Think Print: 6 Tips for Working with Letterpress Printing & Practitioners

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Letterpress printing is not just for wedding invitations. It can add a tactile touch to any project, and shows a commitment to paper, print, and human printers that will communicate to your clients. As quote designer Craig Oldham said, “production is the factor that makes an average piece better and a good piece great.”


Print without production is just pixels, and this is nowhere more true than with the letterpress print. Hopefully you had a brush with print production processes in school or at some point in your career. If not, letterpress is a relief method of printing wherein a raised printing surface is pressed into the paper, leaving a distinctive impression. Preparing for letterpress production is simple; the process itself hasn’t changed much in 500 years, except now photopolymer or metal plates are commonly used instead of movable type. This means that most of what you can design with software can be printed on century-old machines.

The key to a successful letterpress project: communicating with your printer. The whole process will be easy, actually, if you follow these helpful print hints.

1. What kind of letterpress printer do you need? There are those who mostly print others’ work, those who print and sell their own designs and do some custom printing, and those who do no custom printing at all. Thomas-Printers, mainly prints others’ print-ready files. Using a letterpress printer accustomed to custom printing means he or she will have a wide knowledge of materials and techniques, as well as the problem-solving skills necessary to bring your project through production.


2. When it’s time to request an estimate, specs are the best. Including a screen grab or JPG of your design can’t hurt. Thomas-Printers has handy estimate request form on our site that lists all the info we’ll need to send you an accurate estimate. Additional spot colors add to the bottom line, since each additional spot requires an separate printing plate, wash-up (cleaning the press), and press run. Do you need specialty finishing—edge painting, duplexing, or die-cutting—or foil stamping? The more specific you can be about the quantity, size, and number of spot colors per-piece, the more precise the quote will be.

3. It’s always best to work with the letterpress process, which in turn works best with “letter and line,” as a wise printer once put it. Typography and line art are ideal for letterpress, and will show off the impression beautifully. Large, solid areas of color, floods, knockouts with delicate type, and so on, are less-well suited, and may require extra attention, or may need to be run digitally or offset instead.


4. Usually your file will need to have been created in a vector-based program (Adobe Illustrator or InDesign—Photoshop files sadly won’t work). This means that the art needs to be converted to shapes—type too—so that the file can be properly processed for platemaking without a single element of your design being accidentally changed by the software. When we send your estimate, we’ll include all the instructions and specifications you’ll need to send us your project files. Asking your printer about their preferred file types and specs and sending a print-ready file will save time and money!

5. Do allow extra time for production in case your printer needs extra time—she’ll love you for it! And whatever you do, try not to leave printing for the last minute.

6. A final thought: don’t be afraid to ask questions of your printer. We printers love our customers, and love talking to them and teaching them about the letterpress-printing process. The best part of choosing letterpress for production is that, behind the machine, there’s an actual human, ready to help.

letterpress-printing-2Kseniya Thomas, is the owner of Thomas-Printers, a commercial letterpress shop in Pennsylvania. She’s the co-founder of Ladies of Letterpress, an organization dedicated to the promotion and continuance of the art and craft of letterpress printing. Trained at the Druckladen des Gutenberg Museums in Mainz, Germany, Kseniya got her start setting type by hand. Her work has been featured in many letterpress books, design periodicals, and blogs, and she is the co-author of the book Ladies of Letterpress: A Gallery of Prints with 80 Removable Posters. She is a native of Salt Lake City, Utah.


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