cliffs-notesLook around your office or home. Even in our digital world, it takes an amazing number of printed products to keep things running. There are business cards, envelopes, forms, brochures, catalogs, flyers, newspapers, signs, banners, uniforms, gift and credit cards, coffee mugs, package labels and countless other items. With so many different printed items, it’s obvious that one type of “printing press” can’t handle them all. In fact, understanding all of the different print processes is pretty complicated. But if you’re interested in a simple explanation of print methods and their uses, read on…

Offset Lithography

The most common type of commercial printing, offset lithography involves creating image plates that apply ink to rollers which then pass over the product (what the pros refer to as a “substrate”) to transfer ink and complete the printing process. Offset litho is very high quality and can be sheet-fed (printed one page at a time) or web (printed on a roll and cut after drying). It is cost-effective for higher quantities and has the advantage of allowing specific Pantone or PMS colors to be used for logos and other corporate branding. It’s used to print anything from magazines and books to brochures, stationery, postcards and folders. You can think of it as printing’s reliable workhorse.

Digital Printing

Although digital printing hasn’t been around as long as offset printing, it’s definitely not the new kid on the block anymore and any printer worth their salt will have exceptional digital printing capabilities. Digital printing does not use a fixed image plate like offset litho. Instead, a digital file feeds information to the printer on a page by page basis enabling versioned and personalized printing that litho cannot accommodate. This makes digital printing the only real choice for personalized statements, invoices, reward programs or other 1:1 direct marketing materials. Minimal press set-up makes it a great option for shorter run projects and for items with frequent changes like wine labels and other retail applications. Digital printing’s quick-turn and short run capabilities also facilitate print-on-demand solutions in which customers order items as they need them, eliminating obsolete inventory and decreasing storage costs.  While litho is still more cost-effective for long runs of static materials, digital has made great strides in speed, quality, size options and color-matching in the past few years. Those improvements, coupled with its incredible flexibility, make digital a star player in the printing game.


Letterpress is the oldest print process and was the most common until offset lithography came along. It is a kind of relief printing in which the image is on the raised surface of the image plate. Think rubber stamps. It works best for fine type and line work and not as well for big blocks of color. Although not used often today, letterpress is sometimes used for high-end business cards and invitations.


Another type of relief printing, flexography uses flexible plates and is most often used for packaging because it provides the ability to print on a wide variety of substrates. Typical products include boxes, plastic and paper grocery bags, can and bottle labels, candy wrappers and disposable cups.

Screen Printing

Sometimes called silk-screening or serigraphy, screen printing involves pushing ink through a screen using a stencil pattern. It works best for designs with a limited number of colors and is often used for printing apparel and textiles. In the promotional products world, screen printing is also the most common method of imprinting for hard goods.


Gravure (sometimes called rotogravure) uses an intaglio process, which is the exact opposite of relief printing. Instead of the image being raised on the plate surface, it is etched into it. Ink pools inside the etching and is transferred to the substrate on a metal cylinder. Gravure presses run at very high speeds and produce consistent and continuous impressions. This process is used for long runs of newspapers, catalogs, magazines and wallpaper.

Pad Printing

Pad printing uses a soft silicone pad to pick up ink from an etched plate and transfer it to the desired substrate. Its best feature is its ability to print on objects that have irregular surfaces. Promotional products like pens and key chains, sporting goods like golf balls and footballs and toys such as dolls and toy cars may be printed using this method.


Engraving is another intaglio process that produces sharp images and an embossed, or raised, impression. It is not used often due to its high cost, but applications include fine stationery and invitations, currency, passports and occasionally postage stamps.


If you want the raised look of engraving at a lower cost, you might consider thermography. It’s actually more of an after-printing process employing special powder that adheres to wet ink to create an embossed effect when dry.

So, why would you need to know any of that? You shouldn’t have to. That’s where we come in. Curtis 1000 has the expertise to recommend the best print process for every project and the deep print capabilities to meet your needs no matter what the specifications. Why not let your local Curtis 1000 expert “uncomplicate” your printing needs? Call us at 877-287-8715 or fill out the “How Can We Help You” form on our website today!

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