Greenprint Guide to Letterpress printing

Letterpress is the oldest form of industrial printing, invented in the 15th century.

The unique idea behind letterpress was to use movable type locked into a frame.  Each letter was cast or carved individually and placed in order into the frame, called a forme, to form words and spaces.  The type was raised in mirror-image and the forme was inked before applying a sheet of paper with pressure behind to transfer the ink.  Letterpress printing revolutionised society and made books available to the masses, not just the elite.

The industrial revolution brought advances to the letterpress process with automatic inking and pressing, using a hinged platen onto which the operator placed the sheet of paper which was pressed onto the forme.  By the 20th century rotary presses increased productivity by allowing the paper to be fed over an impression roller, allowing continuous production at much higher speeds.  Type which was previously assembled by hand was cast and automatically assembled on type casters using a keyboard to create punch tapes which were fed into the caster to create a line of type.  This would either be linotype, where the whole line was cast as a block (called a slug), or monotype where each character was cast and assembled individually.

Letterpress has been widely replaced by litho and flexo and many letterpress printing presses have been converted for sequential numbering, die-cutting or foil blocking and embossing.  There are thousands of printers in the UK who still use letterpress machines in this way, but only a few still print using this traditional method, although there is a resurgence in demand for the unique look and feel of letterpress printing and in particular we are seeing more demand for wedding and event invitations using letterpress techniques.