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Letterpress printing is a technique of relief printing using a printing press. A worker composes and locks movable type into the bed of a press, inks it, and presses paper against it to transfer the ink from the type which creates an impression on the paper.
In practice, letterpress also includes other forms of relief printing with printing presses, such as wood engravings, photo-etched zinc "cuts" (plates), and linoleum blocks, which can be used alongside metal type in a single operation, as well as stereotypes and electrotypes of type and blocks. With certain letterpress units it is also possible to join movable type with slugs cast using hot metal typesetting.
Letterpress printing was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. Letterpress printing remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the twentieth century, when offset printing was developed, which largely supplanted its role in printing books and newspapers. More recently, letterpress printing has seen a revival in an artisanal form.
Johannes Gutenberg is credited with the invention, in about 1440, of modern movable type printing from individually cast, reusable letters set together in a form (frame or chase). He also invented a wooden printing press, based on the extant wine press, where the type surface was inked with leather covered ink balls and paper laid carefully on top by hand, then slid under a padded surface and pressure applied from above by a large threaded screw.
Later metal presses used a knuckle and lever arrangement instead of the screw, but the principle was the same. Ink rollers made of composition made inking faster and paved the way for further automation.
With the advent of industrial mechanisation, inking was carried out by rollers that passed over the face of the type, then moved out of the way onto an ink plate to pick up a fresh film of ink for the next sheet. Meanwhile, a sheet of paper slid against a hinged platen (see image), which then rapidly pressed onto the type and swung back again as the sheet was removed and the next sheet inserted. As the fresh sheet of paper replaced the printed paper, the now freshly-inked rollers ran over the type again. Fully automated 20th-century presses, such as the Kluge and "Original" Heidelberg Platen (the "Windmill"), incorporated pneumatic sheet feed and delivery.
Rotary presses were used for high-speed work. In the oscillating press, the form slid under a drum around which each sheet of paper got wrapped for the impression, sliding back under the inking rollers while the paper was removed and a new sheet inserted. In a newspaper press, a papier-mâché mixture called a flong was used to make a mould of the entire form of type, then dried and bent, and a curved metal plate cast against it. The plates were clipped to a rotating drum and could print against a continuous reel of paper at the enormously high speeds required for overnight newspaper production. This invention helped aid the high demand for knowledge during this time period.
A small amount of high-quality art and hobby letterpress printing remains—fine letterpress work is crisper than offset litho because of its impression into the paper, giving greater visual definition to the type and artwork. Today, many of these small letterpress shops survive by printing fine editions of books or by printing upscale invitations and stationery, often using presses that require the press operator to feed paper one sheet at a time by hand. They are just as likely to use new printing methods as old, for instance by printing photopolymer plates (used in modern rotary letterpress) on restored 19th century presses.
Letterpress publishing has recently undergone a revival in the USA, Canada, and the UK, under the general banner of the 'Small Press Movement'. Renewed interest in letterpress was fueled by Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, which began using pictures of letterpress invitations in the 1990s. The beauty and texture became appealing to brides who began wanting letterpress invitations instead of engraved, thermographed, or offset-printed invitations. At the same time, presses were being discarded by commercial print shops, and became affordable and available to artisans throughout the country. Popular presses are, in particular, Vandercook cylinder proof presses and Chandler & Price platen presses. In the UK there is particular affection for the Arab press, built by Josiah Wade in Halifax.
The movement has been helped by the emergence of a number of organizations that teach letterpress such as Columbia College Chicago's Center for Book and Paper Arts, Art Center College of Design and Armory Center for the Arts both in Pasadena, Calif., New York's Center for Book Arts, Studio on the Square and The Arm NYC, the Wells College Book Arts Center in Aurora, New York, the San Francisco Center for the Book, Bookworks, Seattle's School of Visual Concepts, Olympia's The Evergreen State College, Black Rock Press, North Carolina State University, Washington D.C's Corcoran College of Art and Design, Penland School of Crafts, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the International Printing Museum in Carson, CA, Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, and the Bowehouse Press at VCU in Richmond, VA.
