Fine Print: Which Printing Process is Best for the Project?
Traditional printmaking is very dear to my heart, as it was the focus of my studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Specifically, I focused on Intaglio (etching) and screen-printing. But more and more, I’m finding modern printing processes equally interesting, as each becomes refined and specialized. And the recent rise of 3D printing is basically blowing my mind.
With our ranging client needs, we usually work in a variety of printing processes.
Digital printing is likely the most ubiquitous and cost-effective printing process today, if you’re doing a relatively small (less than 500) print run. Digital printing ranges from simply the printer you have in your office or home to professional large format printing, offered in print houses. It is ideal for photographic images, and either full or four-color (CMYK) print jobs. There are two common forms of digital printing:
Laser printing is an electrostatic process using a laser beam, to produce high quality text and graphics. A laser beam is passed over a charged drum, and then the drum selectively collects toner, and an image is transferred to paper. The toner is then fixed with a heating process.
Laser printers are excellent for larger, low quality print runs. Because they are more efficient with their use of toner than inkjets, they tend to print much faster and the price per page is much cheaper. Large copiers, and large office printers tend to be laser, because of their efficiency and relatively low (compared to inkjets) maintenance.
Inkjets generally produce higher quality full color or photographic images. This is largely due to the fact that inkjets can print with a higher DPI. However, cost per sheet is generally higher with inkjets.
Artist reproductions of paintings or photography are often made using digital inkjets and are referred to as Giclee prints or, depending on the printer, an Iris print. The quality of the print emulates watercolors, producing a very close replica to the original painting.
For large format inkjet printers (more frequently used in professional print-houses), a whole range of materials, such as paper, canvas, silk and mylar (plastic polymer) can be loaded as large rolls of material for printing.
Tip: Inkjet ink is usually water-soluble and toner is waterproof. So, if you aren’t sure, you can check by wetting the ink.
As a modern form of lithography, the principles of offset come from the simple fact that water and oil don’t mix. An inked image is transferred or offset from a rubber blanket or plate, and then onto a surface for print. The graphics or content to be printed is inked up, while the areas that are not to be printed retain a water-based film, which prevents them from absorbing color.
When spot colors are required, offset printing is usually the chosen method, as a singular plate can be made for the particular spot color.
Screen printing — sometimes known as silkscreen — also comes from a traditional printmaking technique. Screen printing uses a woven mesh, usually a fine nylon (it used to be silk, hence the term silkscreen) as a screen to allow ink to pass through. Sections of the screen are blocked out so that only the desired image for print is visible. Ink is applied on the other side of the screen and is forced through the screen using a squeegee.
Today, screen printing is used in fine art and most commonly, t-shirt printing. However, equipment ranging from sports equipment, to medical to electronic equipment, may also utilize screen-printed graphics.
Letterpress comes from traditional forms of printmaking and is a type of relief printmaking. The traditional typefaces were used in letterpress.
Characters (or type) are arranged on the bed of a special press, and are inked up. Paper is then run through, either manually or mechanically, and the letters are pressed into the paper, leaving the stamp of the letter embossed on the paper.
Today, letterpress is most commonly used for fine art projects and stationary, such as formal invitations and awards.
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