Letterpress Printing: History and Process

Letterpress printer

For printed works communicating some of life’s most meaningful events, it is the letterpress process that seems to best express the importance of these announcements.  From business cards, to wedding invitations, to birth announcements – the letterpress yields lovely works of everyday art.


Historically, letterpress was the process by which everything from church documents to newspapers were printed en masse.

In the 15th Century, it was the German Johannes Gutenburg who invented moveable type and the printing press.  Individual letters were carved out of blocks of wood and organized into rows of coherent text.  These ‘plates’ were then pressed into sheets of paper, printing a individual page.  After the necessary copies of the page were printed, the letters were rearranged for subsequent pages and the process was repeated.

In 1812, Friedrich Koenig invented the cylindrical press which sped up the printing process considerably.  Over time, the printing equipment has become more and more efficient, enabling the continued use of the the letterpress technique today.

Still, if you have ever priced a letterpress print project versus the widely-used digital process, you will note that the former is more expensive to produce.  This is because the technique in use remains much the same as it was in the 1400s.

Individual lettering and imagery must be hand-arranged, inked, and pressed to deliver the final product.  In spite of the cost, however, there can be little debate about the exceptional quality of a letterpress-printed piece.


What is it that makes these works so beautiful?

Often, it is the textured hand of the paper used for the print.  Though a variety of papers can be used for letterpress, may of the pieces produced are of substantial weight and utilize a paper with a more fibrous texture.  In addition, the letterpress, in most cases, leaves an impression on the reverse side of the piece adding yet another layer of tactile interest.

Further, the lack of coating on the paper means that the colors on the final product are less saturated and thus have an artisanal quality to them.  If the design of the piece does not require an absolute ‘pop’ of color, this can be a wonderfully rich effect.

Today, the beauty of the letterpress-printed piece remains quite appropriate for any project in which a sense of timelessness and attention to detail are important.


The projects below are wonderful examples of the various effects one can accomplish with the letterpress technique.  Their beauty speaks volumes:

Jubilee Round by Elum

Circolo by Bella Figura

Irving by Bella Figura

Airplane by Bella Figura

Dewdrop by Bella Figura



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