Contemporary letterpress printing «of the Anglo-Saxon term Letterpress» is a method of using custom-made printing plates that are produced according to the graphic layout. Clichés are plates engraved in relief with the visual elements of the layout, such as images, logos or text. Each plate is specially designed to transfer the ink onto the paper, faithfully reproducing the desired graphic elements. So, thanks to personalised printing plates, today’s letterpress printing maintains its tradition while offering great flexibility to meet the specific needs of each graphic project.
- Preparing the cliché: a cliché is made by engraving characters, images or motifs in relief. This cliché is then fixed to the press platen.
- Pantone colour preparation: before printing begins, the desired Pantone colour is prepared by mixing the base inks in specific proportions. This ink mixture is then applied to an inking roller on the press.
- Settings and inking: the press settings are adjusted to ensure accurate positioning of the Pantone colour plate. This action ensures that the ink is applied evenly and consistently.
- Paper feed: an automatic paper feed system is used to insert sheets of paper into the press. This system feeds the paper evenly and precisely, allowing a continuous flow of printing without manual intervention.
- Printing: once the paper has been fed, the press applies the inked Pantone colour plate to the substrate. The pressure exerted by the press transfers the ink from the plate to the paper.
- Paper ejection: once printing is complete, the printed paper is ejected from the press. It can then be collected for drying or passed on to other finishing stages, as required, for example for both sides of the substrate (recto verso) and for each colour.
Letterpress or Typographic?
Letterpress printing was a printing method that used metal characters engraved in relief to transfer ink onto paper. The characters were arranged by hand to form the desired text or image. Once the characters were inked, pressure was applied to transfer the ink to the paper, creating a sharp, precise print.
Letterpress, on the other hand, was a specific form of letterpress printing. It also used metal characters engraved in relief, but with one key difference: the characters were pressed directly onto the paper, rather than simply transferring the ink. The pressure exerted by the press during printing created a distinctive relief effect, pressing lightly into the paper for a tactile, textured finish.
In short, letterpress printing was a general printing technique using raised engraved characters, where the ink was transferred to the paper. Letterpress was a specific form of letterpress printing in which the characters were pressed directly onto the paper, creating a raised impression. Letterpress offered a distinct tactile appearance and texture, whereas traditional letterpress printing focused primarily on ink transfer to create sharp, precise prints.
A little history
Mechanical printing was invented in the Far East long before it was introduced to the West. Nevertheless, during excavations at Kien-Fou-Toung in 1900, researchers found printed documents, the oldest of which date back to around the year 900.
At the time, the wood was coated with a paste of boiled rice and the text adhered to the wood, with the ink transferring to the board in reverse. The printer then inked the form with a brush, laid the paper on top and rubbed with another brush. One man was able to produce two thousand copies a day. The ink was Chinese ink made from lampblack mixed with gum or gluten.
In the collections of “lessons in things” that have given our minds the first glimpses of the great inventions and achievements of science and human industry, it is traditional to devote a chapter to Gutenberg’s work. The chapter describes how Gutenberg cast the typefaces one by one, each bearing the design of a letter in relief, and how he then assembled them to obtain the text with which, after inking, he printed sheets of paper. It is certain that Gutenberg worked for several years before perfecting his printing typefaces.
Jean Gensfleich, known as Gutenberg, began manufacturing metal movable type on his own in Strasbourg around 1437. It was back in Mainz that he was able to obtain the first results that established his name: Bibles. A patron, Fust, helped him financially. An ambitious and unscrupulous draughtsman, Pierre Schoiffer, seized Gutenberg’s secrets and, together with Fust, ousted the inventor from the three-way partnership they had formed. Gutenberg rebuilt his workshop around 1458. The Chronicle of the Sovereign Pontiffs and Emperors of 1474 tells us that in 1459 Fust and Gutenberg, each in his own home, printed three hundred sheets of Bible daily (Thibaudeau, La Lettre d’imprimerie).
What somewhat confuses historians is that Gutenberg never signed his work, unlike Fust and Schoiffer. However, it has been possible to establish with a very high degree of probability a catalogue of his early works. Among these, a Donat of 1450 preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale (French National Library) is thought to mark the beginning of his printing activity. The Lettres d’indulgence of thirty-one lines were produced in 1454 by the association of the three. The Mazarine Bible of forty-two lines of 1456, begun by the same triple association, was finished by Fust and Schoiffer alone. Fust and Schoiffer had printed the Psalterium in 1457; Gutenberg alone resumed printing it in 1458. The Catholicon of 1460 announces the Roman and is also by Gutenberg. The masterpiece is the republication of the Bible by Fust and Schoiffer in 1462.
The troubles in Mainz in 1462 closed the workshops and dispersed the workers throughout Europe, mainly to Italy, which became the centre of activity for this art form from 1465 to 1490. In France, Martin Krantz, Ulrich Gering and Michel Friburger set up the first printing works in the Sorbonne buildings in 1469 and printed their first work, the Lettres de Gasparin de Bergame, in Roman type in 1470. This book was in Latin. The first book written in French was Chroniques de saint Denys, by Pasquier Bonhomme, in 1477. From then on, workshops sprang up in Paris and the provinces of France. Towards the end of the 15th century, there were 61 workshops in Paris.
The three major innovations developed by Gutenberg :
- Invention of the first printing press, based on the grape press.
- Oil-based inks were used for the first time, as they were more durable than previous water-based inks.
- Much stronger typefaces made from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony.
Today, modern printing has gone far beyond typography. Today, it brings together a whole range of industries that make the most recent scientific discoveries in all fields their own on a daily basis. Letterpress printing today represents the past as well as the future, and is as endearing in its technique as it is in its purpose. There are a huge number of printing processes, but its authenticity remains incomparable…