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A Look into Impression: the physical mark on the letterpress printed page

In the simplest terms, impression is an indented mark in paper made by mechanical pressure. It is a by-product of fixing words to paper but also the distinguishing characteristic of the letterpress printing process. And one that has held great fascination for many printers, bibliophiles, and connoisseurs of printing.

“The bite of the sheet is a very subjective matter for most printers,” writes Richard-Gabriel Rummonds in Printing on the Iron Handpress, “ranging from Mardersteig’s kiss impression to [Victor] Hammer’s debossed impression.” This essay is an inquiry into this very subjective space. What about the physical contact between form, ink, paper, and platen inspires awe in some practitioners?


An artifact of printing
Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, the first manual of printing which exhaustively details every task of the whole art, makes plain that a conscious consideration for the physical Impression on the page has been present since at least the seventeenth century but that it is nothing more that the resting place for the inked letter. In the chapter “Rules for Presswork” the minutiae of “beating the form” (inking), “pulling the Bar”, and the pressman’s stance are given to instruct the reader in achieving consistency:

 He keeps a constant and methodical posture and gesture in every action of Pulling and Beating which in a train of Work becomes habitual to him, and eases his Body, by not running into unnecessary divertions of Posture or Gestures in his Labour, and it eases his mind from much of its care, fore the same causes have consistantly the same effect. And a Pull of the same strength upon the same Forme, with the same Beating, and with the same Blankets, &c. will give the same Colour and Impression. (Moxon, p. 303)

When inspecting the printed sheet, the pressman is told to give “a quick spreading glance” by which to judge that register has been maintained, whether work-ups or debris have befallen the form, and especially to regulate correct inking. The passage above is the only explicit mention of Impression. Another passage in the same chapter off-handedly notes that impression “below the common level of the Sheets” contributes to a lack of uniformity in building the “Heap” of printed sheets (p. 305). In contrast, an earlier chapter entitled “Wetting of Paper” (p. 278) describes dampening but does not explain a reason for this procedure. From these passages, one can see that impression was monitored as a measure of achieving a good print. Thus one may determine that in Moxon’s time—and until William Morris and through the demise of commercial letterpress printing—impression was valued in ratio to the whole product. Was it then left to the artisan printers of the twentieth century to aggrandize or belittle Impression?

In the main, historically, printers were men of commerce concerned with producing quantity in hopes of turning a profit. When quality was wanting, it was due to the crudeness of equipment and materials and the relative time spent on preparing the form for impression. When material quality of output was a consideration, it was still a means of realizing profit. Eric Gill, in his Essay on Typography, notes that Impression was simply a necessary end to achieving the mark upon the page, implying that the countenance of the mark was not a consideration but was the means to get the job done.

The unevenness and hardness of paper, the irregularities of types (both in respect of their printing faces and the dimensions of their ‘bodies’) and the mechanical imperfections of presses and printing methods made the work of early printers notable for corresponding unevenness, irregularities & mechanical imperfections. To ensure that every letter left its mark more or less completely & evenly, considerable and notice Impression was made in the paper. The printed letter was a coulored letter at the bottom of a ditch. (Gill, p. 66–67)

While not generous, Gill’s judgment of the Impression achieved by early printers must certainly be in reference to the works of the less celebrated printers of the incunabula. The numerous histories of printing invariably focus on the significant accomplishments of the known masters while also recording that succeeding generations of printers continually worked toward overcoming the inefficient and inadequate material circumstances of their forebears to produce technically better works. Again, Gill aims to give us the unvarnished truth:

The subsequent development of typography was chiefly the development of technical improvements, more accurately cast types, smoother paper, mechanically perfect presses. Apart from the history of its commercial exploitation, the history of printing has been the history of the abolition of the Impression. A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent. (Gill, p67)

So then, typography is not about design but about better machinery and materials, about more efficient delivery than quality of output? Once, this assertion may have been a devastating blow to this romantic student, but now, with the industrial fruits of this claim at my disposal, I cannot imagine how the art of printing could have otherwise progressed.