Affordable copper, magnesium and photopolymer platemakers and milled aluminum bases have allowed letterpress printers to produce type and images derived from digital artwork, fonts and scans. Economical plates have encouraged the rise of "digital letterpress" in the 21st century, allowing a small number of firms to flourish commercially and enabling a larger number of boutique and hobby printers to avoid the limitations and complications of acquiring and composing metal type. At the same time there has been a renaissance in small-scale type foundries to produce new metal type on Monotype equipment, Thompson casters and the original American Type Founders machines.
The goal before this revival was that you could not tell there was an impression, the type contacted the paper enough to transfer the ink but not leave an impression. However today, when speaking of letterpress, the goal is to have that impression be evident, to distinctly note that is letterpress.
The process of letterpress printing consists of several stages: composition, imposition and lock-up, and printing. In a small shop, all would occur in a single room, whereas in larger printing plants, such as with urban newspapers and magazines, each might form a distinct department with its own room, or even floor.
Composition, or typesetting, is the stage where pieces of movable type are assembled to form the desired text. The person charged with composition is called a "compositor".
Traditionally, as in manual composition, it involves selecting the individual type letters from a type case, placing them in a composing stick, which holds several lines, then transferring those to a larger type galley. By this method the compositor gradually builds out the text of an individual page letter by letter. In mechanical typesetting, it may involve using a keyboard to select the type, or even cast the desired type on the spot, as in hot metal typesetting, which are then added to a galley designed for the product of that process.
After a galley is assembled to fill a page-worth a type, the type is tied together into a single unit so that it may be transported without falling apart. From this bundle a galley proof is made, which is inspected by a proof-reader to make sure that the particular page is accurate.
Broadly, imposition or imposing is the process by which the tied assemblages of type are converted into a "form" ("forme") ready to use on the press. A person charged with imposition is a stoneman, doing their work on a large, flat imposition stone (though some later ones were also of iron).
More specifically, imposition is the technique of arranging the various pages of type with respect to one another (this is its modern sense). Depending on page size and the sheet of paper used, several pages may be printed at once on a single sheet. After printing, these are cut and trimmed before folding or binding. In these steps, the imposition process ensures that the pages face the right direction and in the right order with the right margins.
Low-height pieces of wood or metal furniture are added to make up the blank areas of a page. The printer uses a mallet to level the type and blocks to ensure the printing surface is flat.
Lock-up is the final step before printing. The printer removes the cords that hold the type together, and turns the quoins with a key or lever to "lock" the entire complex of type, blocks, furniture, and chase (frame) into place—creating what is called a form or forme. The printer takes the finished form to the printing press, and proofs it again for errors before starting the printing run.
The working of the printing process depends on the type of press used, as well as any of its associated technologies (which varied by time period).
Hand presses generally required two people to operate them: one to ink the type, the other to work the press. Later mechanized jobbing presses require a single operator to feed and remove the paper, as the inking and pressing are done automatically.
The completed sheets are then taken to dry and for finishing, depending on the variety of printed matter being produced. With newspapers, they are taken to a folding machine. Sheets for books are sent for bookbinding.
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The invention of ultra-violet curing inks has helped keep the rotary letterpress alive in areas like self-adhesive labels. There is also still a large amount of flexographic printing, a similar process, which uses rubber plates to print on curved or awkward surfaces, and a lesser amount of relief printing from huge wooden letters for lower-quality poster work.
