Letter No. 10 - How Letterpress Was Lost

Some of my favorite books to read are also some of my oldest. When compared to new releases though, I noticed one key difference: the way the text looked on the page was completely different. 

In my older books, the text was crisp, sharp, and indented into the page, which together created a tactile, multi-dimensional reading experience. Conversely, the text on my newer books reminded me of homework assignments printed on my inkjet printer at home; words sat lifelessly on top of the paper, often a bit blurry and lacking definition.

I soon understood that my older books were printed using letterpress, while my newer books must have used a different method...

Therein lied my question: if letterpress printed books were aesthetically superior to contemporarily printed books, why did they stop being printed with letterpresses? 

I was on a mission to find the answer.

So please, join me on this journey through time to learn... "How Letterpress Was Lost"

Considering how revolutionary Gutenberg's printing press was in the 15th century, the process of preparing text for printing (typesetting) actually changed very little over the subsequent 450 years. For nearly half a millennium, individual letters made of metal or wood would need to be individually handset to make the words and the sentences that when placed side-by-side, make a written work.

Individual Letters of Metal Type case of hand set metal type in german

As you can imagine, the process of creating full pages of text one letter at a time was incredibly tedious and labour intensive. As an example, this meant that a daily newspaper could never be more than 8 pages long in the days of handset type.

It wasn't until an American-German engineer, Ottmar Mergenthaler, invented the linotype in the 1880s that this typesetting process was mechanized. With his linotype machine, a "line-of-type" (get it?) would be created by typing letters into a keyboard and then having those metal letters cast 'on the fly' out of a molten metal cauldron.

You can watch a video of this super intricate, behemoth of engineering in action recorded by a role-model of mine, Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia.

These linotype machines revolutionized the work-flow for letterpress printing, and were thus a mainstay for 60-70 years because they made it possible for a relatively small number of operators to set type for many pages daily.

However, there were a number of drawbacks to these 'hot metal' typecasting machines:

  1. They required managing a liquified vat of antimony and lead (both poisonous!)
  2. They were so loud that deaf people were often hired to operate them.
  3. They needed to be operated in an industrial setting.
  4. High labor costs.

So, what happened next?

Two technologies would be developed that—by the 1960s—would in conjunction ensure the removal of letterpress from its once dominant role.

The first was...


This technique removed metal type from the equation all together, and instead replaced it with photosensitive film. Just like that, all the heavy metal type and machinery could be put away, and typesetting could be performed in a normal office environment, rather than an industrial workspace.

But how does it work?

Essentially, light would be projected through a negative image of an individual letter onto photosensitive film, darkening the film in the exact shape of the letter. Then it would move to the side, and the next letter would be projected through with light. 

All the characters in a particular font would be present on a plate, whose movement would be controlled by a machine, as the user inputted different letters into a keyboard.

Furthermore, by combining lenses with these plates, the size of the font could be updated dynamically, which couldn't be performed on a linotype. Below is an image of one of these plates with the Futura font.

Okay I now I must admit that when I learned about the next step, I couldn't believe how crazy it seemed to a millennial who had been using a word processor since 3rd grade.

Here's what happens next

After all the type has been set onto photosensitive film using the photosetting plate, it is then arranged on a 'light table' in the final size as the page which is to be printed. Please see image below :-) Different sections of text would be rearranged into different layouts using rubber cement or wax adhesive (not just for arts and crafts).

Light Table Film Up

Then, the next step (yes it gets better!)

After the film had been organized on the light table with a semi-permanent adhesive, yet another step needed to occur. This layout would be put on an easel and then photographed yet again by an enormous device called a 'stat camera.'

Woman Using A Stat Camera

The same-size negative from the stat camera was then used to make the template for the printing press that would be used to repeatedly produce the printed text on paper.

And these templates or 'plates' are the segue into our second technological innovation...

Offset Printing

To begin, letterpress printing and offset printing employ fundamentally different techniques to essentially complete the same task of printing words on paper.

      • Letterpress printing is a type of 'relief printing,' meaning the shape of the letters in a plate are raised up, covered in ink, and then pressed into a piece of paper. The negative space around the letters is at a lower height, and thus not inked, and consequently not printed. 

      • Offset printing is a type of 'lithography,' where—in contrast to letterpress—the height of the plate is uniform. What determines whether ink is applied to the plate is based not on height, but whether the surface of the plate attracts or repels ink.

Let's synthesize Phototypesetting and Offset Printing: When the film negative from the stat camera is overlaid on top of a blank lithographic plate and exposed to a particular catalyst (e.g. light or chemicals), it results in a printing plate with two surfaces: one that attracts ink (the letters) and one that repels ink (the blank space).

The diagram below explains how these two technologies are used in conjunction for the printing process.

Offset Printing Diagram


In an offset printer, the lithographic plates for offset printing are first covered with water, then covered with ink. The non-text areas absorb water, so that when an oil-based ink is applied afterwards, the ink is not applied to that area (because water and oil repel each other). 

Basically, that's the lithographic technique: water and oil don't mix.

But what does the 'offset' in Offset printing mean? 

Unlike letterpress, where the inked plates are directly applied to the printing paper, in offset printing, the inked plate is first transferred to a rubber blanket, and it is that rubber blanket that inks the printed page coming through the impression cylinder. Ergo, the ink is 'offset' or transferred to another surface before it reaches the paper.

So why the monumental switch from letterpress to phototypesetting and offset printing?
  1. Reduced labor costs from faster typesetting. In the 1960s, computer software made the phototypesetting process 100x faster than a linotype machine.
  2. Offset printing was faster than letterpress printing by the 1970s
  3. These two techniques are super complementary for printing images. Letterpress required pictures to be photoengraved in metal beforehand, whereas with offset printing, the photographic image could be easily combined with the image of the text, and then exposed on an offset printing plate. 
So what does this mean about how my books are printed today?
When moving from a letterpress printed book to an offset printed book, you lose one pivotal thing: the 3-D impression of the inked characters into the paper. After all, with offset printing, a rubber 'blanket' is merely transferring the ink alone from one surface to another. 
To us, there's something about the crisp, tight impression of letters rendered by letterpress that really brings a book to life as a physical object that (for reasons described above) absolutely cannot be duplicated by an offset printer. 
Flurry Great Gatsby Century Press Introduction Miles Corak Letterpress
That's why at Century Press we are committed to bringing you books printed by letterpress, not because it's easier or economical, but because it offers a superior reading experience.


  • Richard Austin

    Fascinating, thanks for the well-written story. The video was great, it felt like watching steam-punk! In Montréal, I used to be in the tabloid business and remember those design, proofing and printing days fondly :)

  • Tim Moore

    Nice to see this description, which matches my learning in 1966, while working at Pergamon Press in Oxford, England I took a Printing course at the technical college, now Brooks University. At the time colour supplements, which came with Sunday newspapers, were produced by another technique, called photogravure, in which the colour “pixels” were semitransparent and could overlap each other. Moreover the inked areas were BELOW the main surface and the ink was spread into these pits and the main surface subsequently scraped to remove its ink. Not sure if it is used today but I will google it.

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