How Does Letterpress Printing Work?

A Brief History of Our Favorite Vandercook

At Sanctuary Letterpress, most of our projects are printed on our Vandercook No 4 Proofing Press that has been completely refurbished by a company called Letterpreservation. It was manufactured in February of 1933, making it one of the few Vandercook presses that were utilized during WWII. During that time, the press was used to proof mainly newspapers before printing in large quantities that were ultimately released to the public. Due to the politics and military combat surrounding WWII, we can only imagine the news reports that were run through this press.


These types of presses were discontinued when offset printing became the new method of commercial printing in the 1950s. Offset printing was much less labor intensive, however it printed only on the surface of paper (like modern digital printing) rather than making a physical impression into the paper the way letterpress printing does.


How does the press work?

In the past, individual letters made of lead were set in place on the surface of the press to spell out each and every word that was to be printed. That means that even spaces between every word required a tiny blank piece of metal to separate them, and long strips of different sized lead were used to create spaces between each line of text. 


1. Creating the design and plates

Luckily, modern technology has been able to help us out a little with this labor intensive process. First, a design is created in a vector based program such as Adobe Illustrator. Using a UV process similar to developing film photographs, the design is cured into a physical photopolymer plate that replaces the metal type setting method. One plate has to be made for each color of ink desired since the colors are only able to be printed separately. The photopolymer plates have an incredibly strong adhesive on the back, allowing the plate to stay firmly in place on an aluminum base. These photopolymer plates are able to be reused which makes it possible for these designs to be reprinted anytime.


2. Press setup

The printer then goes through a series of steps to lock the plate firmly in place as well as measuring and aligning the paper to achieve the desired printing results. This is a process in itself that is completely done by hand using only the expertise of the printer, using mostly an allen wrench and a screwdriver to adjust all the machine parts. This includes raising and lowering the internal rollers for proper ink distribution, adjusting the packing based on the paper weight that controls the depth of the impression, aligning the position of the base to the paper that will be run through the top of the machine.

3. Ink

Here at Sanctuary Letterpress, we exclusively use locally sourced natural inks which are made using soy, linseed oil, and dry grind pigments to yield a more vibrant color. These inks are mixed by hand on a simple piece of glass using an ink knife. We precisely follow a Pantone formula guide to combine colors to achieve an exact match to each custom color swatch. 

4. Printing

Once the press is all set up and ink is distributed evenly on the rollers, the proofing begins. The cotton letterpress paper is secured on the feed board. The large handle is turned by hand which rolls the paper through all five rollers, down the press and over the plate. The pressure of the cylinder pushes the raised text and images into the soft cotton paper, making an impression.

This entire process is repeated separately for each color in the design, printing one color on top of the other. After printing a color, the five press rollers are removed and cleaned along with the internal master cylinder with special solvents before being inked with a new color. Each plate has to be aligned strategically with the previous printed layer. This is done one sheet of paper at a time and cut down to size after printing.

The final results

These custom printing jobs take hours, days, and even weeks depending on the project. In the end, the beautiful results are gratifying and worth all the work. Letterpress printers genuinely love their craft, learning patience and constant problem solving along the way. Printmaking requires years of study to perfect. Most printers begin learning the very basics of the original form of printing, carving woodblocks. Most printers have studied other forms of printmaking including intaglio, lithography, linocut, and screenprinting before ultimately operating their own printing press professionally.


If you are interested in learning letterpress printing yourself, Sanctuary Letterpress is partnered with Austin Book Arts Center to provide printmaking and book arts workshops to the public. Visit for more information. 

Edge Color Business Cards

Adding colored edges to your business cards is one of the simplest ways to create a stunning business card that people will remember and act upon. Business cards are like any other marketing and personal branding tool, their purpose is to create interest in you and your business. Having a well-designed and attractive business card is essential. But it's only useful if the person holding it is convinced to call or email you. Using a thick card stock and a colored edge on your business card will make it memorable and the receiver more inclined to get in touch. Below is some more information about how we create business cards with colored edges and what you can expect your cards look like. 


Gold foil stamped with matching edges by Sanctuary Letterpress

Gold foil stamped with matching edges by Sanctuary Letterpress

Card stock thickness for edge painting

Not every business card stock can hold color on the edges. In order to achieve this effect, you'll need to be comfortable going with a relatively thick card stock. We usually recommend a 220 stock card. However, it is also possible to use 110 thickness business cards as well. The color won't be as noticeable on 110, but it will have some of the effect you're looking for to an extent. We have several different sample cards you can pour over at our austin studio. So please feel free to come by and look at all the different edge-color business cards we've created for other clients. Using 220 stock has the added advantage of a heavy feel in the hand which (although it is still very reasonably priced) conveys an element of class and premium quality that is difficult to achieve with a thinner business card. 


