1. Spot Color Terminology
There’s a lot of specialized slang that surrounds printing, and we’re fairly guilty of using it often. All processes we offer are ultimately spot color processes, meaning that ink is applied to the sheet one by one, color by color. So, if you need a red and blue design on the front of a card, and a red and blue design on the back, we would need to run the sheet through the press 4 times. We usually shorten this into a x/x/x system, with the first being the number of colors or runs on the front, the middle being the back of the piece, and the last being any specialty runs (scoring, die cutting, etc.). So, with the example above, we might refer to it as 2/2 printing.
2. Files We Like
Ideally, if you’ve handled your own separations, you should provide us with a native Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop file, with layers organized and intact. Any fonts will need to be rasterized or outlined to ensure that we’re seeing what you’re seeing. Files for Letterpress should be 800-1200DPI, while risograph files are acceptable at 300-600DPI. PDFs are also acceptable if they are uncompressed and maintain layers.
If your design incorporates overprints, it is vital that you provide us with layers that are arranged in the correct print order. Generally, we prefer to print from the lightest shade to the darkest shade, so you need to set up your layers in that order– lighter colors underneath the darker colors. If you’re doing 1 color printing, or printing without overprints, you may send us a flattened file.
All labels should be labelled according to the color / PMS Uncoated swatch you wish to match. Inkless layers, die lines, cut lines, etc. should also be indicated and labeled in the file.
3. Files We Hate
We usually don’t have enough information in the file to correct issues with artwork submitted in Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, TIFF, JPEG, or improper resolution. Images that are only resized to the proper DPI will often show degradation in the final product. It is important that you set up your files’ resolution before beginning the design process.
You should also refer to our Bitmapping section below for notes on checking your files for anomalies, small artifacts, and other noise that can show up in a file.
Our processes are not 100% opaque, so if you leave artifacts in your layers that are to be overprinted, they will most likely reproduce in your final print. A good idea is to double check layers by using the Multiply filter in Photoshop, or by adjusting the layer opacities to mock up a final version.
4. Handling Color
Our go-to swatch book is Pantone’s Solid Uncoated series. We currently use the 2007 guide for color matching.
Pantone books are an offset product, and as such, only accurately represent colors for that process. The ink density is usually thicker on a letterpress print, and other factors like the color and tooth of the stock we’re printing on can come into play when dealing with color. We also do not print on coated stocks, so do not refer to a coated guide for color estimations– it will not match.
Ideally, your file should use Photoshop or Illustrator’s built in color swatch tools to approximate colors. If colors are not specified, we try to draw them from your file using this same process, and our own judgement on the press.
Ink on paper has a different look from dyed products and other materials, so we can only loosely approximate color matches for materials that are provided to us.
And finally, if you plan to revisit and reprint your project using the same colors, please let us know! Often, our work is 100% custom, which includes ink mixes that we make ourselves in house. Unless we purchase a dedicated ink from a supplier for your project, or have a sample card to try and match, we will not be able to exactly match your previous project’s color.
We’re big fans of bitmapping. When you send an image to a printer, the printer normally re-screens the image to represent grayscale values, which causes the printed line to have a very fine halftone in its composition. Even if you create your color as 100% black, this will occur. Bitmaps specifically tell the printer to skip the re-screening step. So, in order to preserve the edge of your print’s line-work, we rely on bitmapping.
To simulate a bitmap, you should take your file into Photoshop and go to Image > Image Mode > Greyscale, then Image > Image Mode > Bitmap. The bitmap function will ask you how you want to bitmap the file. 50% threshold is similar to a xerox– areas with less than 50% black will drop out, and areas over 50% will be recreated in black. This is preferred for line work. Halftone Screen is another option. For letterpress, we usually use halftone screens up to 100 lines per inch (noted as frequency in the filter), at an angle of 22.5 degrees. Round, elliptical, square, lined — you can use any number of dot shapes to form your halftone screen.
You can “rebuild” your art file by doing this layer by layer, and copying each result into a new RGB or CMYK file. Use color overlay to simulate your colors, and you’ll be about as close as you’ll get to proofing what we would actually print on the press. Don’t forget to simulate the transparency of the ink!
For additional help, we are at your disposal. We prefer to do halftoning ourselves for work above 80 lines per inch, since there are technical points which influence its printability.
6. Setting Up Your File
As mentioned above, please send us a high resolution file with layer intact and labeled by color! If your file does not include overprints, we are happy to do this for you if provided with a large enough file.
