Printing has been a common theme in my adult life, more by coincidence rather than by design.

After leaving school in 1984, a year on a YTS scheme (at twenty five quid a week!), and brief spell at college I found myself working in the commercial printing industry.

For twenty years or so I worked in some of the largest companies that supply substrates (paper, plastics, card, self-adhesives) and printing chemicals to the printers themselves. I was very lucky to witness the amazing diversity of printing, which is driven by the ever-present requirement to communicate a message, to decorate an object or to reproduce an image.

I founded in 2003, and whilst the printing in my everyday life is generally smaller in format, it’s as interesting as ever! In this blog, I’ve taken a look at some of the most significant types of printing, some I’ve encountered in my working like and some are very definately before my time! 

Woodblock Printing:

This is one of the first types of printing and involves cutting away a design in a block of wood, which in turn is dipped in ink and pressed on to paper or fabric. Woodblock printing dates back to around 200AD.

A wood block being hand carved ready for printing

A wood block being hand carved ready for printing

Flexographic Printing:

Mainly used for product packaging, Flexographic printing is used to print cardboard boxes, plastic bags, bottle and tin can labels.

High speed flexographic printing

High speed flexographic printing

Gravure Printing:

A high quality printing method where the image is etched on to a metal plate.  This in turn is rotated on to the cylinder and transfers the printed image to the paper or other substrate. Used for volume printing methods including wallpaper printing and magazines.

A Gravure Drum

A Gravure Drum with image etched ready for printing

Screen Printing:

This type of printing was initially called ‘silk screen’ printing as in its earliest form the ink was pushed through a stencil pattern that was held on silk. Today Screen Printing offers huge diversity and can be used to print mugs, caps, circuit boards (hence the term printed circuit boards), clothing and large scale billboard posters. From printing by hand to fully automated machines that can print thousands of sheets per hour, surely this is the most adaptable form of printing ever?

Screen printing by hand

Screenprinting by hand!

Letter Press:

The original process was founded by Gutenberg back in 1440. Originally used to print books, the image is held on a plate that is above the surface to be printed and pushed down to make contact with the paper to form the print.

A Letterpress plate

A letterpress plate

Dot Matrix:

This one takes me back to my younger days… My first home printer was a little Epson Dot Matrix printer. The printed image is produced by the print head striking the paper through an ink-soaked cloth ribbon and the image is made up of a vast array of tiny dots… Having found this video of a dot matrix machine the most memorable aspect is the very distinctive sound!

Dye Sublimation:

Takes many forms, but generally speaking, uses heat to transfer dye on to a medium such as paper, plastic or fabric. A good example of this type of printing would be the little 6×4 printers that are specifically designed to print home photos, like the Canon CP200.

Example of dye sublimation printing

Small photo printers like this Canon machine use Dye-Sub technology

Inkjet Printing:

I was surprised to learn that the first inkjet printing device was patented by Siemens in 1951. However, the inkjet printers that we know today first came into our homes and offices in the 1980′s. At the forefront of the technology was Canon and HP. The printer ink cartridges in these machines have a series of tiny chambers, with each of these containing a heater.  To eject a droplet of ink from the chamber, a pulse of current is passed through the chamber causing a rapid vaporisation of the ink in the chamber to form a bubble… This in turn causes a large pressure increase which propels a droplet or bubble (hence Canon’s trademark ‘Bubble jet’) of ink on to the paper. All this happens in a micro second and is repeated thousands of times a second to produce the high quality images and text on the page. This video from HP gives a good overview of the technology….

Laser Printing:

The first laser printer was invented in 1969 by Xerox. Today, laser printers are widely used in offices both large and small… As the technology develops, the printers are becoming cheaper and are getting smaller (such as the Samsung CLP-325).  This explains why we have recently seen the increased usage of laser printers in our homes.  In summary an electrical charge is created on the printer drum in the shape of the image and the toner particles are drawn to the charged image. The toner is then passed to the paper and the fuser uses heat to ‘fuse’ the toner particles to the paper. Whilst the following video from Lexmark gives excellent detail, it’s worth noting that the process differs slightly between some manufacturers machines…

Litho Printing:

Undoubtedly the most common form of printing used today. The inked image is transferred, (or offset) from the printing plate to a rubber roller and then on to the paper. Litho printing is used to print letterheads, brochures, posters, magazines and much, much more.

Litho Printing

Printed catalogue pages 'flying' off the print line

Of course there are many other formats of printing, and even for these above I have only scratched the surface, but I hope this gives you some insight to the diversity of printing.

With all this talk of printing, perhaps now would be a good time to check your toner or ink cartridges, to see if you need any supplies!

Looking for fantastic deals on ink and toner?

With a little help from Wikipedia & HowStuffWorks.