Fluorescent ink with matching edges by Sanctuary Letterpress

Fluorescent ink with matching edges by Sanctuary Letterpress



How color is applied to the edge of the business card

This is a relatively simple process. Simple, but not easy. Color can be applied to the edge of the card by using an airbrush machine. We prefer a light dusting of paint, applied evenly and in multiple coats. This prevents bleeding and allows for the paint to be applied evenly and without "clumpiness".  The cards are held firm using a small vice clamp. They're rotated slowly while the paint is being applied. For multiple-edge colors, we clamp the vice firm and in one single place and wait for each side to dry before switching colors and painting the other sides of the card.


How our customers feel about edge painting

Tim Howard, Founder & CEO,

“I was attending my first industry association conference last year. As a consultant in the investor relations, I knew it was important to make a good impression. We made two key marketing decisions. First, I bought new business shoes for the conference floor. And second, I invested in thick color-edged business cards. The business cards were by far the better use of marketing $$$. Managers at multi-national companies were literally floored when I handed them my business card. The CFO of T-Mobile quizzed me about them for 10 minutes. High-quality, thick, letterpress cards with a colored edge are quite literally the best marketing decision you can make. Thanks for convincing me to do this Nicole, I owe you one.”

Thick Business Cards

Your business card says more about you than you might think. It's easy to assume that when someone asks for your card, that all you're handing over is your contact information. And in many cases, this is literally what you're doing. You need to give someone a way to contact you. But whats more important is giving someone a reason to contact you. And that's where a heavy, premium business card can do the trick. Our clients have found that the heavier the business card, the more value it communicates. So why should you carry thicker-than normal business cards? 

Sanctuary Letterpress

Sanctuary Letterpress


First impressions with thick business cards

First impressions are very easy to make and unfortunately just as easy to mess up. With every new encounter a young entrepreneur or business person makes with a potential client or customers, they're being assesses. This is a natural process that everyone goes through. First impression can be nearly impossible to reverse. They set the tone for a relationship, no matter whether you're meeting a potential future boss or a bank manager. It's important to put your best foot forward and present the person you're meeting with a quality first impression. You may never get this chance again. 

Carrying a thicker business card is one way to make your name and your first interaction stand out in someone else's mind. Imagine they've been handed 15 flimsy vista-print business cards at the event. All of a sudden, they're holding a thick, hearty letterpress business card made of premium woven paper. The impression is instantaneous. There's texture to the card, they card almost read it without looking at it. This is the kind of experience you want someone holding your business card to have. It's memorable. It guarantees they'll leave your first interaction with a glowing impression. 


Natural expression of your brand

Anyone receiving a business card will match the features of that card to the person who gave it to them. If it's water-damaged, they'll judge you. If it's worn and weathered, they'll think of you this way as well. However, if your business card is new, strong, vibrant and beautiful, the receiver will assign all of these attributes to you. It's safe to assume that if you're handing this person your business card, you want them to think positively of you. Few people take selfies at business events. But almost all will leave the event with a stack of business cards. Making yours stand out in that pile should be your aim. And using a thick business card is one way to do this. After all, it's the only lasting physical impression that you'll be able to leave behind at the end of the event. 

A thick business card suggests:

  • the highest technology
  • the greatest care
  • the best product
  • a premium service
  • guaranteed quality


How thick can your business card be?

There are a few natural limitations on how thick you can actually make a business card and still have it be functional. For example, you can't really hand someone a cube of paper with writing on the side. That's probably not going to fit in anyone's wallet. You want your business card to be thick, but not so thick that it needs it's own carrying device. 

We recommend using 220# card stock for thick business cards. This means you can still letterpress them without cracks or fraying appearing on the surface of the card. This is about 2.5 x the standard business card thickness. This allows the card to feel sturdy and durable while still holding vibrant colors and printing details. 

All business cards we create at Sanctuary Letterpress are printed in-house at our East-Austin letterpress studio. For a tour of our facility, to order a sample of our business cards or just to chat about your letterpress project, click the button below. 

Photo credits:

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

Creating Unique Business Cards

One of the challenges with modern business card design is that every card in your set is destined to come out the same. The proliferation of online card printing companies means that most cards you're handed are printed on thin, boring, low-cost card stock with basic designs and little creativity. It can be very difficult to create variation in a design and in printed materials generally. The nature of printing is that everything needs to come out the same, based on a single template, a single design and specific inks. But we're not satisfied with that. So we've perfected a printing technique that allows us to individualize every single business card you hand out. That's right, every card has a slightly different design. The technique is a variation on fabric dyeing and it allows us to create some of the beautiful prints below. 

