The Printing Process: Letterpress Printing with Antique Type

While I’m away on vacation I’m running a series of guest posts on the various printing processes, from digital printing to engraving.  I’ve asked some designers and printers to share their expertise and lots of photos to fill you in on what you need to know about different stationery printing methods.  This afternoon, we have Jen from Starshaped Press to talk about antique letterpress printing!

Hi everyone!  Jen here from Starshaped Press, and I’m here to talk about letterpress printing specifically using antique metal and wood type.


What is Antique Type Letterpress?

Letterpress printing was the standard method of printing for approximately 500 years prior to offset printing taking the reins in the twentieth century.  Letterpress printing is the ‘relief’ printing of text and images using a press with movable type or plates, in which a reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper.  Invented by Johannes Gutenberg, it replaced handwritten calligraphy and was the popular form of printed text from the mid-15th century until the 19th century.

Until very recently, much of this letterpress printing was accomplished using both metal and wood type, literally individual letters arranged to form words.  The type could be reused over and over as long as it was cared for and well-maintained.  While metal type was ideal for commercial printing involving small type (like newspapers), wood type was the best option for larger projects, i.e. posters, broadsides and playbills, due to its lightweight nature.  Type often reflected the trends of the day, from Victorian to Art Nouveau to clean, contemporary stylings of post war design.

The Printing Process

The process of letterpress printing is virtually unchanged; type and cuts (ornamental or image plates) are arranged and locked in place into a ‘chase’ (a metal frame that is inserted into the press), and can be used on any press that will take materials that are ‘type high’ (this standard measurement is .918″).


All type is relatively similar in that it is the same height and has markings that help the user determine what typeface it is and what foundry produced it.  Since letterpress is a relief printing process, the type is in reverse – hence the phrase “Mind your p’s and q’s.”


Thanks to the development of standards, type comes in common sizes ranging from 6 to 72 point in metal (give or take).  Wood type is measured by ‘line’, or pica, and comes in a large variety of sizes.


There are many interesting set up pieces (known as leads, slugs and quads) that help letterpress printers achieve really fantastic tricks, such as combining different point sizes of type together, setting type on curves and angles, and printing in multiple colors without altering the set up.


Many small and intricate border and ornamental pieces are veritable designer candy; some are so detailed and miniscule that they cannot be replicated in a magnesium or polymer plate.  This is also true of many 19th century typefaces that are shaded, outlined or have lots of ornaments characters.

Letterpress printing with antique type has many distinct characteristics that may or may not be appealing to everyone.  It is not designed to produce a heavy impression in paper, as the type is soft and would be ruined.  In fact, the concept of a deep letterpress  impression is a very recent development.



It also does not produce perfectly crisp and even results, given that the type comes from a variety of backgrounds (some may be 100 years old, and some may be brand new from one of the few extant type foundries).  However, there are many wonderful qualities to hand set type, including an element of surprise that happens after the forme is locked up and the first print emerges from the press.




Some letters are charmingly awkward in a way that digital type is not, and many wood letters have an incredible texture to them.  There are elements to working with metal and wood type that can be frustrating for the printer, as well as exhilarating, as one learns how previous craftsmen worked around the quirks of type.

Tips and Advice

When deciding on letterpress printing, if a deep impression is the one thing that you really want, working with an antiquated printer is not the direction to explore.  But if you’re seeking a vintage-inspired design that incorporates original Victorian, Art Deco, or other forms of antique type, then an old timey press is perfect for you!  Antique type is also perfect for couples seeking to model their wedding invitations after vintage show or concert posters, since the medium is particularly suited to text-focused designs.  It is also the most eco-friendly option for letterpress printing, as the type can be used and reused for centuries if it is maintained, eliminating the need to create new materials for every job.

Besides Starshaped Press, where we do all of our printing with handset metal and wood type, here are a few shops we admire for their commitment to antiquated type setting:

Hatch Show Print

Yee Haw Industries


Thanks Jen!  You can check out more from Starshaped Press right here!

Photo Credits: Starshaped Press

Notes on our images:
Grant’s Baby Announcement was printed in two colors on a platen press. The smaller type is all metal, while the name was set in wood. The close up shows the fun texture the wood type created (there’s also a close up of the type itself).  The pale green texture in the background was achieved by printing the back side of a large piece of wood type, combined with ornamental linotype slugs (patterned lines that were cast on a linotype machine).

Abbey and Derek’s Wedding Invitation features a perforated reply card and folds to fit in a #10 envelope.  It is printed in two colors on kraft cover weight stock and combines both wood type and metal type. Because of the amount and variety of size of the type included, it was printed on a Vandercook proof press.  To justify the type, it has to be letterspaced extensively, as shown in the close ups.