The bite impression is evident in the earliest printing from the fifteenth century. It remained a constant artifact of printing until Baskerville turned his attention to printing in 1750. In Anatomy of a Typeface, Alexander Lawson called Baskerville’s experiments “his scheme to produce perfect printing.” He did indeed eradicate Impression through several now famous innovations: machined brass platen and bed, wove paper, and calendared paper. Baskerville was also the first to use hard packing, replacing the flannel printers previously used, “instead of utilizing a soft packing, which would have produced too deep an impression of his types, Baskerville used a tympan of smooth vellum, packed with superfine cloth.” (Lawson, p167) In concert with his other changes, including his elegant letterforms, he rendered his pages nearly planographic. The high quality of this total effect, it has been said, made him the object of derision in England and of great awe on the continent.

During the nineteenth century, Baskerville’s hot-plating method became a regular practice and converged with several major innovations, two of which warrant citing here. The iron handpress (1800), with its higher compositional strength and ingenious series of levers, increased the pressure to bear on the forme while it required less labor of the pressman, who could then realize Impression with a single pull of the bar. Perhaps equally as important was the development of the Foudrinier papermaking machine (1798–1803), which could produce uniformly even sheets of paper in large quantities. So ushers in the area of the kiss impression — the result of a combination of these and later advancements (such as automatic inking systems and motors) — became the trade standard. The bite impression was relegated to the domain of handpress printers, notably in the work of William Morris and those in his wake.

In 1893 William Morris lectured on and published essays about his historical influences, aesthetic aims, and the books issued by the Kelmscott Press. (These were compiled and edited by William S. Peterson in 1982 and published under the title The Ideal Book.) In general terms, Morris addressed “beautiful printing,” which his reader can take to mean the whole production. Specifically, and at length, he lauds and criticizes type designs, paper, binding, and the master printers, especially, Jenson and Bodoni. But somehow, Morris had described the actual event of printing. For all his enthusiasm, exalting impression would seem to be yet another obvious vantage from which to proclaim the superiority of his production over the weak printing done all elsewhere. Although he employed pressmen, Morris surely stood nearby as the first sheet was printed and released from the frisket. It is not difficult to imagine his eyes dazzled by the brilliance of fresh, careful impression. The closest he comes to writing about impression is in a short account sent as an electroplate to TL De Vinne and reprinted in the University of California Press edition of The Ideal Book : “. . . but as their work is almost always adapted for machine printing it has a tendency to exaggeration of lightness and thinness, which may well be corrected in work printed by the hand-press.” (Morris, p. 77) Morris’s great books and those made by the other printers of the arts and crafts movement, by example, sanctified impression as a hallmark of fine printing.


Quality of Impression
Two basic types of Impression can result depending on the choice and preparation of equipment and materials: a deep impression called a “bite” and a lighter, often imperceptible, impression called a “kiss.” Good Impression, whether a bite or a kiss, results from great care in the details of paper handling and presswork: lock-up, packing, inking, and impression dwell. (Dwell is defined as either the pause during impression by platen or in controlling the rolling impression cylinder’s slow and steady forward speed.) After platen, paper, and form contact, impression can be evaluated by the sum of the sculptural effect of the mark, that is, the depth of the indention, its sharpness of contour, and the optical evenness of the ink coloring its area. Additionally, impression should be judged by its suitability for the intent of the whole product as a piece of communication.

What does its presence add? Good impression on any well- maintained letterpress machine is achieved by the printer’s attentiveness to all the material elements converging to make Impression: the printing form, ink, paper, and packing of the platen or cylinder. But it is the packing, Rummonds tells us, that is primary to controlling Impression on the handpress: “the depth of bite in the printed sheet is in direct proportion to the amount of paper packing that has been placed between the printing paper and the outermost Mylar tympan window.” (Rummonds, p214)

In the essay, “The Ideal Book,” in the anthology Books and Printing. Porter Garnett notes the differences in the quality of impression obtained when printing on dampened paper as opposed to dry paper. He writes that dry printing results in a heavy impression through the paper, while by dampened the paper “the depth of Impression is within the sheet, not an embossment on the reverse side. This incisiveness, without a corresponding relief on the back of the sheet, is shown when an impression without ink is made on a handpress with dampened paper and hard packing.” He further insists that a comparison of the two methods will bear this out:

