Letterpress 101

This week wraps up our 2013 Pick Your Print contest, and by next Wednesday we’ll have a winning concept ready to be turned into a piece of letterpress art. Letterpress has seen a resurgence in popularity over the last couple of years–from business cards to greeting cards and everything in between–but a few of us are still fuzzy on the details. What exactly is letterpress?

For the answer we went to the experts: the Gale sisters. Read their “Letterpress 101” below:

Letterpress is a type of relief printing.  Traditionally, it employs moveable type which is then inked and applied to paper with enough pressure to create an impression in the paper.  A very simplistic version of this would be the rubber stamp.Western letterpress was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400’s.  At one time, it was the method by which virtually all newspapers, books and other publications were printed.  With advances in technology, letterpress has moved out of the commercial world and into the educational and fine craft worlds.  Today, many colleges with a printmaking program offer letterpress courses and many of their graduates go on to open small business which offer fine printing on a small scale.

Artwork at the Hartford Prints! studio.
Artwork at the Hartford Prints! studio.

At Hartford Prints! we have a Vandercook 4-T proof press.  This model was invented in 1948 specifically to print on acetate to create negatives for offset lithography printing.  Our press likely dates from the 1960’s.  We create our printed matter in one of three ways: traditional hand-set lead or wood type, hand-carved wood or linoleum blocks, or photopolymer plates created from digital files which we design on our computers.

For the Arts Council, the plan is to create a woodcut print based on whichever of the three design concepts wins the most votes.  Once the design is selected, Addy will refine and finalize the drawing and begin planning for the carving stage.  In relief printing, however many colors are in the design is how many blocks will be needed.  So for a two-color print, Addy will have to carve two separate blocks.  The blocks are carved in reverse, or backwards.  Whatever is to be printed is left alone and all the negative space, or white of the paper, is carved away.  When the blocks are done, they are placed on the bed of the press.  The press has rollers to which the ink is applied and the rollers then distribute the ink onto the block.  As the press is operated, the paper is carried across the block and pressure is applied to push the paper into the block just enough to take an impression and pick up the ink.  This process is repeated until the desired number of prints is achieved and then repeated again for each following color.

Letterpress is a lovely and tactile medium.  Soft, thick, 100% cotton papers are often used and the impression creates a wonderful texture that is a delight to touch.  Hartford Prints! is so excited to have the opportunity to produce a unique letterpress print for the Arts Council and we are sure that everyone who receives a copy of the print will be thrilled with the final result.

There’s still a few days left to vote! Visit LetsGoArts.org/PickYourPrint to choose our winning design!

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