Letterpress printing was invented by Gutenberg in the mid-15th century. It was how the world printed until the arrival of offset in the 20th century. Offset beat letterpress for a variety of reasons (scale, color) — including its ability to incorporate powerful digital design and typographic tools, since designers could go direct from screen to plate without intermediaries.
Letterpress is currently enjoying an artisan revival because of its superior quality. Type on the page is richer, blacks are blacker, and there’s magic in the impression left in the paper. The shadow in the subtle well of the type adds a shimmer of life to the reading experience...
...But so far, these artisan letterpresses have been smaller presses, and hence are rarely used to print books.
For the past two years, Erik has been working with a handful of engineering nerds in Hannover to bring letterpress into the 21st century by creating the first direct-to-plate laser cutter specifically for printing larger size sheets on letterpress. This laser cutter finally allows designers to marry the power of their digital tools to the quality of letterpress printing.
How Change is Good was made.
“In the end, we did not invent any of the ingredients." – Erik
But Erik brought them together to create a commercial solution for high quality letterpress book printing — just like Apple did not invent the smartphone but made the first one that combined all the features into a viable consumer product. The key was realizing that polymer plates, which had been used for years in other solutions, could be how they go direct from screen to press. The direct-to-plate process has never been considered capable of producing metal-backed letterpress plates for anything beyond wedding invitations and business cards. Nobody dared and so everybody deemed it impossible. It took knowledge from many people, plus some crazy engineers at Laser Systems Hannover, to create a solution.
Since the start of 2016, Erik and his team developed and integrated four different technical solutions to bring direct-to-polymer plate to commercial letterpress, and reinvent letterpress book printing for the 21 century.
1. Evolving the laser-cutter, originally developed for low quality Flexo printing, to include auto-focus over the entire width of the large polymer, metal-backed plate. A fresh-air intake had to be added for cooling and additional suction pipes to vacuum away the carbon burnt off by the laser.
2. Creating new rollers for the press with a specific consistency. The press had to run at a minimum speed or else the rollers would sag in the center, resulting in uneven inking.
3. Developing a large magnetic base (52x72cm), with hundreds of strong magnets, to hold the metal-backed polymer plates in position on the Heidelberg, and then a method to remove them again without breaking them — the magnets will not release the plate easily! Plates can now be changed within minutes and only need small adjustments to their alignment before a new plate can be printed.
4. Formulating custom ink from scratch because available rubber-based and offset inks are too oily, smear, and don’t achieve the deep black required for Post Digital Printing.
Erik spent over a year testing lasers...
... and other devices before he chanced upon this small company in Hannover who agreed to work with him to develop the plate cutter. They delivered the first laser cutter in April, but it took three months of hardware and software improvements before they could reliably produce plates.
Post Digital Printing and the future of printing.
Not all books will be printed this way. But the very best will want to be. Believe it or not, there are a lot of classic letterpress machines out there that are big enough to print signatures of eight pages, not all have gone to scrap. Now Erik’s laser cutter offers smaller print shops the ability to make books that are better than the best done via offset.
Change is Good is the first “post digital” book to be published by Erik through his p98a Berlin imprint.