Impression and show-through on reverse of paper…

I see so many photos of invitations and cards with deep impressions that look beautiful but I often wonder what the back of the card looks like. I just printed something this past week for the first time on my press. The only way I couldn’t get the impression to show through to the back was to have it be very light. I was using Crane’s Lettra 300gsm so not like I was using thin paper.

What does everyone else do, or use? Or do most of these invitations and cards have the impression show through?


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I have printed woodcuts, resingrave and other relief cuts on heavy papers, 50-100 pounds or so. I’m not sure what this converts to in gsm. Show through of ink was never a problem on those papers. The impression, of course, was noticeable but didn’t matter, since these were all matted and printed only on one side.

I would be curious to hear people’s thoughts on Jen’s question, since I am just starting to print more with type in a way that uses both sides of the paper.

Is the trick to use a very firm tympan and packing? Also, has anyone ever played with using a cloth tympan?



To some degree this is a matter of aesthetics, so some degree technique. Generally, correct impression facilitates exacting inking. It’s a technical thing.

Making it an aesthetic aspect of production violates that. The result is uncontrolled inking and spread and worse, violation of the paper surface so that it, in fact, looks brutalized, front and back. I don’t quite understand the need for this and assume it is just a fad, and mainly a fad that currently pays off ($) to a buying public that expects this (as the essence of letterpress) or it would not continue. It is not the essence of letterpress. Why not just sell shoes if all that matters is the money.


Hi Jen,

Good question. I wish I had an answer for you, sounds like you are interested in doing letterpress printing with good results! I don’t think I can give a totally difinitive (sp) answer. Perhaps a description of what is hoped for though. When the job is done and the ink is drying, wouldn’t it be nice if the pressman or pressgirl, could look at the job and think. This job is crisp, clear, consise and correct no matter what method was used to reproduce it. Letterpress, offset, colotype, laser printer, mimeograph, screen printing or a pencil rub.

With those pieces of the recipe in mind for a fine finished piece of letterpress printing, would it not be prudent to start with a minimum of everything. The least amount of ink and the least amount of impression to get the job done, this would appear to be a good starting point. Anything extra after that, a design choice or a necessity to achieve something desired that is missing but could be achieved by adding something.

Personally, I like to have the ink rollers set so they evenly contact the whole form of type. With the guage or the bottom of a large piece of type, checked in the four corners of the platen or bed of the press (1/8 inch to 3/16 inch kiss of the rollers) or less if I can get away with it consistently. With this setting, everything else being equal, I know that when I put a well prepared forme in the press and put the minimum amount of ink to cover the job, if the form is properly made ready, it should print well. Periodically checking the setting of the form rollers to the platen (done as a maintenance check on a regular schedule) and knowing they are set as described above is now a given in the printing equation. If I know that I have done this, a mental note is made and then move on to the impression part of printing.

As printers I think we are trying to get an image, something that is in our head or perhaps (over there), maybe something provided from a designer, onto a piece of paper (mechanically). Is that not right?

The tympan and packing, might consist of a top sheet or draw sheet that fits the specific machine. Ideally drawn tight, over the under sheets (where the makeready will be). No baggy top sheets on the platen in an ideal setup (as this will cause prematue contact to the type form and slurred printing, probably), when the platen is closing and again when it opens (double whammy). Humidity can cause this too, sometimes when, you started with a nice tight arrangement and you check and now there is a bubble in your top sheet (make a mental note again).

The term makeready is confusing terminology in conversation. A situation where the word is used, in several different situations, by different ones. One thinking they are talking about one thing, when actually they are talking about something else. For a case in point I will loosely define what area I am speaking in, for clarity (hopefully).

The makeready, there are at least a couple makereadys. One is when you get out of bed and have coffee, toast and yawn a little bit and are about to go to the press room. ha ha —

The second makeready is when you skin the can of ink and apply it to the press, get the paper ready to print. Prepare the form for the press and position it on the paper.

The third makeready will probably be the biggest factor in the success or lack thereof, of a fine printed sheet. This makeready is a sheet that will go probably in 2nd place, in the group of sheets, under your top tympan sheet or draw sheet. This is made by printing as sheet, that has been marked in position on the platen. This is done by placing it in position and marking it (Probably with a thumb tack in 2 places) so that when you print this same sheet after marking it, it can be exchanged for one of the packing sheets, and taped or adhered to it. This gives you a map, corresponding to the type form, so that you can either remove packing from or add packing to the forme where needed. With this you will gain control of the printed piece. Once made ready with proper packing in the proper places within the forme, then you can decide (not be forced to) run the amount of ink you choose, and cover the forme. Whether you want light black printing or dark black printing, or somewhere in between.

