Digital Letterpress, Letterpress is Letterpress!

I’ve introduced this subject into General Discussion because, like recent postings on the topic “Debossing”, I also think “Digital letterpress” is a misnomer and should be discussed more broadly. I understand the intention of such a term, but this is misleading to the trade and any new comer to it. “Digital” used on this website is a prepress operation before it’s result is converted to the necessities of letterpress technology; letterpress printing is the method of translating pre-press activities.
Letterpress PRINTING is the pressing of a raise image/surface against the face of a suitably receptive surface with an ink compound between the surfaces, traditionally, paper-like material, however technology has taken us further on to other materials. Other processes are variations on the technology and totally accepted, such as embossing, deep impression, hot foil stamping, cutting and creasing and also Raised/Vercotyping, etc. Intaglio and Offset are different technologies.
“Digital” should be relegated to a sub-heading under a new heading “Pre-Press” along with Woodcuts, Mechanical typesetting, Handsetting, Lino cutting, Blockmaking, Photography etc. Notice, I didn’t mention Composing room as this is where the product of prepress activities and requirements of letterpress printing are brought together, composing the elements. “Digital”, on this website, is but one method of image preparation and does not command the prestige of separate nomenclature whereas in the real world, Digital technology is a proven and successful “other” method of communication.
William Amer, Rockley NSW

Log in to reply   33 replies so far

Wouldn’t it be categorized as digital typesetting, converted to photopolymer platemaking? The latter would belong with zinc, magnesium, electrotyping and stereotyping as a step in the reproductive process (as well as some wood engraving, woodcuts and linocuts, altho these are considered autographic forms of reproduction rather than photographic).

Yes! Digital typesetting and artwork is right, but certainly not Digital Letterpress.
William of Rockley, NSW

Actually, Will is correct….. “letterpress” was defined for centuries as printing with movable type….. as opposed to “block printing” which incorporated woodcuts and later “photomechanical” printing for zinc blocks and so forth.

Since Digital Images printed via Photopolymer Plates does not constitute moveable type, I’d concur that “Digital Letterpress” would be technically incorrect.

A FAR better term would be “Digital Relief Printing”.

By that reasoning, WC, not just printing from any plate but even from linecast matter would not qualify as letterpress, and that is absurd. I don’t have access to my library at present, but I am sure there is a textbook definition of letterpress that could be interpreted as including digital composition, even if it hadn’t been contemplated at the time of writing. In my reading, it is usually the image carrier that defines the process rather than the method of manufacture, and all these relief surfaces perform in the same way. Well, maybe not identically, but I think a rubber plate on a platen would still be letterpress, while it would be flexo on a belt press.

That’s a new one for the oxymoron list.

Imp…. printing from a plate is not actually letterpress. Absurd or not, that’s what the Wikipedia says…. and we ALL know that Wikipedia is the collective wisdom of all mankind. Here is the direct copy of their definition:

“Letterpress printing is a term for the relief printing of text and image using a press with a “type-high bed” printing press and movable type, in which a reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper to obtain a positive right-reading image.”

Since moveable type is one of the defining conditions (ie a press with a type high bed AND moveable type…) I don’t see how the matter can be disputed. Under that definition, flexography, PP plates, or my own laser-cut woodblocks are technically not “letterpress”.

Do you dispute the wisdom of all humanity? Certainly I hope not! (just kidding!)

I think that the term “digital letterpress” is a misnomer. Digital refers to creation of the image prior to the film output. That is a only a step in the process of getting an image onto paper. Perhaps ” Digital imaging reproduced by letterpress” would be a more apt description. Letterpress is a printing process that, so far, has not been adapted to “direct to plate” as in some of the modern offset or inkjet methods of reproduction. Since the first printed pieces were woodblocks before the invention of movable type, the definition of letterpress should be expanded to printed plates or forms, however they are produced.


You know, el Diablo….. you’ve made a point that I’ve not considered before: since the relief plates used in the “digital letterpress movement” are typically made via film, they are actually analog rather than digital.

So a form with a plate and metal type in it can be printed in one pass, but only the type counts as letterpress?
As I said, absurd. To choose 18th- and 19th-Century definitions for 20th- and 21st-Century practices is to ignore the evolution of the trade. The whole point of printing industry development in the ’50s and ’60s was to get away from printing directly from metal types and to print from more accurately prepared stereotype plates, among other improvements, to increase run length and reduce press makeready time. In trade thinking, such antiquated definitions for “letterpress” were abandoned not long after the hand mold. Wikipedia understands nothing of the develoment of the printing trade.
By the way, a type-high bed is not a necessity for letterpress. Wraparound plates on a rotary machine is still letterpress. Or maybe Heidelberg didn’t understand the true spirit of letterpress, as you do.

