The thick, cushy paper, deep tactile impression, and crisp design of a letterpress print demands to be touched, held, and stroked. No wonder letterpress printing, despite the higher cost, is in high demand for invitations and stationery. Even die-hard tech enthusiasts are embracing this tactile art form.
Cara Underwood, founder of Underwood Letterpress in San Francisco, California, understands the appeal. “Letterpress is so luxe. It’s snail mail with style.”
Creating a letterpress print is so labor intensive, it must be a labor of love. It is for Underwood, who makes invitations, business cards, stationery, greeting cards, coasters, art prints, and more.
The letterpress process begins with a computer-generated design, which can take from one to eight weeks or more to create, depending on how complicated the job is. Once the customer approves the digital artwork, Underwood orders the photopolymer printing plate from another vendor.
When the plate is in her hands, she begins to mix the ink, creating her own colors using a rubber-based ink. Rubber-based inks have a matte finish, as opposed to oil-based inks, which have a glossy finish. Also, rubber-based inks are slow drying so they can be left on the press for several hours or overnight.
“I have about 30 cans of rubber-based printing inks, mostly primary Pantone colors,” Underwood says. “I figure out the exact recipe for the color I want, hand mix it, and put it on the press.”
It takes roughly an hour to set up the press for the first print, she explains, because the process involves perfecting the location of the paper in relation to the plate, adding the right amount of ink, and seeing how hard the plate hits the paper. There’s a lot of fine-tuning. Too much ink results in a blurry print; not enough ink makes the print too light. Too much pressure can crack the paper or the plate. “Getting the paper to hit the plate at exactly the right pressure, that’s the biggest challenge,” she explains. “Once that is determined, every sheet is put through the press by hand.”
“When I’m printing business cards, I block out at least a day, or even two. Wedding invitations take longer because there are more steps involved in creating, testing, and printing, which is why letterpress invitations have a higher price point. If more than one color is used, the process is even more complicated. They are little pieces of art.”
Underwood stumbled onto letterpress in 2005 during a bookbinding class at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts, in which she wrote, designed, and letterpressed her own book. It was love at first inking. “Letterpress was my go-to hobby for six years,” she says. “But it’s an expensive hobby.” Days, she worked full time in a public policy job. “But nights and weekends I was having fun printing, renting press time at a studio, and experimenting.”
But paper, ink, and press time don’t come cheap, and she wondered if letterpress could be a full-time job. She and her husband agreed it could, and she didn’t look back.
Underwood spent a year researching letterpress machines (which are heavy, expensive, and in limited supply because they are no longer made), figuring out maintenance and supply costs, and getting insights from other printers. She finally took the plunge, bought a vintage Chandler & Price press and a paper cutter, rented a studio and, in 2013, opened a shop in Los Angeles. When she and her husband relocated to Northern California in 2015, she sold her original press, bought a larger Vandercook press, and opened a studio in San Francisco.
Still, there were challenges, a steep learning curve, and lots of mistakes, such as creating designs that were too complicated to translate to letterpress, or using paper that couldn’t withstand the rigors of the press.
“My clients were happy in the end, but it cost me time, labor, and money,” she says. “When transferring art into a business setting, your product has to be perfect. You’re not making art that sits on a shelf; it has to function in the real world.”
Besides stationery and invitations, Underwood also creates greeting cards, which are sold in domestic and international retail shops. She translates her whimsical drawings to non-letterpress textiles, gift wrap, and phone cases.
“I love getting my hands dirty on the press,” she says. Printing with a letterpress, she adds, creates “an architectural, textural experience. It’s a moment to stop and appreciate paper and prints.” Letterpress is an excellent antidote to a techy, digital world.
Visit Underwood Letterpress online at underwoodletterpress.com.
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. Her work has appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and a variety of craft titles. Roberta has designed for several craft companies. Though she has no formal art background, she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. Visit her website at creativeunblock.com.
This Backstage Pass article also appears in our May/June 2018 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. Flip through our lookbook to preview more of the fun stuff inside this issue!