With this in mind now you can look for impression, by holding the sheet up to the light and looking across the back of the sheet, at an angle and see what you have for push through the sheet. Hopefully it is a fairly even impression, from top to bottom and side to side. But obviously where you have done a proper makeready, for the lighter, smaller type (the least amount to to the job), and the heavier, bolder type (enough to cover the type with ink while keeping the small type open and not plugged or (not crisp) and clean), there will be varying amounts of impression push through the sheet. But if not over inked or rollers set too low, you have the option to print it like brail if you choose, and it will still print well for a short time.

Hope this gives you some food for thought, and some good makereadys. There may be good other ways to acomplish the same thing, this is just one way.

Maybe my 2 cents will help. I am a life-long letterpressman. 30 years old now, my playpen was in this shop where I grew up and learned the biz from my father (who at 73 still works with me).

It took my father (and myself) years to master the craft of letterpress, and one of the skills to learn was to print without impression. A few years ago, when letterpress became commercially chic again, the designers, in an effort to keep their clients (and portfolios) happy, kept requesting that the impression get heavier and heavier. My father almost had a heart attack when he saw the deep impression, but we are a commercial shop where the point is to make a profit, and as we have no interest in selling shoes, we do what is asked of us.

Now all our letterpress printing has heavy impression (which shows through the back), and takes less skill to produce, but our clients have never been happier.

My advice to all is to produce work that they think is beautiful and appropriate to the individual job. Historically, letterpress work was to show no impression, but as the designers say, “if I wanted no impression, I would’ve ordered it offset!”

Thank you so much for the replies. I do agree that it seems clients definitely want the deep impressions. That’s what they associate with letterpress printing. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s so hard to see these beautiful pieces pictured online and to know that the back of the sheet has show-through. I am happy to hear that there wasn’t some trick to getting it to not show through and that I was doing everything correctly. I guess I’ll just have to “suck it up” and get used to it.

Now here’s a spinoff question - what do you do when you want to print a double sided card? Like a business card. Just use a much lighter impression? Or do you go to a heavier paper stock? I know Crane’s Lettra comes in a stock that is very thick. I believe it’s the 220lb Duplex sheets. But they just seem way too thick to use for every day items like business cards (for example).

Thanks again!

I can only speak for myself, but I would try both of your suggestions. Go with a slightly heavier stock (most people like really heavy business cards anyway) and possibly a harder stock and lighten up on the impression a bit. It will take some trial and error to get it right, and the impression will have to be a bit more subltle, but you should be satisfied with the results.

Letterpress does have it limitations. Thats why offset printing was invented. (sorry, I said the “o” word). If you want to do something 2 sided, you will have to sacrifice that deep impression that is so popular nowadays.


When I get a 2-sided business card job, I stress to the customer that a “deep impression” will not be possible. I usually try to balance the impression so that it is enough that it can be felt with the fingers but doesn’t show through the other side of the card. Actually, I do that with all my business cards.

I’ve done this several times with plain ol’ Mohawk Superfine and hard packing and have had very happy clients. I think the 220-lb lettra is too thick for a business card as you pointed out. I ordered a ream by accident and now I use it for packing when I want the deep impression for wedding invites.

Some people swear by hard packing all the time, no matter what, and I guess that is probably the standard for metal type. However, I read somewhere that softer packing is better with the lettra for the deep impression. Since I use photopolymer, I’m not terribly concerned with the longevity of the plates. However, I am concerned with the longevity of my press, and doing a heavy impression with hard packing put too much pressure on my poor old C&P OS.

When I switched to the softer packing, the press ran much smoother and my prints were more consistent. The softer packing creates almost a debossing situation and I’m not smashing anything, which is good.

I feel the same way when I look at the pictures of deep impression on websites, knowing that the other side of the sheet is practically braille. Those pictures do create an expectation in the client that impressions that smash through to China is standard, which is unfortunate. I love the look of a deep impression just as much as every other 30-year old designer, but I’m not willing to ruin my press to achieve it.

Updated. Well put Higgance, and you raise a good point. For the many running antique presses, that much impression may actually shorten the life of the press. I run 2 Heidelberg windmills and a 15 x 20 cylinder and don’t have to worry about too much impression on jobs containing mostly text, but I do notice when running large solids that the press is under strain.