“Digital”, “letterpress” and “offset”, etc. are adjectives, aren’t they? Almost nobody says or writes “offset lithography” (or “the photo-offset lithographic printing process”). It’s understood what is meant by the term “offset,” at least in the printing world. Likewise we usually shorten “letterpress printing” to simply “letterpress,” and I suspect it’s also understood (although perhaps not as clearly) that “digital” (when used in conjunction with letterpress) really means “digital prepress.” Sure, we could try to convince everybody to use “digital prepress for letterpress printing” instead of “digital letterpress”, but it ain’t gonna happen. Personally, I’d rather see the end to the use of “letterpressing” (making an innocent adjective do the work of a verb!).

Digital, Letterpress, and Offset would seem to be nouns.They are specific things. With this new age of digital, people are inventing words,trademarking them
and the like. Digital Typefoundries? hungh? I guess this is
the future.

For the first two thirds of the 20th century, the trade used the terms “printing” and “lithography” the way we use “letterpress” and “offset” today. That is, look at most trade writing, ads, or letterheads up to the 60s, and the word printing means letterpress printing specifically, and printing companies with offset but no letterpress printing generally called themselves lithographers. Many were “Printers and Lithographers”.
It all changed in the 60s as printers converted to offset and got rid of their letterpress equipment, and perhaps “Offset Printing” seemed more modern than “Lithography”.

Thankyou Winking Cat, it’s not often I’m call “Will”, I like it.
Thankyou to all who are contributing to the topic. A lively discussion it is.
I feel I should clarify myself somewhat and say that I have no problem at all with the contribution digital technology is making to letterpress printed results. The art of the calligrapher, artist and computer user and other people with imagination and the “daring do” is bringing back to life this great and venerable way of communicating. I consider the images of the creative mind when converted to raised or relief blocks or plates is a vital part of the craft. My concern is with the terminology and it possibly misleading people into thinking letterpress printing has taken a sudden turn in direction.
Let’s not forget that wooden type is a “block” and not metal type. I believe, among others, the oriental east was very advanced in printing from various raised image materials. I’ve read somewhere that even tightly bound cabbages have been used for image making by letterpress men and women. My concern is not with what is used to print from, but to say that the actual act of printing by the letterpress method is not a digital, photographic or what ever other way of making a block but simply the pressing of “paper”, ink and the “whatever” together, like it always has been. I wonder whether this “digital letterpress” term has been influenced by the similar term , “digital offset”“?
Will Amer, Rockley NSW

Back in the early 1970s, the printer/artist Frans de Jong in Amsterdam printed among many other things, slices of red cabbage on his platen press. I assisted him with this job, my task was to cut slices ‘type high’. Every slice would be good for about 50 impressions, before it started to get all mushy. Locked up with wooden furniture and some wedges.

image: cabbage_page.jpg



Nice. I’d seen some of this before. Thanks again.


I wonder why folks wonder so much about the proper definitions of terms. Nothing is going to change because one insists on specific wordage. Language evolves, obviously, for better or worse.


I think that proper definitions are necessary for intelligent communication. I recall a prospective client coming into my shop wanting some invitations printed from photo-polymer plates. Some designer had put it in her head that she had to have her invitations printed that way. Not having the equipment to make photo-polymer plates, I gently tried to explain to her that I used zinc plates which printed the same way; even showing her examples of different kinds of plates, and their printed product. She ended up leaving to continue her search for the elusive photo-polymer plates that were so necessary for her project. If the designer had been able to explain the method of printing, how it was done, and that one kind of plate could have done the job as well as another, I might not have had to waste so much time.

“Digital letterpress” doesn’t really mean anything, because the words don’t belong together exclusively as a description. Digital is one thing; letterpress is another thing. Linking them may be some sort of shorthand, but if someone came to me and asked for “digital letterpress”, I would know that they know little of either process. I don’t mind trying to educate my clients, but I think it is wrong for folks in the trade to adopt inaccurate terminology. Especially in a trade that is so precise as to have the need for dictionaries of terms to describe individual processes.


I could be wrong but I believe the term “digital letterpress” was coined by Brad Hutchinson about two decades ago. I discussed the term with him once and he said it was registered to his business (in Texas). So its been around (generically) for awhile and pretty much anyone who uses the term knows what it means (photopolymer).

Paul, the photoengraving folks were a bit late in catching on to the Linotronic and to e-file transmission.

When someone mentions letterpressing or letterpresser, it means something as well (this is the vernacular of the newbie), and, rather than pointlessly correct the problem, pay attention to it, you’ve been provided information.



Meaning no offense, but just because someone spreads some crap on a piece of bread and calls it a sandwich, doesn’t mean I have to eat it. If you don’t take enough pride in the traditions of your craft, and are willing to be led around by the vernacular of the “newbie” rather than try to teach printing terms properly, that is your choice. I take pride in what my mentors taught me, and choose otherwise. I am somewhat tired of you constantly dismissing as “pointless” any views with which you don’t agree.