*Starshaped Press is a spon­sor of Oh So Beau­ti­ful Paper; for more on my edi­to­r­ial poli­cies please click here.

The Printing Process: Digital Printing

In addition to awesome guest posts over the next two weeks, I’ll be running a series of special posts on the various printing processes while I’m away.  I’ve asked some designers and printers to share their expertise and lots of photos to fill you in on what you need to know about different printing methods, along with a few tips and advice if you’re considering a particular printing method for your wedding invitations or other personal stationery projects.  Today we start the series off with a guest post about the most familiar printing method – digital printing – from Ellie at Mint and Hello Tenfold!

Hello, OSBP!  I’m Ellie from Mint and Hello Tenfold.  I’m excited to be guest blogging today to help clear up the sometimes confusing world of printing methods, starting with digital printing!


What is Digital Printing?

Although I design letterpress and screen printed invitations, I also do a lot of digitally printed invitations and “day-of” wedding stationery, like ceremony programs, menus, escort cards, and more.  I’m sure you have a good idea of what digital printing is; most of us have home or office printers, and the digital printing I use on invitations is similar, but with a fancier and bigger printer.


Unlike offset or letterpress where printing plates are involved, digitally printed invitations are printed directly from a digital file on a computer.  Digital printers transfer four colors of ink (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to paper simultaneously, producing a full-color print after only one pass through the printer – meaning that each invitation takes less time to print and is less expensive to produce than other printing methods.  Unlike letterpress, which leaves a relief impression, and engraving, which produces raised text, digital printing produces a flat image without any texture.


Digital printing is the most commonly used printing method because it’s fast and inexpensive.  Since printing plates aren’t required, it’s a cost effective way to print a low number of pieces (like 50 invitations, for example), and you aren’t limited to the number of colors you can use in one piece.  That means it’s a great way to reproduce scanned imagery (think collages, hand drawn illustrations, or paintings).


The Printing Process

There are two common digital printer types: laser and inkjet.  Laser printers use laser beams, electrical particles, heat, and a plastic particle called toner to create an image, whereas inkjet printers spray ink from cartridges directly onto the paper.


Typically, laser printers handle type and graphics better than inkjets, and inkjets are better for printing photographs. If you’re purchasing a home printer, inkjets are less expensive up front but the ink cartridges can make them more expensive in the long term.


Speaking of home printers, there is a big variety in the quality of printers, as you’ve no doubt noticed!  The printer you have at home probably isn’t as good as the on-demand printing company down the street, and that printing company may not have as high quality machines as a larger, professional printing company.


Tips and Advice

Fortunately, getting proofs of digitally printed work is inexpensive or even free, so if you’re going the DIY route it pays to try different companies to find one that works.  You’ll also want to make sure the company you work with can print on the exact paper you choose, and will pay attention to details like perfectly centered invitation borders if they’re doing the cutting and folding for you.


I often suggest digital printing to brides who don’t have the budget for something like letterpress, but still want modern, well-designed and/or completely custom invitations.  However, digital printing does have limits: papers must be able to withstand heat and to go through a curved or straight path in the printer, which means you are limited in paper weight and thickness.


Also, the lighter paper weight can give a more casual feel than other printing methods, like engraving or letterpress.  But saving money on the printing process can mean extra room in the budget for things like belly bands, envelope liners, and envelope printing (which are also great ways to up the formality of your invitation).  And if you’re reproducing handmade images, it’s often the best (or only!) route to take.

Thanks Ellie!  You can check out more of Ellie’s fabulous invitations and day-of wedding stationery over on Hello Tenfold!

Photo Credits: Nina’s invitation photo by naturally nina, all others by Ellie Snow for Hello Tenfold

*Hello Tenfold is a spon­sor of Oh So Beau­ti­ful Paper; for more on my edi­to­r­ial poli­cies please click here.

{happy weekend!}

Happy happy Friday everyone!  I’m getting a teensy bit dizzy as I write this, because in a couple of days I will leave for a two-week vacation with my husband in Italy!  As you may remember, my husband has been working in Iraq for the last three months – and we’re meeting up for a nice little break in the middle of his deployment.  It’s the first real vacation for either of us in nearly three years and I simply can. not. wait.  So!  For the next two weeks I have a couple of awesome guest bloggers filling in while I’m away, along with some special guest posts giving you an inside look into the printing process.  Please be sure to show all of the fabulous guest bloggers some love while I’m away!  But in the meantime…


…a few links for your weekend!