Halfpenny Press: Amen.
To have the customer dictate the process is akin to a patient telling the surgeon how to wield the No.11 blade. However, in this day of instant everything, why, there’s no need to become proficient in one’s vocation, or indeed to understand it beyond the most superficial level. A weekend of instruction is all that’s required to attain ‘Master Printer’ status - isn’t it? After all, printing is merely typing with ink; who cares about the equipment? There’s lots of old junk available on e-bay. Now, let me see, the ‘font’ is still loose in the ‘frame’, I’ll just crank these ‘metal things’ a bit tighter…..oops! Oh well. Better get the Crisco and clean this stuff up before putting it back into the ‘drawers’.

As I just get into letterpress printing, I can promise you that my first item I printed was a very deep impression. I think it still looked good even though you could see the impression from the back. Maybe as a newbie it doesn’t matter so much to me if it is perfect off the press. I can print perfect off my lazer printer in a fraction of the time. I just like the art of the imperfections and the feel of the deep impressions. My 2 cents are now spent.

Updated. Such wonderful debate. Coming from a knowledge base involving etching presses, thoughts on impression are completely different.

Intaglio printing demands that the paper be pressed into the plate, into an incision with the ink. Intaglio presses are cylinder presses usually built to withstand almost a ton of pressure per inch of roller. The paper ends up molded into the plate.

Pulling relief prints (woodblock, lino, resingrave) on an etching press demands significantly lighter pressure then intaglio, or course. Usually, we set the press to kiss on 20 pound scrap copy paper, then the added thickness and fineness of decent paper makes for a fuller impression. This way we end up pulling fewer proofs on expensive paper.

If the same quarter to half inch felt pads used for intaglio are used for relief prints, it is like using a felt tympan. The paper basically gets debossed by the block, even with a lighter impression. The paper can end up badly distressed. I have thought to use far thinner felt pulling relief prints on etching presses, and I will be playing with tympan paper (or a close substitute) to see if I can minimize impression depth.

This thread has been fascinating to me, because my SO and I have started setting hand-cut wood and resingrave blocks with type, in the same way Koberger had his Bible and the Nuremberg Chronicle set and printed. Thus my need to minimize impression depth and adapt to a letterpress technique. Type and blocks demand subtly different processes and pressures, though resingrave is similar to poly plates.

Thanks for all the comments.


I’m a new printer and by trade a cabinetmaker. This debate is very similar to one in my profession that began in the 19th century and continues today: whether it is better to use hand tools or machinery. In the late 19th and early 20th century there developed a school of thought that blended these two views in the Arts and Crafts Movement and which is still widely accepted today by many and possibly most cabinetmakers. The basic concept was that the use of machinery to do the “grunt” work of rough milling lumber into flat stock and mouldings freed up the cabinetmaker to spend the necessary time to do the finer handwork thereby producing a better result than could be obtained by one method or the other alone. The worker stayed a craftsman instead of becoming a mere machine operator.

Following this basic precept and applying it to changing tastes in design, materials, etc. still allows for achieving the same goals. But at its core it means that learning the craft cannot be done in a vacum, still less with blinders. Learning and practicing the craft requires a knowledge of the history of the craft itself and its traditions, its former practices and its current ones. It requires that one is more than passingly familiar with the equipment of the craft whether antiquated or state-of-the-art. Formal learning whether through self-taught methods or institutional is also required. And all of this must be an ongoing process that is both augmented and tempered by actual experience.

As far as deep impressions go, the amount of impression has seemed to vary throughout the history of printing. On the original wooden and later hand presses, a look at original examples of printing done on these presses shows what can only be described as a deep impression, at least considering the thickness of the papers being used. I’ve read items from many modern hand press users that seem to indicate that this is pretty much normal for that type of press. Even platen and early cylinder press printing had this quality to a greater or lesser degree. The effort to keep an impression from being too deep seems to have had its basis more in practical concerns than artistic. From my research this started to change with the advent and increased general use of offset printing that was regarded as a better quality of printing. It was then that the level of impression seems to have become more of a commercial and artistic issue as those competing with offset presses strove to turn out work that was “equal in quality”. It was at this point I believe that the “kiss impression” began its rise to the place of the standard of quality for letterpress printing.

Later, when letterpress printing had almost ceased altogether in commercial printing and computers had arrived on the scene allowing anyone with one in their home to have their own print shop on a desk top those remaining letterpress printers were once again in the position of trying to make their craft profitable, or at least more profitable than it was. So whereas at one time the means to this end was to try and become as similar to the new standard as possible, now the means to the end was to become different from the current standard. Thus the deep impression as a matter of design and commercial viability began.

