Letterpress tends to have a very tactile quality, with a slight debossing effect evident where the ink has been laid. Occasionally letterpress also combines blind debossing, where a block is made and used without ink purely for its debossing effect. As the process is very manual, letterpress tends to also be as much about the paper stock as the print itself, with the printer and designer working together to choose unusual, richly textured or heavyweight stocks.
The finished print surface, constructed from moveable type and image blocks, is inked before being applied with pressure to the surface being printed. This results in a clean, sharp imprint, and dependent upon the amount of pressure applied during the print, along with the material being printed onto, a physical debossing impression will be made. This debossing impression is part of the appeal of letterpress print, as it adds to the tactile nature of the printed piece.
Traditionally, letterpress printing involved arranging individual blocks of 'moveable type' into a caddy, forming words from the combination of letters. As this type was used to make the print, all the characters were moulded in reverse, and the words had to be similarly arranged in reverse. Images could be included in letterpress prints, but needed to be etched in metal, making it a time-consuming process.
Many of the typography terms and phrases we’re now familiar with originate from the combination of moveable type and the letterpress process. 'Upper case' and 'lower case', for example, refers to the storage of the different type forms in type cases. 'Leading', the space between two lines of type, refers to strips of lead placed between lines of moveable type to space them further apart.
Thankfully, in the 20th century a new process was invented whereby text and graphics could be produced onto a metal block, providing the necessary difference in height to create the same clean print possible with moveable type and etched images. These blocks nowadays are what modern printers use to create letterpress from your digital artwork.
Each colour needs to be printed individually on letterpress, and the process doesn’t suit the familiar CMYK blended colour approach. Consequently, you need to consider letterpress as being a series of spot colours - try to avoid overlapping colours where possible, as this will create inconsistencies during the printing process. As each colour requires a separate block to be created, you should also try to stick to a maximum of two or three colours overall. Ask your printer for advice if you need to use more colours.
The resolution of a piece of artwork is important when using letterpress as very fine details may be lost during the printing process. Different printers will have different tolerances, so ask your printer for the minimum detail area size that they can support. Some fonts have lines that are too fine for effective letterpress printing, so try to avoid these in your design.