Letterpress Printing

Letterpress, also known as relief printing is the oldest form of printing dating back to 1450 A.D. and Johann Gutenberg. Often, when people think of “printing” they’re usually envisioning the old movies where a sheet of paper was hand fed into a large “screw type clamp” or “clam shell type bed” printing press and then removed as a finished, printed sheet. This is letterpress printing. It is the oldest form of printing, and the process is one of the easiest to understand.

This simple, efficient method of printing from raised metal type was the primary means of mass communication for over 500 years. While this process is no longer economically feasible for the commercial printer or publisher, letterpress has found new life and is experiencing a growth resurgence thanks to the greeting card and social industries. Greeting cards, wedding invitations and social announcements have always strived to create a product in which theirs stands above the others. The use of embellishments and unique printing processes has opened the doors widely for letterpress printing and their various applications.

letterpress printing
Letterpress Printing

Letterpress Printing

With the advent of industrial mechanization, the early hand carved images and cast metal types have been replaced with computerized typesetting and photopolymer plates. However, the raised image, the ink, and the pressure, which defines letterpress printing, are still being applied using restored 19th and early 20th century presses. This old-world craftsmanship combined with new world technology, has enabled designers to create, and printers to manufacture, award-winning projects.

The unique attraction the consumer has to letterpress is that today this “relief process” leaves a deep, bold impression on the back of the card or paper. This not only authenticates the craftsmanship of letterpress printing but also creates an image that has dimension. You can see it. You can touch it. You can feel it. To a digital, one-dimensional generation, this “new process” is something many have never experienced before.

The cost for letterpress will be more than conventional offset but can be equally compared to other specialized graphic applications such as Engraving, Foil Stamping, Embossing, Die-Cutting, etc.

Harry Otto Printing Company started out in business as a letterpress print shop in 1941. We are still family owned and operated and continue to dedicate ourselves to The Art, The Craft and The Time Honored Tradition of Letterpress Printing.

The Process

The Letterpress process begins with a metal surface in which the image, or areas to be printed, is raised above the non-printing areas. In traditional work these letters (type) are assembled by hand in a tray (stick) and along with zinc “cuts” (plates) are grouped together on a flat marble surface (stone) within a rigid steel frame (chase) spaced precisely with wooden blocks (furniture) and tightened (locked-up) with toothed angular locks (quoins). Next, the chase is placed in the printing press and a thin film of ink is applied evenly over the raised metal surface via a series of rubber rollers. A sheet of paper is then placed between the raised inked surface and either (a) a flat steel bed (platen) or (b) a round steel (cylinder) where pressure pushes the sheet against the raised inked surface giving you a “print” of that image. The sheet is then removed, the raised metal surface is inked again, and the process is repeated, sheet after sheet.

Letterpress Printing


Check out these examples of Letterpress Printing

The individuality of each piece authenticates the skill and craftsmanship of “Letterpress Printing”

letterpress printing

Small orders require 3-5 working days. Rushes, including same day, are available for an additional charge.


Many consider letterpress printing to be an Art Form. Moreover, as in any art form, to bring out its best qualities and attributes one needs to understand its capabilities and limitations. Fine letterpress work is crisper than offset or litho because the impression into the paper gives greater visual definition to the type and images. In addition, since most letterpress equipment prints only one color at a time (unlike offset presses, which can print 4 or more colors at a time) graphic artists should limit their designs to one or two (maybe 3) spot colors. Also, Letterpress excels at typography. It was invented for this purpose over 500 years ago and it continues to be its strongest attribute. Under the guidance of skilled craftsmen, the typography can truly be an art form. Photographic reproduction work is usually avoided entirely as this requires a blending of multiple colors and complicated dot patterns, which does not compliment letterpress printing. As a rule of thumb, letterpress printing’s strengths are crisp, sharp lines, pattern or grid work and of course typography.

While traditional letterpress printing has the advantage of being able to print on paper, plastic, metal, cloth, and 3 or 4 ply board (or heavier) it best shows off its heart and soul on high cotton content cover and text weight stocks. These “softer” sheets accept the heavy pressure and accentuate the impression without cracking the papers surface.