All this having been said sets the stage for my own personal opinion. I would hope that anyone interested in pursuing a craft would follow the basic principles I’ve outlined above. Whether the motive is to make money or only to do it for fun I firmly believe that only in this way will the true craft survive and those who pursue that craft, even if only in a limited way, will find true pleasure and satisfaction and be able to produce an end result that is worthy of that craft’s long history and tradition. When that happens it elevates everyone whether in the craft or out of it.

Personally I’m very traditional and currently have nothing but metal and wood type. I may never venture into photo-polymer or seek after any kind of the “de-bossed” look. On the other hand, I do appreciate an impression a bit deeper than the “kiss”, something more along the lines of mid-19th century printing that I’ve experienced in many books and other printed matter of that period.

Now with regard to the deep impression debate I see no reason why these principles cannot apply. By using heavy paper and easily renewable photo-polymer a deeper impression than the “kiss impression” can be achieved while at the same time not going too far towards the perceived modern taste and thereby creating braille on the back of the stock. This saves valuable metal type for those jobs that call for it, utilizes the benefits of modern materials, and honors the traditional standards of printing that have revealed themselves throughout its history. If the objection is that the client wants it deeper, then give that particular client what they want (for an upcharge) but don’t make that your standard.

This will establish a new, additional standard to the history of letterpress that is both faithful to the craft and yet sets the craft apart from non-letterpress processes. I don’t think the mere fact that something is printed on an old platen press is enough to qualify it as part of the traditional craft of printing as properly understood. What I’m arguing for is a middle-of-the-road approach that incorporates in the printer a comprehensive knowledge of the craft and in his method a use of the best of both extremes (“kiss” and “crater”) that in the end achieves something that is better than either one by itself and at least strives to be in a class with the best of what has gone before.

Rich P.
Front Room Press
Milford, NJ

The deep impression of the early presses was as result of the often varied thickness of hand-made paper, differing type height, less-than- well-constructed presses, and ink viscosity. Most papers required dampening to achieve eveness, great pressures to force ink into fibre, thus the pronounced ‘bite’ of type in stock. Caslon - among others - would iron his sheets to remove the punchthrough, and would carefully arrange the typesetting of the verso forme to negate the papers’ bump. With the introduction of machine-made papers, the precision iron press, and much improved inks, deep impression was seen as mere coarse work. And it should be viewed as such today. Anyone can punch paper; laying an even hue upon that fine paper (the ‘kiss’. if you will) is the grail sought by all fine printers. Hacks spill ink - and crush delicate serif within a hundred impresses. It’s difficult, in this age of ‘follow the whim’, to truly understand traditions of our forefathers, but it is no mere accident printing is the mother of all art. It cannot - must not - be approached other than with true understanding, appreciation, and yes, a certain reverence, for the tireless printers who perfected the Black Art. Who would sully that work?
Here’s a comparison to mull: A truly fine pilot will land a jumbo jet so skillfully that a coffee won’t spill from its cup. A mere flyer can rip the wheels off a Cessna.

Updated. These are great comments Rich, and I would love to check out your shop sometime. I’m not that far from you.

Forme, your comments certainly make a good argument for the 5 year apprenticeship that used to be commonplace.

I had a feeling there would be brisk discussion on this issue (it certainly gets discussed at length in our shop). It seems that this detail finds itself at the center of what letterpress means to the individual. Either a hobby, a trade or even a religion as it may seem. Let’s be careful not to judge each other as to where we fit into the equation. Rpolinski’s views are a healthy and beneficial way of looking at letterpress as a whole, and I know that I will be pondering them as the presses roll tommorow.

Excellent discussion. A pleasure to read. It is a provocative issue.
I began learning of letterpress in school 60 years ago. I am still learning. Letterpress was still in the mainstream of commercial and job shop printing. Business forms, letterhead, invitations, and some newspapers were printed on letterpress equipment large and small. We were taught to print on the paper and not into it. When we had completed the makeready on the press, we printed one proof sheet and took it to the teacher for approval. It had already been approved for content. This was the press proof to see if it was correctly aligned, and very specifically to see that it was not smashed into the paper. The teacher felt the printing and viewed the paper at an angle from the back. We knew not to take a proof for approval unless it was right. That was the old standard for printing.
We printed a school newspaper each month. It was a single sheet of newsprint folded vertically to give four pages. We printed on 10 x 15 presses and the page form was about 9 x 14. The chase was full. The paper was folded first. Pages two and three were printed and the paper refolded. Pages one and four were printed. I add what may be obvious. This was all handset type. Now newsprint isn’t very thick. We printed on each side and not through.
I was schooled in this classical practice of the art and understand the opinions of those who believe smashing the type or artwork into the paper is vulgar and a prostitution of the craft. I am not skilled in the other forms of art, sculpture, or music. There are classic methods in each of these and similar art forms. There are also different forms that run counter to the classic teaching. I don’t care for some of them, but I respect the practitioners who do or create them. If I don’t like them, I just don’t look at them or listen to them.