Rotary letterpress machines are still used on a wide scale for printing self-adhesive and non-self-adhesive labels, tube laminate, cup stock, etc. The printing quality achieved by a modern letterpress machine with UV curing is on par with flexo presses. It is more convenient and user friendly than a flexo press. It uses water-wash photopolymer plates, which are as good as any solvent-washed flexo plate. Today even CtP (computer-to-plate) plates are available making it a full-fledged, modern printing process. Because there is no anilox roller in the process, the make-ready time also goes down when compared to a flexo press. Inking is controlled by keys very much similar to an offset press. UV inks for letterpress are in paste form, unlike flexo. Various manufacturers produce UV rotary letterpress machines, viz. Dashen, Nickel, Taiyo Kikai, KoPack, Gallus, etc.—and offer hot/cold foil stamping, rotary die cutting, flatbed die cutting, sheeting, rotary screen printing, adhesive side printing, and inkjet numbering. Central impression presses are more popular than inline presses due to their ease of registration and simple design. Printing of up to nine colours plus varnish is possible with various online converting processes.
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The process requires a high degree of craftsmanship, but in the right hands, letterpress excels at fine typography. It is used by many small presses that produce fine, handmade, limited-edition books, artists' books, and high-end ephemera such as greeting cards and broadsides. Setting type by hand has become less common with the invention of the photopolymer plate.
To bring out the best attributes of letterpress, printers must understand the capabilities and advantages of what can be a very unforgiving medium. For instance, since most letterpress equipment prints only one color at a time. Unlike offset printing, which often uses four-color process printing), printing multiple colors can be challenging. The inking system on letterpress equipment is less precise than on offset presses, posing problems for some graphics. Detailed, white (or "knocked out") areas, such as small, serif type, or very fine halftone surrounded by fields of color can fill in with ink and lose definition. However, a skilled printer overcomes most of these problems. However, a letterpress provides the option of a wider range of paper, including handmade, organic, and tree-free. Letterpress printing provides a wide range of production choices. The classic feel and finish of letterpress papers takes printing back to an era of quality and craftsmanship. Even the smell of the ink, more apparent on a letterpress-printed page than with offset, may appeal to collectors.
While less common in contemporary letterpress printing, it is possible to print halftoned photographs, via photopolymer plates. However, letterpress printing's strengths are crisp lines, patterns, and typography.
Creating files for letterpress is similar to conventional printing with these exceptions:
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Several dozen colleges and universities around the United States have either begun or re-activated programs teaching letterpress printing in fully equipped facilities. In many cases these letterpress shops are affiliated with the college's library or art department, and in others they are independent, student-run operations or extracurricular activities sponsored by the college. Many are included in degree programs. The College & University Letterpress Printers' Association (CULPA) was founded in 2006 by Abigail Uhteg at the Maryland Institute College of Art to help these schools stay connected and share resources.
The current renaissance of letterpress printing has created a crop of hobby press shops that are owner-operated and driven by a love of the craft. Several larger printers have added an environmental component to the venerable art by using only wind-generated electricity to drive their presses and plant equipment. Notably, a few small boutique letterpress shops are using only solar power.
In London, St Bride Library houses a large collection of letterpress information in its collection of 50,000 books: all the classic works on printing technique, visual style, typography, graphic design, calligraphy and more. This is one of the world's foremost collections and is located off Fleet Street in the heart of London's old printing and publishing district. In addition, regular talks, conferences, exhibitions and demonstrations take place.
The St Bride Institute, Edinburgh College of Art, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, The Arts University Bournemouth, Plymouth University, University for the Creative Arts Farnham and London College of Communication, run short courses in letterpress as well as offering these facilities as part of their Graphic Design Degree Courses.
The Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin houses one of the largest collections of wood type and wood cuts in the world inside one of the Hamilton Manufacturing Company's factory buildings. Also included are presses and vintage prints. The museum hold many workshops and conferences throughout the year and regularly welcomes groups of students from Universities from across the United States.
In 2011 John Bonadies and Jeff Adams created a virtual letterpress that runs on an iPad (and later the Mac) and replicates each step of the letterpress process. LetterMpress was funded from a Kickstarter campaign enabling the developers to collect and digitize wood type from around the world. The app's press is modeled after a Vandercook SP-15 (considered to be a top-of-the-line proof press in its time, and coveted by artists and designers today).
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