For the Love of Letterpress

One of the biggest (and most time-consuming, but also extremely rewarding) projects that I have taken on for the wedding so far has been to letterpress our invitations. Letterpress printing is a 500-year-old technique that has been used all over the world (think: woodblock printing in China or movable type like the Gutenberg press in Europe) to create “relief” printing of text and images. These days, the invention of the photopolymer plate has made letterpress printing available to normal people like you and me!

After spending months designing and refining our invitations and other wedding stationary that we wanted to get letterpressed, I sent my designs off to the Boxcar Press where they turned the designs into my very own photopolymer plate! We were lucky enough not only to have access to the Bow and Arrow Press (located inside Adams House at Harvard), but also to have the pleasure of working with Sam, a Harvard student and B&A; Press volunteer, throughout the whole ordeal. Sam answered all of our questions, guided us through the platemaking process, and reassured us that as long as we had our plate in hand, he would ensure that our invitations would be printed.

Dean was such a good sport through all of this – he acted as the middleman between the Press and I, going back and forth between both parties to ask and answer questions. I sent him to B&A’s open press nights (on Thursday nights from 7-10 for all you Harvard students – go check it out!) numerous times to test out different papers, check the ink stock, ask questions, and make friends with the volunteers there.

Anyhow, back to printing. We began our letterpress adventure in the morning around 9 a.m. The first task was to mix the ink to make the correct shade that we wanted for our invitations.

red + blue = purple

mixing ink

Sam told me to dot the ink onto the rollers like chocolate chips. How’d I do? :)

Then it was time to turn on the press and get the ink spread out.

Next, we had to peel the back off of our photopolymer plate and stick it to the Boxcar base. Positioning this base was probably the most difficult part of the whole process. Letterpress printing is an art where minute fractions of millimeters make a huge difference. We spent a good hour or two adjusting the base, adding spacers to alter the positioning. At one point, we even added a thin piece of vellum under the base just to give an extra “oomph” to the color. It made a huge difference!

Here’s a picture of our photopolymer plate that we had made:

Dean feeding the paper into the press:

From start to finish, it took us about 8 hours to print 200 sheets. Dean did most of the cranking, so by the end, his arm was starting to get a little tired! To see how the printing works, check out our youtube video:

We finished printing our 200+ invitations and boarded a bus to D.C. right before the big snowstorm hit Boston. Having to switch buses in NYC, we grabbed all our luggage (along with the invitations, which were tucked away safely in our bags) and dragged everything through the rain, slush, snow, hail, & sleet to catch our next bus a couple of blocks away. In D.C., Dean, my sister Julie, Billy, and I spent the next 3 days chopping up our invitations, lining the envelopes, and hand-addressing them.

After showing my parents the video of my letterpressing and explaining the process to them, my dad told me that that was how they used to print their church bulletins every week in Vietnam! Who knew that something typically so expensive these days (because of the precision, complexity, and sheer rigor involved) used to be something so everyday that it was simply part of a normal man’s life! There was an instant connection between my dad and I as we talked about the art and technicalities of letterpressing and “stencil printing,” as he calls it. I am indebted to my dad for passing on his artistic, perfectionist, type-A, detail-oriented genes to me! Thanks, Dad! :)

I still have a couple of finishing touches to put on them, but I am happy to say that our invitations are now safely back in Arizona. By the time they reach your hands, they will have traveled by feet, car, bus, subway, and airplane through 4 different states!

Here’s a sneak peak:

Stay tuned for more wedding details! :)


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