I do admit that I like a little bite into the paper for wood or linoleum block cuts and for pen and ink work done as a metal or poly cut and printed on a cylinder press. I think these are handsome when done to be framed and displayed. It adds a bit of dimension in depth and those of us who are practitioners of the craft know that it is letterpress work.

Is there room for all of us in the craft? I sure hope so.

Do you think these new folks know about type lice?


I think one of the factors that contributes to the dichotomy on this issue is the new way letterpress is being used. And the way letterpress work is being marketed and sold.

Reading the stories of the master printers who have been at this for decades, the respect they have for the work involved in hand-setting the type, the goal of a kiss impression, these are all hallmarks of craftsmen intimately involved in their trade. I’ve tried to hand-set type a few times, and I can easily see how an apprenticeship for this type of work was once required.

However, for some newer printers like me, the focus of the page may be more graphically oriented than text oriented. I spend just as much time (maybe more) in front of my computer designing my plates as the person who hand sets the type. I agonize over the same minutia, just not over a stone and chase. This may not be apparent to those who always hand-set type.

The point of letterpress, for graphic designer-types like me, is to use the press to differentiate between other types of printing, such as laser or offset. This has been eloquently stated already in this thread.

So we order super-thick paper, to give the bite that makes the difference apparent. I, personally, wouldn’t dream of doing deep impression on anything but the thicker cotton papers. It looks like crap for one thing, (in my opinion!)

I don’t think having a deep impression is any easier than a kiss impression, at least not to my perfectionist mentality. I spend just as much time on makeready for a kiss impression (for my rare contract jobs) as I do on the deep impression jobs. It’s the same issues with creating a beautiful, even print that does justice to the image and the paper. And as I said earlier in this thread, I don’t push my press.

What does make me a little sad is the lack of respect that some of the newbies get. We’re doing our best. Most of us don’t have the benefit of a support network to help us out, other than on sites like these. I know it must be frustrating to have decades of experience, and then read a question one of us has written that seems so patently obvious that you want to shake some sense into the writer for even buying a press in the first place. Heck, I’ve only been at this a few years and I have those moments where I want to shout “Look it up! Get a book! Figure it out!” at my screen.

But I would point out that, if it weren’t for the many newbies out there smashing their plates and asking dumb questions (myself included), there would be very few working presses left. It seems to me that the vast majority of letterpress work being done commercially these days is for jobs in which a deep impression on nice thick paper is appropriate: wedding invitations, greeting cards, etc.

The market has changed. Not to say that we should let the craftsmanship of letterpress die just because of economic forces. But that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to create a product that is salable and that meets the needs of the marketplace. There will always be printers who do a good job and printers who do a sloppy job, no matter what the final product. We should use this forum to celebrate the former and educate the latter.

And argue about Crisco, of course. Wouldn’t be a proper forum without ONE argument that won’t die. :)


Updated. (edit has been made)

Updated. Halfpenny, would you be more comfortable if we called it male-only debossing rather than deep impression? That’s not a new concept, after all. I saw it described this way on the Mercurio Brothers website, and they’ve been at this a while. Deep impression is just debossing without the female die, right? What’s wrong with that? You must have done some debossing jobs during your career - what is the difference? Assuming we’re using photopolymer, of course. I should think it’s obvious why you wouldn’t want to do this with metal type.

I’m not asking to be snotty - I really want to know what the difference is. Is a male-only deboss a dramatically different process than deep impression?

Or is the difference only in motivation, i.e., with a male-only deboss you mean to depress the paper, whereas a deep impression is just a mistake? Because if that’s so, then we’re just arguing semantics. If it’s a different process, I’d like to know so I can improve the quality of my printing.

No, you are being snotty. Or, to be more precise: petulant; for your rebuttal is too weak to withstand 1000 years of purpose and example. Printing is printing. De/embossing is exactly that. There is type and there is die -If you don’t understand that difference, well, stick with the computer printer. Letterpress equipment - particularly type - will be the better for it. In my opinion.

I think the problem with some of the recent arguments made in favor of the kiss impression is that they suffer from the problem of lack of context. Just as a text without a context is a pretext, so is the particular practise of a craft a pretext unless it is placed within the context of the history of that craft.

