Breaking the Code of Printing

(Looking for an article detailing the art of every-day correspondence and regular stationery? See “The Lost Art of Letter Writing.”)

If there’s one thing more confusing than trying to set a formal table, it’s printing.

I’ve been blessed enough to work with some incredible graphic designers in my line of business who were kind enough to invite me on their proof runs and creative meetings, and some generous printers who allowed me inside their shop (no, not where the receptionist sits – the shop where you have to wear hearing protection equipment).

And because of these kindnesses, I’ve been able to indulge my fascination with printing enough to garner information to pass onto my closest girlfriends. (*taps screen* That’d be you, Internet.)

Deciphering the Vocabulary

Let’s start with the printing you encounter most often and work our way backwards.

Offset printing. This type of printing is what you typically see day-to-day; ink sits flat on the surface of the paper. Your standard brochures, post cards, etc. are offset printing. Offset printing is still done with plates – for smaller print runs, most printers are now using digital printing.

Thermography. Thermography is raised printing, like engraving, but even the best thermography won’t be as sharp or as clean as engraving. Thermography literally melts print off a ribbon and onto paper. More and more brides and hostesses are going the thermography route, and indeed it is a nice medium between offset and letterpress or engraved printing. However, I’ve overheard printers tell customers that “no one can tell the difference between thermography and engraving!” – these printers should be smacked in the mouth with their own sample books. Yes, a cultured eye can tell the difference. It’s up to you to decide how much that matters.

An example of thermography from William Arthur follows:

Letterpress. My favorite type of printing; letterpress is actually pushed into the paper, so it gives the words depth and texture. How deep it is depends on the type of paper used; thicker papers will take a pretty deep “bite,” whereas thinner papers won’t show as much depth. Simple images are best for letterpress – if something is photo-heavy, you’re going to want to choose an alternative to letterpress. Letterpress printing fell out of fashion in the 1930s, but is seeing an exciting resurgence, mostly in small shops where people are truly passionate about their work.

Some gorgeous letterpress is shown below from Elum Designs:

Engraving. Engraving is expensive, because it is labor-intensive. Engravers require specialized machinery, a great deal of time, and a lot of expertise. Your invitation is literally carved out in a steel or copper plate, which is then coated with ink and wiped dry, leaving ink only in the carved recesses. Then it is pressed (hard) into paper to leave a sharp, raised edge.

When Jack and I were married, I had my heart – my absolute and whole heart – set on engraving.

“I want the engraving to be so raised that people cut themselves when they run their hands over it!” I exclaimed. No cost was too great!

No cost, except – well – the cost of engraving.

We compromised – our save the dates, which were only one piece, were a gorgeous Israeli blue with white engraving and matching toile-lined envelopes. We sprung for the engraved return address as well; since you actually get to keep the plates the printer uses, we have since brought our return-address plate back to the printer several times for personal stationery.

Our invitations themselves were a large, six-piece affair. There was the invitation, the lodging information, a rehearsal dinner invitation, a bridesmaids luncheon invitation, the reply card – there was just no way we could possibly have it engraved, and so we went the thermography route instead. Sometimes the cost is too great, and you have to re-evaluate what is important to you.

Beautiful engraving is shown below by Leeming Brothers out of the United Kingdon.

Embossing. Embossing is like engraving – paper is pressed into a plate – but no ink is used. The image is subtle (think a raised watermark) and meant to me illuminated by the contrasting shadow. The return address for my casual correspondence is embossed.

Printers: The Heavy Hitters

William Arthur. The folks at William Arthur have been printing longer than you’ve been alive – probably much longer, in fact, as they were founded in 1949. They do virtually anything you could ever want. Any high class stationary store will carry William Arthur. They’re trust-worthy, they’re high-quality, and they’re expensive. If you know exactly what you’re doing, you can buy online at; otherwise you’re going to want to find a dealer near you and have a conversation with a real, live person. We used William Arthur for our wedding invitations and could not have been more pleased; it was one of the rare instances where something turned out on paper exactly the way it was pictured in my mind.

Crane & Co. They like to brag that they’re what Paul Revere, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Queen Mum have in common. In fact, they have an entire museum dedicated to historical events that have been announced using their paper or printing. They’re a decade shy of their 250-year anniversary – they’ve been doing this for a long time. They make off-the-shelf stationery you can buy, as well as gorgeous custom work. Like any of the major printers, you can order off the website if you know what you want, or you can find a dealer near you and have a chat. I’ve been relying on Crane & Co. for years, for everything from party invitations to notecards. Keep in mind that their paper is so renowned that both Cartier’s and Tiffany’s repackage it.

