Spring 2013
Hot Off The Press By Sharon Naylor

Do You Know Your Letterpress Lingo?

When an image is lightly pressed on the paper to appear flat on the page, it's kissed.

When it's pressed more firmly to create an indented, textured effect, it's punched.

The crafts movement is revitalizing an interest in letterpress stationery. Find out how and what makes this category just your type.

The look, the feel of letterpress. The texture, imprinted messaging and handmade appeal of letterpress harkens back to a time of handmade creations, which has been brought back into vogue by the Etsy-driven crafts movement and the emotional charge of products being handmade by an actual artisan, not mass-produced. All stationery of course offers a departure from digital communications.

“People appreciate the quality and general presentation of letterpress items, since it feels like it’s something special,” says Erica Henriksen, marketing manager of print company Smock Paper, headquartered in Syracuse, New York. “People want the handmade look.” Letterpress is hot, and growing hotter by the day, with innovations in design style making this print realm an ever-evolving one appealing to a wide demographic of buyers.

Letterpress 101


“The letterpress item is not just shot off the inkjet printer at the nearest copy shop,” says Jada Schumacher, designer and founder of letterpress company Design Orange in New York City. It’s a detailed process that takes great expertise and attention to detail, which shows in the final product.

Letterpress originated many centuries ago as a form of relief printing in which movable type made of wood or metal was hand-set into a place-locking bed. The design was then inked by hand, at which point paper would be rolled or pressed against it to make an impression. Old, original letterpress machines are still in use, with artists hand-setting, hand-inking and setting papers to roll impressions directly onto them. Over time, wood engraving blocks and linoleum tiles were also used in these hand-pulled letterpress machines, and then came the aid of higher technology.

Ink is mixed by the artisan and applied to the press by hand and the printing process is most often done still by hand, with the paper run through the press at least once to incorporate each color into the design. When one run of ink is created, the designer may have to ink up the press in the next color the next day. The artist fine-tunes the amount of pressure and backing that creates the embedded print, making adjustments through a print run. Next comes the careful process of cutting the print items. Though variations in letterpress techniques abound, this time-consuming method forms the backbone for the letterpress process. The amount of time and effort that goes into it accounts for the higher price of letterpress items.

“Soft, thick papers (typically made of cotton) will yield the greatest impression,” says Kenneth Schrag, owner of letterpress printing company Benjamin Paul, LLC based in Seattle. “Of course, this type of heavy impression is a modern invention.” Early-era letterpress involved a gentle pressing method to lengthen the life of the type, with images just ‘kissed’ onto each paper.

Why the letterpress love?


“I blame Martha, and I say that with love, says Jenny Piette, owner of the funky print design house McBitterson’s headquartered in Chicago. Renewed interest in letterpress was widely fueled by Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, which began featuring images of letterpress invitations in the 1990s.

Artisans began snapping up old letterpress machines, and so began the wave of modern letterpress artistry we enjoy today. Consumers love the handmade style, knowing this particular gift item was made by a person. That they could know the name of the artisan and his or her ‘story’ makes it all the better. Piette also points to the new trend of supporting local artisans as another selling point.

“Texture is key!” says Schumacher. “So many of our days are spent interfacing with slick touchscreens and viewing digital color. The real color of letterpress with real ink on real paper seems like a luxury of our grandmother’s time.” As a result, Schumacher says, “the sense of specialness in the midst of mass production markets is a gem.”

Buyers love it that each impression may be slightly different, adding to the appeal of handmade craft items so popular right now. “Letterpress can be crisp and clean or a little rugged depending on how you operate the machine,” says Jill Morrison, owner of letterpress design studio Ruff House Art in Lawrence, Kansas. “Either way, letterpress is unmatched by any other technique. Buyers love the feel and the slight variations from item to item depending on where they landed in the print run.”

Pinterest is a driving force pushing letterpress design into the consumer must-have mindset. With so many pretty letterpress invitations, cards, coasters and other items showcased there – repinned by stationery and craft aficionados – letterpress is getting even more popular by the day.

Perennial favorites

The most common letterpress items are greeting cards for birthdays, and other special occasions. Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and wedding invitations are also big. Morrison, with Ruff House Art, says that greeting cards are tops, with invitations coming in second place in popularity.

Abbey Malcolm, founder and chief creative director of Abbey Malcolm Letterpress + Design in West Deptford, New Jersey says, “The most common products we see are related to wedding stationery and décor. We always have wedding invitation suites, as well as menus, programs, table numbers, escort cards and favor tags on press. Many of our brides love lace, fabric-inspired prints and art deco designs.”

New and noteworthy

Smock2-Art deco, Jazz-age inspired designs are in. “We’re definitely seeing a lot of golds and blacks inspired by this style,” says Henriksen of Smock.

Products appealing to men are also a rising trend, says Henriksen. “We offer flat-panel valet cards that are really popular and work very well for men’s gift items, and we find that women like the style and colors as well.” Also in the co-ed seller category is Smock’s letterpress tear-off notepads, for organizing, list-making use.

Kseniya Thomas, owner of Thomas-Printers in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and co-director of the letterpress artisan online community Ladies of Letterpress says, “We’re seeing more ornate typefaces, as well as more simplicity of design with clean linear style. Also, arrow and tribal motifs are big in today’s letterpress collections.”

Letterpress coasters have made the jump from perennial sellers to ‘new and different’ via new designs. Schumacher says that the Design Orange collections now feature a wider range of coaster styles. “The cocktail lingo coasters are our bestselling letterpress items. They’re sweet, square coasters with filleted edges, available in packs of four or eight, showing off the words of the mixology crowd – extra-dry, shaken, stirred, neat, virgin, on the rocks, dirty and more, printed on European-milled heavyweight paperboard with 40% recycled material.”

For the eco-friendly crowd, Ruff House recently released their Garden Seeds Collection of letterpress vegetable-seeded greeting cards that can be planted to grow tomatoes and carrots. This spring, they launch their line of new notecards and gift wrap.“I would suggest that gift shop owners consider letterpress artwork,” says Malcolm. “This artwork can take the form of a framed print that announces the details of a child’s birth, the last name of a family, or even the name of your favorite shore town where you spend your summers.”

Messaging is key, with humorous and quirky sayings on greeting cards and print items also trending up. Letterpress may lend itself to a more elegant clientele in bridal, but the average consumer of letterpress gift items wants variety in messaging, from formal and classic to cutting-edge, cute and zany.

With the stationery category growing in popularity, Jill Morrison sums it up best: “Letterpress is here to stay, and with the popularity of the handmade, USA-made movement, it will only become more in-demand.”

Sharon Naylor

Naylor is the author of 30 wedding books, including Your Special Wedding Vows and Your Special Wedding Toasts.SharonNaylor.net

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