Letterpress vs. Offset

aquatoad's picture

Hi all.

My gut feeling is that this is going to be a hard question to answer. Here goes: Is there a rule of thumb about the cost difference between letterpress and offset printing. Obviously in many ways this is like comparing apples and orangutans.

Understanding of course, to get a solid answer, just request a quote. I'm in the dreaming phase and don't want to bother if the cost will be prohibitive. I'm out of New York City, the job is a promo piece called A little Book of Logos. 24 pages, 4x6 inches final size. It will be a mix or art/type so I think we're talking polymer plates rather than hand setting type. Oh, one color. Anyone hazard a guess? +20% +50% +100%?

Thanks
Randy

Miss Tiffany's picture

Looks aside, it all depends upon quantity. I just had a wedding invitation letter pressed, including: rsvp cards, place cards, registered cards, and receptions cards + envelopes, for only $280.00US. But it was because we only need 70 total invitations. This would have cost much more to offset. I realize cost is almost considered secondary to "how it looks", but letterpress can be cost-efficient for the right job.

hrant's picture

> $280.00US

Does that include the cost of the photopolymer plates, and the labor of putting it together?

hhp

Miss Tiffany's picture

Yes. But, I supplied my own paper as well as the film. So you should include another $80US on top of that I suppose.

aquatoad's picture

Wow. I'm looking at a quantity of about 250-500... a just the wrong number for offset. Tiffany, your source please! Did you go to a shop or a hobbyist?

Thanks,
Randy

Miss Tiffany's picture

Total books, Randy? I will send this link to the person that did my printing to see if he might be interested. He can then contact you. Or maybe he won't. He'll just shoot me for talking cost on line. He keeps himself busy with book work and "fine art" work. I'm not sure how much commercial work he takes.

;^)

bieler's picture

"I just had a wedding invitation letter pressed, including: rsvp cards, place cards, registered cards, and receptions cards + envelopes, for only $280.00US."

Hi bud

You got "letterpress" alright. Lowest common denominator letterpress. Should I start in here with my usual rant (or is is hrant, ha!), nah, I like you too much.

Gerald

Miss Tiffany's picture

Bud? Hmmm. Okay, I guess we are buddies. But I feel as if you want me to ask you to rant.

After I posted I realized that perhaps I shouldn't have. Some people instantly equate price with quality. "Honey, you gotta pay through the nose, otherwise you aren't getting quality work."

Well, hmmm. Is that what you were insinuating? I hope not. My fingers are crossed for you not to say something like that. I hope you tell me the opposite.

The press I used to do my invitations were very generous. I had lined up another printer only to have them cancel at the last minute. (Which was good because they weren't going to be able to meet my deadline.) The press I used saved by bacon and that of my clients as well. And I have a feeling they were also generous in their pricing.

It was my first time to letter press anything, ever. I'm willing to learn. LIfe is one big lesson, and I'm a forever student. So, Gerald, educate me. I'm listening.

bieler's picture

Tiffany

I was way too flippant about this. The price you paid seems way low but perhaps not necessarily so. If a printer is set up for this kind of work and has the right presses for the job, and is doing significant volume where they can standardize it a bit, yes, the price could get fairly low I'd suppose. I just don't see these kind of prices anywhere. I don't do wedding invites because I'm not set up for it and could not be competitive (like your friend, I just do fine press bookwork), but in the LA environs I'm seeing obscene prices being charged for not much effort. A couple of the bigger boutique letterpress outfits who do cater almost exclusively to weddings have me make their plates for them. Their prices are easily ten times what you paid.

Obviously, high price does not necessarily equal high quality, in fact, it rarely seems to. On the other hand, I think you were given a gift (?), and I wonder if this is their normal rate of charge. As Hrant suggested, I think also that the cost of plates would eat up a portion of the charge here. So your printer wasn't getting much for his effort.

But you never did say what they looked like. So I guess I should throw this back at you. Is cost more important than quality? And what is quality? Is letterpress a qualitative measure in and of itself?

bieler's picture

I'm out of New York City, the job is a promo piece called A little Book of Logos. 24 pages, 4x6 inches final size. It will be a mix or art/type so I think we're talking polymer plates rather than hand setting type. Oh, one color. Anyone hazard a guess? +20% +50% +100%?