“In printing on dry paper it is necessary, if adequate color is to be obtained, to use such a quantity of ink, of a consistency suitable to machine-press printing, that a really deep (not merely heavy) impression cannot be imparted to paper without ‘spreading,’ which slightly modifies the sharpness of the type. The machine printer must choose therefore between a surfacy quality with sharpness and a heavy (not necessarily deep) impression with a loss of sharpness, neither of which is ideal. There are some that will question the truth of this statement, calling attention to specimens of machine printing on dry paper in which the ink has been driven into the sheet and perfect sharpness maintained. It may be said, however, in support of our contention, that, under the test of hand and eye, this perfectly printed dry sheet will be found, in the last analysis, to lack, in comparison with a sheet perfectly printed by hand on dampened paper, a certain almost-indefinable something that can perhaps be best described as a living quality.” (Bennett, p. 120)

This “living quality” which Garnett extols is also evident when one considers not only the way the paper gently yields to the type form, but also in how the form, during Impression, more readily surrenders the less quantity of ink unto dampened paper. Here, the principles of chemistry and friction are working together as is more commonly regarded in offset lithography. Here I wish to give Gill the last word as a segue to a survey of artisan printers’ thoughts on Impression with this reminder:

“Those are in error … who suppose that when the craftsman strives after technical excellence he is emulating the machine standard. And those are even more grievously mistaken who suppose that if the craftsman neglect his responsibility to exercise good judgement and skill in the actual performance of his work, the consequent lack of uniformity (in the colour of his pages or the weight of his Impression) will give to his work the vitality or liveliness which is characteristic of handwork.” (Gill, p. 100)


The artisan take on impression (enthusiasts and snobs) 
In the one hundred or so years since William Morris ignited the private press movement, the bite has often been desired as one of the several features in private press productions to herald the fact that the paper—ideally handmade—was printed by a handpress and not a motor-driven machine press producing nearly indiscernible Impression or since the 1960s by offset lithography which by definition produces no impression.

William Everson, the noted California handpress printer, saw deep Impression as “the ultimate realization of the printed page” and penned what is perhaps both the most technical and poetical description of Impression:

“When type is cleanly inked with solid ink, dense and well seasoned, and laid on ever-so-lightly with a true roller, the ink carefully built up through stroke after stroke, placed always on the very face of the type, never squashed down upon the counters; when this finely-inked type is pressed into the paper and held there in what is called the “dwell” of the hand press, to lie at the bottom of the Impression, then when the sheet is removed all about it the light refracts from the crimp the letter made in its strike, and glows there, and the whole page becomes radiant with a suffused, and a subdued and upcast light. You see it at its most gracious and most pure in damp printing. For as the sheet, utterly virginal, without blemish, truly a holy thing, is lifted from the tympan and held lightly in the hands, seemingly so receptive as to almost show the impress of your breath, then all your labor, the interminable hand-setting, the exasperating requirements of careful make-ready, the sweat of rolling ink and pulling of the press-bar—all that accumulating endeavor floats there in the soft upgiving of its light, wholly resolved and made proportionate before the awareness of a perfect page. It is the final joy of printing. (Everson, p. 125)

Everson’s passage clearly, yet idyllically, illustrates the experience of a handpress, but may equally apply to the results achieved by an artisan printer using a vertical platen or cylinder press. But in fetishizing impression, the anxiety of actually achieving it can be alleviated by yielding to the testament of those who have also striven, such as Harry Duncan cautions:”Such matters as tangible Impression and damp paper can be protested too much. Unquestionably they did give better results with the equipment and materials we were using, and perhaps they are essential for the best letterpress work on Western papers. (Duncan, p. 33)
Gill offers in counterpoint to join with Everson that “it is unreasonable for the craftsman to mistake the shame of vague press-work for the glory of his more humane and livelier method of work.” (Gill p. 100–102)


Why strive (A holy grail?)
It is difficult to explain the allure of working at a handcraft such as letterpress printing in the information age to those who have not experienced it first hand—even to those working in the graphic arts industry. For the strength of conviction, one can turn to master printers like Duncan:

