I was talking shop with a fellow pressman a few weeks ago when he mentioned he was thinking about writing a blog post about how perfection is possible in letterpress printing. I thought this was a horrible idea.

Let me start by saying this: no production process can yield 100% perfect results. We can minimize error to the nth degree, but perfection is impossible. And the production processes that do achieve near-perfection only do so because they never change specifications-factory production lines produce the exact same widget day after day.

That said, something very close to perfection is possible in letterpress printing.

That level of perfection really only works under two conditions:

  1. The design must match the process
    There are certain things that aren’t optimal for deep impression letterpress printing: full-color images, mixed formes of heavy coverage and fine lines, deep saturation and incredible detail… These can yield very nice results sometimes, but perfection isn’t the norm here at all.
  2. You’re willing to pay for it
    The nature of letterpress work means most printers are printing multiple jobs on different substrates, using different colors and producing different types of art each day. Each change increases the chance for inconsistency. There’s also a certain amount of waste inherent in the process. The cost of extra time and materials required to dial in that level of perfection may be something you’re willing to pay.

How I know this

For almost a year, I was so frustrated with the quality of register I could achieve on the heidelberg windmill. It’s supposed to have one of the most consistent register systems of any press out there. And one day it dawned on me – every job I struggled with had one variable that took it outside of a fairly generous range standard. And each time that one variable was stretched, the press made it clear that it was unhappy by producing acceptable, but not incredible results.

I can now compensate for challenges certain projects present, but there are times when the design is just destined to yield less-than-perfection.

I was working this week on a project that was WELL outside the limitations of my press. I suggested the client change it or find someone with different capabilities, but she insisted. I’m pretty happy with the results, but they’re not perfection. That’s something she’s willing to live with.

In reality

There are two things worth considering when deciding what level of “perfection” you’re looking to achieve:

  1. You’re the only one that will see the whole order at once. Your business cards in a box or wedding invitations wrapped so lovingly – you’re the only one seeing them side-by-side. The person who you give it to won’t be comparing it to the others. For them, the one in their hand is the standard.
  2. Letterpress shows the pressman’s hand. The minor variations and imperfections show the hand of the pressman. Most clients find them appealing. If you don’t, letterpress might not be the method for you.

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