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The letterpress process – Step by step

By Steffen Andersen · 13. May 2020

The letterpress printing process is the oldest printing method, and the method was invented back in 1450.

The printing process was widely used by most newspapers and other larger printers until offset print was invented. 

Which means it is not as commonly used any more due to the process not being as efficient.

The printing process is still rather manual and mostly used by people who produce vintage products and products that are customised during production. 

We will in this article go into detail with how the process works and compare it to the other printing methods. 

How does it work?

Letterpress printing does use printing plates, and they are probably the most essential part due to they are the ones transferring the ink onto the object that needs to be printed.

The printing plates are made by first turning the graphics into a litho film using a film processor.

Then the litho film photography is put over the plates and put into the platemaker machine where they are covered with a vacuum sheet.

The platemaker machine then exposes the plates and litho film for UV lighting to transfer the graphics on to the printing plates.

The plates are then cleaned with water, and they are then cooled off. In the end, they are again exposed to UV light to harden them and make them stable for the printing process.

Letterpress printing does normally only makes the print in one colour, since the printing plates only can carry one colour at a time.

So if the graphics have more than one colour in it, the printing plates would need to be shifted and the paper with the print would need to cool off.

The system does not have any cooling mechanism, so they would normally have to cool off by waiting.

This often slows the production process a lot, why it normally is printed in one colour. Letterpress printing can both use CMYK and Pantone colour, but it is mostly Pantone colours used since the colours are added one at a time

The colours are either added directly to the rollers or to a flat iron plate, where the roller rolls over to receive the ink.

The rollers’ jobs are to make sure that the printing has enough ink at all times, and they do that by rolling over the printing plate after it has printed one object.

So the process works by the printing plate being pressed onto the objects that need printing, and then in between the next press, the rollers roll over the printing plate to add more ink to ensure the right amount of ink is added to the object. The object just needs to cool off after the ink has been added and then it is ready to use. 

The pressing with letter printing often creates a debossing effect in the print, so the letters or graphics are pressed into the objects.

What is it primarily used for?

Due to the letterpress printing process makes the print look very vintage and “old school”, the printing process is used for printing on gift cards and cards.

The printing process is almost only used for printing on paper since the printing plates are not great at adjusting the print for more complex surfaces.

The letterpress printers are also used by a lot of private persons as a hobby since it is easy to get a very low-cost set-up that can be used for printing hobby projects. The printing process can often also be used for embossed printing. 

Letterpress vs Tampon print

The printing processes are rather similar since they both work via a press mechanism, some of the differences is:

  • Tampon print can only use Pantone colours, where Letterpress can both use CMYK and Pantone colours
  • Letterpress is primarily used for very small quantities and special prints where Tampon print can be used for both and medium-size batches. 
  • Tampon print is better for printing on convex surfaces

Do you want to know more about Tampon print and how the process works? Then we have a whole article like this one about it

Letterpress vs Offset printing

Letterpress and offset printing has the similarity that both of the processes are primarily used for printing on paper, here are some of the similarities and differences:

  • They can both use CMYK and Pantone colours for printing
  • Offset printing is mostly used for large quantity printing
  • The print from offset printing is of higher quality

Do you need more information about offset printing? Then we have made an article about it.

Letterpress vs Flexo print

Letterpress and Flexo print do not have that much in common, and they are used for different purposes.

Letterpress is not as widely spread as Flexo print which is commonly used for printing on plastic packaging. So let’s have a look at some of the differences:

  • Both printing process can use CMYK and Pantone colours
  • Flexo print is more adaptable for printing on convex surfaces where letterpress is primarily used for printing on paper
  • Flexo printing is used for printing in high quantities and letterpress is used for small quantity runs

Are you interested in knowing more about flexo print? Then we have an article about the whole process. 

Letterpress vs Rotogravure

Rotogravure and letterpress are not two very common printing processes, and they are probably the least used printing processes in general.

But let’s have a quick look at the differences and similarities: 

  • Rotogravure is only used for very large quantities and normally more than a couple of millions, where letterpress is quite the opposite, it is only used for small quantities. 
  • Both printing methods can use CMYK and Pantone colours.
  • Rotogravure gives a clean and very professional look, where Letterpress is more authentic and gives a more personal look in the printing process.
  • Letterpress does normally debossed the graphics.

Do you want to know the process of printing with rotogravure, then read our article about it here.

Letterpress vs Digital print

When comparing letterpress and digital printing, we should take into consideration that Letterpress is the oldest printing method, and digital printing is the newest.

Here are some of the differences and similarities: 

  • Letterpress uses printing plates and can both use CMYK and Pantone colours, where the digital print doesn’t use printing plates and can only use CMYK-colours.
  • They are both primarily used for printing small quantities and for printing on paper
  • Letterpress is though is adaptable to different kinds of paper
  • Letterpress is a very expensive printing method than digital print

Content and Marketing Manager at Limepack

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