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What is letterpress?

A very brief history...

Letterpress is a form of relief printing where the raised image surface is inked and pressed into paper. Letterpress is one of the earliest forms of printing text on paper and dates back to China in the early 2nd century a.d. Most of these early texts were printed from type carved from blocks of wood.

When the art of papermaking was introduced to western civilization in the 12th century it allowed printed texts to flourish. By the 15th century a.d., paper was abundantly available throughout Europe. This abundance, along with Johann Gutenburg's invention of moveable type (characters cast as individual letter forms) and mechanical presses allowed the number of printers and printed materials to soar. Much of this increase was fueled by a rising literate middle class and movements including the Reformation and religious wars. Letterpress remained the primary method of printing for many centuries. It wasn’t until after the industrial revolution that letterpress printing fell out of favor, replaced by faster and less expensive offset (flat) printing. By the 1970’s letterpress was all but a forgotten art.

Today, much remains the same with letterpress printing. Movable type is still in use. The computer revolution has opened many new doors; however, the distinguishable characteristics of letterpress remain unchanged. Text and image is still printed from a raised surface which is inked and pressed into paper. Text and graphic elements can be created digitally on computers and transferred to paper using photopolymer plates and metal engravings or dies.

Even with the current renaissance in letterpress printing, one thing hasn’t changed... each impression is still printed by hand, one color at a time.