This week on Oh So Beautiful Paper:

That’s all for me this week!  I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!  xoxo

Photo Credit: Jenny Van Sommers via Feature Shoot via Joy

Kathryn + Ryan’s Timeless Winter Wedding Invitations

You guys, if there’s anyone out there that loves paper as much as I do, it’s Kathryn from Snippet & Ink.  I’ve been poring over each and every detail from Kathryn and Ryan’s winter wedding (you can see the full series right here) and I’m honored that Kathryn decided to share the inspiration behind her gorgeous wedding invitations here today!  Kathryn partnered with Jill from PS Paper to create wedding invitations that truly represent her personal style – elegant, timeless, and totally stunning.

Classic-Elegant-Red-White-Gray-Letterpress-Wedding-Invitations Classic-Elegant-Red-White-Gray-Letterpress-Wedding-Invitations

From KathrynOur save the date design was a collaboration between me and Jill Sassa at PS Paper – I liked the idea of a vintage San Francisco postcard, so that was what we started with.  We used two vintage postcards for the save the dates, one of the Golden Gate Bridge for a note to our guests and one of a cable car for hotel and travel information.


Jill added the tiniest bit of glitter to the postcards, tied them together with bakers twine, finished them off with a little tag, and then mailed them in a glassine envelope with a wrap-around address label.

Classic-Elegant-Red-White-Gray-Letterpress-Wedding-Invitations Classic-Elegant-Red-White-Gray-Letterpress-Wedding-Invitation

For the invitation suite, I wanted something that was both elegant and playful.  After collecting inspiration and discussing the design with Jill and Laurie Arons (my planner), I played around in Photoshop with different fonts, motifs, colors until I got very close to the look that I wanted.


The final design, brought to life by Jill and letterpress artist Alan Hillesheim, used gray and red ink on thick 100% cotton paper from Crane’s in pearl white.  In addition to the red and gray letterpress, we incorporated a blind press wreath in each piece of the suite.

Classic-Elegant-Red-White-Gray-Letterpress-Wedding-Invitations-Reception-Card Classic-Elegant-Red-White-Gray-Letterpress-Wedding-Invitations-Envelope

Red hand-painted edges on the invitations and envelope flaps were a simple touch that added a pop of color.  We wanted guests to receive something that they’d be excited to open, which I think we accomplished by using Betsy Dunlap‘s calligraphy and vintage stamps from The Paper Nickel.  Other playful details: on the invitations, our first names were the only thing printed in red; our reception cards were coasters, hinting at the supper club feel of our venue; and the RSVP cards gave guests room for personal responses (my favorite response was from my teenage cousin who wrote in gigantic capital letters: I WILL BE THERE. THAT’S A PROMISE.).


Can I just say how much I’m in love with this red, gray, and white color palette?  So perfect for a winter wedding – sophisticated and festive without being overly Christmas-y.  In addition to stunning wedding invitations and save the dates, Kathryn had some of the most adorable paper details at her wedding – from beautiful glittery menus to playful calligraphy button escort cards:

Winter-Wedding-Details-Silver-Wreath-Menu Winter-Wedding-Details-Menus-Napkins

Winter-Wedding-Details-Calligraphy-Button-Escort-Cards Winter-Wedding-Details-Red-Calligraphy-Button-Escort-Cards

Thank you Kathryn!  You can read more about Kathryn’s invitations (and the printing process) here and here, and see all of the amazing images and details from Kathryn’s wedding right here.

Invitations and Save the Dates: PS Paper

Wedding Invitation Calligraphy: Betsy Dunlap

Vintage Stamps: The Paper Nickel

Letterpress Printing: Alan Hillesheim

Escort Card Calligraphy: Maybelle Imasa-Stukuls

Photo Credits: Elizabeth Messina, with the exception of the save the date photo by PS Paper

p.s. If you haven’t seen Kathryn’s wedding video… it’s the most beautiful wedding video I’ve ever seen and I dare you not to tear up while you watch it.  Go. Now.

{happy weekend!}

Yeesh… this week went by in a complete flash, at least for me.  Which is good as I try to get through the remaining months until my husband comes home (in late summer, sigh), but also kind of scary when I think about the fact that the National Stationery Show is just over a month away.  Time is going by so fast!  I have a couple of fun things coming up soon that I can’t wait to tell you all about, but you’ll have to wait until next week for details.  But in the meantime…


Photo Credit: L’antipodeuse

…a few links for your weekend:

This week on Oh So Beautiful Paper:

That’s it for me this week!  I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you back here on Monday! xoxo