Behind the Scenes: What is Letterpress Printing?

The Art of Letterpress and Relief Printing

What is letterpress printing? Letterpress printing, or letterpressing, refers to the specific and specialized printing process that creates letterpress stationery. Letterpress printing is also a form of relief printing, a method that consists of carving away a surface and printing from the raised remains. You may have seen letterpress stationery before: the majority of modern letterpress stationery is identifiable by the pronounced impression it makes on thick paper.

Today, letterpress products are mostly recognized for their high-end, exclusive, and refined qualities. Most people are unaware of the deep history behind letterpressing techniques and tools. Contemporary letterpress products could not have come into existence without hundreds of years of improvement of ancient letterpressing methods in combination with the modern technology of polymer plates. Step behind the scenes to see how Minted pays homage to this centuries-old art form and learn why letterpressing is such a unique culmination of past and present. Then search among Minted’s hundreds of luxurious letterpress holiday cards and letterpress wedding invitations to find something that suits your style.

Letterpress printing

The History of Letterpress

“Letterpress” or “letterpressing” refers to a printing technique developed by Johannes Gutenberg, a German innovator, in the fifteenth century. Unsatisfied with contemporary printing practices, Gutenberg saw an opportunity to create a more effective printing technology. Gutenberg was additionally driven by his desire to make books more accessible to common people and to increase literacy.

Before the invention of letterpress, printing was time consuming, work intensive, and tedious. Book pages were individually carved into single plates of wood. The letters remained untouched while the rest of the space was carved away, resulting in raised letters. To complicate this further, all of the letters and words were backwards, since printing results in a mirrored version of whatever stamp or plate one uses. Next, ink was applied to the raised letters, and craftsmen would lightly touch pieces of paper to the inked, wooden plate. For this reason, original letterpressing did not result in the debossed look and tactile feel that is so popular today. This created a single page of a book.

Gutenberg’s attempt to change this method began with small plates of individual, backwards letters. These plates, called movable type, could be arranged in a sturdy wooden frame to create any desired word or sentence. Specific images or designs, however, still needed to be carved to one’s liking in wood or metal plates. Calling upon knowledge from his blacksmithing background, Gutenberg invented a press that this wooden frame was placed into. There, the letters would be coated with an oil-based ink that he formulated – another one of his famous inventions. A rotating handle on the printing press allowed paper to roll through. This flattened and pressed paper into the inked letters in the wooden frame, creating a final product. Thus, this method deservingly earned the name “letterpress.”

After experimenting with wooden movable type, Gutenberg advanced to durable metals. Just as with the wood, the metal movable types were arranged in a wooden frame for printing and could be easily removed and reused. This finally established letterpress printing technique became the leading form of printing for hundreds of years after its invention.

Additionally, this unique and fixed letterpressing process can only make prints of one color at a time. To create a print with multiple colors, two different plates or arrangements of wooden frames would be needed. Papers would have to go through the press with the first plate plate and the first color. Then, they would be left out to dry. The press would have to be reset with the next plate coated in ink of the next color, and the papers would go through the press a second time.

Similar forms of printing were used in Asia before Gutenberg’s invention of the letterpress. Archeological evidence reveals that Chinese woodblock prints existed before 220AD and that they used clay movable type technology even in the eleventh century. By the thirteenth century, Korea was using metal movable type. Despite the fact that China and Korea developed movable type centuries before Gutenberg, his mechanical press marks his letterpressing method as innovative and imaginative.


How Are Modern Letterpress Plates Made?

The original movable types that Gutenberg and his contemporaries used were engraved wood or metal plates. Although modern letterpress printing is very similar to Gutenberg’s, polymer or photopolymer plates are used instead. Polymer plates, categorized as “flexible relief plates,” allow people to make letterpress prints out of designs from a computer. Digital designs have certain constraints, such as having lines that can’t be too thin. Additionally, since letterpress printing can only be done in one color at a time, separate designs must be created for each color if multiple colors are desired on the finished product.

Once a digital design is finished on the computer, it is printed as a film negative. This film negative must be put on top of a polymer plate and then exposed to ultraviolet light, similar to the photographic exposure process. Because polymer plates are light-sensitive, the parts exposed to light through the cutouts of the film negative will harden. When this is finished, the polymer plate must be rinsed with water and the unexposed areas will be washed away. The hardened part is known as the “relief.” This is the part that will be covered with ink for letterpress printing. These flexible relief printing plates have also been used outside of letterpress printing, such as for jewelry making or leatherwork.

