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What is Offset Printing?

By K. Waterman
Updated May 17, 2024
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Offset printing, sometimes also known as “offset lithography,” is a very common modern printing method that involves setting images and words on paper through a series of metal plates and rubber mats. It is very efficient and almost always computer-driven. The method is called “offset” because the material to be printed isn’t pressed directly onto the page or other medium, but rather is first distributed to a metal plate, then to a rubber mat, and only then imprinted. Ink is usually evenly distributed from an internal jet system, and can automatically assign different colors to different regions as directed by a computer managing system. These machines generally offer a lot of flexibility when it comes to what, exactly, is being printed; most can handle anything from newspapers and glossy magazines to CDs and fabrics of varying thicknesses. Users typically have to reset the machine and alter its controls to achieve different outcomes, but in general the devices are quite flexible.

Printing Press Basics

The main idea behind a printing press is efficiency. Presses allow for the mass-distribution of a wide variety of materials. Once creators design the original, the machine does the rest, making as many copies as needed. Compared to today’s options, the original printing presses were quite cumbersome to use. Technicians had to individually set each letter of each page, then apply ink; only then could paper be pressed on top, making an imprint. This method was still more efficient than individually stamping or inscribing each page, since once the presses were set multiple pages could be printed relatively quickly; getting there, though, often took a great deal of patience and discipline. The offset method is a modern improvement on these largely manual machines.

How the Offset Method Works

In offset printing, the ink is not pressed directly onto the paper but rather is distributed from a metal plate to a rubber mat where it is then set and pressed. The images to be printed are created on a computer and then "burned" onto metal plates using a chemical developing process similar to photography. From here the metal plates are dampened with water, which adheres to the areas without images; the ink is added next, one color at a time, where it sticks to the areas with images.

The most modern systems use a direct-to-plate system in which the images are burned directly to the metal. Omitting the secondary step saves time and money, though the overall quality can be lower.

Color Spectrum

The colors used in offset presses are usually cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Each color is represented with the first letter of its name with the exception of black, which goes by “K”; the resulting spectrum, then, is often listed in the literature as CMYK. K is used to represent black to ensure that there isn't any confusion with blue, which is usually assigned “B.”

Different percentages of each colors in the CMYK spectrum create virtually every color used in offset printing. There are color matching systems, such as the PANTONE® system, that allows print buyers to see the color. The code for that desired color can then be entered into the offset printer's computer and it will calculate the percentages of each color that need to be used.

Paper and Printing Options

There are a couple of different options when it comes to medium, which is to say, what the machine is actually using as a material for printing. Sometimes the device uses what’s known as a “web” printing press, which uses huge rolls of continuously fed paper; most machines can also use a sheet fed press that, as its name might suggest, uses individual sheets of paper. Alternatively, things not paper, like multimedia, can also usually be printed on single sheet-style devices.

In general the offset method uses all of the latest technology in printing, including computers that aid in design. Computers are also used to generate instructions for the mixture of ink colors as well as their distribution to the paper.

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Discussion Comments

By kylee07drg — On Apr 11, 2012

@bijuchacko – I don't know much about commercial offset printing, but I can tell you a little about offset lithography in artistic printmaking. For starters, we draw on a metal plate with a litho crayon. This is a very greasy material.

When the drawing is complete, we put a solution of phosphoric acid and gum arabic onto the surface. This makes the drawing repel water while encouraging the ink to adhere to it. So, I would assume that the chemical used by commercial printers resembles this one.

By Perdido — On Apr 10, 2012

I am a graphic designer, and at our firm, we use the PANTONE system to avoid any confusion with colors. Using a preset list of colors makes it easy for me to communicate with the printing department.

We keep a swatchbook of every PANTONE color in the office, and we let clients choose their colors from it. They can be sure that whatever they select will match the printed version of their ad.

Since the swatches list the percentages of each color, if we ever have to have something printed at another location, all I have to do is read off the CMYK percentages over the phone to the printer. This ensures that we are on the same page, because not everyone uses the PANTONE system.

By orangey03 — On Apr 10, 2012

I work at a newspaper, and we use offset printing on our press. The head press man in the back mixes the inks himself, and he always tells us to be sure our pages are totally ready when we send them to him, because once he burns the image onto the plate, it cannot be undone.

There was talk of switching to a direct-to-plate system, but we simply could not afford the equipment. I'm sure it would save money in the long run, but you can't buy something with nothing, which is about what we have in our budget.

By babukandoth — On Aug 30, 2009

What is a blanket? how are they made? how many layers are available?

By anon43516 — On Aug 29, 2009

what are the blankets? How many layers are in them? What is the process to make them?

By bijuchacko — On Jun 30, 2009

what chemical is used on the printing plate surface for the printing image?

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