Letterpress business cards by Sanctuary Letterpress

Letterpress business cards by Sanctuary Letterpress

How color dyeing works

The simplest way to describe this technique is that your business cards are delicately dipped into a colored fabric dye and then left to dry in a standing position so that the ink doesn't bleed through the entire card. It's a little more complicated than that though. We use a premium fabric ink that needs to be warmed to exactly the right temperature before having the card dipped into it. As you can see on these images, layering multiple colors onto the card is definitely possible. However, as you can probably imagine, this requires multiple inks to be used in succession. 


Every business card is unique

This paper dyeing technique definitely isn't for everyone. In fact, it's a small minority of our customers who are willing to go to this length. But the results are spectacular. Short of doing calligraphy on each card, this is one of the few ways you can ensure that every business card you hand to a potential client is unique. There's something to be said for this. In a world of cookie-cutter business cards that are exactly the same out of the box, this individualization creates a talking point for you at conferences and events. It's especially interesting when you hand your card to multiple people within a circle. They'll instantly notice the similarities and differences and compare them. We've even seen people swap them to try and acquire their favorite color. 


Color and landscape options

There are several limitations to this technique that you should be aware of before requesting paper dyeing on your business cards. Firstly and most importantly is the potential choice of colors. While we'd love to be able to have a snowy-mountain landscape, but it's unfortunately not possible to overlay a lighter color over a darker color. We know, it sucks. It would be awesome if this were a possibility. But this is one of the limitations we live with when creating artworks with physical materials rather than digital prints. And secondly, your design need to factor in this use of color. All too often, we have clients try to add it in as a feature after their business cards have already been produced. This rarely works well. If you need any help with creating a design that incorporates paper dyeing, please contact us and we'll assist in this process. 

Executive Letterpress Stationery

Standing out professionally requires something unique. While many executives have discovered that letterpress printing services create a stunning business card, few have taken up the use of letterpress stationery. But that may be changing. Because the letterpress printing process creates such a beautiful, premium printed product, it lends itself perfectly to stationery for executives and business professionals. If you want your business to stand out, if you want to be seen as a mover and shaker, if your company is selling a high-value product, letterpress stationery can provide the touch of class your brand needs to compete. 

Personalized stationery by Sanctuary Letterpress

Personalized stationery by Sanctuary Letterpress


Weighty factors

There is more to a letter (or a letterhead) than simply the words on the page. The gauge of the paper, the feel of the envelope, the style of the address are all factors in how your letter is received. Letterpress stationery adds a premium quality to the experience. the stationery we create at Sanctuary is produced with a rich impression on note cards and thick stationery paper. Every sheet is pressed individually and the quality is apparent even before you're started reading the letter. If you have something weighty to say, premium letterpress printing can convey as much as the words on the page. 

Personalized executive stationery

While most companies have their own letterhead. Many firms provide a style guide for employees regarding the use of the company's brand, logo and colors. Within these guidelines, it's more than possible to create personalized stationery unique to your position at the company. This is common in the financial services industry, at Law firms and with professions who provide high-value discretionary services like orthodontics and plastic surgery. Any time a person is spending a lot of money for a service, their buying decisions is made on the back of trust int he quality of the service they're paying for. Personalized executive stationery with with letterpress or blind embossing conveys quality in your business, your professionalism and the value of your services. 


Business stationery specifics

We recommend that your letterpress stationery be weighty but not too thick. It's tempting to try and use a #220 thickness of paper (the same as we might recommend for business cards) but this is often too thick for functional stationery. When we create corporate stationery packages, we often suggest executives go with a 75 or 90 grade, matte white color so the ink or blind emboss really jumps off the page. Standard business sheets should be of quality paper stock in either ecru or white. The standard letterhead size for a letter is 8 1/2 by 11 inches. Anything outside these dimensions may be difficult to send and unnatural to receive. 

Letterpress stationery suggests youth

For the last ten years or so, the so called "Hipster" movement has seen the re-emergence of formerly prominent art forms like letterpress and specialized physical arts of all sorts including book design and craft beer and many other local artisan products. As early as 1996, the New York Times was saying that letterpress products were set to make a comeback. Then in June, the Boston Globe explained that young professionals, late Generation X and early Millennials are flocking towards letterpress stationery as part of a movement towards custom, personalized communication tools for personal events and business communications. Depending on the design you're working with, letterpress stationery can make your brand appear youthful or established. Either way, letterpress products suggest quality, but our design team can work with you to create a design that speaks to your brand, image and corporate values. 

