Print Buyer’s Primer – An Introduction to the Most Common Printing Processes

OK. So you need to print letterhead or brochures or catalogs or whatever, but you don’t know where to start. There are hundreds of printers listed in the phone book and thousands on the web. How do you compare? Let’s start with a general overview of the most common printing processes, but first a note about pricing. Although you will get a total cost from the printer, printing costs are made up of fixed setup costs + variable running costs. We note the relative setup and running costs for each process.

Digital Printing (toner based)

This process is similar to the laser printer you use at home or at the office. However, commercial printers use production grade duplex printers that are very fast, with excellent color control, and print on a wide variety of papers. Of course, unlike your home or office environment, commercial printers are going to also have equipment for correctly collating, folding, binding, and cutting your project. This process is best for manuals, booklets, brochures, letterhead and other small projects where quantities are less than 1,000 pieces.

Setup Costs (low) ♦
Running Costs (high) ♦♦♦♦♦
Quality (high) ♦♦♦♦
Speed (fast) ♦♦♦♦♦


Duplicators are small ink based printing presses that have been around a long time. With the explosion of digital printing, duplicators, and particularly good duplicator operators, are getting more and more scarce. However, ink is still substantially less expensive than toner so there is still a place for duplicators in the printing world, specifically for 1 and 2 color work. Another advantage of ink is precise color matching for Pantone (PMS) colors. Duplicators are great for forms (including multi-part forms), letterhead and envelope, and other 1 and 2 color work. Although much depends on the expertise of particular press operators,  ink coverage should be light and registration non-critical.

Setup Costs (med) ♦♦♦
Running Costs (low) ♦
Quality (med) ♦♦♦
Speed (med) ♦♦♦


Thermography (sometimes called raised printing) has been traditionally used for stationery. It is a poor man’s substitute for engraving which has long been out of favor because it is such an expensive process. Thermography can be closely compared to the duplicator process. Thermography is usally produced by specialty printers wholesale “for the trade”. Your local printer can order these for you.

Setup Costs (med) ♦♦♦
Running Costs (med) ♦♦♦
Quality (med) ♦♦♦
Speed (slow) ♦♦♦♦

Offset, Sheet

Sheetfed offset is the pinnacle of quality and versatility in printing. This covers quite a range. There are small offset sheet presses in the 13” x 19” size up to 60″+, print everything from cartons to plastics, print in inks or UV, and, depending on configuration, print 4 – 8 colors (or more) plus coatings.

As the process implies, sheetfed offset presses print on sheets (as opposed to rolls) of paper or other material. Sheetfed offset represents by far the largest number of presses in production today, and most sheetfed printers do excellent work. Sheetfed offset is appropriate (depending on press size) for high quality brochures, posters, pocket folders, books, booklets, cartons and many types of marketing materials.

The printing industry, like most industries, is becoming more and more specialized so the versatility of sheetfed offset is also a weakness. For an increasing number of projects sheetfed offset is not economically viable.

Setup Costs (high) ♦♦♦♦
Running Costs (med) ♦♦
Quality (high) ♦♦♦♦♦
Speed (med) ♦♦♦♦

Offset, Web

Web offset, due to the relatively small number of presses, falls in the category of specialty printing. Web refers to the web of paper that originates on a roll and weaves it’s way through the printing press. The variety of papers that are available on rolls is limited but the cost is usually much lower than sheeted stock.

Most web offset projects are publications; books, magazines, catalogs, newspapers, and booklets. In general, quantities of 10,000 and up.

Web offset can be further categorized into “cold web” and “heatset web”. Cold web printing is generally at the lower end of the quality spectrum. Heatset is at the upper end of the quality spectrum, rivalling sheetfed offset. Advantages of web offset:

  • Lower paper cost
  • Incredibly fast
  • Publications are folded at the end of the press which results in fewer production steps
  • Capable of printing on much thinner paper than sheetfed presses. This not only saves money on paper
    but also reduces mailing costs for catalogs and other mailed publication

Setup Costs (high) ♦♦♦♦♦
Running Costs (low) ♦
Quality, Cold Web (low) ♦♦
Quality, Heatset Web (high) ♦♦♦♦
Speed (fast) ♦♦♦♦♦


There are many other specialty processes. To name a few:

Flexography: mostly used for labels and cartons
Rotary offset: mostly used for business forms
Digital offset: mostly used for variable data printing
Gravure: mostly used for extremely high volume printing
Letterpress: mostly used for die-cutting, foil stamping and embossing

The above is a very limited list but hopefully a good start. Happy printing!