LETTERPRESS DESIGN GUIDE
edited and republished from the 2009 original Geocities site


There are a myriad of wonderful effects possible to achieve with letterpress, but you have to keep in mind what are you designing and willing to pay for, a Showcase Piece or a Production Piece which is still quite attractive, but allows for ease of production with a profit margin.

Designing for letterpress requires a different approach than for digital or offset print production. You have to be familiar with designing for letterpress, you have to understand the limitations of the paper ( Lettra ), plate ( polymer ), ink ( soy based form ) and the press ( Heidelberg 10x15 platen ) combination, that you have a perspective look on the production process and the final product, and that you are able to spot potential problems.

The set up per color is the most expensive operation, highly dependent on the image size. The cost per impression is not much more expensive than on the offset press running a custom spot color job. Additional colors will proportionally increase the price, each color needs to be set up and then registered with the previously printed images. If precise color match is needed, you have to be available for the on press color proof. There is an extra charge for that.
 

In contrast to offset press, where, for the same price you have a given plate size, and you can paste-up as many cards as you can fit on it. Letterpress is charged by the square inch of the image printed. the printing cost of a 3 X 2" image on a 3.5 X 2" business card, or a 1 X 6" image as a letterhead logo on a 8.5 X 11" sheet is the same.

the main factors in determining the cost are:

  1. the number of items ( set up cost per item and color )

  2. image size ( plate cost by square inch )

  3. the number of colors ( ink and wash up cost )

  4. quantities ( stock and impression cost )

  5. parent sheet cutting, and card trimming after printing

Design Guidelines

     don’t be hasty!
    though your labor benefit many,
    to work neatly, precisely,
    as the star moves along the sky,
    so is meritable only.

 
                                              Attila József ( 1936 )

Think BOLD cutwork, doily, crochet and filigree. keep it open and airy. let the paper show trough. It will pop-up nicely between the lines. bleed is soooo offset print style. I know, I know ... it takes effort to cap it off, but it does not cut well because the paper is half as thick on the pressed area, and it tends to curl too.

Letterpress gained popularity trough sort of a rebellion against high tech, ultra-Photoshopped designs. The resulting look is typically very organic, handmade, retro, and minimal.

Letterpress, as the name implies, is for printing letters and line art, and is really not suitable for large solid areas like the offset press. It is not as much a press's fault, offset presses use smooth coated stock, while letterpress cards are usually printed on uncoated and textured stock. It is difficult to get an even coverage over the pores and uneven surface of the paper. On larger unbroken areas it is quite noticeable. If you can, use a pattern fill instead in these areas, or a dense screen.

Print Designers, accustomed to offset printing, often think that if the design looks good on the computer screen, it will look good printed on letterpress too. It might not be the case.

The only disadvantage I can think of, of the Vector Graphics Software is that no matter how much you zoom in, the artwork still looks good and you don't even realize that you are working on a " micro level ". If we would still have the old dot matrix printers, and you would print your artwork on them, soon you would realize where you are in the " thin ", where your artwork falls apart in the dots. Indiscriminately scaling down your vector art gives you just an image on the paper, but it might look and feel quite different from its bigger version, when pressed in to the paper. Scaling down requires re-design, you have to make it " airy " again, and check the minimum line thickness. You should have a reference line of 0.25pt. thickness in your sight when you are zoomed in to your artwork, so you can visually compare you artwork lines to a reference.

You have to look at this process as 3 dimensional relief sculpting ( cavo-relievo ), acquire the feel, what will happen to the paper under extreme pressure. How will the shadows in the grooves affect the shape of the design, and the color of the ink. Also, what are the structural limitations of the polymer plates, and the particular paper.

Please pay attention to Type Kerning. The paper pillows up between the type and incredibly magnifies BAD kerning of letters! Depends on the quality of font you use, Auto or Optical kerning might not be sufficient, you have to get in there and manually adjust the letter spacing.

Design Checklist

  • PLEASE, create a test color separation of your artwork, you should not have any of the CMYK pages showing, only the spot colors you use in your design.
     

