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Letterpress – a quick history

The Artisan Press compositorContemporary letterpress printing is a careful blend of ink, pressure and paper mixed with a generous helping of skill. The unique printed result remains sought after for its hand-made appeal and wonderful aura of quality.

Letterpress is a form of printing called relief printing, and is the oldest method of printing known to mankind. Printing this way, in the sense of impressing an inked surface with another material, dates back to A.D. 175 courtesy of the Chinese, who are also credited with inventing paper 75 years earlier. Over the centuries, printing spread throughout Asia to Japan, Korea, Turkey and eventually Europe.

From this early period until the middle of the 15th century, the actual process remained the same. Blocks of wood or stone were cut away with tools leaving a raised image, which was then inked. The surrounding areas, which were lower, did not receive ink. Paper was laid on the inked image and pressure applied by rubbing bamboo, bone or a dry brush to the back of the sheet. The inked image was transferred directly to paper.

GutenbergWe generally think of printing as a European invention and that’s because of one man – Johannes Gutenberg. In 1450 Gutenberg changed everything. Foremost, he invented a way of creating movable type by casting individual letters in hot metal, removing the need to carve whole pages out of wooden blocks. But he also invented oil based printing ink and most importantly – the printing press. His main client in those days was the Church. During this period the Church employed scribes to hand write and illustrate each page, called illumination. Importantly, there was generally only one copy of each book. The printing press meant that pages could now be duplicated easily.

The Artisan Press letterpressThe printing press and its associated industries undertook a lot of changes and development over the next few centuries in order to achieve greater production speeds. By the late 1960s and early 1970s letterpress was discarded by the printing industry in favour of offset lithography, which together with various forms of digital printing, are now the major printing techniques used today for the production of most printed materials.

Today, letterpress is generally considered a craft. It is no longer taught as a major component to printing trade apprentices (printing machinists). Its skills and techniques have been largely passed on by an older generation to a new generation of printers willing to explore the unique possibilities available using a combination of old and new technology in the pursuit of beautiful printing. 

The Artisan Press’ Wayne Davis completed his printing apprenticeship in the last trade years of letterpress, under the watchful eyes of both a Dutch and an English Master Printer. Now privileged information, Wayne uses these traditional techniques combined with techniques he’s developed since 1999 to push the boundaries of what is possible with ink, paper and pressure.


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