Altering digital type for letterpress

Does anyone have any information on how to go about altering a typeface to make it print better if you wanted to use it for letterpress?

Off the top of my head it would seem that you would want to make a letter a bit thinner to accommodate for ink spread, build in ink traps in tight corners, etc.

We have the typeface Rialto which has a version for letterpress.

If I overlay the two versions of Rialto (Roman / red and the letterpress version / blue), you can see that the letterpress version is heavier which surprises me. Then assuming you get at least some ink spread it will end up being even heavier. You can see the ink traps on the left side of the center bar.

At Lead Graffiti we’ve taken on as a pro bono client, the Kalmar Nyckel (a tall ship), that is a recreation of the ship that landed at Wilmington, Delaware in 1638. We want to recreate a typeface from the period for use with some print work via letterpress we hope to do for them. We are also learning to sail the Kalmar Nyckel, which we hope will be fun along with the printing.

image: r-rialto-letterpress.gif


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Did you mean softwares to edit digital type? (such as Fontographer or Fontlab Studio).

Ray: read THE book on the subject: Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press by Gerald Lange

It’s been my experience that printing any type pressed into the sheet will gain. The typeface I choose usually has a number of different styles. If it’s regular I want I may print a lighter font to achieve the regular since it will gain. It also depends what kind of printing, Kiss, Punch, or Sock.

One choice is to Kiss print and then in another run print with no ink. This will keep the integrity of the type style and also give an impression.

Inky Lips Letterpress
Jonesboro, Arkansas

Ink spread is still a problem in offset lithography—robust faces designed to be printed at high-speeds will already be properly trapped for letterpress printing. If you are printing with a deep impression, the letterforms themselves shouldn’t need too much alteration, but I find I need to track all text out 10 or 15 thousandths of one em to accommodate for the shoulder of the plate in between letters.

Lead Graffiti

Your comparison of the Rialto fonts isn’t exactly appropriate. The letterpress version was designed for use with small text sizes only. In that regard, it is correctly configured.

See this:


modernman, just what exactly is ink spread?
something like nutella? james

If only inks were edible I’d be a much healthier printer…

Not sure if your question is in jest, James, but that’s the term I’ve always used to describre pressure from printing (be it offset litho, screen or letterpress) forcing ink just past the edges of non-image areas. When printing halftone screens, usually the term dot-gain is used, but it’s always important in high-detail work that isn’t linescreened, be it text work, reverses or fine detail line-art, where the term ‘dot gain’ has less resonance.

My understanding of ink-traps is that they are designed into many typefaces to combat this phenomenon, also to combat some amount of ‘psychological’ effect at small sizes (where lines meet our eyes and mind seem to make things look a bit heavier.) Not sure if I can explain that one though…

ooohhh I am _so_ envious! The Kalmar Nyckel is the ship one of my ancestors came over in. I’ve always wanted to see the reproduction ship- the website is really cool.

Thanks to everyone that responded. I’m not sure what I know now that changes what I might have logically done on my own. I’m starting to look at some early 17th century Dutch faces and perhaps see if there are any Swedish to consider for our Kalmar Nyckel project.

Looking back at the differences in the two Rialto faces that adjustment to the serifs seem a strange choice. That isn’t intended as a negative, but the thickening of the serifs toward their ends seems odd.

Have you tried The Fell Types by Igino Marini?

Some of the fonts are revivals of work originally for Oxford University Press by Peter de Walpergen in the 1680’s.

These digital fonts are freely available from the sites owner as long as you credit him and let him know what you did. He has listing on the site of all the projects where the fonts have been used.


I think what Gerald points out is that your comparison should be between Rialto Piccolo and Rialto Pressa. Each of the Rialto family (Rialto, Rialto Piccolo, Rialto Titling) are designed to be printed in a range of sizes:
- Rialto Piccolo up to 14 point.
- Rialto, 16 point and up
- Rialto Titling, for larger sizes.

Rialto Pressa, for letterpress, is a version of Rialto Piccolo. therefore, the correct comparison would be between Pressa and Piccolo. Comparing against straigth Rialto, you’re seeing the changes for optical sizing conflated with the changes for ink spread.



Yeah, thanks for elaborating. Of possible interest, I did this a while back with the face:

It’s a great looking face, quite handsome, and very technically proficient. It sets wonderfully, one of the very few that has such attention paid to the metrics. And it loves letterpress, no matter what size.


Lead graffiti
To answer the question should you use a special version of a font for Letterpress the answer is no!

The gain you are speaking about is caused by over inking the plate and or type and getting ink on the Beard of the type(the sides), If your base is the right height and your rollers are true you could print crash printing all day long.

You may have to double ink (for a dark color) or double hit
(for hue) but any type face should be fine.
Good Luck


Actually, you are dead wrong here. The gain is up to 10 percent under ideal conditions (including both processing particulars and normal press conditions). So, yeah, you would want to modify your digital type to compensate.

I have no problem with folks who do not care, don’t get me wrong, still, could be made so much better, typographically speaking, if so inclined.