Combining Processes

Letterpress printing today is still produced on machines that date back to the late 1800s and early- to mid-1900s. The challenges of getting something in print were significantly greater a century ago. But, some of those same barriers still exist for letterpress printers today.

We took on this project with Studio St. Louis for just that reason. Every so often a project comes along where the client is interested in letterpress, but still requires print elements only possible with modern printing equipment. The cards below are a mix of digital printing on a Xerox iGen and inked/uninked printing on our 10x15 Chandler & Price. The navy front of the cards is full digital ink, with a blind deboss registered in letterpress. The back text is letterpress, with the red seal handled in digital. 

You might be asking “why mix the two”? While this is easily a decision that comes down to many variables, or simply preference, I’m going to outline four factors to consider when planning a print job that may not be possible on a single press.

Digital flooding, with a blind deboss

Digital flooding, with a blind deboss

1) Ink

As you may notice when you sort through a pile of mail, there are tons of options when it comes to ink. Most modern newspapers are printed on large digital presses (similar to a household inkjet) that lay down tiny dots of cyan, yellow, magenta, and black ink. Offset printing (uses plates to “offset” ink onto a roller before it hits the paper) allows for dense color that look almost solid and is neither raised nor impressed into paper. Even consider the texture on something like a cookbook cover—elements with a glossy sheen and others with a more dull finish.

Then there’s letterpress printing. Wooden, magnesium or polymer plates inked with rubber- or oil-based colors pressed firmly into a sheet of paper. Similar to offset printing, letterpress printing is set apart from laser or digital printing since it uses spot colors (pure or mixed colors with a range of bases that are produced before the press is inked) rather than the fixed gamut available with CMYK. Fluorescents, metallics, and richer hues are just a few of the possibilities available when you aren’t restricted to the four core colors. Coverage, texture, density, and finish are all variables that depend on ink type and ink application. 

For the project we’re tracking, here are a few of the options we had to consider:
- Print navy on the letterpress (consistent with other processes used, but extremely challenging to get the right density and coverage without losing the tiny design elements in the logo)
- Foil stamp a lighter color overtop a navy sheet (would not effect price of paper, since we already planned to duplex; foil has a limited range of available colors, and would have major dropout or “clogging” on the intricate design details(
- Offset navy before debossing (the most suitable route, but restrictive on paper weight and high-priced for a low quantity of units)
- Digital navy before debossing (the selected route; good on price, but complex in color consistency between the digital gamut and the pantone spots for the job)

Although we lost a bit of quality by going with digital over offset, we made up for it by matching the letterpress spot color to the digital navy we got on press. This isn’t always possible, and it much more difficult when working with colored stocks (that function similarly to a multiply layer in Adobe). 

2) Paper

Paper is a huge part of our decision process. We encourage our clients to start every project by choosing the paper that fits thier job. Although we default to Cranes Lettra for most projects, some jobs need color, texture or thickness that is unique to the event, brand or customer. 

One of the most important considerations with paper is weight. If you didn’t know, paper thickness is sometimes described by the units of a micrometer, but more frequently described by the total grammage, or grams/sq-meter, of 1000 sheets. Every press has a limit for the paper weight it can handle. The texture, color and sheet size also plays a roll in deciding whether a paper is suited to a particular press.

For the Bendichas Manos cards, this consideration led us to use duplexed 100C sheets for the final product. The front and back panels could then be printed separately, giving us the flexiblility of running certain elements as digital.

Digital and letterpress elements

Digital and letterpress elements

3) Design

A third consideration for process mixing is the artwork itself. Different printing methods allow for different limits when it comes to point size, line weight, color usage and image definition. The raised plates used for letterpress printing support a minimum element size in order for the plate to handle the extreme pressure used by the press and to insure the artwork is properly plated using the photo polymer.

Digital printing has a similar minimum, but rather than dots, these presses print in pixels. Digital is typically much cheaper (due to shorter press preparation time), but shows in the quality. Offset printing may have been ideal for this particular project, but was not within the client’s budget. 

The decision to use digital printing for some of the design elements looked a little like this:

- Cost-effective printing method in comparison to letterpress and offset
- Allowed for the extremely small type size and stroke weight in the printed artwork

- High level of difficulty for matching a spot color to CYMK
- Lower printing quality in comparison with offset printing

4) Cost

Finally, the cost of mixing processes should be weighed. As previously outlined, pricing depends on the quantity of units, and the overhead associated with each process. What we haven’t talked about are the hidden costs in mixing processes. An example is the amount of time coordinating work between multiple printers handling the same project at the same time. We didn’t plan for the extensive time it would take to between press checks, file pre-press, and the sheer drive-time it takes to get a project moved from concept to completion. These hidden costs should be calculated into the project before taking on a job that has a wide space for possible error and revision. 

Alternatively, sometimes the use of crossing processes actually benefits the end price on a project. Had we decided to run this entire job letterpress, the cost might have exceeded the client’s budget. Using digital printing, screen printing, and offset printing in addition to letterpress is an easy way to knock down the unit price and still maintain the integrity of the printed piece.. 

Overall, we love how these cards turned out. They were a labor of love (labor indeed), but the end product came out just the way we would have hoped. As you experiment with mixing printing processes, we encourage you to test smaller jobs as much as possible. You’ll get a feel for how added printing methods change the style and timeline on a project, as well as gain useful experience learning how other printshops operate.

Have questions about letterpress printing? Looking for a letterpress printshop in the Austin area? We’ve got you covered for wedding invitations, business cards, and more! Email us at for a custom quote or more information.

Shawn BuecheComment