Letterpress printing has made a huge comeback in recent generations. While it used to be virtually the only way you can get anything printed, starting in the 1970s the letterpress process became considered somewhat obsolete with the widespread adoption of computers in the printing industry.
The upside of this was that many smaller shops and print artisans were able to get these old letterpress machines for very low prices. From technology intended for a mass-market, letterpress printers are now the bread and butter of specialized artisan printers. Today, the letterpress process is now much sought after for its unique textures and old-fashioned “humanized” look – both qualities that make letterpress envelopes such a sought-after product today.
How are letterpress envelopes made?
There are several dozens of different letterpress machines, including the Vandercook cylinder proof presses and Chandler & Price platen presses in the United States to the Josiah Wade “Arab” press in Britain. However, they all work using the same principles, for both envelopes and other products.
To make a letterpress envelope, the printer first needs to cut out a batch of paper for envelopes, or more common today, have a stack of blank, unfolded envelopes ready on hand. This is important as printing them folded would result on indentations right through the envelope, which is generally agreed to be undesirable. Then these are run through a printing press with pre-prepared “types” or metal bits with a reverse impression of letters on them. These types are arranged on a “platen” or plate that corresponds to the size of the page to be printed. If there’s an image to be printed, a metal or word etching would likewise be added onto the plate, and letter types arranged if needed. The printer operator then uses the press to apply just the right amount of pressure onto the paper, which is then removed. The process is repeated for subsequent copies.
Creating a letterpress envelope is a craft and involves a large degree of manual work. To a degree, this was truer during the heyday of the letterpress machine, as it was considered more desirable to only lightly “kiss” the sheets to be printed with a metal plate, or letter types, leaving no impressions, or as minimal of an impression as possible.
Excessive impressions can visibly “bloat” out a book, or a stack of paper, or give an otherwise undesired effect for the time. Heavy indentations can also destroy the types and plates over time, bending them out of shape. When more modern offset printers became available that were able to print without these indentations, letterpresses were quickly phased out.
Ironically, this type of distortion is exactly why letterpresses are so popular, especially for envelopes. Letterpress printing also appears “crisper” than modern offset or digital printing because the types are being driven right into the paper. This would have been seen as a bad thing in the past but it’s why the process is sought-after for envelopes and invites in the present day.
Beautiful crispness and distortion
The types and plates would distort in different ways. And if the printer did not replace the types often enough, it was sometimes possible to identify a specific printer from how the letters looked under a magnifying glass – similar to how detectives can positively identify which letter was typed by a specific typewriter.
This type of distortion on the print and paper gives a warm, reassuring, look and feel that is a stark contrast to the cold and clinical sameness of contemporary printing technologies. The fact that operators may need to feed the letterpress machine by hand, one sheet at a time, also causes subtle variations that make each letterpress envelope its own unique thing.
The letterpress process is constantly being reinvented today. Some boutique printers may use the process in combination with modern techniques or humor to create one-off pieces of art or unforgettable letterpress envelopes that will give the recipient cherished memories of the sender for years to come.