Deep Impression- Art Form or Bad Form?

Back a few years ago when I was first learning to do letterpress, we were taught that the best printing left no indentation in the paper at all….. and it was especially bad to be able to see any embossing on the back of the sheet. The only thing that was to be seen was the ink itself. The only exceptions to this rule was for printing book covers on thick, soft stock…. or signs and posters where the back didn’t matter anyway.

Nowadays, Deep Impressions seem to be the fashion of the day…. especially for wedding invitations…. and I must admit that some of this work is REALLY GOOD. The added texture and shadowing of a good deep impression can increase the visual appeal of the printed piece immeasurably. Unfortunately, some of it is not so great with letterforms distorted, raggedy type, lumpy backs and a generally “smashed” appearence.

This last week-end at a cook-out attended by quite a few experienced Artists / Printmakers / Letterpressmen we had a debate on the subject of “Deep Impression” …. and like everything artistic we disagreed on a lot of points. We did however arrive at a few points of agreement:

1. FINE letterpress printing is an Art Form, and is therefor not subject to traditional or arbitrary rules which tend to constrain or codify what is “good” or “bad”. Only the Artist Printer and the customer/end user/ viewer can determine these things. Everything else is simply opinion or personal preference.

Our opinion/preferences about Deep Impressions within our own works are the following:

2. Both sides of the works should be considered to be “free standing”, visually speaking. IF the back of the printed piece is to be seen at all, then there should not be any visible embossing, setting-off or anything else from the front side on it. If the back is never to be looked at, it doesn’t matter.

3. Inking of deeply impressed work must be carfully done so that only the letter itself is sharply printed, and not the sides of the indentation or type….. unless that is the specific look you are hoping to achieve.

4. Deep Impression is not a substitute for tasteful design and careful workmanship. If it’s poorly laid-out or printed, smashing the design into the paper will not improve it.

5. Deep impressions should be limited to large types and areas of visual importance. Text smaller than about 18pt should not be deeply impressed as it starts to become less legible.

Other than that, we didn’t have much concensus of opinion…. which is OK. I shared this only to invite discussion on the topic. What are YOUR views about “Good” or “Bad” printing in general, and “Deep Impression” in specific?

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Talk about opening a can of worms…

There was a lengthy and passioned debate here:

It makes for good reading. Below is one of my comments from that thread, addressing the history of impression (I’m not an historian, so others are FAR more knowledgeable than I):

Early book printers very much aimed for a kiss impression. Having studied the Gutenberg bible, I can tell you that the intent was very much a kiss impression. Gutenberg intended (and did) print an illuminated bible that used type not for the sake of invention, but because it was more consistent then the hand of a scribe, or copyist. The Gutenberg bible is illuminated in the same way a hand-written bible was. So, we could basically claim that early book printing was merely a more efficient, cleaner replacement of handwriting, at least in 1450.

I own a leaf from a 1572 Cosmographia (encyclopedia), and my girlfriend has a leaf from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle. These examples of early bookwork and movable type are definitely as close as they could get to ‘kiss’ impressions while maintaining full ink transfer. I haven’t seen the 1493 leaf unframed for a couple years, but there was very little noticeable impression, which could be somewhat a function of time.

Woodblock printing, on the other hand, predates movable type. Because early blocks were used to print only on one side of the page (paper or vellum), impression depth didn’t matter until woodblocks were combined with movable type. Again, the Nuremburg Chronicle is perhaps the most prolific example, with 1,809 woodcuts, all combined with type. After this congruence, you see a divergence. You see artists like Durer printing woodblocks on their own, instead of as part of a book. These single-sided works were significantly more then a ‘kiss’, but perhaps not ‘braille’.

Some blocks from the Nuremberg Chronicle were printed on their own, without type. The few of these I have been lucky enough to see have a more noticeable impression. That could be due to their decision to print deeper, or due to a function of surface area. For a given total press pressure, a smaller block will be squeezed harder.

Anyway, the point is that history gives examples to both sides of the debate. Nobody is wrong, I don’t think, as long as their work displays quality, and their makeready is sensible and within the bounds of the press, paper and type.

I suspect that any printer worth their salt can look at the work of another, technically, and understand their ranking. You are either technically superior or inferior. This has nothing to do with fad aesthetics or even classical aesthetics, or kiss or deep impression. Impression really has nothing to do with aesthetics.

Letterpress by its very essence is impression. Its simply a technical facet. Correctly done it sings on the page. And that is usually the result of the inking not the degree of impression. I’d suggest one can look at the work of Victor Hammer, who was heavy, or that of Lewis Allen, who was moderate, or Saul Marks, who was on the lighter side, and see incredible beauty. It’s far less a matter of impression than it is the mastery of typography, which seems far less a consideration in these DIY days. To judge quality by impression is a bit elementary in the overall scheme of things.


An interesting point, Gerald… I agree that impression is one of many technical facets that must go into producing a “quality” piece of work, but disagree that aesthetics are not a major function of print quality. Throughout my carreer, I’ve seen many, many pieces of printed material that were technically well printed, yet of low quality according to my tastes due to aesthetically unappealing design. All of the perfection in the world regarding technique will not make up for bad design.

