes of people.

Letterpress printing involves locking movable type into the bed of a press, inking it, and rolling or pressing paper against it to form an impression. Predecessors of letterpress printing had been around for hundreds of years, with both East and West making prints from woodblocks and carved engravings. However, Gutenberg is usually credited with the introduction of movable type, which could be reset and reused. Movable type revolutionized printing techniques, because each page of a book no longer represented an individually carved woodblock or engraving. A fast typesetter can set a page in only a few minutes.

The parts of a basic letterpress include a press bed where the type is set up, rollers for ink, and a tympan, which is a tightly stretched drum or disc on which the paper is mounted. Some presses roll the tympan across the bed of the press to print, while others press a flat tympan against the bed for an impression. For multiple colors, multiple passes of the press must be taken, unless the printer uses a split fountain technique where several colors of ink are spread on the rollers.

While it is not in common use, letterpress printing is valued by some artisans. High quality papers and inks are used to create an especially lush impression, and the technique is sometimes used for special invitations, announcements, and art projects. Items printed on a letterpress can be readily identified by the impressions of the letters, which punch into the paper slightly and create a raised effect of the back of the printed product.

Letterpress printing is more time consuming than offset printing, resulting in higher cost. Several methods have been developed to make the process more efficient. Type for letterpress printing is made from lead, which is soft enough that it will not damage the paper. When the technique was in common use, newspapers often relied on linotype machines, which cast entire lines of type in hot lead. After the paper was printed, the lead could be melted down and reused.

Today, many printers do not hand set their letters, relying on photopolymer plates instead. Small print shops still hand set their type, and are usually happy to offer tours of their facilities to those who are interested in learning more about letterpress printing.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By charlesdutch — On Feb 02, 2013

Letterpress printing gives a different look to wedding invitations and cards. When it is used in combination with embossing, the quality, cuts and folding look very beautiful.

By sunshined — On May 24, 2011

The printing industry has seen many changes in the last decade, and for most printing companies, you really need to stay on top of many of the new advances to keep your business running smoothly and efficiently. Many times you can complete a job in about half the amount of time that it used to take you.

I am still fascinated with the old type of custom letterpress printing though and would love to take a tour of a small shop who still does this type of printing. I think it would give you a new appreciation for this early days of print.

By golf07 — On May 21, 2011

It is very interesting to read about typesetting and the evolution of its first history until today. I didn't even realize they still used this type of printing today or that there were still letterpress printing companies in business.

With the introduction of computers and word processing, it is hard to imagine how much time it would have taken for them to print just one page of printed press back in the 15th Century. I was excited just transitioning from an old typewriter to a word processor.

By anon110931 — On Sep 14, 2010

wiseGEEK, this is a very innovative and it's very helpful for students like me who want to enter into the printing industry.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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