When I was a graphic design graduate a few years ago, the single hardest thing to get my head around was the ins and outs of printing. Of course I’m on top of it now but I still remember how overwhelming it was at first, so I totally get how confusing it must be to people not in the industry.
Many wedding websites confuse the issue more, by telling you that engraving, thermography and letterpress are the only available options and everyone uses them. I’m in my mid-twenties so I’ve been to quite a few weddings in recent years – all of them classy affairs – and not one of them used any of these printing types for their invitations. Now, perhaps in some parts of the world these are the still most popular, but even if that’s the case they are certaily not the only options.
If you’re having stationery printed for your wedding or other occasion it can be really helpful to understand the basic differences between the most common printing methods. Ready to know more? Let’s go!
Engraving is the most traditional invitation method. It involves the design being etched in reverse into a copper plate, which is coated with ink, then wiped clean so that the ink remains only in the carved lines. Paper is then pressed against the plate and into the inked indentation.
Appearance: Sharp, raised lettering with an indent on the back of the paper.
Stock: Thick, soft paper is required to achieve the indents. May be used on dark colours.
Colours: Usually single colour, but can be more.
Tip: You can tell true engraving from thermography by the bruise on the back of the paper.
Thermography was invented as a more affordable alternative to engraving. Ink and resin powder are fused onto the paper by heat, resulting in raised text similar to engraving, but without the bruise on the indentation of the paper. Has a waxy look and doesn’t show metallic inks as well as engraving.
Appearance: Raised, shiny text that’s not as crisp as engraving.
Stock: The ink takes on the colour of the paper, so it’s suitable against light colours only.
Colours: Single colour.
Tip: If you’re keen on silver or gold, opt for engraving instead.
Similar to engraving, the design is etched in reverse into a copper plate. A sheet of foil (actually a plastic not metal) is laid over the sheet of paper, then the heated plate is stamped onto it, causing the foil to adhere to the paper.
Appearance: Shiny finish with slight intendation from the stamp.
Stock: The best finish will be achieved on smooth paper. Can be used on dark paper.
Colours: Usually single colour foil.
Tip: Try silver foil on black stock for a look that’s totally glam and will have your guests wanting to party all night.
Letterpress is the earliest printing press method but has recently experienced a revival. Originally the design could only be made up from the typesetter’s existing individual letters and flourishes, and the inked letters would only ‘kiss’ the paper (indentation was considered a sign of poor printing). These days a raised polymer plate is used so the design is not limited to the movable type, and a deep impression is sought after. May be printed ‘blind’, that is, without ink.
Appearance: Highly tactile, pillowy look.
Stock: Soft, thick paper, often made from cotton.
Colours: No limit, but usually 1-2 as each additional colour requires another plate and another pass through the press, which adds cost.
Tip: Not just for formal designs, it will add the ‘wow’ factor to a variety of styles.
Traditionally, embossing has been reserved for small motifs, borders, monograms or return addresses but there’s no reason why it can’t be used for a full invitation (as above). A raised impression is created by passing paper through two metal sheets. Like letterpress, it’s called ‘blind’ embossing if no ink is used. Some specialist printers will be able to do this, but small hand-held embossers are also available to DIY your own embellishments such as return addresses.
Appearance: Raised graphic.
Stock: The embossing will stand out and be most readable on smooth stock.
Colours: Single colour.
Tip: Worth the extra cost for the beautiful three-dimensional effect.
This is the method used to print your favourite glossy. Some stationers will call it ‘lithography’ (from the older printing method of that name that uses the same basic principles) and others call it ‘flat’ printing (generally they just mean as opposed to letterpress) but they are all referring to the same thing. In most cases the printer will use what’s called CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black) or four-colour process, which layer to produce virtually unlimited colours. You can also use ‘spot colours’, which are the pure inks rather than a layering of other colours so you’ll get a richer, more crisp result (despite having fewer colours, this is more expensive as the printer will need to order or mix the exact colours and clean the press thoroughly before and after your job). The method is the same regardless of the ink type: the image is transferred from an inked plate to a rubber blanket, over which the paper is passed.
Appearance: Flat, rich colour. The finish will depend on the paper type.
Stock: Suits a wide variety of paper stocks as long as they are light-coloured as the ink is transparent.
Colours: Limitless shades and colours with no extra cost if using CMYK. Spot colours would generally be kept to two or so, to avoid extra cost.
Tip: Add depth to flat printing by using metallic inks or spot varnishes.
Digital printing sometimes gets a bad name for sub-standard quality. But I’m here to tell you that the technology has come a long way in recent years, and the best results are indistinguishable from four-colour offset. There remains, however, a huge difference in quality. Instead of using a plate like all the other methods we’ve discussed, digital printing uses native computer files, resulting in no loss of image quality. In leading printing houses this will be printed on a huge press using real inks to achieve the same professional quality as offset printing. Your local while-you-wait office copy shop or budget printer, on the other hand, will use toner instead of ink on what’s basically a glorified photocopier. The result will be shiny toner ‘sitting’ on top of the page rather than soaking in to the paper to provide flat, even coverage. It might be fine for that internal report you have to do for your boss, but it’s definitely not the look you’re after for your wedding invitations, so before you order any digital printing make sure you ask whether they use ink or toner.
Appearance: Flat colour, with the finish dependent on paper type.
Stock: A wide range of light-coloured stocks.
Colours: It makes no difference to the price, so go nuts!
Tip: Unlike all the other methods, digitally printed invitations can be customised with your guests’ names if desired.
Curious Doodles / The Pull
Also known as silkscreening, screenprinting involves exposing a mesh screen with an image; ink is then passed over the screen and goes through to the paper only where the image area is. The process is repeated for multiple colours. It doesn’t get a lot of airtime as a printing method for invitations: it’s used mostly on applications such as signage and promotional items. It’s a fabulous technique for printing solid, opaque colours on dark paper (such as black or kraft) and can also be used on a variety of substrates such as fabric, plastic or wood.
Appearance: Solid, opaque colour. May appear a tiny bit raised, depending on the porosity of the surface and thickness of ink used.
Stock: Use your imagination!
Colours: No limit, but each colour is printed separately which adds cost so most people would only have 1-2 colours.
Tip: Make your invitations stand out from the crowd with an unconventional surface choice.
Not to be confused with regular engraving, laser engraving is a new technique where the design is etched or burnt into a surface such as wood.
Appearance: Dark lines etched into surface.
Stock: Usually wood veneer.
Colours: Single colour (the colour comes from the etched wood itself).
Tips: Perfect for a rustic celebration.
While researching this article, I came across a lot of advice that must have been written in the fifties or something, because these ‘experts’ were telling you that if you are having a formal wedding then of course you must have an engraved invitation only in black, darling, or else no one will attend your completely tacky affair and your mother will be completely ostracised from the community and eventually die of shame. What bollocks! Any designer worth her salt will be able to use any number of printing methods to achieve a invitation that suits the occasion, even the most traditional and formal one.
Another point to keep in mind is that these methods are not all mutually exclusive: for example, you can have a blind embossed pattern with offset printing text, or digitally printed design with your names foil-stamped.
I’m dying to know: what methods are most popular where you live? If you have any questions please leave them in the comments, I’d love to help.