Behind the Press | 8 Tips for Letterpress Design

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Behind The Press is a new blog series by SSP’s owners: Eva and Kirk Jorgensen. In it, we’ll be sharing our knowledge of letterpress, paper goods, and running a small business in the form of tips, how to’s, and more… This is no. 2 in the series. (Find no. 1 here.) We’re really excited about this new series and hope you enjoy! – K&E You love letterpress, right?  You love how it looks -- the texture, the vintage appeal. And maybe your wedding is coming up (or you're having a baby, or starting a new business), and you've decided you want to design your own invitations and get them letterpressed. You might know your way around Adobe Illustrator, and have an idea of the look you are going for, but you have no idea what you should keep in mind while designing for this particular printing process. In fact, maybe you don't even realize you should be keeping anything in mind. Well, now you do.

Many people have approached us over the years who are in exactly this position. Actually, they mostly contact us after the design is already "done" and are upset to learn that they'll have to start from scratch if they really do want it printed on a letterpress. (Understandably so.)

Like many beautiful things, letterpress is fickle and demanding. You need to design things a certain way in order to get the distinctive inking and impression that it's known for. With that in mind, we decided to devote this Behind the Press to the basics of letterpress design. Please note that this isn't meant to be all-inclusive. (This only covers printing from polymer printing plates, for example, not hand set type.) But if you are a beginner to the process, we hope this will help you wrap your head around the idea and get off to a good start.

8 Tips for Letterpress Design

1) See everything in black and white. (No grey.) Yes, you will be able to print it in color, but the artwork that you will be making into a printing plate must be in black and white. You can create the artwork the old fashioned way with black paint or ink on a piece of white paper or you can create it all in Photoshop or Illustrator. Either way, you can't have any blended gradations. If you want to include shading, think of how artists would create light and dark through cross hatched lines in old engravings (like on a dollar bill) or with dots (like the halftone dots in old newspaper photos).

French bulldog letterpress print by Sycamore Street Press

2) Think in layers. Letterpress (and other traditional printing techniques) aren't capable of printing all the colors at once. They're not digital printers. Each color you want to use will have to have its own black and white layer which will be turned into a printing plate. Then, the paper will need to be run through the press separately for each color (layer) you are printing. This is why crop marks are really helpful. It's also why going from one color to two colors in letterpress almost doubles the amount of printing labor, which means that printing many colors/layers gets expensive FAST. Letterpress designers have to be clever at using very few colors to great effect. For example, you could overlap two transparent colors to create a third color.

I Quite Like You letterpress card by Sycamore Street Press

3) Dark on light. Letterpress ink, as a rule, is pretty transparent. If you try to print a pale color on top of a darker color, it probably won't show up. (One exception: silver ink on dark paper can work pretty well.)

Being Super Smart letterpress card by Sycamore Street Press

4) Size is limited. Most letterpress printers these days use platen presses (the kind that open and shut like a clamshell) and can't print an area larger than about 5 x 7". Some have standard flatbed presses (in which  the paper rolls across the printing plate) and can print up to about 12x18". That's usually about as large as you can go. There are a handful of print shops in the country (Hatch Show Print, for example) who still have some larger scale letterpresses and can go quite a bit larger, but they are few and far between.

Baby Makes Three letterpress card by Sycamore Street Press

5) Not too thick. If you want to print large solid areas of color, letterpress is probably not the way to go. (I'd go with screen printing.) It's extremely difficult to get even pressure and ink over a large surface with letterpress, and if you try, the end result will most often look splotchy. Sometimes this can be the "vintage" and "handmade" look you are going for, though. Just be aware.

Holiday letterpress cards by Sycamore Street Press

6) Not too thin. On the other hand, if the lines or type you are using are too thin, the line can easily get lost and disappear in the platemaking process. Even if it doesn't, it is extremely difficult to print extra thin lines with the pressure and impression you are probably looking for while maintaining a neat, precise line. Because there is so little surface to cling to, the ink often gets pushed out, creating a messy halo effect.

Valentine letterpress cards by Sycamore Street Press

7) Be consistent. For crisp and even printing, it's best if all the lines & shapes on a particular color/layer/plate are approximately the same size/thickness. If, for example, you were to have some big blocky type next to some really thin type, either the fat type will look uneven and under inked, or the small type will look messy and over inked. You can try and split the difference, just know that neither extreme will look great this way.

I'd Know It Was Your BIrthday Even Without Facebook letterpress card by SSP

8) Try combining methods. In spite of all its beauty, letterpress does have its limitations. Why not combine it with another method to get the best of both worlds? For example, metallic inks don't look very shiny in letterpress. (They just have very faint shimmer.) For maximum impact, we've been combining letterpress with foil stamping here at Sycamore Street Press and are loving the effect! (In foil stamping, an actual piece of metal foil is stamped right into the paper in the shape of your design.)

Thank You letterpress and gold foil card by Sycamore Street Press

Best of luck with all your design and letterpress endeavors! For further tips and nitty gritty details like file types and sizes, Boxcar Press is a great resource. (They've made our plates since we started SSP in 2007.) I'd also recommend having an in-depth conversation with the letterpress printer you plan on using before you start the design process. - Kirk & Eva

A few more links you might like: 7 Tips for Finding a Letterpress, The evolution of a printshop, 5 New Favorites from the National Stationery ShowAlso check out my Stationery Business classes on atly.com.

p.s. These are some of the styled shots that our photographer Zuzanna Audette has taken for us this year. Doesn't she do a great job?