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While letterpress printing is super, crazy,
amazing and awesome, it is not appropriate
for all layouts.

Given the equipment used (vintage presses and photo-polymer plates) and the way they are operated (by hand) there are several things to keep in mind when designing for letterpress printing.


Tiny stuff

This is the number one problem I have with files I receive from other graphic designers. Yes, tiny type and thin rules look great, but they do not mix well with letterpress. Make sure that all rules, lines and type are .35pt or thicker. Also, make sure that all dots, commas, and dots over “i”s are 1pt to 1.25pt in diameter or thicker. Why? During the platemaking process small elements can wash away, and in the event that they survive there isn’t enough polymer around them, so they’ll likely break off while printing.

 

No continuous tone

As you design for letterpress, think about each layer/color as being created using only black ink. Yes, it’ll be printed in color, but each color must be made into its own plate and the plate files can only contain black and white. If you want to create tone or shading, you’ll need to add a halftone or lines like in an old engraving or newspaper halftone image.

 

One or two colors are great!

While your Epson printer or color laser can pop out full-color images as fast as you can press command-P, letterpress works differently. Every color, even blind impression, means another pass through the press. The press is inked up with color A and the sheets are run through. Then the press is cleaned and inked up with color B and the sheets are run through again. This process is repeated for every color in the design, and the same goes for blind impressions and scoring. Even though these elements don’t require ink, they must pass through the press again. For this reason one- and two-color layouts are great for letterpress because they are impactful and cost-effective. Every pass through the press takes time and costs money.

 

Three for the price of two

Letterpress ink is generally transparent, and designing with this mind can lead to creating a third color. Just like we all learned in elementary school…yellow + blue = green. Pay for two colors and get a third color for free!

 

White ink

Per the previous question, letterpress inks are generally transparent — the same goes for white. While it is possible to print white ink on dark paper like kraft or chipboard, it is important to keep in mind that the white will never be opaque and the paper will always show through. Sure, more ink can be added, but it’ll slur up the bevel and the quintessential look of letterpress will be compromised. Also, a double hit is possible but that kind of registration will take a lot of additional paper and time, and will cost extra. White ink on dark papers can look great, just keep in mind the limitations and legibility issues.

 

Large solids

Large areas of solid inks can be tricky. With letterpress it is difficult to apply even pressure across a large area, and solids will appear peppery and splotchy. If you want an even solid area, letterpress is probably not the way to go. On the other hand, the results can look vintage and cool, so it all depends on what you’re going for. Keep in mind, too, that large solid areas are like snowshoes — the impression will be shallow if at all. 

 

Impression

The amount of impression achievable with letterpress is directly related to two factors: design and paper. Some designs will not indent well. For instance, large solid areas are hard to indent, while lines and linear patterns are easy. Lines and type fall into paper like boots through fluffy snow; large areas and super tight patterns sit on top of the paper, like a snowshoe prevents boots from sinking into snow. Makes sense?

Most paper is made from trees, and depending on the amount of fiber content, the paper might be harder or softer. Other paper is made from 100% cotton, and is very soft and pliable. For letterpress, we want soft, pliable paper that will hold impression. If you select a hard, high tree- and glue-content paper, don’t expect much impression. Literally, the paper is too hard to work with. Some papers I love to print on are Crane’s Lettra, Reich Savoy and plain old chipboard.


Bruising

Deep impressions will show through or bruise the backside of any sheet of paper. If your layout is two-sided, keep this mind and offset the front and back elements. If side A and side B are both in the same spot, you’ll need to select one side to give way to the other.

To avoid this, spec your job as duplex — mount two sheets together. This way both sheets can be deeply impressed and there will be no show-through. Alternatively, you can alter your design to be single-sided or print on such thick paper that show-through will be unlikely. Sheets like Crane’s Lettra 220DTC are thick enough that both sides can be impressed with little to no show-through.


Check with the experts

These links will take you to Boxcar Press, where we have all of our photo-polymer plates made. All designs that pass through Lilco also pass through Boxcar, and we adhere to Boxcar’s rules very closely.

Boxcar Press File Prep Checklist

How to Check for 100% CMYK Black

How to Check for Line and Dot Thickness Minimums