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Tips and Tricks for Designing for Letterpress

Letterpress is a centuries old craft produced on antique machinery. It can do some things really well and let you down with others. We’ve tried it all. To design for letterpress you need to be aware of its limitations. Below are some tips to get the best result from letterpress and some design elements to avoid.

Type

Type is the most important element of letterpress reproduction that’s in the designer’s hands. Choose well, consider how you want the finished product to look, some typefaces reproduce better than others. The beauty of typography and its unique shapes is what letterpress is all about.

Kerning

Well kerned type structure is important. Poorly kerned type is magnified in the letterpress process.

Solids

Unfortunately solids with letterpress don’t always reproduce well, the result can be motley and inconsistent due to the stocks used for letterpress. Also, platen letterpress machines don’t have the rolling power of offset. Printing consistent smooth solids on uncoated paper is not always possible or recommended. There are techniques we can use if the piece requires it but we would need to inspect art files so we can provide the right advice.

Screens and halftones

Similar to solids, fine screens and halftones can suffer with letterpress reproduction. A coarse 80 line screen can look very effective or if you want a picture reproduced a solid line pic works well.

Colour

Letterpress inks are transparent. That means when you are printing on a stock that’s not pure white it will show through and change the colour of the chosen ink, this is common with pale colours. This is not an issue usually with dark or rich colours. Overlapping colours can give an effective of an extra colour this technique is commonly used in letterpress design. Printing white on a coloured stock will not reproduce well in ink however a coloured foil will block out any show through from the stock.

Stock

The best stocks for letterpress are uncoated heavy boards. We use some very expensive imported stocks but there are cost effective alternatives. These include beer coaster board, box board or similar bulky recycled stocks. Stock weights of 400gsm and up are best and most are 100% recycled.

Impression

Impression is subjective, what looks good to one person may not be what your after. Too much, too little? Impression is letterpress’s biggest selling point but it’s not just a matter of winding it on harder and harder. There are a number of factors the pressman needs to take into account. Including, but not limited to – impression show through, stock distortion, paper strength, image surface area. We have many examples of impression levels and can run you through these prior to going to print.

White Space

Flooding the sheet with image is not the best use of letterpress. Without white space you don’t get the beautiful impression of type and graphics. Think of it this way – the more image in an image the more surface area is in contact during impression, this in turn limits the amount of impression bite into the stock.

Pushing the limits

“It looks so different on the screen! Why doesn’t it look like that on paper?” The digital age of printing has taken a lot of the reality out of traditional offset and particularly letterpress printing. Digital reproduction should not be compared to letterpress in anyway we need to be mindful of the capabilities of both methods as well as there strong and weak points. We pride ourselves in what we can achieve with modern letterpress. Our colour consistency, registration and image quality throughout the print run is first rate. But it needs to be remembered we are running presses that were cutting technology almost 100 years ago. Some minor variation should be expected, but rest assured we are not newcomers to the letterpress game you should have the confidence that we have been doing this for many years and we are our toughest critics.

Quantities

We have no minimum print quantity. If you want a quote get the next quantity up too. For example if you want 250 business cards check out what 500 is worth. You will notice the quantities of scale take effect. Here’s a business card trick, we usually print 1 sided business cards 4 up on a sheet. You can get clever and mix quantities between titles for example – the cost of 1000 business cards can be split up like so

  • 2 titles x 500 business cards
  • 4 titles x 250 business cards
  • 1 title x 500 cards and 2 titles x 250 business cards.

There are other combinations that can be used to make your project more efficient don’t be afraid to ask, we love being able to give you more bang for your buck. Most of the time this refers to pre press planning of jobs.

Double sided issues

There are a number of issues printing a letterpress piece double sided. Below are few points to consider.

  • We believe the best letterpress piece is one sided. This is because we can really give you that deep impression that sets letterpress apart. The trade off is the back of the piece will have impression show through, this is not desirable if you want to print on the reverse.
  • If the job allows for it we don’t need to charge a second print run for a two sided job. Of course this relies on individual job design specs. Let’s have a look at a common example, 2 sided business cards. It’s possible to print the majority of 2 sided business cards work and turn (an imposition term – 4 up artwork set up with 2 fronts and 2 backs) but a number of factors need to be considered, we would suggest sending us the artwork file for further advice.
  • A deep impression may not be possible on both sides, solution – you can nominate which side you’d prefer to have the deeper impression on, we can print a kiss impression (transfer of image with minimal impression) can be used on the reverse.
  • When designing for letterpress consider what’s on the reverse example – when printing the second side of a job the impression impact may flatten out the image on the first side.
  • If your letterpress project demands deep impression both sides consider duplexing 2 sheets.
Multi Colour

Our Heidelberg Platen presses are single colour. This means if you want a 2 colour job the labour component will double. We find the best letterpress projects don’t need to be more than 2 or 3 colours. We have printed many 1 colour jobs that look just as good, if not better than a 3 colour job.

Design Style

Letterpress design lends itself to a number of styles, organic, handmade, retro, prestige, vintage, minimalist and luxury. Complex imagery isn’t usually the best design inspiration for letterpress. We find clean, uncluttered design with a good use of stock and white space reproduces best.

Margins

Close margins such as parallel lines or images close to the edge of the job should be avoided. Most letterpress is printed on very airy stocks and pin point guillotining is almost impossible. For example if you want a border 4mm parallel to the finished job this is possible, anything less than 4mm could be exposed to some stock movement due to guillotine tolerances. If the job requires closer tolerances die cutting may be another option.

Turn around times

Turn around times in letterpress are nothing like digital or offset. There is a sequence of processes that has to happen before we even get to the press. Letterpress plate making requires negitive film, this is the only service we out source therefore this adds time to the process. We sometimes need to source stocks outside even though we have a good inventory of letterpress stocks in house. Of course we can accommodate a rush job if it’s possible and we would be only too pleased to meet your deadlines.

Cost

Letterpress is considered expensive but there are cost effective ways of using it. It’s not in everyone’s budget or for every print project. It’s a good idea to share your ideas with us if you have any queries before starting to design a project. We can give you some insights on ways to make a job more efficient and affordable. We are the first to acknowledge letterpress isn’t affordable for all uses. It’s very labour intensive and the raw materials aren’t as cheap or as readily available as conventional printing methods. We do have the tricks of the trade to make it as economical as possible for you, just ask.

Other press processes

Our Heidelbergs are the most versatile printing presses ever invented. These incredible machines not only print but they can perforate, score, emboss, die cut, number and hot foil.

Inks

We use mainly soy-based inks and all of our inks are hand mixed using sensitive electronic scales to ensure colour correctness. But its not as straight forward as weighing and mixing, we been mixing ink for decades so we are aware of how ink needs to perform on a press and how to achieve it. Colour choices are from the Pantone Uncoated swatch book. Metallic inks can also be used but be aware these don’t have the same brilliance of a metallic foil, they are a fair bit duller but can still be used effectively.

We encourage all of our clients to come press side to get more of an understanding of the beauty of letterpress. This is really the only way to gain in-depth knowledge of the machine, the pressman and the capabilities of this wonderful craft.

If you have any other questions or you would like to explore some of the above tips in further detail, then please contact us and we would be more than happy to chat.