  • If you used the Transparency / Opacity Sliders to adjust the color balance in your design, when you are done adjusting, replace all these colors with the matching Pantone® Solid Uncoated Spot Colors, otherwise these areas will print as halftones.
     

  • If you intentionally want to use halftones, please make a note of it and specify the Screen Ruling, dot shape and the angle. for textured stock 80 LPI is recommended, and account for a considerable dot-gain with an usable crude tonal range of 25% to 75%
     

  • If you desire the halftone effect, you are better off using Pattern Fill. you have a better control over it, since you can preview it on your monitor and make fine adjustments
     

  • In either case I suggest capping off the halftone or texture fill areas with a stroke width appropriate to the dot / shape size filling the area to minimize the jagged edges do to a coarse dot / pattern resolution ( min. 0.15pt stroke, for structural reasons )
     

  • Use only standard PANTONE PMS® SOLID UNCOATED spot colors, delete unused swatches, avoid halftones and bit-mapped images.
     

  • Use separate file for each design, with descriptive file names and version numbers
     

  • Avoid placing address over glue tabs of envelopes
     

  • Destination address ( on front ) will show trough to the back
     

  • Avoid bleed, and close tolerance 2 color designs on envelopes
     

  • Avoid large solids, especially with dark colors
     

  • Work out overprint, knock-out and trapping on overlapping or touching colors
     

  • Avoid the mix of thin lines and reverse thin lines ( inside solids ). due to ink spread, thin lines will be much bolder than designed and reverse thin lines will tend to fill in. the difference between the same thin line thickness printed in positive and in reverse can be quite drastic
     

  • Do not place parallel lines close to the edge
     

  • Place a thin stroke ( 0.05 to 0.08 pt. ) on small serif fonts. otherwise the thin serifs might wash away in the plate making process, creating gaps in the natural flow of the typeface shape.
     

  • Outline fonts and save file with a suffix or postfix, so you don't loose your original file with the text editing capabilities.
     

  • Make a mock-up of folded cards and pocket folders - make sure that all the required package pieces will fit in the envelope and can be taken out too


Tolerances

Nothing is perfect in life, nor in printing, that is why tolerances were invented, to give acceptable level of quality, and still allow for production work.
 

  • Registration Tolerance and Trap:
    Wherever two colors meet, a 1 point trap is required to trap the colors.
    Where two colors are adjacent and the designer does not want them to touch, there should be a minimum of 2 points of space between the two colors.
    As a general rule, this register tolerance precludes the use of two overprinting colors to create the third color, whether with solids or screens.
     

  • Line Width and Type Size:
    Minimum positive line width is 0.25 point. The minimum reverse printing line width is 0.5 point.
    Minimum positive printing type size is 8 point. The minimum reverse printing type size is 9 point bold.
    These guidelines are subject to review with serif type faces, and with designs including heavy areas of broad solid, along with small type in same color. In these circumstances the type may need to be larger and/or bolder.
     

  • Color Match:
    The inks used in letterpress are essentially semi transparent offset Pantone® colors, which due to the letterpresses different inking process, tend to run a bit darker, like the 2X colors in the back of the swatch book. The color of the stock, and the shadows, directly or indirectly influence how we see the colors.
     

  • Screens and Halftones:
    The line screen ruling on uncoated, textured paper stock is 80 to 85 lines per inch. The coarse screen insures cleanest possible dot reproduction. Halftones must have strong contrast, subtle tone variations will not reproduce.
     

  • Cutting Tolerance:
    Card trim size and image position on the cut card is ±0.03". Square ness tolerance is ±0.03" over 18".
     

So, for example, when you design a card with a printed border 3mm away from the card edge, please specify the the tolerances for concentricity and angular alignment. depending on the tolerances you specify I will know if I have to print 125 or 150 cards to get out the 100 required, that are within the tolerances specified. I will try to make it " dead-on ", but " dead-on " is not a tolerance specification.






MMVI