Photo credits:

1. Tabati Studio | 2. | 3. | 4. | 5.

Modern letterpress business cards

With so many professions shifting to the digital environment, it would be easy to imagine that physical printed materials have begun to disappear. On the contrary, the fact that many of us spend a huge amount of time in front of our computer screens has actually increased the value we place in quality physical materials. Take web designers for example, while it's easy to think that their entire business exists within lines of code, very often the most successful web designers are the ones who attend local business events handing out modern business cards. So what are the trends in modern business card design and how can you create a piece of material you're proud to hand over? 


Modern design - standard size

Contrary to popular belief, creating a modern business card design does not mean you need to create a card that turns into a chair for a mouse or rolls up into a joint paper. One principle we try our best to stick to is "don't design for design's sake". That means, don't add more when less will do. In fact, less is often better. As it applied to business card design, this means staying within some common parameters. For example, there's a reason why business cards generally come in a standard 2″ x 3.5″ - wallets are made to keep cards this size. Yes, you can absolutely create a square business card or an oversize business card. But in our humble opinion, you probably shouldn't. Why? Because while it's good to be memorable, you want to be memorable for the right reason, you want your business card to be remembered for its weight, its texture and its impression. You do not want it to be remembered as the one card that wouldn't fit in the recipient's wallet and as a result got left in the bathroom trash can. 

Materials and effects

The vast majority of modern business cards are printed using a digital design and an inkjet printer. This poses a challenge for anyone who provides a premium product or service. Irrespective of the design of the card, it's very difficult to convey quality using cheap materials. As a general rule, the thicker the business card, the higher the quality. Obviously this counts within reason, you can't have a cube of paper, that's not fitting in anyone's wallet. But beyond the thickness of the paper, the weight is also important. This is why some modern cards have been made out of outlandish materials like brass, plastic and even marble! While this probably sounds great if you're selling yachts, it's still possible to hand out premium business cards without stealing Greek antiquities. 

Many modern business card designs invert the standard dark on light color choice. This kind of color change is only possible using modern printing methods like embossing and foiling. We get a lot of request for black business cards with gold foiling. This kind of card has become much more common in recent years. But it's not suitable for every person and every brand. Modern letterpress business cards are more universal than foiled cards. Classic dark on light is still more common than the alternative. 


No information overload

The primary function of your business card to is give a prospective client the ability to contact you. Never forget that. As we mentioned earlier, you should never design for design's sake. All the information on your business card should be there for a reason. The discipline to create a card with "no fat on it" can be difficult to maintain. We'll often have business owners contacts us saying "please copy this design we found on Pinterest" - which is usually fine. The only challenge is when that design contains information that is non-essential. Modern business cards do not contain superfluous information. They don't use quotes from famous people, paragraphs of marketing text etc. Sometimes, they don't even have a physical address. Let's face it, with so many people telecommuting, working out of coffee shops or from home, physical addresses for businesses are less common than ever. Card designs have followed this trend. In fact, many modern cards will include a Twitter @handle rather than a fax number. In a way, business card designs reflect the times we live and work in. 
At a bare minimum for most letterpress business cards, we suggest include your name and your company name, what you do, and your basic contact information (phone, email and website address). Other information you might consider including:

Photo credits:

1. Garage Culture | 2. Spotted Zebra | 3. Javier Garcia

Wooden Business Cards

Laser engraved wooden business cards by Sanctuary Letterpress.

Laser engraved wooden business cards by Sanctuary Letterpress.

With so many options for business card design available online, even the worst business cards have gotten a lot better in recent years. As the minimum standard has gotten better, it's become more difficult to make your business cards stand out from the crowd. had a great story last month about exceptionally decadent marble business cards. They're beautiful products, but somewhat out of the average business person's budget. Luckily, there is another, much more readily available medium that also provides a stunning finish when used for business cards. Wood. Yes, trusty old wood. Wooden business cards are a recent innovation here at Sanctuary Letterpress. Our Austin Letterpress studio was originally set up to handle a whole range of letterpress services for weddings and businesses. But today, we'd like to share with you some of the wooden business cards we've been working on. 

Our new range of wood cards have a luxurious feel thanks to the thick, 3mm wood used in their construction. We employ precision laser cutting and engraving machines to enhance the natural beauty of wood. And the results? Simply stunning. 

