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The difference between litho and digital printing

Eyeglass and Colour Chart

The quality of digital printing has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last decade or so. Whilst there might be a huge difference in the technology used for litho and digital printing, often you’ll be hard pushed to tell which was used looking at the end product. But it’s still useful to know how they differ when deciding which to go with for your print job so you can make an informed decision if required. So if you are looking at magazine printing, brochures and booklets, or leaflets, and more read on!

Let’s take a look at each in turn:

Lithographic print

Lithographic printing is the traditional print method that uses water and ink. The ink adheres to the image on the plate based on the simple fact that water and oil don’t mix. The image is transferred to a rubber blanket and then onto the paper. The wet ink needs to soak into the paper to dry and because of that, it creates a good stable finish which helps with folded, laminating and other finishes required to keep it clean without the image cracking. This isn’t always the case with certain digital processes, as the ink that sits on the surface of the paper rather than sinking into it. Litho colours do change substantially when printing on different papers which often causes problems but it is predictable so with careful planning and proofing this can be overcome.

Digital print

is a very broad term that applies to several different types of print.  The most common is the Laser toner, which works just like your office printer, where the colour toner is attracted to a drum by static charge, then the toner is laid on the paper and fused with heat. Other common digital printing techniques are ink-jet or Indigo, but there are plenty of other variants. All tend to be called ‘  ‘Digital print’. Which type suits your requirement will depend on the run length, size, paper type and image quality.

So which should you choose?

Here are some of the things we consider when advising people which to go with:

  • Cost – Litho set-up is expensive but once it is running it is cheaper. So for longer run lengths from 250 or 500 upwards we will recommend litho. Digital is cheaper for short-run work as there is minimal setup time required.
  • Image Quality – Print quality with litho is as good as you will get; very small and detailed images can reproduce perfectly. In the past, Digital print picked up a bad reputation for poor quality, but those improvements in the technology mean, these days, it’s as good as litho and even better with some machines. Some Digital machines still struggle with consistent colour on large solid areas but with a busy picture, it is generally perfect.
  • Paper choices – A very full range of textured, coated or uncoated paper or card can be used for litho whereas digital machines are more limited, as the toner or ink-jet often needs special papers and there are limited options available. Digital is great for printing on plastics but you can also use litho if you also use UV driers to cure the ink.
  • Finishes available – Litho has the most flexibility if you’re looking for different finishes. The litho printer offers all sorts of additional functions which allow us to add bindings for books, laminate, add special varnishes, emboss or use hot foil, and because the image is absorbed into the paper it folds far better. Digital print can crack when folded and doesn’t laminate as easily. There are sometimes issues with embossing and foiling not registering properly with digital print too. When it comes to binding, many digital printers can handle it these days and usually the results are good.

Of course, every print job is different and we’re happy to advise so that you choose the right option for the best possible result. Email estimating@action-press.co.uk  or call us on 01444 236204.

Trevor has accrued 31 years’ experience in the print industry and has a wealth of knowledge in almost every field of print. He has built Action Press to where it is today and has guided the company through changes in both litho and digital media.

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