Randy

Somehow I missed the initial post to this thread!!! Based on my experience, I would say yes, letterpress is going to cost a lot more than offset. But there are levels of letterpress. If cost is the main fact and you just want that "letterpress" look, go to the cheapest printer you can find, he or she may be able to match the price of offset, but then, there are levels of offset (cost/quality) as well.

Miss Tiffany's picture

The invitations were simple, not fancy, one color. Printed on Classic Columns Pistachio with a medium-dark grey ink.

Is cost more important than quality?

No. I'd say that, for me, I try not to separate the two. In general, I can tell what my clients want/need and base my press (paper, ink, binding) selection on these things. If they want it quick, but don't want to pay a lot or if they want it quick, but quality is important ... well, I have different presses for different jobs. There are presses that I won't use based on the fact that they can't cut straight and often forget to call for press checking, even though they can outbid everyone. And I also don't use presses just because they have Philipe Starck chairs in their front office. Quality, Price, Time -- all important.

In this instance, this wedding invitation, as it was for a friend I wanted it too look good (quality). My friend had seen the letterpressed invitations while doing the rounds of wedding planning and saw how it added a little something special. So for her, quality meant letterpress. So I suggested letterpress. Now, it could be said that just because we printed letterpess doesn't mean the final project was of high quality. Letterpress doesn't necessarily equal high quality. Although I did use a pressman who does quality work.

While your question is good, it's difficult to say without generalizing. Of course, I always want the final product to be quality and cost effective. I don't like the word "cheap", but I've been known to tell my rep that I need the paper to be "inexpensive". Cheap connotes trash and polyester. I don't like to think I do trash.

Perhaps quality is in the eye of the beholder. You have been known to say that you shouldn't slam the paper into the plate. But, for some the question is "why do letterpress" if you can't see it? To protect myself, we didn't do any slamming on these invitations, only mild tapping.

:-)

Is letterpress a qualitative measure in and of itself?

No. I don't think so. No amount of good inking and perfect padding can save a poor design. Or on the other hand, a good design can be made bad by poor press work.

What is quality?

Quality is a combination of everything. But mostly, quality is in the eye of the beholder.

Thanks for the questions. I think everyone should answer these. It would make for a great discussion in and of itself.

Do I pass? :-)

hrant's picture

> "why do letterpress" if you can't see it?

Because you can feel it.
It's subtle, "subvisible", the way you might not concsiously
notice a perfume, but it will "atmospherize" you anyway.

Hard to sell, things that you can't fondle, I know. In fact, some people seem to enjoy letterpress because they like the feel of a lump of metal in the hand. This is problematic, in a number of ways. For example, it's display-centric (handling 9 point type is no fun compared to 60 point), and it has nothing to do (except maybe metaphysically) with the result, which is the only thing the user cares/needs_to_care about.

One great thing about metal type though is it lets you physically appreciate why chirography is anti-typographic. Holding some large Palatino in my hand recently, I couldn't help but think "this is not right". It's supposed to be engraved - even though the illusion of the result can be convincing.

> quality is in the eye of the beholder.

I myself would say that wholeheartedly about Beauty, but Quality is not so simple.

hhp

Miss Tiffany's picture

Quality is in the eye of the beholder

Quality isn't just technical. That said, however, certain things I can't disagree with. For instance, is it in register? Is it trapped? Does the overprint line up? Is it cut straight? Are their typos? Did the type bitmap? Is the sky purple? Are buses orange?

Certain things aren't in the eye of the beholder. I realized once I posted that this would come back to haunt me. Technical quality isn't in the eye of the beholder. I take that back. But I still think there is something to it.

bieler's picture

"Do I pass?"

Are you on pass/fail basis or do you want a grade? I was thinking maybe an A+ (for thinking about stuff!!!).

