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Letterpress: The (Not Quite) Lost Art of Hand Set Type

Posted: May 25, 2018

Categories: Artist's Palette

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Author: Debra Novara

Letterpress: The (Not Quite) Lost Art of Hand Set Type

Having anything printed using a letterpress with its lead (or wood) letters has always been held in high esteem with designers. The first thing you'll notice are the tell-tale signs of the printing technique—subtle indentations for each letter, and the wonderful feel of the paper. (This is one of those times your paper choice can be as important as your design.)

There’s also something about the letterforms—the way text looks when it’s hand-set with the slightly exaggerated kerning and the spacing of each word. I’ve used relief printing on a variety of projects, but my favorite has always been the small but mighty business card. When I run across a card that has been printed using this technique, the card is not just noticeably tactile, but I find it’s a bit more intriguing. Even the quietest design layout makes you stop and take notice. Here’s a great blog highlighting the best letterpress business cards.

While going “old-school” and getting your type hand-set can be rewarding, sometimes it’s nice to step out of the constraints of font choice that the printer has in their cabinet. If you do go down the road of getting your job hand-set there’s one thing to remember, lead type isn’t ideal for deep impression printing—it deforms when hit hard, so after a while you start losing your serifs and periods. If you want a deeper impression for your project, setting your text on the computer and having a photopolymer plate made is a great alternative. By going this route, you now have unlimited possibilities for your letterpress projects. Not only can you design with type and ornaments, but you can incorporate flourishes, simple line art, or images.

For those of us that mostly design for the web, you can still get that “old-world” feel from cleverly designed typefaces that mirror the imperfections of letterpress printing. Here’s one type family that does just that. These fonts are all over the web, so there’s a lot to choose from. A few font sites I like are Adobe Typekit, My Fonts, Envato Elements, and Fonts.com. But let’s be honest, once you start designing on the computer, you’ve opened up an entire world of possibilities. Just about any font you choose will take on new life if it’s printed on a letterpress. One niche that has exploded when it comes to relief printing is the world of invitations. Here are some beautiful wedding invites.

Some Closing Thoughts

No doubt there are far more offset printers than letterpress printers and rightly so; letterpress falls into a “boutique” or specialty category. But even so, letterpress printers are not that difficult to find. There are some great shops out there, and often they’ll let you stop in for a look or maybe even let you hand-set a few words just for fun. Some places offer workshops or have open studio hours, so you can work on personal projects. There’s a letterpress movement out there and whether you’re a designer or just a lover of letterpress, do yourself a favor and check out your local letterpress shop.

Before I sign off, there’s nothing wrong with a little history lesson on this beloved type of printing. Here’s Print magazines’ Design History in 150 Seconds.


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Debra Novara's love affair with design and the outdoors was truly realized when just two weeks after graduation she landed in Denver with nothing more than a backpack, her portfolio and a pair of skis. After 20+ years of designing for the Denver market (and skiing every resort) she returned to Michigan where she continues to work in the design industry as a member of the NHLS Marketing team. In addition to receiving awards for her design work, Debra has taught design at universities, served on multiple design panels and is recognized as one of the founding members of the AIGA-Denver Chapter.

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