Definitions and Terminology are just that. They are precise and concise explanations of a particular point of interest. Every Industry, Science and Technology has them and people using the wrong term or definition are corrected.
“Digital letterpress” is a contradiction in terms, compounded by the association of the term “photopolymer”. Isn’t a PHOTOpolymer plate made by the photographic process and etching chemicals or is it digitally etched with or without some etching chemical? I’ve used plates made of metal derived from digital files. The term “Letterpress” doesn’t need to be diffused with other terms, or we would then need to refer to Photographic Letterpress, or Wood Type letterpress or handset letterpress or Letraset letterpress!!!!!!!!, etc, etc, etc.
Without wanting to introduce a side stream to this topic the mis-use of the terms diecutting, creasing, scoring, top slitting and perforating can cause serious costly mistakes if not properly used or underestood when specifying a job.
Thankyou for everyone’s contribution.
Will of Rockley, NSW

“Digital letterpress” Wish I had a press like that when I started my apprenticeship. Just sit back and hit the print button. Pity nobody invented one.

Unfortunately definitions and terminology are not as precise and concise as you would wish. They evolve over time, and any one of us could find a printed source that defines “letterpress” to match any of the arguments put forth so far. The problem now is that the Internet has allowed the spread of so much inaccurate information.
There is also the matter of context. I have a Pitman book (UK) titled Letterpress Bookbinding. It just means binding of books with printed pages of text, whether or not there are plates involved, as distinct from another book in the series, Stationery Binding (binding of forms, journals, logbooks etc.). How the word was used by an estimator might vary from a pressman’s or a bibliographer’s usage, and yet they still could communicate without the kind of misunderstanding and disagreemnet so common here. The internet is not definitive.
I would agree with Gerald that you can learn something about people by the words they use. But the man who coined the phrase in dispute can out-print any of us writing here, in photopolymer or in hot metal. Brad is one of the best printers in the country. While DT thinks the phrase can only be proof of ignorance, the reality can be different.

Perhaps digital means “manipulated with a finger or the fingertips” as one of many definitions of the word as an adjective. Does that mean, that if I set type by hand I can also refer to it as “Digital Letterpress”? I also use my fingers to make woodcuts and wood engraving, is that “Digital Imaging”? The reality is that unclear definitions can really be confusing to us letterpressing letterpressers.


Oh, goodie! A cranky guyfight!

Set by hand would be “Digit Letterpress”

Clothdog…… in latin, would that be:

conflictus curmudgeonus?


Digit would be singular, digital is the proper usage. Look it up, the first definition of digital in Websters is: of or relating to fingers. I think I will put it on my next business card.

Yes, language changes over time, and words can have several meanings. Doesn’t that mean that we should be clearer in our descriptions, definitions, and terminology? Have we all fallen into the chasm of a soundbite world, and forgotten how to properly use language? It’s not crankiness, it’s semantics.


Paralelle_imp.I concur with you about Mr.Hutchinson’s ability to print. He is a fine printer and to my understanding Digital Letterpress is the name of his business.Coining a phrase and naming a business seem to be different things. Like for instance when Archie Bunker came up with “Meathead” it reminded me of your comment about “out printing” any of us here. When I was in trade school we were tested every week on graphic art terms
(from the pocket pal) so we could speak the language of the trade.This was so we could get a job, which leads me to your comment about definitions and terminology. Precisely and concisely I studied those terms and landed a job.

Fingerprints would be digital printing, right?

…… you know, just because someone is an expert printer, and probably a great person does not automatically make them an expert on definitions and linguisitics. Just because someone uses a phrase commercially does not mean we must accept it as the defining terminology for a given technique.

On the other hand…. it doesn’t mean we can’t use it either. I guess my point is that just because some dude used it, no matter how much we like him, does not make it correct. That particular arguement is weak from a logical standpoint.



Well, Paul, whoever you are, “offense” is taken because that is what you meant. That is how the language works. Who cares what you are “tired of,” what, are you the moderator here? Based on your postings if anyone is “dismissive” of other folks ideas, and ALWAYS has to have the last say in the matter…


Hey dude…… You ain’t the boss of me! ;)

LOL! I just had to throw that in as the last word…..

It seemed to be better than saying: ” oh… yes it is!” , because then somebody would say “nooooo…. it’s not!” and then I’d have to say ” oh…. yes it IS!” a bit louder…… and they’d say “No! It’s NOT”….. and then I’d say “YES IT IS! You ignorant Beagle!” … and then they’d say “I’m not an ignorant Beagle”…. to which I’d reply “Yes you are!”…. so forth…… and before long we’d be yelling at each other about our Mothers’ combat boots.

AND in the end, we would have forgotten what we were yelling about anyway.