I guess when I furtively responded I was thinking about quality without really getting in to it. But since quality is difficult to evaluate I'd prefer to apply it to the work of persons who have a certain approach to their work which would include concern for appropriate materials, work attitude, experience, etc. To determine the quality herein, one, unfortunately, must share a lot of these characteristics.

But when I said "degrees of letterpress" I was thinking of an easier way to define this. The degrees of letterpress are a combination of the above qualities of the printer as well as his or her equipment and technique. The latter is actually somewhat important in evaluating letterpress. They don't always follow but...

At the high end, in cost/quality you would probably encounter folks using an iron hand press. These are less machine than tool and are quite labor intensive and require a great deal of skill, expertise and "thinking." They also, for the most part, require dampened handmade paper. Most of the work here is fine book work. Not many of these folks around.

A second step down, but not necessarily so, are folks working with hand-operated cylinder presses. Dampened handmade paper is often used, and often not. Bookwork, broadsides, and the like but not so much jobwork, though occasionally. But you are somewhat dependent upon the operater here (lot a variation in quality and professionalism) and most folks running these kind of machines have rarely been trained in printing (in the traditional technical school way).

Interchangeable somewhat with the above are fully functioning commercial letterpress shops running big automatic cylinder presses. Handmade papers are generally not applicable here but these folks (generally trained) are capable of running any kind of work, relatively fast, relatively good, and relatively cheaper. Professional grade work most of the time. These kind of operations are quite rare though.

Bottom dwellers: motor driven platen job press operations. Job work, cards, stationery, labels, die-cutting, stamping, etc. Rarely capable of decent book work. Should be quite inexpensive (unless boutique), rarer to see good quality work, fast.

Basically, operator somewhat aside, the more distancing the machine from the human hand, eye, and mind (not to mention heart), the cheaper in cost and quality. But not always so!!!

My five minute attempt here to put a bit of a different spin on this.

rs_donsata's picture

I think that quality is achievement and satisfaction. The concept of quality is used to evaluate the result of a process.

From a nearly "objective" view i would say that a result that achieves the best from all of the measurable and perceptible characteristics that a process can deliver has the higest quality.

From the final user perspective i would say that quality can be measured by the level of satisfaction the result produces accomplishing the expectations the user has on it.

Quality can

aquatoad's picture

Thanks for all or your input. It has been an education. In reading this dialogue I've come to the conclusion that my project was probably a bit ambitious.

In examining my motivations: 1) I wanted a great piece to show my identity work as a new business tool, 2) I wanted to do a letterpress job, for the sake of learning and doing!

I think I can a accomplish both without doing a 24 page book :-) I am considering taking a letterpress class or workshop in the New York area where I could produce a promo piece and really get my hands dirty at the same time. I've currently looked into The Center for Book Arts, and the Southstreet Seaport Museum Printshop. Does anyone have any recommendations here on a specific class or other resources?

(As an urbanite, I don't have a car, so it has to be in the 5 burroughs)

Thanks,
Randy

bieler's picture

Randy

A bit ambitious, probably. But you are following the right path. The Center for Book Arts has regular classes, intro, intermediary etc. I've heard good things about Southstreet Seaport. Barbara Henry was running it for a while. Is she still there? She is a very good printer and would no doubt be a mentor of choice. Do they offer workshops out of the Museum?

bieler's picture

Randy

A bit ambitious, probably. But you are following the right path. The Center for Book Arts has regular classes, intro, intermediary etc. I've heard good things about Southstreet Seaport. Barbara Henry was running it for a while. Is she still there? She is a very good printer and would no doubt be a mentor of choice. Do they offer workshops out of the Museum?

aquatoad's picture

Thanks Gerald,

A bit ambitious probably...
Yep. Maybe a business card? That might qualify as a new business tool :-) Hand setting type is something I need to do so I don't want to jump straight into polymer plates.

Here is the museum info from briar press:
http://www.briarpress.org/cgi-bin/briarpress/show.cgi?db=direct&uid=default&Description=south+street+seaport&Name=&Contact=&States=&State=&Category=---&view_records=Find&view_records=1

Randy

hrant's picture

> I don't want to jump straight into polymer plates.

