Letterpress: Old is New Again

by Melissa Larson, contributing writer, PostPress
Fey Printing wanted to create a holiday card with a simple message as a way of showcasing the print shop’s own capabilities. Courtesy of Paper Specs.
On a quiet side street in Belvidere, Illinois, in a building that once housed a social club, is Locust Street Press. This letterpress printing shop – which once seemed to be a fading business – is riding the wave of popularity for a variety of applications, including wedding invitations, baby announcements, business cards, greeting cards and stationery.

Shop manager Heather Steines explained that her business straddles the old and the very modern. The shop features some 15 presses – the oldest was built in 1890 – and also houses machines for diecutting, embossing/debossing, scoring and foil stamping.

But the process of obtaining orders from graphic designers, or directly from consumer clients, is strictly up-to-date. “We work mainly with graphic designers who have their own clients,” said Steines. “Most of our orders come in online.” Usually the graphic designer already has created the design for the invitation when Locust Street Press gets involved. The rest of the communication with the customer is via the LSP website (www.locuststreetpress.com) where old meets modern.

Allure of the tactile

Locust Street Press further promotes letterpress by using the technique to decorate its shipping boxes.In much the same way that baby boomers are rediscovering the joys of vinyl record albums, graphic designers and printers are coming to a new appreciation of the strengths of letterpress. When combined with thick cotton papers and finishing effects, such as foil stamping, letterpress printing lends an Old World touch to social communications.

“In an age of hurried, digital communication, the intimate, deliberate feel of letterpress printing is a personal touch that won’t be overlooked or forgotten,” read a statement on LSP’s website.

“In a digital, one-dimensional world, consumers are discovering and loving the look and tactile feel of hand-crafted finishes. They add beauty, dimension, feel and pizzazz,” said Tom Otto of Otto Printing.

Paper chase

In describing working with clients online to process letterpress orders, Steines summarized it this way: “It is actually pretty straightforward. They simply email us. We can suggest stocks for clients: however, many times they know exactly what stock they would like. We work with each client on an individual basis and individual quotation.”

According to Steines, the three main components of a letterpress wedding invitation order, for example, are deciding what paper to use, creating plates for the invitation design and determining the printing schedule. LSP stocks Crane Lettra papers in several thicknesses.

Made especially for letterpress, Crane’s Lettra 100-percent cotton papers have the feel of fabric and the look of handmade art paper. According to the Crane website, Lettra papers are engineered to stand up to the great pressures of letterpress printing and have the complex structure and strength of cotton papers, allowing them to withstand multiple press operations with correct registration.

Yet, the fact that Crane’s Lettra® Papers are unsized and uncalendered leaves the fibers relatively uncompacted, giving the sheet an extra bulky, even fluffy feeling that absorbs ink while remaining soft to the touch. These “softer” sheets accept the heavy pressure and accentuate the type impression without cracking the paper’s surface.

In a letterpress project, typography is king. Without the dot patterns needed to reproduce photography, the basic typography can truly be an art form. The strengths of a letterpress design are crisp, sharp lines; pattern or grid work; and of course, typography.

Since letterpress printing is very much a manual process, that hand must be experienced. Rusty Prentice, pressman at Locust Street Press, has been running letterpress machines and finishing equipment, “for oh, about 50 years,” he chuckled. Although LSP does not make its own dies, Prentice does just about everything else in the shop, with unhurried, methodical care. He mixes inks by hand using the Pantone book, runs the presses, guides the foil stamping operation and even sets type in a pinch. In a typical day, he may set up and run several different jobs, typically from one to 85 pieces each.

Online warehouse

A nautical themed letterpress design makes extensive use of holographic foil. Courtesy of Paper Specs.

Print designers have a vital resource in an online paper warehouse called Paper Specs (www.paperspecs.com). Started by print designer Sabine Lenz, it includes lots of up-to-date information about choosing and working with paper for print projects. Even more resources are available to professional paid members, including a searchable online paper database; extensive Binding, Printing and Paper Facts sections where designers can learn the latest techniques; on-demand webinars; and even a live concierge for out-of-the-box questions.

