Guide to Printing Techniques

Jan 20 2015

by Emily McCarthy


Calling all paper and print lovers! In consulting with brides and branding clients, I am often asked to break down the printing techniques available for printing and stationery. I thought I would show you examples of each to help educate you the next time you order personalized stationery, invitations or branding print items.

DIGITAL/OFFSET PRINTING (Also called 4-color Process)

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I refer to this printing technique as ‘flat printing’ for my customers. AKA there is no texture to the printing and the final piece is smooth to the touch. There are a couple of ways in which flat printing can be achieved: DIGITAL or OFFSET. Digital refers to the 4-color process in which you might reference a printer at home (laser or inkjet). The process is the same whether you are printing on a small scale (at home) or a large scale (commercial printer). No printing plates are needed and there isn’t a long drying process needed for the final product. All of this results in a quick turnaround. The cons? Variation of colors. Just like colors vary on your computer monitor, iPad, iPhone, etc – the same goes for digital printing. Every printer will product a slightly different version of the color you are trying to achieve. If the exact color is important to you, then I would suggest going with OFFSET printing. Also, tiny details in a design will often become pixelated with digital printing. OFFSET is a bit more accurate in detail due to the printing plates involved. The ink application is very precise. In Offset, the set up cost is a bit higher; however, ink is mixed and matched to the Pantone color system; therefore, you will achieve the same color across the board, no matter what commercial printer you use. The application of ink is a bit different than digital as well – with digital, the ink is absorbed by the paper, but with offset, the ink nicely sits on top of paper resulting in a crisper look.

All in all, if an exact color is important to you, OFFSET is the way to go. If cost and efficiency is the priority, DIGITAL is the best fit. 

Disclaimer on Digital/Offset Printing: Metallic inks aren’t as successful with these methods. There are metallic Pantone colors that can be produced with Offset printing; however, you would not achieve the same look as the metallics (gold, silver) below. 


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The process of thermographic printing begins the same as Offset printing, but before the ink is dried, embossing powder is applied to the wet ink and run through a heat machine that causes the ink to ‘raise’. This technique provides you with a raised ink texture; however, not to be confused with Engraving below, there is no ‘bruising/impressions’ on the back of the paper once completed. Also, Thermography tends to have a ‘meltier’ finish – kind of a wet look that is not as precise as engraving. Because the raised quality is developed from powder, you can imagine the lack of detail that is provided as opposed to engraving. Most clients order Thermography due to the lower price point. If a client wants raised lettering, they may choose thermography over engraving due to the costs involved in the process.

All in all, if you want raised lettering but at a more affordable option than engraving, thermography is your option.

Disclaimer: Metallic inks are definitely possible with thermography, White/Creams are not possible. (for example, if you wanted to print on dark paper)


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Ahhhh, the beauty of letterpressed paper. If you’re a paper snob – you understand this feeling. Nothing beats the beauty of the letterpress texture and design. In today’s trends, the deeper the impression of the ink into the paper, the better. When letterpress printing began in mid-15th century, the goal was to actually have the lightest impression possible while still producing a crisp image. Books were originally printed in letterpress so you wouldn’t want the impression showing through the paper. In the past 10 years, letterpress has made a remarkable comeback thanks to industry gurus like Martha Stewart. It’s to my understanding that letterpress machines are actually no longer made due to the safety hazards that go along with the mechanisms of printing. That hasn’t stopped today’s letterpress companies from bringing back this true art. Similar to Offset and Thermography, you can achieve a true color match to a Pantone color system which provides a consistency throughout the pieces. The variance comes into play with the application of the ink to the paper and the rate at which it is absorbed. Each piece of letterpress might have a slightly appearance but the overall beauty is very organic. There are only certain papers that lend themselves to letterpress printing. The paper needs to be able to absorb ink and the impression so it requires a spongey-like texture. Crane makes a paper specifically for letterpress called Lettra. The ink is pressed by machine INTO the paper with a polymer printing plate or by type-set letters.

