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.