Behind the Scenes: Letterpress

By Season Hurd |

Cabin Press Studio, Logo, Colorado, Letterpress

When I received an email from Denise at Cabin Press Studio inviting me to come to Ft. Collins and learn how to print, I was really excited. Letterpress is an old and beautiful art form that is making a huge comeback and I’ve always wondered how it works. I have to say that the experience did not disappoint and even exceeded my expectations. Denise was a fantastic teacher and it made me feel like I was part of a special secret that few people get to be in on.

After over 30 years working for the Division of Wildlife, she retired and turned her efforts to a more creative pursuit. She’s rapidly become a letterpress expert, selling locally and through Etsy. Having heard the cadence of the machine and  seen the rhythm of the process, I can see its cathartic properties. It must be lovely to be one with a 100+ year old press and to get beautiful pieces of paper artwork out of it to boot. Denise is a lucky lady!

Denise is too sweet. She was a great teacher and is willing to bring her smallest machine to your location to teach the process!

Denise is too sweet. She was a great teacher and is willing to bring her smallest machine to your location to teach the process!

What is letterpress?

Letterpress dates back to 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg created the first printing machine that used movable type (individual letters that could be arranged as needed to form blocks of type). Many variations on the machine have been made including large scale, industrial newspaper printing machines. Nowadays this kind of technology is no longer used and most of the machines have fallen into disrepair. But a few smart people have begun to bring back the art form and have refurbished machines to provide really beautiful paper products. Because the designs are literally pressed into the paper, you get a fantastic texture and richness that can’t be achieved with a standard printer. It’s very likely you have seen letterpress invitations, coasters, etc. and adored their expensive feel, high quality, and artistic appearance but never knew what you were looking at!

Letterpress, invite, moving, Cabin Press Studio

Note how recessed the windows on the house are because of the pressing process. Letterpress creates an impression that is noticeable when viewed or touched.

How does it work?

The machines that Denise uses vary in age from 130 years to only about 60 years. She lovingly restored each of her four printing machines and even named them. While some aspects of them vary, all use at least two rollers, an ink plate, and a platen (a hinged surface that holds the type and moves to press into the paper).

Letterpress, press, Kelsey, Golding, Chandler and Price, Cabin Press Studio

Here is the lineup (clockwise from upper left): Rocky is a 1950s model Kelsey, Sequoia is an 1884 Chandler & Price Platen Press, Pika is a circa 1950 Kelsey and the little brother version of Rocky, and Columbine is an extremely rare 1913 Golding Map Press. Pika was originally sold in the back of Boy’s Life magazine to young boys for allowance money and is now worth over $1000!

Without going into too much detail:

  • Denise uses very old wooden type, lead type, lino blocks, metal plates, and photopolymer plates depending on the look desired and the complexity of the design. Detailed designs (like invitations) are created on a computer and sent away to have a plate (like a stamp) made out of photopolymer, magnesium, or copper. That plate is attached to an appropriately sized block of wood.
Wooden, letters, type, face, letterpress, Cabin Press Studio

Wooden type lettering like this is very old. I used this for my instruction.

Cabin Press Studio, letterpress, type font, drawer, lead, letters

An example of a drawer of lead type. This is what fonts looked like before computers.

  • A metal rectangle called a chase is loaded up with blocks containing letters, designs, etc. It is shimmed and tightened with a special tool called a quoin that is manipulated with a key to ensure that the pieces don’t fall out.
Letterpress, quoin, key, wooden letters, chase, Cabin Press Studio

My design loaded into the chase with shimming blocks and the quoin at the bottom (with key sticking out of it).

  • The chase is loaded onto the platen.
Letterpress, Cabin Press Studio, wooden letters, wooden type, platen

My design loaded onto the platen. Sorry the image is blurry but it was moving.

  • Oil or rubber based ink is mixed on a piece of glass and placed onto the ink plate.
Cabin Press Studio, Pantone, Colors, Deck

Ink is mixed based on Pantone ratios. For the top color, she would literally do 94 dabs of Transparent White! The actual amount of ink that ends up on the disk is about the size of your pinky nail.

  • When the machine is operating, the rollers move along the ink plate. The plate rotates slightly with each cycle to keep mixing the ink and properly inking the rollers.
  • The inked rollers then move down along the platen and ink the letters/designs on the plates.
  • When ready, the operator pulls a level to swing the platen forward and it presses the design into the paper.
  • The lever is released and the machine continues to ink the plates and allows additional prints to be made when ready.
Sequoia, the 884 Chandler & Price Platen Press, sits inked (shiny circle on top). Right below the ink disk is the platen (empty in this photo) that swings forward and pressed the design into the paper. In this case, the paper holder as swings forward to meet the platen. Everything is driven by the wheel in the foreground. The rollers (not really visible) roll along the platen and the ink disk to put ink on the design. The level is pulled to press the image.

Sequoia, the 1884 Chandler & Price Platen Press, sits inked (shiny circle on top). Right below the ink plate is the platen (empty in this photo) that swings forward and presses the design into the paper. In this case, the paper holder also swings forward to meet the platen. Everything is driven by the wheel in the foreground. The rollers (not really visible) roll along the platen and the ink plate to put ink on the design. The lever is pulled to press the image.

Letterpress, First attempt

Here is my finished product. Since we used wooden letters the look is inconsistent and vintage. Other varieties of letterpress are more solid and more deeply set. If I would have “double-tapped” I could have gotten a little more even coverage but I think it’s very cool the way it is! I did good for a first attempt. Didn’t even get my hands stuck in the mechanical bits!

An incredible amount of work goes into setting the type, aligning everything, and making sure that the heights of the letters and such are consistent within a fraction of an inch. I now understand why “typesetter” was a terrible job back in the day. Not only is it tedious work, you have to think backwards to make the image look correct when it’s pressed into the paper. Literally every piece printed is unique because of the positioning of the paper, the way it is pressed, the way the ink distributes, etc. 

Cabin Press Studio, lettepress, designs, wood, metal

A variety of designs in different media for use with letterpress.

What to press?

Popular items for weddings include letterpress invitations, menus, seating cards, thank you notes, ceremony programs, tags, napkins, and coasters. Other cool things to consider would be post cards, small wooden tasting spoons (she’s done it and they are neat), bookmarks, and many other kinds of favors. I would love to see the wooden spoons attached to an edible favor. Another favorite of mine that is delightfully Colorado is her recipe cards in a hand-made beetle-kill wooden box. It’s a great way to make something beautiful out of something tragic. I think they would be great for a wedding gift, a guest book or seating chart (use different cards than the recipe cards), or as a shower gift where everyone contributes a recipe for the couple.

Cabin Press Studio, letterpress, coaster, bird, modern

Letterpress coasters show how the method can be used to create vintage or modern designs.

Cabin Press Studio, Beetle Kill, Wood, Box, Recipe

This beetle-kill wooden box comes with recipe cards and dividers but could be used in many ways for a shower or wedding.

Take a look at her very cool video to see everything in action:

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