What to Expect When Designing for Letterpress Printing

If you’re a designer with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of all things print — keep reading. Below you’ll find tips that cover the ins and outs of designing and preparing your work for letterpress printing. Letterpress is a centuries-old method of printing using mainly hand-fed presses to create tactile relief prints. Originally, each lead or wood character would be set by hand, one-by-one, but luckily for today’s designers, the process has been modified to work with digital files. We are no longer limited to what bits of lead and wood type are in the print shop — any font or vector-based art you create on your computer can be made into polymer plates.

Simple considerations in the design process can help take your project to the next level when it comes time for letterpress printing. Kat Feuerstein, founder of Gilah Press + Design, tells designers what to expect when designing for letterpress printing.

1. Unless you are looking to achieve a half-tone effect, it is best to avoid using photographs and continuous tone images, such as gradients. (ex:1a)
















2. Screens of colors can be printed, but also will have a visible half-tone pattern. If you want a more solid screen, it is best to use a second solid Pantone color. (ex:2a)










3. Floods of color are not as solid on letterpress as they are on offset. This does depend a bit on the type of press your printer is using. A proof press, such as a vandercook, is capable of better floods of ink than a platen “clamshell” press, such as a C&P or Windmill. We have used other methods to incorporate a flood of color, such as having one part of a project (the flood) printed offset and letterpress printing the other parts, or by using a custom duplex paper. (ex:3a-c)


























4. When designing for letterpress, no line weight should be lighter than .25 point. Lighter line weights will not hold up in the plate-making process. Keep this in mind for your font choices as well. Fonts with very thin components may need to have a slight stroke added to them in order to hold up for plate-making. In generally, try not to use any type size smaller than 4 point. (ex:4a)










5. If you want to print a light ink on a darker paper, plan to use silver or gold ink. These are really the only letterpress inks that are opaque enough to give ample contrast for legibility. If you are going for a subtle effect with a pattern or something that does not need to be legible, then you might opt for white ink. If you are looking for a very bright, legible white ink on a dark sheet, consider white foil stamping or engraving rather than letterpress. (ex:5a-b)


















6. As with offset printing, metallic inks do not look very “metallic” on uncoated white papers. The paper tends to absorb the metallic nature of the ink, and lessens the light reflection of the metallic, making it appear like more of a flat color. If you are going for a high-metallic effect, Gilah recommends either a foil stamp or offset printing on a coated sheet. (ex:6a)










7. For a subtle effect on patterns, decorative elements or large type, a blind deboss (letterpress printing without any ink) can add an amazing tactile quality to your project. Depending on what the project is, it can be printed without any ink, or use a tint base (clear ink) to further enhance the image. We do not recommend using a blind deboss for any small type or things that would need to be legible. A toothy, cotton stock yields the best results for this process, smooth stocks do not work as well. (ex:7a-b)


















8. While two-sided printing is not ideal for letterpress, it can be achieved. Typically, if something is two-sided, we will ask you which side of your project will be the feature side, and then we will go a bit lighter on impression on the reverse side. The impression will show through to the other side of the sheet a bit, so it is often recommend to move your job to a double thick cover weight paper or have a custom duplex made after the job is printed, if your project is well-suited for that. (ex:8a-b)


















9. Paper choices are important in letterpress printing. Papers that are toothier/softer and 100% cotton will show the impression the best. These types of paper are fluffier, so they have a bit more room to show off impression, and the toothiness is ironed out when printed, giving a varied texture, which makes the impression even more visible. Stiffer, smoother papers will typically not show as much impression, but can still yield nice results. Smoother papers are better if you have a larger area of solid ink coverage, as they are not as absorbent. (ex:9a)










10. Letterpress has been modernized to work with current design software such as Illustrator and InDesign. Negatives are made from the digital files, and then a raised polymer plate is made from the negatives. This means designers are not limited to what lead or wood typefaces we have in house, rather, what typeface you have available to you on your own computer. (ex:10a-c)


























11. If you are used to specifying jobs for offset printing, you may be a bit surprised at the price jumps in letterpress versus offset when it comes to quantity and ink color increases.

Since letterpress is a hand-fed process, using only one solid Pantone ink color at a time (no four color process), you will notice a far greater jump in price. Most letterpress projects end up being 1 or 2 ink colors, not to say that 3, 4 or more is not possible, but your client will need to pony-up more money for these projects. Typical quantities for letterpress are anywhere from 1 to about 2,000.  (ex:12a-c)


























Overall, If you are unsure of something or have a question, it is always best to contact your printer before showing your design to a client. Your letterpress shop will let you know if your direction is well-suited for the process, and if it is not, they will usually be able to make some good recommendations on how you might be able to achieve the effect you are looking for. (ex:14a)










Gilah Press + Design was founded in 2004 by Kat Feuerstein. After graduating from Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA) with a graphic design BFA in 1999, Kat worked as a designer and art director for Baltimore-area firms until she busted out on her own to explore the world of printmaking as it relates to design. Since 2004, the Gilah Press studio has continued to grow and thrive. Stay in the loop by finding us on Facebook and Twitter under “Gilah Press.” www.gilahpress.com

2 thoughts on “What to Expect When Designing for Letterpress Printing

  1. JamesShanley

    Kudos and thanks to Kat for such an informative article.

    The information contained in her article should help designers get the most out of letterpress, and not go down paths that cause frustration and disapointment.

    One other point I would like to share is that the final look of a specified color is dependent upon the chosen substrate. The color on your screen may be quite different from the printed piece. A Pantone book is an investment, but wise one.

  2. Pingback: Designing For Letterpress | Innerer Klang Letterpress ♛ (828) 253-3711