In the letterpress market you will find products with varying depths of printing impression. On one end of the spectrum is the traditionally-favored “kiss impression,” in which the printer applied just enough pressure to the type or printing plate to give adequate ink coverage on the paper, but the resulting print is devoid of any visual or tactile paper indentation on either side. Conversely noted are the letterpress prints that exhibit bitten, punched, or heavily debossed impression. These prints exhibit a depression where the type or plate came in contact with the paper, and usually a noticeable raised surface on the sheets’ verso or reverse side. Impression depth today is an aesthetic choice made by the printer and client, however it is one that might have some lasting effects on the printer’s supply of vintage type. The purpose of this article is to offer some historical background and guidelines for making decisions regarding impression depth.
Look at any number of historic printers’ manuals and you will notice a wealth of information about selecting type and paper, locking up forms, and even proof correction and orthography. There is a surprising dearth of information about what the optimal impression should have been to our printer forebears. One explanation for this gap in the literature is perhaps that the appropriate amount of impression to apply in letterpress printing was tacitly taught in the press room—master to apprentice. It was just something one had to see and feel.
Influence of Paper Technology
Printing on a wooden hand press pre-1800s was a somewhat different craft than what developed from the industrial revolution era and after. The linen and cotton rag paper of the first three centuries of Western printing was more forgiving in showing any bite. These hand-made papers were sometimes mottled in caliper and cockled. To achieve an even impression printers would often dampen the sheets, which in turn minimized impression on the verso.
Wood-pulp paper for commercial use is a fairly recent development, dating from the 1800s. The Fourdrinier papermaking machine received its first patent in 1801 in England. Paper coatings like starch were introduced in ancient times to improve the surface characteristics and light reflectance of paper, but the automation of paper manufacture made coatings easier to apply on a large scale. They added gloss, improved ink hold out, and whitened the sheet. For letterpress printing though, coatings on thinner machine-made wood pulp paper were meant to make the type “pop” and halftones/line engravings sharp with simply a kiss impression and no dampening. (Remember faster steam-driven presses and softer alloys in machine-cast metal type, also promoted the “kiss” aesthetic: print faster, less impression to minimize typeface wear.) Any visible debossing on the verso of these “perfect” sheets was not tolerated as show-through because it affected the words’ readability.
A reaction to all of this faster, cheaper, flatter letterpress printing was afoot though in the late 19th century. William Morris, (1834-1896), the most prominent agent of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, added publishing to his repertoire of handcrafted endeavors when he founded his Kelmscott Press in 1891. The Kelmscott goal was to publish beautiful books using 15th century methods—with handmade paper, hand-wrought engravings and custom types, on flat bed hand presses. Morris’s aesthetic of fine printing reveled in the bite of letterpress printing as he even directed bookbinders to leave off a turn in the nipping press since that would “destroy the ‘impression’ of the type and thus injure the appearance of the printing.”
Commercial vs. Fine Printing
Since Morris’s time, there has been a division of commercial vs. fine printing. Each have had a specific purpose and place, but it’s been traditionally understood that the kissers were commercial and the biters were fine printers. Sebastian Carter from Rampant Lions Press stated it best when he wrote:
“…And this excitement is greatly increased when the kiss impression of ordinary letterpress become the bite of fine printing. It is as much a matter of touch as of look, the combination of toothy paper & resolute presswork which produces that sense of robustness of which we are deprived by most printing today.”
However, in the contemporary letterpress marketplace, the depth of impression doesn’t need to define what kind of printer you are. As printing moved from being simply the workaday medium of communication in books, newspapers, and magazines that were duplex printed on thin, sometimes hard, sometimes coated papers, an aesthetic change in acceptable depth of impression was warranted. Clifford Burke called this new aesthetic “Typographic Printmaking,” and we’ve advanced this deeper impression into 21st century.
In fact, the 21st century printer’s manuals advocate a more holistic view, accepting both kiss and bite in our craft. Cathie Ruggie Saunders and Martha Chiplis explain this perfectly in their modern printer’s manual, For the Love of Letterpress:
“At one time perfect impression was a kiss impression; no indentation in the paper was visible or felt. Our contemporary aesthetic is an impression just distinguishable on the back of the paper, and just visible on the front. This differentiates letterpress from the flat printing of lithography and digital printing…. Generally, if both sides of the sheet will be printed, less impression is desired. If only one side will be printed on, more impression is tolerated.”
Determining Depth of Impression
When making design decisions about kiss or bite impression, it all comes down to whether or not you are printing one or 2-sided, what kind of paper you are using, and what kind of plates or type you are printing with. There are some major variables that will encourage you to make the responsible decision to kiss rather than bite, no matter what paper is used. Most importantly: safeguarding your antique or vintage type.
Metal & Wood Type
Yes, you can punch it, but should you? Starshaped Press in Chicago advertises a prudent impression rationale:
“Most of the types in the studio are at least 50 years old, some are 100 years old, and there is no digital equivalent to them! Because of their age and purpose, these types cannot be used to punch a deep impression into paper, which is very popular with new-fangled letterpress.”
Because what actually happens when you smash lead type over time with a heavy debossed bite impression is loss of sharpness, thickening of the counters, more haloing around the edges of the print, and general degradation of readability. And most times, you cannot recast that vintage type.
So, safeguard that metal type, and kiss it. And kiss the wood type too, which as a function of being old, potentially warped, and dried out, can crack or delaminate under heavy impression.
In the late 1980s when desktop publishing took flight, photopolymer relief plates were appropriated from flexography to blend the virtues of digital design with the feel of letterpress. Some of polymer’s virtues as outlined by Gerald Lange:
- Drudgery associated with composition of metal type is eliminated on the personal computer, like the minutiae of hand-justifying.
- Perfectly level resilient printing plane, eliminating some makeready. Good-bye excessive underlays!
- Good coverage in solids & reverses.
- High wear characteristics because polymer is resistant to abrasion. This equals longer press runs.
- Print without fear of damaging plate surface on handmade paper that has fibrous inclusions or is rough.
And not least, with polymer, “Type needs no longer to lightly brush against paper—it could go in for a full-blown snog.” But where there are pros, there are cons too, right? The folks at Peter Kruty Editions in Brooklyn said:
“Plastic plates, unfortunately, have a surface that’s about as romantic as Teflon, but what they do possess is an incredible and printable memory of every little dot, line, and smudge transferred from the digital file.”
But we printers can live with those cons if polymer saved letterpress printing, right? Gerald Lange’s sage words about digital plates:
“The technique’s greatest attribute is that it has saved letterpress from dying a whimpering death and that it will allow the practice of fine press printing to continue well into the 21st century.”
We are witnessing this letterpress renaissance now as a result of our 500-year-old craft’s merger with digital technology.
Printers, think twice about the depth of impression you are exerting on your type. Is your type rare or irreplaceable? If so, check your packing, measure the caliper of your paper, and don’t settle into the bite for bite’s sake hoopla. When a heavy deboss is called for, err on the side of caution, use that new-fangled technology to your advantage and have a plate made instead. Practice safe impression!
- Case Paper webpage on the Fourdrinier Papermaking machine
- For the Love of Letterpress: A Printing Handbook for Instructors and Students by Cathie Ruggie Saunders and Martha Chiplis
- Printing Digital Type on the Hand-operated Flatbed Cylinder Press by Gerald Lange
- Studio on Fire
- RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection
- William Morris Society & Museum