Good idea. Setting type by hand will make you appreciate photopolymer technology more! :-/

There's certainly a physical attractivity to it, but it's in effect at the expense of communication the "user". Hand setting is really very display-centric.

hhp

bieler's picture

"There's certainly a physical attractivity to it, but it's in effect at the expense of communication the "user". Hand setting is really very display-centric."

I occasionally pop back to this thread and look at this last contribution trying to figure out what you meant by this. What did you mean? I don't get it.

Gerald

hrant's picture

The physicality of handsetting (I'm not talking about the results of impression printing) results in text being sub-optimal, in three ways:
1) It's too painful to optimize letter- and line-spacing to just the way you want/need it. And you can't choose 10.3 point for example! I'm not even getting into continuous-axis (like MM) technology.
2) Optimal reading sizes (9-11 point) are so small as to be beyond reasonable human ergonomic/perceptual comfort: they're too small to handle very well, and too small to see very well (the letterform blends into the shoulder).
!NEW! 3) Wear/damage affects smaller type more.

In addition, handsetting being a physical thing, it's much more emotionally satisfying to handle a 60-point hunk than a dainty little thing.

Handsetting likes big, tangible things.

hhp

bieler's picture

Not "too painful," just very labor intensive. The ease at which digital allows for sizing and leading doesn't necessarily lend itself to optimal reading since very few designers will take the time or even know about such readability concerns no matter how less "painful" the computer is to compose on. The easier it gets, doesn't necessarily mean, the better it gets.

Small metal type faces aren't actually that hard to set. Some folks prefer them. Its an experiencial thing.

I'm not sure that wear or damage effects small type more. Hard to make that claim for foundry type, maybe for Monotype where the metal is softer and the smaller sizes might not hold well.

Well, I always preferred the hunk of type, but like I said, some prefer the very tiny. I've set as small as 4-pt. Setting Copperplate Gothic in the 6-pt with its four ranged sizes within that size is a pain. Without a loop, hard to know sometimes if you are setting the cap I, the exclamation mark, or the figure 1. Even the proof and the printing can be deceiving at that size. But Copperplate is a bit of an anomoly because of its size ranging.

But I think the more experienced one is at hand setting the less size is any kind of a preferencial matter. Actually, very large sizes are even more of a pain in the butt.

hrant's picture

> just very labor intensive.

To the point of discouraging most people from tweaking enough.

In terms actual practice, figuring out if the average digital setting is better than the average metal setting is a major project (and it would depend on whether you're looking at the jobbing work of the past versus the fine-press stuff of today). And in terms of the theoretical high-end, I guess they're the same: there's nothing physically stopping a handsetter from inserting steel thins between each pair of letters for example... :-/

But in terms of the barriers to making a very good real-world setting (where for example you'd choose the point size of 10.3), they're much greater in metal.

> Some folks prefer [setting small metal type]

But in terms of human physiology, it's harder, no?

Wear: if you consider that wear is an absolute thing (for example the same amount of mils no matter the size), their effect must be proportionately greater the smaller the type.

hhp

bieler's picture

"But in terms of the barriers to making a very good real-world setting (where for example you'd choose the point size of 10.3), they're much greater in metal."

Real-world? When did the world become real? 1984?

hrant's picture

Maybe "real-world" was not a real good term... :-)
I meant optimal with respect to the reader, as opposed to what the artistic sensibilities of the designer might prefer. You know, like 7 point [digital] Bodoni.

hhp

hrant's picture

Also:
Technology changes, and so does capability. Back when you couldn't specify 10.3 point text for example, it was of course acceptable not to use it! :-) But now that you can, there's the potential for better results.

hhp

bieler's picture

Ah, "the potential for better results." There was the potential for better results with photofilm as well. Where you could stretch and crunch and whatever. Use negative leading, negative kerning, variation of point size, etc, all kinds of cool stuff. That turned out well for the "reader."

I'm not, as you know, questioning what you have to say. But I think that much of the "better" of twentieth-century typesetting (with metal, photofilm, digital) would have been concerned with the needs of the reader. Limitations of technology and all. Digital is no magic pancea if the designer typesetter/designer doesn't share these concerns.

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