If a deep impression into the paper and organic quality is important to you, the LETTERPRESS is a great option for you!

Disclaimer: Metallics are not a good fit for letterpress as the ink is more of a matte texture. Light colored papers are best as the ink will be difficult to see on darker papers. Whites/Creams are not possible with letterpress printing.


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This application is the same exact process as letterpress above, but the printing plates are pressed into the paper WITHOUT ink applied so the impression of the plate is in the paper without color. This is a fun way to incorporate texture and subtle designs into the paper.



Blind embossing is an appearance similar to the above; however, the process is much different and the design is RAISED vs. DEBOSSED. The blind emboss is created by using male and female moulds. The perk to using blind embossing is the ability to create a very sculptured look:


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Engraving is probably the most popular technique among brides and very traditional clients. It’s usually referred to as ‘top of the line’ as far as quality and price point goes. The results are impeccable and well worth the wait and cost. The difference in texture is that engraved printing is ‘raised’ and due to the actual process, you will find the negative of the design on the reverse side of the paper where the printing plate was applied. This is often referred to as ‘bruising’. I once had a mother of the bride that swore all of her friends had engraved invitations – after reviewing them, not a single one had bruising and were actually thermography. The true test of thermography and engraving is to examine the back of the card. To achieve this raised look, metal plates are etched with a recessed image.  The plates are then hand-aligned on the engraving press. Once aligned, the plate is coated with ink and then blotted to clean the plate, leaving only the image with ink remaining.  The paper is then hand-fed and each piece is applied under two tons of pressure, creating an embossed image with startling clarity, color purity and depth. (See for visuals). Engraving allows the opportunity to print on super thick paper – so thick you wouldn’t believe it until seeing it in person. The end result of these two combinations is so so beautiful.

If quality, metallics, luxury and fine printing is important, ENGRAVING is your best option.

Disclaimer: Metallics are a perfect fit for engraving as well as printing on dark papers. White/Cream inks are also a great fit as well.


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Foil stamping, typically a commercial printing process, is the application of metallic foil to paper where a heated die is stamped onto the foil, making it adhere to the surface leaving the design of the die on the paper. Due to the rise of metallic trends in the wedding and stationery industry, foil has made a comeback because of the wonderful compliment the technique plays to letterpress. I often have brides who request color and metallic printing in the same design. Mixing letterpress and foil printing is the ticket. The texture of foil printing is similar to letterpress where a deep impression is left into the paper. The application of the foil paper creates the metallic or white/light finish you are trying to achieve.

If metallics are important to you or printing on dark paper, FOIL is a great fit, especially if combined with letterpress.

Disclaimer: Metallics, whites/creams and pastels are possible with Foil printing. Also, printing on dark papers is possible.

I believe that’s a wrap folks – lots of information but definitely helpful when selecting invitations or stationery. In my business, I am often commissioned to develop metallics (mostly gold) in branding or wedding design. This is a conversation I have with all of my clients that there are only certain printing techniques that produce this correctly.



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2 responses on “Guide to Printing Techniques

  1. Melanie Crabtree

    Great artical on different types of printing — I read it with great interest! And it was perfect timing for me, because I want do an “upgrade” on my business cards and wasn’t sure what the options where. My current business cards are digital printed by an on-line business. My logo is a bird integrated with the name of my business. I love the look of Letterpress, but I’m not sure how to or who can get that done. Can you look at my logon on my website and see if you think this is doable with Letterpress (or maybe you recommend a different means)? An who would you recommend I use to have my business cards printed?

    Thank you!


    1. Chelsea Phillips

      Hi Melanie!

      Your logo could certainly be letterpressed – I would recommend printing it using one color ink (your signature blue hue) to keep things aesthetically simple + less costly. However, a multi-color print would be an option as well. If you’re still looking for a letterpress printer, feel free to send me and e-mail at!

      Chelsea Phillips
      ♚ Cake

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