Name labels

Into the Woods by Paper Sun Studio


Present Day Letterpress Printing

Today, letterpress printing has been making a comeback in high quality wedding invitations, wedding save the dates, Christmas cards, holiday cards, birth announcements, and more. This revival–primarily in the past thirty years–is not only due to the unique aspects of modern letterpress printing that can’t be matched by other printing methods, but also due to endorsements by people like Martha Stewart. Stewart praised letterpress products in the 1990s, especially wedding invitations. Consumers saw the palpable characteristic of designs pressed into thick paper, called debossing, in pictures of letterpress products that Stewart advertised. This caused letterpress products to rise in demand.

However, this was never an intention of original letterpress. It is actually a result of the recent use of polymer plates. Therefore, this handcrafted, tactile feel letterpress stationery is recognized for is unrepresentative of historical letterpress products. This feature is a modern addition to centuries-old letterpress printing methods, epitomizing the bridge between vintage craftsmanship and modern technology. Today, you might also see variations of letterpress like foil pressing and embossing.

One of the only drawbacks to modern letterpressing techniques is that it eliminates the one-of-a-kind nature of original letterpress products. Many identical polymer plates can be printed from a single design on a computer and can then produce indistinguishable products. This consistency may be desirable in some cases, such as for wedding invitations. However, modern letterpress stationery will never have the rare quality of a print made from a uniquely carved wooden or metal plate.

To get the best debossed look, modern letterpressing must be done on very thick paper. Cotton paper is perfect for letterpress because of its soft touch and textured quality along with its thickness. In addition, cotton paper is more environmentally friendly than paper made from trees.

Another modern take on historical letterpressing is blind letterpressing. In blind letterpressing, polymer plates are not inked before the press is used. Therefore, paper is left with the same impression customers are used to, but the debossed area has no color. The inkless designs of blind letterpressing are minimalist and contemporary.

ALIVIA by Melaine Kosuge

ALIVIA by Melanie Kosuge


Letterpress Save The Dates

Minted’s exclusive letterpress save the date cards, designed by a community of independent artists, are the perfect way to set a refined and elegant tone to your wedding theme. Letterpressing will add texture and depth to this pre-wedding tradition and will show off your sophisticated style to your guests. Whether you want an intricate letterpress border or only the words “save the date” in letterpress, Minted’s variety of letterpress save the date cards are sure to have something that matches your style.

Badge by Rebecca Daublin

Badge by Rebecca Daublin


Letterpress Wedding Invitations

Letterpress wedding invitations exude elegance and act as the perfect way to ask your friends and family to join you on your big day. Minted’s letterpress wedding invitations come in all sorts of shapes, orientations, and colors. For the most classic of letterpress looks, perhaps choose a style with text only, like this Soiree wedding invitation. If you’re a literature aficionado and want your wedding invitations to resemble a cultivated book page, our Storybook wedding invitation is perfect for you. If you’re looking for a stylish way of asking your guests to a destination wedding, our Destination wedding invitation may be just what you need. No matter what style you’re looking for, letterpressing will add a dashing touch to your wedding invitations.

Eloquence by Kimberly FitzSimons

Eloquence by Kimberly FitzSimons


Letterpress Wedding Thank You Cards

Show your guests your appreciation by giving them a handwritten thank you note on a beautiful and modern letterpress wedding thank you card. If you already used one of Minted’s letterpress wedding invitations, choose the thank you cards that were designed to match your invitations. Otherwise, choose thank you cards that best fit your style. Whether you’re looking for something minimalist with only a cursive “thank you” and your names letterpressed or you prefer a decorative lace letterpress design, Minted has a large variety of exquisite thank you cards to suit your taste.

Antique Press by GeekInk Design

Antique Press by GeekInk Design


Letterpress Holiday Cards

Minted’s letterpress holiday cards are printed on thick, luxe, cotton paper, perfect for retaining the tactile feel of their letterpressed elements. Elegantly letterpressed snowflakes will evoke memories of leaving footprints in the snow, while letterpressed words alongside family photos will spotlight your family’s holiday spirit. Minted’s letterpress holiday card collection goes beyond just Christmas cards–check out the letterpress New Year cards as well or refine your text for any greeting that suits your needs.

Festive Foliage by Lehan Veenker

Festive Foliage by Lehan Veenker


Letterpress Birth Announcements

Congratulations on the new addition to your family! Share this wonderful news with your friends and family by sending a letterpress birth announcement card. Make your new baby’s photo pop by choosing a card with an aesthetic letterpress border, or place your baby in a natural setting on a card with asymmetrical, organic letterpress botanicals.

Festive Foliage by Lehan Veenker

Sweet Stripes by Kimberly FitzSimons