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Printing Processes and
Methods Explained

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of printing: traditional offset or digital. Following is a brief overview that compares the two methods and highlights the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Traditional Offset Printing

This is the method most people think about when talking about printing. It involves separating colors and creating printing plates for large printing presses. These printing presses use the plates to transfer ink to the paper surface. Paper is either in the form of large sheets or huge continuous rolls that are fed into the press. Newspapers, magazines, brochures, and most books are printed this way.


For large quantities (over 1,000), it is usually a much cheaper printing method. This means a larger profit per item.

Print quality is usually much better.

A large variety of paper stocks can be used.

Varnish can be applied to an entire piece (for extra protection) or just a portion
(called "spot varnishing") for special effects.

It is more durable overall than digital printing.

Special die cutting and folding schemes can be handled by the printer's bindery department.


For quantities under 1,000 pieces, it can become extremely expensive. This is because of the cost to set up the press for the print run, which is usually the bulk of the cost.

There is a large up-front investment.

There are some limitations to the size of the paper that can be printed on. Most offset presses have a paper size limit of 40 inches.

Smudges or "hickeys" can occur in the entire print run. But usually a print company will rerun a job if the defect is bad.

Digital "On-Demand" Printing

Digital printing has come a long way over the past decade. In some cases, it is hard to tell the difference between digital and offset printing. The real differentiation here is convenience and "instant" results. As an example, many "vanity publishers" (those that help you publish and print your own books) utilize digital "on-demand" printing, which basically means you can print your book one at a time as needed.

Digital printing generally utilizes toners instead of actual inks to produce images on paper.


For quantities under 1,000, it is often more cost-effective, depending on the project. The cost to set up the digital printer is also much less time consuming and expensive than an offset press.

No large up-front investment.

Digital color book covers can be laminated with a plastic layer to protect the image.


For large quantities (over 1,000), there is not much of a volume discount.

The price per piece can be higher.

Print quality is often not as good as offset printing.

Digital printers mostly use toner, rather than ink. This makes the prints susceptible to chipping or cracking.

There are limitations to the size of the paper that can be printed on (usually 12x18 inches maximum).

Many cannot print on coated (glossy) or heavyweight paper stocks.

Varnish cannot be applied to digital prints.
It is often less durable than offset printing.

Special die cutting and folding schemes can be tricky and are not usually done with toner-based prints.

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