Letterpress is the oldest and most versatile method of printing. It is relief printing, or printing from a raised surface. A rubber stamp is a simple form of relief printing. However, just as rubber stamping a hundred pages would take a lot of time, letterpress printing, although high in quality, is slow to assemble, proof and print. Letterpress was the dominant form of printing until the 1960s when offset lithography replaced it. Letterpress is still in use today by graphic designers to create special cards, invitations, posters and announcements.
In hand-crafted letterpress, each letter of type is placed into a holder called a composing stick. And because the printed image is a mirror image, the type has to be set left to right and upside down. Once on the press, ink rollers touch only the top surface of the raised area. The surrounding, non-printing areas are lower and do not receive ink. The ink is transferred directly to paper, and making a proof is cumbersome.
Color can be applied in letterpress printing, but each color has to dry before the next color is applied from a different set of letters placed on the press.
Photos a Challenge
Another major disadvantage of letterpress is the printing of images. Photographs and drawings must be converted to photo engravings, a slow and expensive process of turning images into raised metal dots and lines. In Benjamin Franklin's time, drawings were carved by hand.
Modern Uses Take Time
Letterpress is used in print shops today for off-line work such as scoring (a crease in paper to make folding easier), perforating (a partial cut to make tearing off a section of the paper easier), die-cutting (punching out shapes such as a star in the paper), embossing (raising an impression on the surface of the paper) and foil stamping (attaching shiny artwork to papers such as diplomas).
Allen Petrinka, a professional writer since 1977, has written articles for the "Los Angeles Daily News," "Santa Barbara News-Press" and "Daily Racing Form," as well as several musicals. Petrinka graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in film from the University of California, Santa Barbara.