Got a minute? Well, take a seat and settle in. I want to tell you a story. It's a story about how our beautiful cards are made: the steps taken, the decisions made, the skills used - but really it's a story about why letterpress is special.
Why each one is unique and handmade. Why making these cards requires patience and repetition. Why, yes, letterpress cards are a little more expensive - and why, in the end, they feel different to other greeting cards. Not just to you and I, but to the person who receives their card in the mail at the other side too.
It's not the whole story - I have simplified here and there skimmed over the complex parts, the jargon, the inevitable moments when things don't go according to plan and troubleshooting must begin. These presses are old and have a mind of their own, and so there are always mysteries to be solved - and it's always a painstaking process of elimination to do so. But it will show you a little of how each and every piece of letterpress printing comes to be.
Every card you see on Lovely Paper is made in this way. Traditional skills, with, let's call them, 'spirited' antique printing presses. Time, energy, love and care. No shortcuts.
This is the messy, imperfect reality behind the beautiful cards that land on your doorstep. Scroll on to see and read how our Cherry Christmas cards came to be.
Drawn by hand, over and over
I'm not a graphic designer - so I approached the task of designing the card not using a computer, but in the way I know how. Every card idea that I explored was sketched by hand in pencil, in a big ol' notebook.
Image: An early concept sketch for the Cherry Christmas card
This is the very first concept sketch - where the idea of forming a Christmas tree shape from cherries was born, and I felt like I was on to something that might just work (and look good in the end!). There's no way of making that sketch look good - it was rough as guts, and so marks only the start of the story.
As you can see, lots of changes were made from here to the final card - gradually becoming less rough and more precise, working out scale, and number, and positioning on the card. I experimented with styles too, from more graphic styles to outlines to more traditional botanical drawings and different types of typography and lettering. All those sketches were thrown gracefully out the window, one by one.
The final step was finalising the ideal cherry shape as an individual motif. I drew over 80 cherries before I got to the final one that you see on our cards now.
From pencil sketch to printing plates
Partnering with D&D Letterpress, the final drawing was digitised so that printing plates could be made. The drawing is divided into its constituent colours, because for letterpress printing, each colour requires its own printing plate.
These days plates used by letterpress printers are most often made of photopolymer, a flexible material that holds the design with an adhesive back to be placed on the chase (a large, heavy block that's placed into the printing press). It must be in exactly the right spot to press against the paper, leaving its beautiful impression behind.
Image: The Cherry Christmas plate mounted on the chase in the printing press
Here you can see the plate with the red elements of the drawing positioned on the chase, and the red ink ready to print.
Mixing inks and printing colour by colour
Before printing can begin, ink is mixed by hand using what's very much like a baking recipe. It's a messy job, and like baking, requires attention to detail and thoroughness to ensure it's mixed perfectly.
Image: Mixing the red ink for printing
Here you can see our cherry red being mixed to match a specific Pantone. I wanted a red that was bright and zingy, but have a look at the mixed ink - it is much a richer and more deep looking shade.
That's because - just to keep things interesting - the final print colour often looks nothing like the mixed ink, so you don't know if it's correct until you try printing! It's a case of keep trying until you get it just right.
Take a look at the green ink below - it looks nothing like the final shade you see on our cards! But it is exactly the same ink.
Video: Mixing the green ink in preparation for printing
Once the ink is ready, the press itself is 'inked up' - a process that takes a little bit of time to make sure that the ink is spread evenly and the rollers are hitting properly, ready to pick up the ink, and transfer it to the plate in order to be pressed onto the paper.
Every time a new colour is required, the press must be fully cleaned to ensure there's no mixing of colours. These are big old machines, so there are lots of moving parts to be removed and cleaned and checked. Newer presses have an automated cleaning process, but most of our makers have to undertake this task by hand.
A bit like school art class, if two colours do crossover through the printing process (because your press wasn't fully clean or because things aren't lined up properly) you'll end up with a new unwanted colour in the mix!
One by one by one, tweaking all the way
Letterpress printing takes time because for every colour a design requires, the presses must be set up from scratch and the paper must be passed through the press as many times as is required to add all the colours.
The printing process itself requires a series of careful adjustments, that vary each time. A tweak to the amount of pressure with which the plate is pressed into the paper will adjust how deep the impression appears in the paper - the characteristic texture of letterpress.
Video: Fritz, the Heidelberg Windmill, in action
Sometimes the paper feeds easily - lifted by air, sucked up by suckers and moved by a series of mechanical levers - but often it does not, so adjustments of buttons and dials are required to get that just so. Sometimes there is too much ink, or too little, which leads to bleed or inconsistencies of coverage. Sometimes, there's too much pressure on one side of the design vs. another so more adjustments need to be made along the way. No CTRL + P here!
Image: The red printed elements of our Cherry Christmas cards
In this image, you can see the first colour of our Christmas card print, the red elements - printed on each of the designs.
Once the press was cleaned, the new colour ink mixed and the press is inked up, the plates swapped over, repositioned on the chase and placed in the press - every card was run through the press again for the green elements to be added.
As you can guess, this can be tricky, especially if there's lots of colours, because the positioning has to be just right so the design is printed as intended - all lined up and with no overprinting. This process is called 'registration' in letterpress printing, and trust me when I tell you, it can be a very frustrating thing indeed!
Once everything is checked and aligned, it's ready to print - and so the second image shows you the press loaded up with the green ink. Notice the new plate on the chase, and see how the alignment on the finished print is looking rather perfect.
Image: The green ink and second printing plate on the press
From here, the cards are quality checked and trimmed using a guillotine to become the final greeting cards you receive today.
Meet the Makers: Doug, Danika and Fritz
Image: Doug and Danika of D&D Letterpress with presses Wendy and Fritz, and press dog Huxley
All the images you see here were captured by D&D Letterpress, who partnered with us to print our card design. We've been working with D&D for many years now, and they were one of our first greeting card suppliers so you'll see many of their designs in our card sets. (They're also our go-to for recommendations for letterpress wedding invitations!)
I love Doug & Danika's story - they met while studying design at university and began their love affair with letterpress when they rescued Wendy (a 1923 Chandler and Price foot-powered treadle press) from a local hospital that was about to be demolished - and together they learned how to restore the old press and to print the old-fashioned way. They now run their letterpress studio in country New South Wales, and their family business has extended - adding two cute kiddos, two more presses and of course, their beloved press dog Huxley.
They were the obvious choice to help us bring our first ever card design to life. Below, you'll see a picture of Fritz, the 1953 Heidelberg Windmill printing press who printed our cards alongside Doug.
Every letterpress card you see on Lovely Paper Co. is made by a passionate, small batch, letterpress printer like Doug and Danika. When you buy from us, your dollar doesn't just support our small Australian-run business - but also a network of other small, female-led and family businesses.
Read more about Our Makers on lovelypaper.co
Image: Fritz, D&D Letterpress's 1953 Heidelberg Windmill
The Lovely Paper Christmas Shop is now open. Order your most special letterpress Christmas cards early to ensure they arrive on time!