7. Press Sheets / Ganging Up
With each project, we normally make a decision about how many prints per sheet will be optimal. Paper comes from our suppliers in certain set sizes, so for many projects, we can cut down press time by printing multiples of the same design on a press sheet, later cutting down the project to the final size. Normally, we will make this determination based on our experience with our presses.
But, for designers and artists willing to do a little consultation with us, “ganging up” your artwork onto a single press sheet can really cut down on labor and paper waste. For instance, say your company wants letterpress business cards for 4 employees. If the design uses the same colors, we can set up a press sheet that prints all 4 at once. Since the colors are the same, it’s a 2 press run job. Add on a small cutting fee and increased plate cost, and you’ve provided for the office with 4 different cards at a fraction of our single card pricing. The idea also works the same with art prints and zines, where you could release a suite of similar color palette work by printing directly to a press sheet.
But here’s the rub. With letterpress, the size of the print area affects the impression depth. More printed area, and there’s more resistance on the load bearing parts of the press. So, we really only prefer this process for artwork that is mostly line work or text. Try layering 8 different cards on a single sheet, and they’re only going to imprint slightly into the paper stock because of the increased resistance. So, there is a limit. If this sounds like an option you would like to consider, please give us a complete scope of your project (number of names for business cards, number of designs in an art print suite, etc.) for us to plan for.
8. Halftone Work
Honestly, we’ve become bigger and bigger fans of coarser halftone screens over the years. We think it’s a good tribute to printing history, and they have a design aesthetic all their own.
You can use halftones to tint your artwork in a spot color process. Simply set up your line art, but use halftones to create additional shades. You could have a larger set of type that’s printed in black ink reproduce as a gray by halftoning a 50% gray in Photoshop. Similarly, a red could turn to a pink by the same process, and help you save on colors while adding complexity to your final print.
Of course, there’s always a caveat. Very detailed halftones do not mesh well with large areas of coverage. They just require different ink densities from the press. You can avoid this somewhat with risograph printing, but with letterpress it’s extremely true. We either have to print your job with too much ink (in order to keep the solids printing), or cut the density on the ink to keep the halftone (which lightens the solid areas to show incomplete coverage.
9. Press Checks & BATs
Every print we work on is important to us. We try to give each project the proper care and attention it deserves. But, we also understand the need for proofs in order to communicate accurately about the way the final piece should look.
We generally do not provide “completed” proofs, as they would involve enormous expense. To produce a single printed mock, we would need to ink and clean the press for each color, set the impression depth, and pull the print. The majority of our clients are happy to let us make decisions based of off criteria like “deep impression”, “blood red ink”, or “light, ghostly white ink” in order to save on costs.
That said, there are three major proof options. If you are local to Houston, we can schedule a press check. For this to work, we need to schedule a time for the press check to occur, and you have to be on time to visit the studio during the press check. Missed press checks incur a press check fee, because if you are not there to approve the run, we have to clean the press to prevent the ink from drying. If you can’t make it or don’t live in Houston, we offer virtual press checks. You will still need to be available, but in this option we simply email a photo of your proof to you during press check. Again, it must be approved for us to begin the run, or the press will be cleaned and reset.
The final option is for us to pull a range of physical proofs and mail them to you. We refer to this as our BAT proof, which stands for bon à tirer, meaning “good to print.” This is our most cost prohibitive option, but it’s also the most thorough. We will pull several impression depths, and an ink sample. Generally, this service begins at $65 per color. Additional / revised BATs incur additional cost, as we have to perform the labor and press wash-up again.
10. Paper Stocks
We love to work on a variety of stocks! Our house letterpress sheet is Crane’s Lettra 110#. We also regularly work with Crane’s Lettra 220# Cover. Colorplan by GF Smith is one of our favorite colored stock lines for letterpress. But, in the words of our original manual, the press is capable of printing “onion skin to wall board.” Just keep in mind that unless we’re working with embossing, letterpress can only depress the paper stock, and not press completely though it. The thinner the sheet you select, the less noticeable the impression will be.
For Risograph Printing, we can work with text weight or cover weight stocks. Stock much greater than 100# Cover will not work on a Riso, so you should not plan on using an extremely heavy weight paper for this process. Additionally, since Risography transfers ink from a drum to paper via roller, extremely textured stocks will print broken solids where the ink cannot cover the entire surface. Smoother papers are not as prone to this, but you are still limited to working with uncoated stock, since the Riso process relies on the absorption of the ink into the paper to cement its bond and permanence.