Smythson of Bond Street. Some of the most cultured ladies in the world have relied on London-based Smythson, including Queen Victoria, Grace Kelly, and  Jackie Kennedy. I use their plain writing papers for most of my personal correspondence; unpersonalized, they’re more affordable than you think. Unfortunately for those of us across the pond, they only have two Stateside locations (Manhattan and Beverly Hills) where you can actually go into a store, peruse the product, and speak to a real person.

Printers: Don’t Overlook the Little Guys

Boy, are there ever some awesome ladies (and gentlemen) out there, dedicated to bringing back older printing techniques and infusing them with contemporary creativity. Some are just designers, while others actually run presses out of their basements and garages. Here are just a handful for your viewing pleasure, in completely random order (visit them all!):

Lucky Luxe: Couture Correspondence

The artists at Lucky Luxe run the spectrum from heirloom to Gatsby to old South.

Bella Figura

If your heart skips a beat at beautiful calligraphy (mine certainly does), Bella Figura is the place for you.

Minna Designs

Literally designs as unique as you are. They truly have the hard-to-find combination of “modern” and “elegant” down to an art.

Paper Cup Designs

Paper Cup’s designs are clean and smart, but with little added touches of whimsy – a truly great combination.

Elum Designs

I don’t know about you, but letterpress in general turns me on, and these folks know that. They know it, and they exploit it. Everything from old world flourishes to save the dates that could double as rock concert posters. All gorgeous.

Dauphine Press

Oh, Dauphine. It’s like the Little Press That Could. Founded in 1999 by Trish Kinsella, they’re on a mission to bring letterpress “back into the vernacular.” Their work is inspired, but also simple; they’ve put a lot of thought into keeping what is good and dispensing with the rest. For the woman (or man) who doesn’t want a 40-piece orchestra – just one romantic violin – this is the place to begin.

Vera Wang Weddings: Fine Papers

Alright, alright, so I snuck Vera in here. She’s kind of a heavy hitter, but she’s also a subset of William Arthur.

What’s in a name? Well, with Vera, a lot. If you’ve always dreamed about having that perfect, that just so right stationery straight out of top-drawer New York, Vera’s for you.

One of my favorite side stories about Vera: My father, a 6’7″ West Texas oilman, was once trying to explain my wedding dress to a group of women in the office.

“It’s one of those, I don’t know what you call it,” he said. “One of those Wang Chung dresses.”

There was a moment of silence, and then an explosion of screeching delight when they realized what he meant.

“VEEEERA WAAAANG,” one of them screamed/drawled, deafening him in his left ear. “We do SO luuuuv VERA!”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, accent and all.

Momental Designs

I like to touch things. (Insert your own dirty joke here, but I do.) I’m a very tactile person, and I love savoring different textures before my eyes and under my fingertips. Momental has loads of texture, and then some. Artist Kristy Rice combines letterpress and hand-painting to create something so beautiful you’ll want to hold a set back to frame. From rhinestones to wraps to tags to ink and paint, this woman understands detail.

Trial By Cupcakes

Laura’s calligraphy is beautiful, and you shouldn’t miss it, but what really tickles me are the hand-drawn, custom maps. They’re not only precious, but functional; if you want people to smile uncontrollably long after they open your envelope, then pay her a visit.

PapelVivo Papercrafts

Embossing and charms and pockets and die cuts, OH MY! Talk about texture – PV has it in spades. Look at that hand-made paper and deep embossing – don’t you just want to stroke it? Stroke it and sigh softly? You know you do.

Milkmaid Press

Kristen Nichols is yet another woman who said, “I can do that, and better!” after getting married herself, and so she went out and bought her own letterpress that probably pre-dates the invention of penicillin. Milkmaid doesn’t have scores of clients, and they like it that way, because Kristen’s work is rich and labor-intensive. This woman truly does want you to have the best invitations anyone has seen.

One Response to “Breaking the Code of Printing”
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  1. […] some beautiful work by Kristy Rice (remember when I mentioned her shop, Monumental Designs, in my Breaking the Code of Printing post?), which incorporates am amber cake stand and votive glasses with a more subdued greyish sea green […]

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