30 years ago, letterpress appeared to be at death’s door. This kind of printing is fussy. To print books and small matter, you arrange blocks of metal type in a press to spell out words; headlines or posters often use large type cut from wood. A letterpress then pushes paper down onto the blocks, which have been covered with a thin layer of ink. You wind up with inky fingers and aching muscles. And it’s impossible to achieve completely consistent results.

But for every bit of fuss, there’s an equal measure of aesthetic appeal. Martha Stewart was among the first to highlight this as letterpress faded, and clamored for its revival. In the 1990’s her lifestyle empire extolled the handcrafted look and feel of letterpress work, especially for wedding invitations. Stewart’s outlets tended to feature prints with a deep relief, known as debossing, which photographs well at an angle in a shallow depth of field. You can feel the impression with your eyes. (Embossing raised paper towards the reader, pressing up from underneath.)

Traditional letterpress, however, mostly aimed for a kiss, not a punch, lightly caressing the paper with ink. The act of printing slowly wears out traditional metal and wood type, so Martha’s love of debossing produced a quandary, it burned through type especially quickly. Worse, make a mistake in your setup, and type can be crushed or broken.

All the major producers of letterpress type ceased production in the 1980’s as the computer revolution took hold, and uncountable tons of type were thrown into dumps. As debossing became increasingly fashionable, many letterpress printers turned to an invention from the packaged goods industry to recover from its death of type: A material known as photopolymer.

Photopolymer is a resin-like substance that’s sensitive to ultraviolet light. It is hard, durable, and replaceable. It also lets designers use all the digital tools and more importantly, all the digital typefaces with which they’re familiar. A printer can opt to deboss the hell out of a print with photopolymer. When or if it wears out, you just make another identical plate.

Some printers eschew photopolymer, says Jenny Wilkson, head of SVC’s letterpress program, sticking instead to a diminishing supply of wood and metal type. That’s okay but not practical for commercial work or lengthy texts. So for the vast majority of customers enjoying their letterpressed wedding invitations and RSVP’s, photopolymer saved the day.

In closing, modern processes are allowing the once slowly dying process of letterpress a rebirth. Technology has brought a speed and flexibility to an art approaching its 600th year, while also making it possible for printers to use the latest gear alongside their oldest. By hitching itself to digital, a craft that time had seemed ready to leave behind is now reborn.

excerpts gleened from an article originally appearing in Wired by GLENN FLEISHMAN