Popular Printing Techniques

There are a variety of printing techniques that designers can use to solve problems and create visual materials. Some are older than others, some are not as easily available as they used to be and others are much more expensive and often out of a clients budget. Regardless of the specifics or availability, all of these types of printing are still in practice today. It is important to know what you can do with printed materials in order to select the best possible materials and processes for the project.

Wood Block
A form of letterpress, Wood Block printing is one of the oldest techniques for printing and has a long history or development in both Europe and Asia. It is a relief process in which an image is carved in reverse into a piece of wood, inked up and paper is pressed down on top of it to transfer the ink and image. It is one of the rarest forms of printing in use today, due primarily to time consumption. However, there are many sets of type still in existence that were created from woodblocks and are often used in letterpress poster printing. For more information on wood type visit the Hamilton Wood Type Museum.

Movable Type
Invented in the 15th century, movable type is the process of setting type by hand for printing on a letterpress machine. The type can be made of either wood or metal and letters were cut individually by craftsmen called punch cutters. This style of printing was the first developed that could rapidly, a relative term, produce multiple copies of lengthy printed materials and books. It remained the standard printing technique until photo typesetting came about in the 1950s.

Letterpress is still alive today, although it exists on a much smaller scale and usually only in specialty shops. The process often now involves photopolymer plates that can translate a digital design into a raised plate for use with vintage presses. It has seen a revival of success in recent years in the fine art, craft, and design worlds and is often used to create wedding invitations and posters. However, it remains a very flexible and reliable printing method that can be used for almost anything.

Phototypesetting has all but been rendered obsolete by the personal computer and digital typesetting, but for several decades it enjoyed a success as the standard in typesetting and printing. It is a process in which the type is generated on a photographic piece of paper. The paper was processed and ready for paste up, which is the process of creating a layout. When a layout is camera ready it was photographed to create a negative that could be used for offset printing.

Offset printing is still the most commonly used method of printing and is often called offset lithography. Offset printing is created using plates generated for each color used in the printing process. Some projects may call for 2 colors, some may use a standard 4 color CMYK process and others can require even more than that with specialty spot colors, varnishes and a variety of coatings also available. There are two kinds of offset printing called Sheetfed, in which individual sheets are fed into the printer, and Web, which prints from large rolls and can be used to quickly produce very large quantities of printed materials such as newspapers.

Typically operating with web presses, flexography does not use the standard plates of offset lithography. Instead it uses rubber plates and water based inks which dry quicker and allow for faster production times. Faster drying times also allow for more effective results on materials like plastic which does not absorb ink like paper does.

Engraving is perhaps the most expensive of all printing techniques as it is also one of the most time-consuming. It is typically used for fancy gala invitations or business cards of high-ranking officials in large corporations. The engraved image is first carved by hand or machine onto a metal plate. The engraved spaces are filled with ink and the paper pressed on top of it. The result is slightly raised, crisp images and saturated colors that are nearly impossible to reproduce with other techniques.

Thermography may look and feel a lot like engraving when the final product is produced, but the details that are present in the engraving process fall short in thermography. While the details may only be noticed by designers, typographers and people who pay close attention, they are noticeable. However, thermography is much more cost effective. The process involves laying down ink, adding thermography powder, then using heat to raise the image slightly off of the page.

Silkscreen Printing
Silkscreen printing, or screen printing for short offers a wide range of brightly colored inks and is often used for printing t-shirts, posters and other promotional materials. The process involves a design being laid on top of a screen (originally made of silk although a variety of materials are now used) which is coated with photo emulsion and exposed to light. The emulsion that is exposed hardens and the rest can be washed away leaving a stencil of sorts that ink can be pulled through using a squeegee.

The common household printing solution, inkjet is a feasible solution for small print runs and is available to the general public at an affordable cost. The process involves a printer which communicates digitally with a computer of some sort and physically sprays the ink onto the paper. It normally is used with 4 to 8 inks in a CMYK process and can produce richly saturated colors on a variety of materials.

Digital printing is a process that uses toner, rather than ink, which sits on top of the piece of paper instead of being absorbed by it. While the quality has increased dramatically since its inception, it still can not match the quality of offset lithography, especially in small details, typography and color-matching. The fact that they do not require unique plates means that they can create individual designs that may have varying details quickly and at a lower cost.