Letter, press and print! A step-by-step on letterpress printing

Jessica Kwok

Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to step away from the computer and get your hands dirty. Some people become so accustomed to designing with a computer that they often forget design can be a real tangible process with loads of inspirational results.

So, give your computer a break. Let’s roll up our sleeves and explore one of my favorite activities – letterpress printing.

1. Sketching

No matter your medium of choice, a good design always begins with a sketch. At this point, let your ideas run wild. There’s no need for perfection – the rougher the sketch the better.

2. Finding the perfect typeface

The fundamentals of letterpress printing begin with the type case. Each type case contains all the numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, special characters, ligatures, punctuation and spaces for a particular typeface in a particular point size and in a particular style.

Fun Fact: The origin of the term upper and lower case is derived from the strategic layout of these type cases.

3. Setting type

In letterpress printing, lines of type are set on metal composing sticks. A lead slug, measuring 6 points think, is the first thing placed into the composing stick.

Metal type is set one letter at a time, from left to right, in the composing stick. Once a line of type is set, a piece of lead measuring 2 points thick is placed on top before a new line of type is set.

Fun Fact: The typographical term “leading” is derived from the pieces of lead that are placed between lines of type to create spacing.

4. Tying your type

Once the type has been set with the composing stick, it can then be transferred to a galley to be tied up. The type is literally tied up with a piece of string. The recommended technique is to wrap the string clockwise around the type 5 times.

5. Proofing

Before you can go to press, it’s important to proof your work to make sure everything is perfect from spelling to line spacing. You wouldn’t want any surprises or hiccups later on.

6. The chase around

After the proofing process, the type is untied and locked into a metal frame with wooden blocks. The metal frame, or chase, is the piece that is placed into the printing press.

Wooden blocks, or furniture, are strategically placed in the spaces between the frame and the type to ensure the metal type is locked in tight. Metal-toothed wedges, or quoins, are also added to the mix to apply pressure and tension to lock all the elements securely.

7. To the press

With a nice blue ink picked out, the metal chase is placed into the Chandler & Price Press. The press is operated by a foot pedal, fly wheel and lever.

Ink rollers coat the type with ink as the press runs. Paper is manually fed into the press and a clamping motion allows the ink to print onto the paper.

8. Ta-da!

After all the printing was done, the cards were cut and trimmed to size.

Fun Fact: Each Community Team member only got about 6 cards.

What kind of “outside the computer” things do you do? Let me know.

The author

Jessica Kwok
Jessica Kwok

Jessica is a member of the Community Team at 99designs. She has a B.S in Textiles & Clothing and a minor in Psychology from UC Davis. When she's not in the office, you can find her exploring her hometown of San Francisco.

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