Designing For Letterpress

Designing For Letterpress – Paper

So, here’s the thing about paper in the graphic design world. It’s pretty much always white! A lot of graphic designers will only use white paper their entire career; knowing one thing: “if I want color, I just give it color in my design.” Never learning anything about other paper options. In fact, never even caring about paper at all. They just accept what’s given to them, but not you, right? That’s why you’re here reading this blog post.

Thing is, I’m guilty. It’s part of the reason I got into letterpress printing. For almost half of my graphic design career, I did what every designer does. Design something in full color and click print. That image is then printed in full color onto a very cheap coated paper. Maybe there’s some fancy pants moves here and there by adding a spot UV coating, but the process and the paper still remain unknown. Am I right?

Is there something wrong with full color offset or digital printing? Not at all! Offset and digital printing technologies paired with papers specifically designed for them have come a long way. The clarity of the image, the vibrancy of colors, it’s good stuff. I’m not some prude, purest with a quoin key stuck up his… you get my point. Full color printing is great, and it has it’s place in print design, for sure. It always will, even for the majority of printing. I even use it today in conjunction with my letterpress work where needed. What I’m saying is, there is an entire world of print most graphic designers will never even know about, and a lot of that world has to do with paper.

What’s This Paper Stuff?

Well, this paper stuff is pretty cool. You get to consider what your paper is made of and where it comes from. You also get to pick things like color, tooth, texture, finishes and special coatings. Not only can you craft the way your prints will look, but you can also have control over how they FEEL. Which is something, I feel, that hasn’t really been considered too often throughout the history of print. Now, I can only attest for my lifetime and the research I’ve done on the past, but the rise of coated paper and then full color printing killed what tactile considerations there were prior to their revolutions.

Designing For Letterpress - Business Cards

Designing For Letterpress - Heidelberg Windmill

Modern Letterpress Printing

Modern letterpress printing has created a unique, extra layer of tactile design with a level of focus that I don’t think has ever existed before. Sure, there’s always been embossing and debossing or smooth, linen and felt, but not like this. Modern letterpress printing breaks the rules. It even breaks the rules for how the machines were originally designed to print! The best part about letterpress printing, is it opens up this world of paper I keep mentioning.

It allows you to print on paper that other printing methods can’t handle quite as well, if at all. It’s the perfect print method for papers with a larger tooth. (What’s tooth? Tooth is a term that refers to the surface texture of a paper. Smaller tooth is smoother. Larger tooth is textured.) Sheet fed, offset printing would be the second best print method for this kind of paper, but you’re limited on paper thickness. Also, the image may not be as clear on a paper with a larger tooth.

Designing For Letterpress - Triplexing

Lastly, modern letterpress printing, with it’s debossing by default, allows you to sculpt the surface or your print with your own additional texture. If we’ve collectively learned anything about good design within the last decade, we’ve definitely learned that texture on texture and natural noise looks good and feels good. Just so happens, these are the strengths of modern letterpress printing.

Designing For Letterpress - Business Cards

Paper Color

Remember what I said about most graphic designers using white paper their entire career? It’s mostly true, there’s always exceptions. Paper manufacturers have been making colored paper for ages. Somebody must be using it, right? Envelopes, packaging, corporate reports, folders… it’s out there for sure, but there’s so many designers that will never know this world. I think modern letterpress printing and how it’s been a grass roots movement within the printing industry has allowed more designers to have access to production methods that have otherwise been completely out of reach for decades. Processes and options that had vanished in the pursuit of printing as cheap as possible, but it’s back, better than ever. As a designer, I think it’d be important for you to know what options are available to you and how they affect the quality of your print. Starting with paper color.

Colored paper will always create a better quality product than a color flood…

The Paper Rule

The first rule I want to instill within you is this: Colored paper will always create a better quality product than a color flood of ink. When possible, choose and use a colored paper. If you establish this rule at the beginning of your design or branding project, you can select a color of paper and match your Pantone colors to that paper. This will be beneficial, as there are limited colors of paper readily available.

There are some exceptions:

1. When the branding calls for a specific Pantone color and there isn’t a matching colored paper – you’ll want to print a spot color, sheet flood via offset printing. However, a paper with a heavy tooth may contribute to ink rub depending on it’s fiber length and the ink used.

2. When your budget doesn’t match up – Using a colored paper means that you are unable to print a true white or medium to light color ink. All letterpress and offset inks are translucent. Some more than others. When printing white on navy for example, depending on the paper type, the result will be a dull grey to light blue color. Therefore, ink printing on colored papers should be limited to metallic silver or golds, black, tonal colors, or blind impressions. If white or other bright colors are required, we can foil stamp pigment colors in gloss or matte. However, foil stamping is more expensive. So, if this is out of your budget, printing a color flood with knocked out type may be your only option.

3. When printing posters or similar kinds of illustration or having a lot of knocked out elements – Sometimes artwork requires color floods or larger areas of color and overprinting on light to white paper. The rule does not apply here. Color floods are not an issue to print.

Designing For Letterpress - Paper

What Paper To Use

We’ve taken the time to hand select papers that create the best quality product available. When you specify that you want a grey paper, we use a very specific grey paper. Red, pink, blue, same thing, but we’ll also print on a paper you choose. We’ll advise you if we think there’s any issue. Here’s a few paper lines with a wide color array to consider:

Final Thoughts

Going back to The Paper Rule for just a moment, let me clarify that this rule is to apply when the entire surface area of the print or an entire side of a print is to be a solid color. Color floods in general, or color floods that have a lot of knocked out text or unique design elements are not an issue. This rule isn’t about the quality of color flood printing with offset or letterpress. We print fantastic color floods! Instead, the rule will simply help ensure that you design the best quality product possible. Because, offset color floods may lead to rub or cracking and the sheets will have white edges. While letterpress color floods flatten out the tooth of the paper, which can also lead to sheet warp. So, if your letterpress color flood doesn’t have some kind unique knockout design element or a border to it that will stay raised (sculpting the texture), the color flood would actually be degrading the tactile quality of the print. Which is why using a colored paper will always result in a superior product. So, whether you’re printing with us or whoever and however or designing whatever-whenever, just keep that rule in mind. Additionally, remember to design with paper colors first and match your Pantone colors to that.

Questions About Designing For Letterpress?

Feel free to reach out to us with your questions concerning your letterpress designs. We’re here to help you design the best possible prints.