Personally I have no problem with the kiss impression. But it seems very clear from history that the kiss impression standard is only a recent developement in the long history of printing whether with movable type or otherwise. There are reasons for this that include technological development and economic considerations. To say that this standard is the most superior and should be now and forever the universal standard of the printer’s art cannot be justified.

Certainly there are right ways and wrong ways to engage in the craft of printing in all of its various aspects. And proper methods should be learned and practised with the goal of striving always to improve and work to the highest standard possible. But there is no craft without its variations and ever changing realities. The history of printing with each new kind of press, paper, type-casting method , etc. is filled with changing standards. The standard of 1820 was not the standard of 1890. The standard of 1940 is not the standard of 2007.

This doesn’t mean that the basic principles of the craft change but that they may be applied in new and different ways. And sometimes even old ways are brought back. The necessity is to identify those fundamental principles and apply them properly within the particular situation of the times thereby preserving that which is good and developing that which is new. In this way the craft stays viable and preserves its identity as it moves through the changes of history. It has certainly done exactly this throughout its long history and will hopefully continue to do so in the future.

In your opinion, of course. However, even the most cursory reading of print history shows ‘punchthrough’ as real problem - beyond esthetic - and one to eliminate. It’s called ‘Fine Printing’ for good reason. There are countless example of this quest. However, the dilettante sees history beginning with their work and makes little, if any, effort to look beyond the faddish output from their unskilled hand; printing would seem to be the mere placing of hue upon paper, and it must be done quickly. Little importance is placed to its getting there nor do they acknowledge the guiding, unseen hands of the skilled practitioners preceeding which placed that moment before them..And they are quite inventive in defence of such shoddy product - invoking winds of change, progress, money, customer demand, and other straw dogs by which to support the nonsense proffered. If one seeks to purposefully de/emboss then by all means do, for that, too, is part of the printing heritage as is die-cutting, creasing, crash-printing. But please, don’t attempt to cover poor workmanship with fad-of-the-day double-speak. There is standard to any craft or undertaking; such might well be difficult to attain. That does not mean the standard is to be lowered because of that difficulty. There’s an old saw that claims the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is through practice. I suggest the braille impressionists pay heed to that advice. If the Black Art was easily mastered, why, everyone would be printing. Oh. Wait a minute……
In my opinion.

Updated. I am neither defending “punch-through” nor advocating a kiss impression. The point I was making has to do not with the rightness or wrongness of a particular method but with basic principles. On that score I’ll let what I wrote speak for itself except to add that correct basic principles may be applied in different ways and still result in excellence. Extremism at either end of the spectrum is rarely if ever based on sound basic principles but only on a kind of stale dogmatism blindly accepted and reactively defended..

Ah. Extremism; dogma; reactive defense. Yet more straw dogs added to the indefensible redoubt of coarse and unskilled printing. The kennel grows.
In my opinion.

Well, I guess I should jump into this ‘kiss’ vs. ‘punch’ debate. Historically, relief printing (printing from a raised surface) has branched and coalesced many times. Going back to the 15th century, you see the first example. Bookwork and woodblock prints aligned, then separated in printing style somewhat.

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.


HP: Amen.

I haven’t read anything in the comments posted so far that advocates making a blanket practise of heavy impression or anyone trying to justify such a method as a new movement. What I have noted is an unwillingness to at least admit that there is a reasonable difference of opinion regarding what constitutes “perfect” printing. I am certainly no authority myself but I thought I would present some examples from people who are generally considered such:

“There is some question about how much impression you should use. Commercial printers prefer a “kiss” impression so light that no indentation of the type can be felt in the paper. But the old tradition in hand printing is for enough “sock” to feel a definate indentation. This adds texture to the printing and is the generally preferred style for personal printing. Do not apply too much “sock” though. Don’t punch holes or make the printing hard to read.” J. Ben Lieberman, Printing as a Hobby, page 108.

“When the packing is adjusted to give a clear, even print over the entire form, without undue impression on the back of the sheet, the make-ready may be considered complete and the gauge pins may be set for running the job.” Ralph W. & Edwin Polk, Elementary Platen Presswork, page 37.

“The ideal impression is even, light, scarcely discernible on the back of the sheet, but yet clear and concise.” Ralph W. & Edwin Polk, Elementary Platen Presswork, page 68.

“In letterpress printing, the type is pressed into the paper a little and shows slightly raised letters on the back of the sheet. This is called impression. The impression should be even all over the sheet. It should be just heavy enough to print the letters clearly. If the impression is too light, you will have to use too much ink and the sheets will be easily smeared. If you have too heavy an impression, the type will be damaged and the back of the sheet will be rough.” Hartley E. Jackson, Printing: A Practical Introduction to the Graphic Arts, page 117.