Oh I disagree with number five (and sort of on number one)!

I print on a Heidelberg windmill and, if the plates are good or the type is not worn, I can get sharp printing on type as small a 6 pt. and rule as small as 1/2 pt. (script lettering not so small). Same goes for the Heidelberg cylinder presses. Roller heights, packing, amount of ink all play a part an important role in getting a clean print. This also refers to your number 3 (ink on the side of the indentation) which is a result of having ink on the side (shoulder?) of the letters.

As for the idea that fine letterpress printing is an art form, it is my belief that it is rather a craft. As a result there is good craftsmanship(clean letters, even impression, tight/straight registration, accurate color matching) and bad craftsmanship(the absence of at least any of the afore mentioned) in letterpress printing.

Lastly, in your prelude I think that you are talking about two separate things: designing and printing. Sometimes these go hand in hand and sometimes they are two peoples separate visions. On the printing side you have the impression et al. and on the design side you have distorted and raggedy type.

The modern printing business calls for us to work with designers. And sometimes when it comes to placing artwork on envelop folds or destroying a perfectly good typeface, there are some people you just can’t reach.

In terms of impression, I agree it is a modern draw to letterpress. One of the biggest reasons is the development of paper through the centuries. There was nothing remotely close to Lettra in 1451. Additionally is the invention of offset. If you want something to kiss the page why on earth wouldn’t someone use offset? It does a far superior, cheaper and faster job than letterpress.

Sorry I missed your cook-out though!


Can’t imagine how you read “aesthetics are not a major function of print quality” in my response. Thought that I was saying just the opposite, “mastery of typography” and all, which I’d think would be aesthetics, at least in a bygone letterpress era.


Gerald- perhaps you were saying that, and I didn’t get your point. However if that’s the case then we agree on that one.

For me and the products of my shop, the aesthetics are everything…. and more importantly, the vision / intent of the designer is the primary guideline, even if that vision sometimes violates “good technique”.

A good case in point was a limited run book we recently printed that deliberately copied the old “typewriter cut and paste” style of late 1960’s counter-culture publications. Were the letters crisp and well printed? No… they were broken and unevenly justified. Were the typestyles well-coordinated? No. Were the margins perfect? No. In fact, almost every facet would be considered “below standard” or “non-conforming” if judged individually. However, since all of the elements were deliberately produced to achieve a certain look, the overall end result was fantastic. The book has recieved quite a lot of fanfare and good reviews from within the audience it was intended for. So…. was the book “good printing” or “bad printing”? Technically, it might be considered to be not-so-good…. but aesthetically it is a big success.


Halfpenny, I believe you nailed it-

Abusing presses is what worries me most about deep impression printing. No press will last particularly long with some of the abuse people put them through…And nobody seems to be making new presses these days, except for Kluge ($$$$$$$) and a Mumbai company building C&P repros (never responded to my emails).

I toured the Grabhorn institute/Arion press and M&H foundry a few years ago. Anybody who dismisses the work of the 19th century master printers is doing themselves a grave disservice. If Prof. Drucker never bothered to visit that amazing resource, she is doing her students a disservice as well.

How many printers are willing to junk a run of 500 title pages to fix a minor ink squeeze problem with 1 line? I saw the Arion press do just that. The title page was a mix of sizes, and they junked the first run. They did the title page over, running it once for the smaller text, adjusting inking and impression, and then running it again for the larger text.

I didn’t notice the difference until it was pointed out.

When it comes to computer generated work, there is a lot of crappy stuff out there. There is also some beautiful stuff. I don’t have a problem with it, as long as the artist (using that term liberally) tweaks the font for relief use and puts the same level of care into the work as a compositor would with metal type.

The first time I have seen the “deep impression” style I thought, Humm, in the old days printing commercial jobs I could not even think of doing such a thing. That would cause a storm with the manager…
But I agree that it is an interesting approach that gives a “3D” feel to the print, which is not achievable in offset. Thinking about it and how it become a style I realized that it could have been a accidental find by some with questionable skill or a bad press.
Another thing is, I suppose, it is being done that way because after the job is done the plate is tossed, which would not happen if you are using real type and no one would just smash their beloved type.

I did some experiments in a search for the perfect way to produce a nice “deep” feel, and I realized that it can be done by running a print without pressure (the right way), allow the print to dry and then run it again without inking, creating the “deep” impression. Just make sure it register.
The result is way better, where the text or illustration has a perfect inking, the type is clean and perfect.

It can be done, if that is what you are looking for.



A student came to me years ago to show her work from this University lets say in the DC area. And all she kept saying that her letterpress work was “pressure printing”
I thought to myself what kind of steam roller did you use.
And you know another word came so clearly it was born in my head that day “lettersmash”. There is also a company in holland (Polymetaal) that makes a hydraulic washinton style press I think they could do the deep impression thang quite well. Assuming this fad continues to rear its ugly head for years to come.Best James