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Printing Basics and Definitions

People who do business usually need to print something at one point or another:  business cards, capabilities statements, handouts, stationery, invitations, direct mail, the list goes on. If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t worked in the printing industry before, and printing terminology can seem foreign. You won’t learn the ins and outs overnight, but as any savvy business person knows, you need to know the basics to clearly communicate what you want. This is an overview of the main components and common terms you should know.

Offset, Sheet-fed Press

Paper – weight, coat and size
When you talk about how thick or sturdy you want your paper to be, you are talking about weight. Paper stock is referred to in pounds (you will also see # used for pound). In the U.S. this poundage refers to how much a “ream” (usually 500 sheets) of that paper weighs. The higher the weight, the thicker the paper. 100# paper is thicker/heavier than 60# paper. Simple, right?

Paper can also come coated or uncoated. Coated paper has a coat of clay and other substances that improves reflectivity and ink holdout (uncoated doesn’t). There are four different types of coat finishes:

  • Gloss – shiny and reflective
  • Cast – high gloss made by pressing paper against hot metal drum
  • Matte – flat (not glossy)
  • Dull – flat, slightly smoother than matte

The size of your finished project determines what paper size you start with, and what type of press you use in most cases. For simple eight page brochures that are 8.5×11 and not too high in quantity, a sheet-fed press makes sense. Sheet-fed presses come in different sizes and use different sizes and types of paper (or metals, plastics and more). Your office printer is a simple example of a sheet-fed press. The alternate is a web press. They print on continuous rolls (reams) of paper. They come in different sizes, speeds and capabilities. On a large scale, imagine the stereotypical image of newspapers printing from giant spools of paper. Web presses are typically used only for higher quantities. Unlike sheet-fed presses, it usually takes a lot of waste just to get the presses set up for the main run. Many feet of paper are printed then thrown away in order to calibrate the presses for the final project. As you can imagine, the phrase “stop the presses” is a lot more complicated than it seems.

Color – 1C, 2C, 3C or 4C (CMYK)
Do you want one color, two color, three color, or full color? 1C refers to a single ink only (often black), 2C refers to two inks. One ink is usually black, with the second being a PMS color. What does that mean? PMS is the abbreviation for Pantone Matching System. Colors vary on different computer screens, but a Pantone inks are colors that are absolute, typically repeated over and over again and referenced to a constant swatch book which Pantone produces every year. It can vary based on whether you print on coated or uncoated paper. Pantone produces many swatch books, but the most often used are PMS-C (for coated) and PMS-U (for uncoated). You should know the PMS color(s) of your logo. The green in our ASPE-ROI logo is Pantone 369.

3C uses three inks. Once you get to 4C, also referred to as CMYK, you are printing in full-color. That’s because using four specific ink colors, any color in the visible spectrum can be reproduced. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, key (key is also black). During the printing process, typically ink is applied in the order of the abbreviation. They are also known as process colors.

There’s a misconception that 4C is always better than 2C because you can’t get the visual effect you want with 2C. While that’s true for items that depend heavily on color images, I’ve seen amazing things done with only 2C.

Print Production – abridged steps

  • Send the artwork to the printer. Sometimes a PDF will do, but make sure you check with your vendor first. Most printers have specifications unique to their production process. For certain jobs, you may need specialized files such as an EPS (encapsulated postscript) file. Files such as EPS are used in cases when a process other than plate printing will be used and the vendor requires shape (or vector) based artwork– i.e. screen printing, or embroidery. Whatever you use, the file needs a resolution of 300 DPI (dots per inch). DPI is the quality for an image, the higher the DPI, the better it will turn out. When there is low DPI, you will see pixilation. Also make sure to communicate whether your piece has full bleed (printing that goes to the edge of the sheet after trimming).
  • Your artwork goes through prepress or prep. It’s the process of camera work, color separations, stripping, plating and other functions prior to printing. FYI – a plate is the etched template the printer uses to apply ink repeatedly in order to replicate high numbers of copies.
  • Offset vs. digital printing. This usually depends on the quantity of the job. Offset printing is a technique that transfers ink from a plate to paper instead of directly from ink head to paper. It’s used for high volume. Digital printing can be used for smaller quantity jobs. They print directly from digital sources on a laser or inkjet printer. It has a higher cost per page, but the cost is negated by saving the cost of technical steps such as plating.

Finishing – collate, fold, bind, trim
Below are defined terms you should know to communicate how you want your final product to look.

Collate – paper is gathered in precise order
Accordion fold – two or more parallel folds that open like an accordion
French fold – two folds at right angles to each other
Bind – fasten sheets with wire, thread, glue or other means. The common term for using wire is saddle stitch.
Die – used to cut, score or emboss. A die cut is the process of using the die to cut paper output into custom shapes.


So what do you say when you ask for a quote? I want a brochure that’s 8.5×11 on 70lb glossy paper, full bleed, and saddle stitched. Please make pricing based on quantities of 0-5,000, 5,001-10,000 and 10,001-20,000.

Hopefully this will help you a bit with printing. If you’re looking for specific terms not listing in this post, the Printing Industry Exchange has a great list of definitions.



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