TypeTalk: Type Tips for Letterpress Printing
The richness, depth and texture of a letterpress-printed piece is an exquisite thing to behold. You can’t help but run your fingers over the blending of type, image, ink, and paper while admiring the sensual beauty of this relief process.
While letterpress has long historical roots, it's still available to us today. However, it requires a high degree of craftsmanship and finely tuned type and design sensibilities to obtain the best results. Peter Fraterdeus, expert letterpress printer and president of Slow Print Letterpress Studio is a master of many typographic trades, including type designer, information designer, and calligrapher. I asked him to explain best practices for designing with type for letterpress.
TT: What kinds of projects are best suited for letterpress printing?
PF: As a relief process, it is best suited for line and letter, rather than tone and image. Of course, the skillful use of the medium has produced many wonderful examples of tone and image, so we don't want to be too restrictive in our thinking!
Nonetheless, looking at the history of printing, we'll see that the most powerful and immediate impressions are made by forms that respect rather than ignore the inherent nature of the medium.
From a corkscrew to small serifs to dot leaders: every detail was captured in this exquisitely designed and printed business card. Printing at SlowPrint Letterpress. Design by Annie Koelker.
So, for me, designing for letterpress means designing with type. The shapes and spaces of letter forms have been the source of great delight for many years. Balancing space and form, negative and positive, deliberate and accidental, design is not an end result, but a process. The final form is merely the state at which one must eventually say, “Enough”.
TT: What kind of typefaces work best (and worst) with letterpress?
PF: At display sizes and poster sizes, just about any type will print and read without too much trouble.
Wedding invitation detail, designed by the bride-to-be. Printing at SlowPrint Letterpress.
The big challenge is at book (or text) sizes, and below. Captions cannot — must not — be set in the same font as 96-point double-spread banner. As the size is reduced, the stem weights become impossibly spindly, and the counters in bold and black weights become pin-pricks. Periods and commas evaporate. Formerly sharp corners become 96-pound weaklings with slumping shoulders, seriously lacking in that Superman physique.
TT: Can I compose the piece on my computer, or does it require special fonts intended for letterpress use, such as metal or wood type?
PF: I call our shop twenty-first century letterpress. All of our commercial work and plenty of our fine-art printing is done with a digital process. We need vector art (e.g., Adobe Illustrator) that can be converted into individual plates. The original art files are sent out for laser imagesetting on film. The exposed film is used to make our printing surface, a photopolymer plate. The exposed part of the polymer hardens under the UV light in the platemaker, while the rest stays water soluable and is washed away, leaving the raised printing form on a plastic carrier backing.
Image as well as type can be richly represented with letterpress. Printing at SlowPrint Letterpress.
TT: What about the paper? And what can be done to minimize the ink spreading into the counters of the letterforms?
PF: We can print on practically any surface up to about 60point board (like a four-ply matte board).
In the final days of commercial letterpress, most printing was done on coated and calendared stock, since this allowed the type to be sharp with good coverage and a minimal (“kiss”) impression. However, again, looking at the history of the medium, letterpress prefers an uncoated soft paper that allows the type and plate to bite into the paper. Contemporary practice accentuates this. I think since letterpress is the only printing process that can produce a literal impression in the sheet, it’s become an antidote of sorts for the flat glossiness of the digital universe.
Rudolf Koch quote set in OptimPF: Printing and designed by P Fraterdeus at SlowPrint Letterpress.
Ink spread is minimized by careful attention in the printing and by using an ink appropriate for the form being printed. In my business card work, we aim for 0% ink spread, using a very stiff ink on the very small type common in this type of project. (0% means that if we imprint deeply into the paper, the ink lays at the “bottom of the well”; there’s no ink on the sides of the depression.)
However, that tends to mean that the ink coverage may not be as dense as the client expects in bolder areas. Adding a bit more ink helps to create density on the page, but too much will cause the excess to ooze out from under the type when it hits the sheet. It’s ugly and unnecessary.
Two-color tags with die-cut. Printing at SlowPrint Letterpress. Client design.
On the other hand, if you’re printing large areas of color, like wood type or big solids, a bit of spread is really not going to be noticed, and the extra density is pretty much required.
TT: Do you design any of the work that you print, and do you ever advise clients in the design process to optimize the outcome?
PF: We do some design in-house, and we often advise clients (often designers themselves).
Most of our commercial work is designed by the client. However, we spend quite a lot of time in the pre-press phase, reviewing the art to make sure that it will work as well as possible with our presses. Part of that is educational, of course, since there are plenty of design approaches that just won’t ever look the same printed as they do on screen!
We did design all of the templates offered for our Zen of Letterpress cards, of course.
From classic to expressive to contemporary, just about any style can be captured and enhanced with letterpress printing. Templates, design and printing at SlowPrint Letterpress.
A number of the templates use my sans-serif design Quanta, and I designed a new optical weight for caption use, since the original bold and black weights don’t scale down to 7 points. All the counters start to fill in, and the points and punctuation start to disappear.
Designing for letterpress is no different than good typography anywhere, but it also requires some awareness of the strengths and limitations of the medium — as any good design demands!
TT: How do I find a good letterpress printer in my area, and do I have to be there for the press run?
PF: A good letterpress printer will have many printed samples for you to examine. And you should examine them. Check that the inking is clean, that it doesn’t goosh up around the type, that it’s even from corner to corner, that the trim is square. Check the back of the sheet. If there’s so much punch-through that you think you’re reading Braille, that’s not a good sign. Deep impression should be reserved for deep paper. There’s always a bit of subtle evidence on the back, but subtle is the word!
If you’re looking for commercial letterpress, make sure their presses are meant for that! A hand-pulled Vandercook is great for a couple hundred wedding invitations, but was never designed for 10,000 promotional mailers or business cards.
Since letterpress printers are quite rare in the overall scheme these days, it’s unlikely to find one down the block (although some cities are known for their high density of old presses). We work with clients on four continents (so far)! You don’t have to be there for the press run. Of course you’re welcome to make arrangements for a press check, but it’s rarely convenient.
We’re very happy to work closely with you remotely. The main thing is good communication.
TT: Anything else I should know?
PF: Letterpress needs you, needs designers who will convince their clients to invest in it. In the current economy, it takes a special commitment to choose a printer who is slow and relatively expensive. But there’s nothing else like it. Whether it’s custom duplexing of papers, blind- or varnish deep impression, textural effects from nineteenth-century woodtype, or the ultimate high-touch experience of your logo on a fine European paper, there’s simply nothing else like it!