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Dear George: What are letterpress plates?

by George Graves

Originally, letterpress printing was not letterpress at all, but simply “printing.” As other methods of printing became the industry standard, letterpress referred to the actual, physical letters that were handset and printed. The old-timers prided themselves on a kiss impression, hitting the paper just enough to cleanly transfer the ink. Not only was a deep impression bad form, it also risked damaging the type or press. These days, it’s the impression that brings clients through our doors. As the forms used for printing, the substrates to be printed on, and the desired results continue to evolve, letterpress, as we know it today, is described as a form of relief printing (printing from a raised image) done on presses with a bed that is type-high (0.918 inches). 

HANDSET TYPE AND BLOCKS
Traditionally, individual, movable, pieces of type and image blocks were assembled by hand. Each line of type, each image, had to be placed one-by-one within a form. It also had to be set in reverse in order to achieve a right-reading print. Line spacing was created using actual strips of lead (hence the typography term “leading,” which we still use today). Additionally, before the use of zinc and magnesium for printing blocks, the images all had to be carved by hand. 

movable lead type, acid-etched blocks, linotype cast type
movable lead type, acid etched blocks, linotype cast type

In today’s economy, with a commercial, production-minded, profit-driven viewpoint, the downfalls of handset type and hand-carved blocks are easy to spot: the final design of a piece is limited to the type that the printer has available in his/her shop and the quality of image is limited to their ability. There is no such thing as a “quick” turn-around.

However, from an artist’s or printmaker's perspective, the pros of handwork more than make up for any negatives:

  • The ability to design within limitations is an enviable skill.
  • The time involved can often be therapeutic.
  • A Photoshop filter will never match the character of worn wood type.
  • A digital typeface will never compete with the marks of the maker left in hand-carved blocks.

You would be hard-pressed to find any moveable type or blocks in our pressroom, but that doesn’t mean we don’t respect our roots. We hold a deep-rooted respect and admiration for the work of those like Hatch Show Print in Nashville, TN and we take Jim Sherraden’s motto - “preservation through production” - to heart as the pressroom comes to life each morning. What better way to preserve this craft, its materials, and its equipment than by printing? 

PHOTOPOLYMER PLATES
Photopolymer is a photosensitive material that works much like the light sensitive emulsion that is applied to a silkscreen for screen printing. The polymer is exposed to ultraviolet lights through a negative film. The areas beneath the transparent film are exposed and the part of the plate beneath the opaque portion of the film is not. After exposure, the plate goes through a water washing process where the unexposed polymer is washed away leaving the exposed polymer hardened as a relief surface which can then be used for printing. Before printing, the polymer must have a backing applied. There are steel backed plates to be used on magnetic bases or adhesive-backed plates which do not require a magnetic base. The polymer and backing, once mounted on the correct base, are type-high.

Polymer plate with printed card
Polymer plate pictured with printed Vespa anniversary card

In many ways, it’s the use of photopolymer plates that has kept the custom letterpress industry alive: 

  • Photopolymer allows for the limitless potential of digital design to be letterpress printed.
  • Older printing presses don't have to be converted before printing with polymer because the plates have been made to be type-high once applied to a base.
  • It is faster to create a plate than it is to handset an entire form of type.
  • Polymer will endure much greater force than type and if a plate is damaged, it is much cheaper to replace.
  • It takes much less space to store 100 polymer plates than 100 trays of pre-set wood or metal type just in case a job might be printed again.

Ultimately, it comes down to your needs and the aims of your project. I often think of the letterpress world as two sides of the same coin: print-makers and printers.

PRINTMAKERS are artists. They’re a designer/printer combo. They can use the same supply of type to create endlessly varied results. They’re likely to know the trade’s history, to name a typeface at a glance, and to know which foundry cast it. They can range anywhere from very loose in their style of printing to tight enough to put a production printer to shame.

PRINTERS will bring your vision to life, not their own. They have enough design knowledge to offer you solutions and compromises to get your vision to work best with letterpress and enough wisdom not to make choices for you. They'll match a PMS color exactly, no matter the trouble. They'll turn things around in a rush to meet your production schedule. 

To be fair, many of us reside with one foot in either world. It was my discovery of wood type and a respect for the history of the trade that eventually led me to my current place slinging ink with polymer plates and automatic presses.

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