Clearly the authors of these standard works, and others could be cited, believe that as far as the amount of impression is concerned there is at least a narrow range within which good printng is practised. And that’s the basic point, there is a range. There may be healthy debate over what specifically constitutes the basic principles of good printing and how those principles are best applied in order to define that range’s limits. But unless there is agreement at the outset that an honest and reasonable difference of opinion can exist no meaningful discussion can take place.

You selectively quote twentieth century authors as definitive source to cover five hundred years of mechanical printing? Interesting example of ‘box canyon’ discussion in order to support an unsupportable position. And that position, taken by some at the beginning of this thread, was that the braille punch was ever-so-arty, part of an evolving process, and much to be admired. Such nonsense, mere salve for inexperience and laziness, served as catalyst drawing from many reasoned and impassioned pleas for a continuation of fine printing technique in part to pay homage to a rich past and also as guide to continued reach towards excellence. And there is no middle ground to excellence. Printers from the beginning sought what planography was finally able to achieve only in the late part of the last century. Over the intervening years they produced magnificent works, each superior to the last in rendering. And one only need look at but a few type specimen catalogues of the late 19th and early 20th century to appreciate the truly skilled men behind those products. It is especially educational to note that illustration and type sit quite nicely together with impression bite enough to give dimension sans punch. That effect is result of impeccable makeready, and extrordinary attention to detail. And that result, I offer, is the achievement sought by the great men of printing. Are current practitioners to ignore that goal? If such expertise was achieved over one hundred years ago, by men toiling under illumination, equipment, and temperature control conditions immeasurably cruder than
even the most rudest of garage or garret at hand in today’s letterpress atmosphere, then there can be no excuse to not follow suit. Michaelangelo and Paint-By-Number both employ oils, brush, and canvas to render interpretations. I know which product is the better. In my opinion


Well, another Friday has come, another busy week of letterpress printing has passed. Once again, the designers are happy, and the customers were thrilled with both their printing and with being able to take part in the tradition and craft of letterpress. The company has made a profit, and I am able to support my family for yet another week. I again have persued perfection, some jobs having heavy impression and some light, and I will go home satisfied with my craftsmanship, paying homage to the many before me.

I am blessed, as were my predecessors, to be able to make a honest living in the trade I love, and hope and pray that this continues for many many years.

Have I committed some great offense? Do I owe anyone an apology? I dont think so. I am proud of my work. I do the best that I can. Is there room for improvement? Of course. None of us here have completely mastered the craft.

If I have been fooling myself for all these years and have been living my life wrong, Then I will indeed have some explaining to do. Maybe Laurence will lend me his thesaurus so I can write a flowery letter to my wife explaining why I wont be able to support my family anymore.

Has my life has been wasted because of heavy impresion?

“”Has my life has been wasted because of heavy impression?”“


This has got to be one of the most amusing things I have read in a while, right up there with Goudy talking about letterspacing b l a c k l e t t e r.

Where else but here could we all debate 500 years of history, printing technique and art? We all bicker and debate, but at the end of the day, we can, because of a craft we all keep alive in our own way. Elizabeth and her son have given us a place to have this debate, and for that I am thankful.

I cast no aspersion upon others works. Rather, I offered opinion - based upon experience, research, and observation - of printing technique and what I view as trend toward coarsness in the Black Art. There will always be those viewing a black velvet portrait of Elvis as the ultimate art - whereas I view such offal as the penultimate. As to the ad hominem inclusion of personal writing style laid against this writer, well, in that area, too, I refuse to debase the standards of written communication. Or is the acceptance of numbers, symbols, lower-case only, words of fewer than two syllables, and no punctuation now on par with punch printing? A David Thoreau I am most certainly not; but I ain’t no Mickey Spillaine either. In my opinion.

I have to admit that whatever his views on printing, Laurence certainly injects humor into the debate. He casts no aspersions, but a black velvet portrait of Elvis is offal with obvious implications for those with the opposite view. He complains about ad hominum attacks while refering to those who hold views different from his as “snotty”, “dilettantes” who make “little, if any, effort to look beyond the faddish output from their unskilled hand.” But he’s not casting any aspersions.

What can one do but laugh?

But back on topic: I think this discussion would benefit by some quotes or references from the master printers of the past that support the view that Laurence and others have put forward. I mean that sincerely. Should such references exist it would do us well to examine them carefully to inform our views on the subject.

