Our friend Sarah, who runs Petite Press, recently designed and printed some snazzy new letterpress business cards for us. This is how they were made. If you’ve ever wondered how letterpress printing works, here’s your chance to learn all about it from somebody who just learned all about it.
LETTERPRESS BUSINESS CARDS, HOT OFF THE PRESS. LITERALLY.
A couple weeks ago, we got to see a genuine, bonafide, vintage letterpress in action. It was fascinating. The craftsmanship, precision, and quality that was built into these hefty machines is just amazing. Like most letterpresses, this letterpress was built a long time ago – in 1915 to be precise. And it still works like a charm today. The uses of letterpresses have changed a bit over the years. Originally used to print books, they’re making a resurgence today in what has been coined the “Small Press Movement.” Things like letterpress business cards and wedding invitations are all the rage right now. Letterpress adds a crafty, lux finish that makes letterpress items really stand out from non-letterpress counterparts. We’re suckers for hand-made, artsy stuff, so getting some letterpress business cards was a dream-come-true.
We got to be a part of the letterpress process thanks to our good friend and climbing buddy, Sarah. She is a designer/printmaker/artist/letterpress extraordinaire and the founder of Petite Press, where she offers letterpress and design services. Her work is amazing and we’ve been ooo-ing and aaah-ing over it since we met her a couple years ago. So when she invited us over to her studio to watch the whole letterpress process go down, we were psyched.
By the way, Sarah drew up the Airstream mountain graphic printed on our business cards too – how awesome is that image?! Can you see the similarity to our 1972 Airstream Overlander? We loooove how she uses lines in her work to create movement and texture. It’s a common theme in her art, and if you like it, she has lots of prints you should check out. Later in this blog there’s a drawing of Aiko she did that is mindblowing.
Her studio is in the little mountain town of Lyons, Colorado, not far from Boulder. Sarah’s workspace is within The Corner Studios, which also doubles as a gallery, a home, a frame shop, and is just a really cool space with tons of character. If you’re in Lyons, we recommend dropping by. You’ll get inspired and want to make some art, guaranteed.
So, how does printing letterpress business cards work?
Great question, glad you asked. This was the first time we had seen a letterpress in action, and Sarah gave us the lowdown on how this beastly machine works. No doubt she would do a better job describing the process than I can, but I’ll give it a whirl. Basically, a letterpress makes an inked imprint on paper. The ink isn’t just printed, it’s pressed firmly into the paper, hence, letterpress. So you end up with a product that has both texture and the inked artwork or text. When you’re making things with a letterpress, you need some pretty thick paper. We went full on industrial-tree-trunk-fatty-paper so we could letterpress front and back. These are some beefy business cards, so you’re gonna think twice before throwing it away. You better.
The first order of business was to cut the paper into business card-sized pieces. Along with the letterpress, Sarah uses another vintage machine to cut paper. And much like the letterpress, this thing is a beast. It cut through stacks of this ultra-thick paper like a hot knife through butter. It was pretty satisfying. After we had our stacks of blank business cards, it was time to prep the letterpress and get down to business.
Literally everything about letterpress is handcrafted, and the process starts with the ink. Sarah whipped out her Pantone swatches and we picked out an ink color, a sexy dark green. She then pulled out some tubes of ink, squirted a mixture of black and green on a pallet, and began mixing. Soon, the ink was blended into our color of choice, sexy dark green.
Alright, so now it’s time to letterpress. Sarah spread the ink over a metal plate on the press, and fired it up the machine. A small motor, one of the modern additions to this vintage machine, rotates the large, spoked wheel, which in turn sets all the other parts in motion through a series of gears and hydraulics. Then, all the subsequent steps happen in a swift series of motions that you have to watch closely to understand.
Disclaimer: this is likely the least educated description of the letterpress printing process that you will find anywhere on the internet:
- The ink is smoothed across the plate by rollers, and the rollers get covered with ink.
- After the rollers are inked, they roll over the photopolymer plate, applying ink to it. The photopolymer plates adhere to an aluminum base called the Boxcar Base which sets everything at type-height
- The photopolymer plate is a relief of your design or text that is being printed. Anything you can design on a computer can be made into a photopolymer plate and letterpressed. It’s pretty cool. Back in the day, these plates were made of wood. But over the years, we have arrived at these photopolymer plates. For our business cards, we had one photopolymer plate made for the front graphic, and another one for the back. Boxcar Press made our photopolymer plates and did a really amazing job with the detailed graphic!
- So now that the photopolymer plate is inked, it can be pressed into the paper, creating an inked indent of the graphic. Some heavy pieces of metal come together and firmly press the paper against the photopolymer plate, and Voila! You have an inked and pressed piece of paper.
- The letterpress can press one piece of paper about every two seconds, so the operator has to be fast at removing and replacing piece after piece. Sarah is a seasoned pro and executed this motion with zen-like ease. Before we knew it, she had whipped through the entire stack.
- Then you switch out the photopolymer plate with the one for the back side and repeat the process.
It was so cool to see these business cards come together and hold the finished product for the first time. If we ever see you on the street, we’re gonna plant one of these suckers in your hand cause they’re just beggin’ to be passed out. Now we can be all businessy and networky and stuff. These letterpress business cards are going to let people know we mean business, pun definitely intended. And as a major bonus, Sarah had some extra blank coasters lying around that she volunteered to print our Airstream mountain graphic on. So we’ve got the business and the party covered 😉
THANK YOU SARAH for all the work you put into this, from designing this awesome new graphic to showing us how to letterpress. You are truly an amazing and amazingly talented human being. So psyched on our new business cards!
Check out the brand new, freshie fresh, Petite Press website. If you need a designer or want to have some baller wedding invitations made, Sarah is your person!
P.S. Gabi designed the website and it’s baller.
The Foxes are Brandon and Gabi Fox, an adventurous husband and wife elopement and wedding photography team living full-time in their DIY renovated 1972 Airstream. They are loosely based in the Pacific Northwest, but travel for work and play throughout the western states. Their work is best described as candid photography that captures couples as they are, where they are, blending images of love and natural beauty in the great outdoors.