“How can there be typographical invention without direct manipulation of materials? For a book produced by automation, this manipulation takes place only ahead of time, on its layouts, and a two dimensional sketch for what will become a three dimensional object is its “original,” a blue print more concrete than the building. No matter how comprehensive, layouts are still only proposals, and so are the drawings of letters prepared to compound the myriad “fonts” for computer composition . . . .Books take their structure from the processes that produce them; their graphic character is determines before all else by the means of their embodiment,” (Duncan, p. 55)

“It may be said of all printers” wrote Eric Gill, “that their job is to reproduce on paper the exact face of the letters which they have set into pages. This face is of a definite, constant and measurable size and shape; with any one press and any one paper there is a right & exact quantity of ink & pressure necessary to reproduce that face without either exaggeration or diminution.” (Gill p. 100–101) A moment of frustration with my ability to achieve good inking and Impression on the Washington handpress melted away when Glenn House told me that I did not yet have a relationship with the press, but merely an acquaintance. On another press, the Vandercook SP-20, I actually do have a relationship, one that has been gained through long hours of trial and error, and finally success. This courtship of equipment extends to materials as well. Mr House’s comments brings to mind one of the many edicts of Stanley Morison:

“The fine printer begins where the careful printer has left off. For ‘fine’ printing adds something to what the careful printer has accomplished. When these perceptions are added to a knowledge of the technical processes, there will result a work expressing logic, consistency and perhaps, though not necessarily, personality. Fine Printing may be described as the product of a lively and seasoned intelligence working with carefully chosen type, ink and paper. (Morison, p 11)

“It is equally imperative that the results of applying modern technology to presswork be constantly measured against the most primitive printing,” wrote Warren Chappell in A Short History of the Printed Word “so that the lessons of the importance of Impression and stiff ink may continue as a standard for the appearance of words on paper. The key to the comparison should rest in the answer to the question: ‘Does the page look like an original?” A good page of letterpress printing is an original.”

Chappell wrote those words in 1970. Today it is even more relevant for makers and receivers to share tangible experiences such as letterpress offers. Ironically, the increasing sophistication of desktop publishing software, coupled with photopolymer plates, are in place to help me investigate the methods of the past and use them to create three-dimensional artifacts for the future. Beyond any notion of style, I aim for a discernible impression for the simple reason that a three-dimensional process deserves to be represented by a three-dimensional artifact, especially as human experiences are becoming less three-dimensional in an increasingly digital world.


© 1999–2022 Paul Moxon



Allen, Lewis & Dorothy. Printing with the Handpress. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969

Bennett, Paul A., Editor. Books and Printing. Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1951.

Burke, Clifford. Printing Poetry. San Francisco: Scarab Press, 1980.

Chappell, Warren. A Short History of the Printed Word. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.1970.

Cleeton, Pitkin, Cornwell. General Printing. Third Edition. Bloomington IL: McKnight & McKnight., 1963.

Duncan, Harry. Doors of Perception. Essays in Book Typography. Austin TX: W. Thomas Taylor, 1987.

Everson, William. On Writing the Waterbirds and Other Presentations. Collected Forewords and Afterwords 1935–1981. Edited by Lee Barlett. Metuchen NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Fine Print on Type. The Best of Fine Print Magazine on Type and Typography. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1989.

Gill, Eric. An Essay on Typography. Boston: David R. Godine, 1988.

Hoch, Fred W. Handbook for Pressmen. New York: F.W. Hoch Associates, 1939.

Hoch, Fred W. Pressroom Problems and Answers. New York: F.W. Hoch Associates, 1941.

Lawson, Alexander. Anatomy of a Typeface. Boston: David R. Godine, 1990.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. The Book. The Story of Printing & Bookmaking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Moran, James. Printing Presses. Edited by William Peterson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Morison, Stanley. Four Centuries of Fine Printing. (Student Edition). London: Ernest Benn, 1960.

Morris, William. The ldeal Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing. New York: Dover, 1978.

Rummonds, Richard-Gabriel. Printing on the Iron Hand Press. Oak Knoll Press & The British Library, 1998.

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