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The term ‘letterpress’ is applied to the process of printing from a relief surface, whether text or illustrations are being reproduced. The relief surface is most often the raised surface of composed type, which can be made up of individual pieces set by hand (as in Gutenberg’s original invention) or composed in ‘slugs’ as in the Linotype and Monotype systems developed at the end of the 19th century. 

The term ‘letterpress’ is also applied to the process of printing illustrations from relief blocks. These blocks can be woodcuts, line-blocks (sometimes called process-blocks) or half-tone blocks. Metal-engraved plates are not covered by this term.

Ink is applied to the raised surface and the surrounding area is left untouched. The paper is then pressed against the inked surface to produce an impression which is particularly crisp. Originally the printing surface was flat: the type was held in a form, and a platen pressed the paper against the form. During the nineteenth century cylinder presses such as the Koenig press were invented, and this meant that higher speeds of printing could be achieved.
The letterpress process is thus the opposite of the processes of printing from intaglio surfaces, where the text or design has been engraved or etched onto the printing surface, or from surfaces using the mutually repelling properties of oil and water to distinguish the design from the surround, as in lithography.
Most printing of text and text mixed with illustrations was undertaken using the letterpress process until it was superseded by offset litho and computer-based typesetting processes in the final decades of the twentieth century.  The setting of type for this process was the job of the compositor.