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What is offset printing?

Kate Wright
Kate Wright | 5 min read

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You probably know the notion of “offset printing”. What is it exactly? Is it worth the effort? And finally, should you care about it?

Sometimes you can hear that “we’re moving to offset” as you’re ordering boxes through Packhelp. Sometimes it may sound like a suggestion – e.g. “if you order more boxes, we’re going to move to offset”. And this is actually a piece of good news as it means that we can process your order with a different printing technique so you can benefit from its advantages.

Offset is – as the Wikipedia definition used by many states – “the printing technique in which the inked image is transferred (or "offset") from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface.”

Translating it into a normal language, offset is a method of printing which transfers paint from aluminium template to the substrate (in this instance – paper sheet) through reflecting the image on the cylinder covered with a rubber layer. The paint on the template determines the way in which it will be put on the intermediate cylinder, and thus – on the sheet.

To be more specific, there are four cylinders and each is responsible for a different partial colour. These colours are, obviously, cyan, magenta, yellow and black (put differently – C, M, Y, K). Some devices also have a fifth cylinder that additionally ennobles the printouts or adds different colours that cannot be acquired through CMYK.


In offset printing, the key process is the attraction and repulsion of water – the template is covered with the substance that attracts oily paint and repulses water. The area which should remain free from the overprint is covered with substances that repulse paint and attract water.

Initially, these substances were soot, soap and wax. An 18th century graphic designer, Alois Senefelder was using them to write down on a rock the list of the underwear that needed washing. By sheer coincidence he discovered that such mixture attracts paint and repulses water. His discovery enabled the birth of lithography, which then led to its close relative – offset printing.

Lithographic press

In comparison with lithography, offset adds another element of the printing device – a cylinder covered with rubber (by the way, the different name for offset printing – indirect print – refers to this additional part of the device). Adding an extra element significantly increased the durability of the template and enabled a high circulation print. The first offset device that made printing on the metal cans possible was setup in 1875, and the first paper-enabled offset device appeared in 1904.

The initial assumptions for the offset tools remain unchanged throughout the years, but the tools have changed. Today’s technology doesn’t require a chemistry lab – the templates are created automatically, through CTP (Computer to plate) exposure. In the recent years, the printing devices that allow for preparing the printing forms directly on the cylinder have also appeared on the market.

Offset ensures the much better quality compared to other techniques. However, it also requires the materials to be prepared in a proper way. As specific partial colours are printed in separate stages, mixing them is even more important than in other printing techniques, such as digital printing. In offset printing, vector graphics are a must, especially when it comes to text or logo.

The need to prepare the template generates some initial costs, which don’t exist in the digital print. Therefore, when it comes to lower circulation, offset printing is more expensive. However, if we subtract the cost of preparing the template, the production cost of a single sheet will be much lower on the offset device than on the digital one.

When it comes to high circulation (depending on the size, boxes start from 150 pieces), in Full Color standard, you’ll gain higher printing quality on the boxes and much lower price per unit. “We’re moving to offset” is thus always good news.

zespół Packhelp
Packhelp team in 2016. In the background: a 22 ton offset device Miehle 78 REN. Currently, there are only 16 such devices remaining worldwide. Most of them can be found in the US, as they had been produced there.


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