Two striking examples of letterpress projects – a wedding invitation and a holiday card – appear on the Paper Specs website. A nautical themed design makes extensive use of holographic foil. Said designer Justin Kowalczuk, “With the foil and nautical theme in mind, the front of the invite draws inspiration from classic compass elements with a modern mono-line aesthetic. As a designer with a focus on custom typography, I also was able to create a custom ‘sailor jerry-esque’ typeface and paired it with Niveau Grotesk.”

Project Details
Title: Brittany & Tony Wedding Invitation
Design: Justin Kowalczuk (www.justinkowalchuk.com)
Print Shop: Mama’s Sauce, Orlando, Florida
Paper: Neenah Classic Crest Smooth Patriot Blue 130lb. Cover, Neenah Classic Crest Smooth Solar White 130lb. Cover

Production Details
Dimensions: 5″x5″
Print Quantity: 100
Production Cost: $665
Printing Method: Letterpress, holographic foil
Number of Colors: One (Letterpress ink to match Patriot Blue)
Finishing and Binding: Duplexing

To close out 2015, Fey Printing (www.feyprinting.com) wanted to create a holiday card with a simple message on a single, unfolded card. It would be a way of showcasing the print shop’s own capabilities while sending its clients some holiday cheer.

Fey Printing’s Paul Siekert created a stylishly sweet design, which the company letterpress printed onto 5×7″ Neenah Crane’s Lettra Pearl White 220lb. Cover, using three PMS colors. The design also incorporated a silver foil stamp for the company logo, a blind debossed background pattern, diecut round corners, plus a bonus item. “The blind debossed pattern doesn’t leave room on the card for a signature, so we diecut a hangtag and hand attached it with string to provide a place for a personal message,” Siekert said.

Project Details
Title: Fey Printing 2016 Holiday Card
Client: Fey Printing
Date: December 2015
Design: Fey Printing, Paul Siekert
Print: Fey Printing, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin
Paper: Neenah Crane’s Lettra Pearl White 220lb. Cover

Production Details
Dimensions of card: 5″x7″, hang tag: 1.5″x2.875″
Print Quantity: 400
Production Time: Eight days
Printing Method: Letterpress, blind deboss
Number of Colors: Three PMS colors, soy inks
Finishing and Binding: Silver foil stamp, diecut round corners, diecut hang tag, hand-attached with string

Where does letterpress go from here?

Prentice of Locust Street Press started his print career via a graphic arts course at his junior high school in Rockford, Illinois. The question of where the next generation of letterpress operators will learn this craft keeps some practitioners up at night, along with such issues as the suitability of photopolymer plates, possible supply line disruptions, the future of letterpress inks and keeping the aging machines themselves running. As a recent poster to a letterpress discussion board put it: The real question is, how sustainable is letterpress?

As long as designers and end customers want the particular look that letterpress provides, it will continue to endure and grow. It provides a type of classy look and feel that cannot be duplicated by the latest digital printing process. It is unique and personal.

The finishing touch

Letterpress is not the only technique experiencing a re-emergence for customized printed pieces. Harry Otto Printing Company, Elburn, Illinois (www.ottoprinting.com), started in business as a letterpress print shop in 1941, specializing in fine stationery and announcements. It still is family-owned and -operated and still dedicated to letterpress.

According to Tom Otto, owner, his company offers a range of postpress decorating techniques that even further enhance the look of invitations and other social products. These include beveling, foil gilding, deckling, glittering, hand bordering, edge coloring and even a technique called Parchtiquing, which lends a “burned” antiqued edge to the paper. Exclusive Bordering Co. was established as a division of the original company to offer these techniques.

“The beauty of these hand-crafted finishes is they can be incorporated with almost any graphic process,” said Otto. “We are seeing everything from photos to digital, to offset printed pieces that are embellished with sheet pasting, beveling, letterpress, gilding, even laser diecutting.”

Otto is sanguine about the future. “We have had steady growth the last five years, and I only see continued growth, as people will always want their product to stand out above the others,” he concluded.