I have so many brides that are interested in having their wedding invitations letterpress printed without having any awareness for what the cost will be or the process that occurs to create the final product! To tell you the truth, I was one of those brides myself. When I was planning my wedding in early 2015, I knew I wanted letterpress invitations and I wasn’t anywhere near being prepared for the cost of getting them printed. I also wanted watercolor flowers on my invitation, which is a whole different problem because that has to be printed digitally first (and I of course had no idea that the printing methods were any different).
I was lucky enough to work with some very gracious people along the way that helped me figure out what I wanted. Just for a point of reference, it can cost anywhere from $600 - $1,000 to letterpress print a wedding invitation suite that has 3 pieces. In most instances this includes the wedding invitation card, an RSVP card, and a details card. The more pieces and the more sets you need, the more the printing fee will be.
First, let’s get started with a few definitions and descriptions. Letterpress printing is essentially a beautiful old-world style of printing where plates are used to create an imprint on each individual piece of paper. The definition from Google is as follows:
let·ter·press ˈledərˌpres/ noun
noun: letterpress; noun: letter-press
1. printing from a hard, raised image under pressure, using viscous ink.
Now let’s dive into what you need to know about letterpress printing if you are considering this printing method for your wedding invitations!
1. Every letterpress plate used for your design = one color.
The first thing to understand about letterpress printing is that each printed piece does have the ability to have multiple colors, but to achieve that effect you are going to have to use multiple plates, and therefore the process will become even more expensive the more colors you would like to add. Like the definition says, letterpress printing is produced from a “raised image”. We refer to this raised image as a letterpress plate. Back when letterpress originated, the plates used to be metal. In fact, individual metal letters had to be inserted into the press to print an article, flyer, pamphlet, etc. Today, the plates are created out of plastic (companies like Concord Engraving exist solely to make letterpress plates), and the plates are then individually mounted onto the press and used to create the impression.
A quick side note: in order for these plates to be manufactured correctly, your designer or stationer needs to have the knowledge of how to create vectorized versions of your invitation files (this can be done with Adobe Illustrator). Creating vector files is a much more complicated process than just creating a digital version of your wedding invitation. The vector files allow for the engraving on the plate to be accurately created. Creating vectorized files takes time and knowledge and if you want to have letterpressed wedding invitations, you need to hire someone that has the right type of knowledge to create the files correctly (not to toot my own horn too much, but that’s me)!
I usually recommend for my brides that want letterpress (but are sensitive about cost) to stick to just one color. That way, only one plate needs to be manufactured for each piece that they are printing. The wedding invitation would have its own plate, the rsvp card would have its own plate, and so on and so forth. If you decide to have two colors, there would be two plates per printed piece. I will explain further how printing two colors would work a little later in the article.
2. Letterpress ink is hand mixed for each order and matched to a Pantone color of your choice.
The next thing to understand about letterpress is that a very specific kind of ink needs to be hand mixed for each individual order! The ink has to be weighed & mixed correctly to produce the exact hue you want for your wedding invitations or printed piece. Letterpress printers use a Pantone color reference book when mixing their ink – this book tells them how much of each hue needs to be used to produce the exact color that they want. If you want to learn more about the weighing & mixing of ink for letterpress printing, I highly encourage you to follow Swell Press on Instagram, as she often documents how she mixes the ink when she has students in her studio.
So, not only is your plate specifically manufactured for your letterpress printing order, but your ink is individually hand mixed as well. As I continue to explain all of this, I hope you are starting to gain an understanding for why letterpress printing costs a lot more than just digital, flat, or foil printing (though foil printing can still get pretty expensive because it also requires a plate to be manufactured).
3. Letterpress printing involves a lot more hands-on guidance and labor than any other type of printing method.
The last thing you need to understand about letterpress printing is that there is a lot more labor involved than any other kind of printing! First of all, lining up the plate on the press correctly so that it imprints exactly where you need it to on the paper is no joke! This is often one of the longest parts of the process that requires a lot of trial and error. If the plate is lined up incorrectly, chances are your design will not be centered or it will be crooked and nobody wants that! Even millimeters can make a huge difference during this step. When I shadowed a local letterpress printer, this is one of the steps that took her the longest because she wanted to ensure that the design was centered perfectly.
Second of all, unless the printing studio is lucky enough to have a Heidelberg Letterpress machine that does all the work for them, the person who is printing the wedding invitations will have to individually feed each piece into the press. That means they are spending hours standing next to the machine hand-feeding it paper to ensure that each piece is imprinted upon correctly. Different letterpress machines can do slightly different things, but the majority of them require you to be actively working with the machine (and sometimes pumping a treadle that makes the letterpress actually run) during the entire process. Very few letterpresses machines are run by a motor and, if they are, it was most likely added by whoever refurbished it to begin with.
If you decide to print two colors on your wedding invitation, each individual piece has to be run through the letterpress, not once, but twice because each plate can only do one color. Image how tricky it would be to make sure that the two different designs from two different plates are calibrated perfectly to line up and match on one piece of paper. Definitely not easy!
4. Purchasing and maintaining a letterpress machine is not cheap!
By the way, most letterpress machines that are fixed up and working correctly cost about $3,500 to purchase at a minimum. If you find one for less it is most likely a table top press, which is small enough to (you guessed it) be placed on the top of a table. Even those start at about $2,000 if they are refurbished and operational. The cost to purchase a letterpress (and fix it up if you need to), plus the cost of the ink, the plates, the paper, and any other materials you need adds up so quickly, which is why letterpress printers have to charge so much for their services. Not to mention they are also charging for the time of their labor.
Letterpress is an antique art that is being kept alive by passionate people around the world! The finished letterpress pieces make an amazing keepsake, not to mention they are beautiful to hold and touch because of the imprint that is created on them. I hope this article has helped you gain an understanding of the letterpress process, as well as why it has a higher price tag.
Some of my favorite letterpress printers (in no particular order) include Curious Fox Press, Swell Press, Darling & Pearl, The Chatty Press, Olive Juice Press, Copper Willow Paper Studio, and Czar Press. Definitely take time to check each of these businesses out on Instagram! They are all wonderful.
Questions or comments? Feel free to leave them below!