 Wooden business cards for Barn and Forest Lumber Co.

Are wooden business cards sustainable?

The Austin business environment has a real focus on sustainable business practices. Our wooden cards are made from sustainably sourced wood which ensures that every card has a unique color and texture. Wooden cards can give your business information the WOW factor they need to convince new clients to work with you. Wooden cards also carry an inherent value. It's easy to throw away a flimsy online-printed card that could just as easily be holding up a chair leg. Not so with wooden cards. The weight alone conveys quality. Very few people have ever been handed something so sturdy, so they're usually loathed to throw it away without seriously considering the information a wooden card carries. 

Order quantities of wooden business cards

Unlike letterpress business cards that require a polymer plate (which has a fixed cost), wooden business cards can be produced one at a time. While most people probably shouldn't order fewer than 100 business cards for the costs to be economical, wooden business cards can be easily produced in small quantities. Our most recent project was done with just 50 cards. This means you can get started with wooden business cards much much faster than with letterpress cards. And the commitment is also much less. Typical turnaround time usually runs around 7-10 business days. But as with all orders placed on, we offer rush order services. Again, since you don't need to wait for a polymer plate to be manufactured for your printing, wooden cards can potentially be produced on a shorter turnaround time than standard printing services. 

Kinds of wood for business cards

Since we started offering these services, we're constantly being asked about the kinds of wood that can be printed onto. The standard answer is "we CAN print your business card on any wood." But since we only print on sustainably sourced materials, the proper answer is "we WILL print on any wood that we can responsibly source." Some woods we've printed on at the time of writing include Birch, Cheery Oak, Walnut, and Mahogany. Depending on what we can source for you, any wood can be used to create your business cards. 

Custom shapes for wood cards

One of the awesome things about lasers is that they give you the ability to create any shape you like for your business card. Unlike online business card services which unfortunately can't offer this. The lasers we use at Sanctuary Letterpress allow us to alter the shape of your card by cutting away portions of the wood from the perimeter of the design. As long as the final result fits within the standard business card dimensions, we don't charge any extra for alternate shaped business cards. 

Varieties of Wooden Business Cards


Laser engraved and printed wooden business cards are a unique product to Sanctuary Letterpress. Every card is custom made to order. we engrave per the specifications of your design. We can print your logo, emblem or family coat of arms. And there are many different shapes available for engraved wood business cards.  


To create a more memorable wood card, it is also possible to use veneer wood for your cards. These are doubled sided veneer woods. Species of wood that can be used for these cards include maple, oak, ash and cherry. These cards are not usually the thickest, usually only getting up to 1.2mm or at most 1.5mm thick. As with all orders, we require a minimum order quantity of 50 business cards. If you choose a veneer wood product with a strong contrast tone (e.g. Walnut), the result is a truly spectacular business card. 


We mentioned earlier that we're able to print any sized wood business card. That includes mini cards! Usually etched onto Alder wood, a solid 2.5mm thickness, they can have a smooth satin finish. Alder wood is easily sourced from sustainable suppliers and is one of our new favorites. We offer these wood cards at any size, but our mini wooden cards are usually about half the size of a standard card which allows us to create them at a lower cost than a standard wood card. 


Driftwood can be kind of hard to get in Austin, Texas. But when we're able to source driftwood for business cards, the result is a beautiful product that is 100% unique. Driftwood has a unique texture that no amount of polishing is going to replicate, and that's the whole point! Driftwood cards are very often well received by the recipient and provide the opportunity for the giver to discuss where the wood came from, how it was sourced and what makes it special. If you happen to be walking along a beach anytime soon, take a quick look down at the sand and see if you can sustainably source the wood for your business cards!

Custom letterpress holiday cards

Letterpress printing lends itself perfectly to creating memorable printed materials for periodic or one-off events. Letterpress machines like our Vandercook 4 can print onto thick, weighty paper stock which feels great in your hands and conveys quality and thoughtfulness. That's what makes it such a great tool for creating premium wedding invitation suites and executive stationery products. For anyone who wants to make an impression this holiday season, a pre-printed pack of letterpress holiday cards or even custom-designed cards can really create a memorable experience for the recipient. 

General letterpress holiday cards

If you're looking to re-connect with a loved one or show that you missed somebody during the season, our range of pre-printed holiday cards is a great choice. These holiday card packs come with a range of designs and colors. Packs can include 6, 10 or 20 Christmas cards all with accompanying envelopes.


Photo Credits:

1. dittodittoworks - 2. The Hunter Press - 3. PenguinInks - 4. DanielleBleuse - 5. The SmallPrint Company