What's the deal with impression?

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Naomi, a lovely paper cut artist (seriously, check her stuff out!), commented with a great question on my last post, and I spent some time this morning putting together an answer. It's a question that comes up a lot. I think it might be of interest to more folks, so i'll repeat it here! I've also included some example photos which will hopefully help clarify some of the thoughts. Fellow printers, feel free to comment with your own thoughts - I know it's a topic that everyone has an opinion on, and I'd love to hear yours!

Naomi said: I have questions! I have questions! I’m so fascinated with the letterpress process, thank you for sharing it with us. I don’t know if you have both a manual and electric press, but would you say there are jobs that are more suited for the hand-crank over the electric-powered machine (besides for reason of quantity, of course). There are letterpress studios that make really “pillowy” impressions, and others that look more shallow. I wonder, do you change the impression on the paper for different jobs, or do you set one impression depth and that’s the look you want to be known for?

Here's my answer: We only have manual presses. They are either treadle powered with my feet (platen press), or operated with my hands (iron handpress), with each piece being fed into the press by hand. There are definitely benefits to motorized or more mechanized presses – larger quantities can be printed at a time, and more impression (depth into the paper) can be achieved. But in my opinion, you lose something of the joy & the quality of printing by hand when the machine is doing a lot of the work. The problem solving, measurements, and set-up are done similarly no matter what type of press you’re using, but the actual process of running the job is different. I really love the repetitive, rhythmic work-out that is printing manually, but it’s not for everyone and certainly has its limitations (quantity, needing to be in good health & stamina to print, etc.). I also think that printing manually (treadle vs. motor on a platen press) is much safer. The speed is set by your leg instead of by a motor, and your body inherently works well together. I’m not saying i’ll never have a motorized or mechanized press, but for now I prefer the simpler way.

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Photopolymer printing plates

Impression is a hotly debated issue among printers. Traditionally, impression was considered bad printing. Old school printers would shoot for “kiss” printing with no impression at all. A lot of the reason for this is that lead type is a somewhat soft metal. Too much impression damaged the type, and a printer’s type was their livelihood. As letterpress made its revival & photopolymer was invented, people wanted to show off the print method with heavy impression. Photopolymer can’t be easily damaged by heavy impression, so there were less reasons to avoid it. New school printers love to embrace the inherent qualities of letterpress (impression, inking tendencies, etc.), and I tend to be among them. BUT impression is effected by a few important things I’m always keeping in mind:

Some of difference you’re seeing in impression from shop to shop is caused by the size of the press & the type of the job. Each press has a maximum amount of pressure, and that amount increases with the size of press. My platen press is an 8×12, so it will by nature be capable of less impression than a 10×15 or 11×18. I chose the 8×12 because i’m 5’6″ and around 120lbs. It didn’t make sense to buy a press that would dwarf me. I can do 1,500 impressions on my best day, but I wouldn’t be able to pull off so many on a larger press. It’s also really bad for the press to max out it’s pressure an a daily basis. These presses are 100+ years old, and while cast iron is sturdy, it can be broken. I know my press well, and I have to listen to it. There are days i’d love to get more impression, but I won’t achieve it at the cost of hurting my press.

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Business card with heavy impression on 100% cotton Lettra paper

I can effect impression on my press by adding or subtracting a hard red board or oiled paper called tympan. There is some control of various areas of the print job. The Beth Ann Locke business card above is a good example of that - I added additional impression to the top section, but not the bottom. I don't love the way small typography looks with too much impression - like the type is sinking in a ditch. This is even a bit more impression on the small type (black type on the bottom) than i'm comfortable with, but it's what the client wanted. There is some room for taste in here for sure.

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Kiss impression on recycled chipboard

Impression can also be effected by paper type – a lovely thick cotton paper will easily compress when printed, where something that is compressed already (like recycled chipboard) won’t compress much, and won’t have much impression no matter how hard you hit it.

The pressure of the press is evenly distributed across what you’re printing, so the job size also makes a big difference. I can get a lot more impression on a business card than I can on a large piece.

Impression is also affected by the design. Some designs have enclosed areas (like the counter on letterforms) that will buckle & break (looks like the paper is tearing). That’s something I can’t stand to hand off to a client. It’s just bad printing!

I keep those things in mind every time I print a job, and have to weigh what’s possible, what’s practical and what the client wants. So there you have it! Thanks for asking, Naomi! I hope it was helpful.

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In my opinion, juuuuust the right amount of impression.

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Blind deboss - printing with impression only, no ink.

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Heavy impression, one element printed with transparent white ink for contrast