Letterpress is a form of relief printing in which the raised surface of text and images is inked and then pushed onto paper. The resulting print can be a deep impression, easily felt and seen on soft paper. Although the impression was not traditionally an effect desired by trade printers, today it is one of the most charming and interesting characteristics of craft letterpress.
In the mid 1400s a German gentleman by the name of Johann Gutenberg invented moveable type and the first printing press, known today as a letterpress. After years of secretly tinkering in his workshop, Gutenberg had created an ingenious method for quickly reproducing hand-written and block-printed works: tiny, individual carvings of letters could be combined to form a page, then printed, and finally rearranged to form another page. He derived the prototype for the first printing press based on the wine presses commonly found in his native Mainz. And so it came to be that the very first printed book was born.
In the days of yesteryear, sea vessels often sailed with a letterpress on board. As early as 1564, a Dutch bible was printed aboard a ship while sailing across the Baltic. There exists a small (yet loved by Hearts & Anchors!) body of literature printed on so-called sea-presses. Works include maritime dictionaries, the “bloody journals” of pirates, Italian poetry, detailed accounts of French voyages to the Americas, and so forth. During the mid-19th century, the first printing press to make its way to California arrived on board a ship. And with that press came some dutifully printed lore of the journey around Cape Horn as chronicled by those fearless sailors. Yeargh.
Not much has changed since the early days of letterpress. Many printers today still use moveable type made from metal or wood. However, the passing of seven centuries definitely allowed a little room to explore alternative media. Letterpress prints can be made from woodcuts, photoengraved copper, linoleum blocks, magnesium plates, and zinc or photopolymer plates. Paper can be soft and fibrous, smooth and fine, hand moulded or machine-made, etc. Most importantly, the fundamental process is still in practice: raised text and images are inked and then carefully hand-printed one impression at a time.