Understanding the word, ‘aspersion’, might well be a starting point prior to launching sputtering response. One may infer freely - that does not make the original statements thus. And offering view is just that; which part of “in my opinion” is not understood? Or is such not allowed by those clearly unable to grasp meaningful discourse? Oh, yes. Not to place too fine a point here but the second sentence in the previous posting - isn’t. Is that aspersion - or simply observation? In my opinion.

Folks practicing “deep relief” impression do it because it is currently the common place definition of letterpress printing by an unknowing marketplace. They are usually of a younger generation less experienced in traditional printing. Because the current market subscribes to the notion of deep impression, it sells. Some folks have promoted this for their own gain, most others just follow the lead sheep down that long hall. But this is done solely for profit, not for what one might term higher standards.

The times will change and correct. As they do. And as have always done so. I hope, down that long road, the promoters of this blip in the continuum idiocy feel far more shamed (and are ultimately castigated for this) than their followers feel embarrassed by their earlier efforts.

That, or letterpress is just bullshit.


Some have responded since my request for documentary references supporting their viewpoint but as yet I see none posted. I really hope we can get some. Unless we are looking to find objective principles and instead stay at the level of opinion there’s not much point in the search and there will never be agreement or understanding. It would be sad indeed if all those practising printing or any other craft cannot articulate principles that find objective support. For myself, I really want to have an understanding of what constitutes the highest standards so that as a printer I can work towards achieving them.

I’ve looked back over the postings and I think we have all made a basic error: we haven’t defined the terms being used in the discussion. All of us clearly have our own understanding of the meaning of the terms we are using but it’s also obvious that we either don’t agree on those meanings and/or don’t know exactly what a writer means when he uses one of them. How should “deep impression”, “heavy impression” or “kiss impression”, among others, be defined?

Littlerubberfeet gave a very good reference based on actual examples of early printing he and his girlfriend have as being “definitely as close as they could get to ‘kiss’ impressions”. But unless we all understand what is meant by a kiss impression in general and, at least for this discussion agree on that definition, we are not going to come to any kind of useful understanding.

Does anyone want to take a crack at suggesting some definations for the terms we have been using?

Here’s a word for you: TIRESOME. Look it up; or look in a mirror.
In my opinion.

i like to feel words on paper. in fact, that’s why i wanted to begin my journey into letterpress in the firstplace. i can’t print out something from my hp inkjet that has a tactile sense like i might with a letterpress. engraving stationery as a hobby from my home is just not practical.
as for the all lowercase, that’s because i’m typing with one hand; the other is holding my sleeping nursling. efficiency is important, as her big brother could wake at any moment from his nap. regardless, maybe someday my children will come to love letterpress too? it would be an honor to help guide them toward a way to make art of communication. if they dig the history of it as a way to better embrace the craft, all the better.
peace out.

Seems like you all come here to argue.


This thread is over five years old.


There is no statute of limitations for such an open archive. People can exhume, do another autopsy, and disagree as long as there is access.
But why dig up this particular corpse?

I suspect it was to troll you folks back into a 5 year old argument. But I digress.

…… Why are you all so against impression? ;-)


I suppose the folks who have been at it for awhile fall back on traditional concepts, like about five centuries worth. Baskerville, Goudy, Tschichold, to name a few, weren’t big fans of it. Can’t say I know of a historical printer who was. Sort of like the deckle on a parent sheet, they used to cut it off. It was just an inferior part of the process, sort of like the jet left on a plastic casting. Wow, imagine if that becomes cool!

Not to say impression wasn’t practiced. It had to be.

Deep impression, well, that’s a 21st century story.


I thought deep impression was the result of a double sheet fed in error !

Yeah, Martha Stewart did that on her infamous Vandercook video. All the sycophants gathered around applauded the discovery. That is largely why most folks are here. Her, “the wonderful thing about letterpress is how each sheet is different from another,” or something to that effect sort of kick started the 21st century craze. Well, it didn’t hurt that she also decided letterpress printed invitations were proper etiquette for weddings and began accepting ads for such in her magazine.

I thought that might be why they put her in prison but I could be wrong about that.


Oh, uh, guys, I wasn’t serious with my question- see - but I don’t feel bad, you’d probably still have discussed it anyway.

However, I just pretty thoroughly google/youtube searched that M.S. Vandy video and came up with zilch.

Anyone got a link? I’d love to have it.

Heavy impression ruins lead type - makes it wear prematurely. It can also break printing presses - particularly smaller ones that were not made to punch paper - or die cut…