What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.- Wendell Phillips

The process of letterpress printing can be easy enough to understand even for someone with no knowledge of printing, for the idea behind the process in itself is simple. It's the execution that is complex and takes years to master. In this page, we will try to explain the printing process and the tools used by the first printers in a printing shop in the 15th century. 

The earliest known depiction of a printing shop

The woodcut on f. 7r of La Grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes shows the earliest known depiction of a printing workshop. This incunable was printed in 1499 in Lyon, France, by Mathias Huss. Starting from the left-hand side of the illustration, Death greets the compositor seated in a bench with the type case in front of him, where the type is distributed. 

In his left hand, he holds a composing stick where the lines of text are composed and held before moving to the galley and from there to the chase, where the text is locked as a form and inked, ready for printing. Note also the paper holder, called a visorium in front of him, sticking out from the type case, with a page of text, possibly manuscript, from where the compositor is copying the text to print. Behind him, Death is grabbing the puller by his left hand, which was trying to reach for the bar of the press. His job was to operate the press, remove the paper after printing and make-ready for the next impression. On the other side of the press, the beater is holding the inking balls, one on each hand. These tools were used to transfer ink from the stone where it was prepared onto the type.

La Grant danse macabre des hommes et des femmes, 1499.

image | Huss, Mathias, and Otto Schäfer. La Grant Danse Macabre Des Hommes Et Des Femmes.

[Lyons: Mathias Huss], 18.1. Princeton University Library

Composing stick
Inking balls
Lead moveable type

tools of the trade

Composing stick, typecase, inking balls and visorium are some of the essential tools for the late 15th-century print workshop.


Letterpress is a relief printing process, which means that the raised surface of the material to print (text or images) will receive ink, and the non-printing surfaces (white areas) will not receive ink, and therefore will not transfer it to the paper. When letters are composed to form words and phrases, spacing material is needed in between. These spaces are lower than the text, and will not print.  When the paper is pressed on top of the form of composed text, an impression is made.

The invention of the moveable type was the great breakthrough for the development of printing in Europe. When printing a book, for example, the type is set to form words, lines of text and pages; it's printed - as many times as needed - and after that is distributed back to the type case and the letters can be used again to form another page, and so on. This was a true revolution and paved the way for the spread of knowledge at a speed as it has never been seen before.

Parts of a printing type
15th century fallen type

Moveable type

Letterpress type is cast in a metal alloy that consists of lead, tin, and antimony. There are some survival examples of type from the 15th century (moveable type found in Lyon and Basel) and also some "happy accidents" occurring in incunables when type was pulled off from the form when it was being inked and not noticed, the result being a "ghost" impression on the page. This is known as fallen type

The casting of type is divided into 3 parts: making the letter punch; striking a matrix; casting the letter. This video from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz shows how it was done. 

image |Fallen type found on Liber in laudem Mariae, printed by Nicolaus Götz, Cologne 1475.

Cambridge University Library, shelf mark Inc. 3A.4.9

James Mosley - Typefoundry