As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I may also earn a commission when you buy through other links on my site. Learn more.
Litho / Digital Printing: Quick Links
Litho vs Digital Printing: What Is the Difference Between Litho and Digital?
To really understand the difference between litho printing and digital printing, let’s look at each of them separately.
What Is Litho Printing?
The term litho printing can be used interchangeably with lithographic printing and offset lithographic (the latter being the most popular type of lithographic printing, today).
First, the whole foundation of litho printing is based on the fact that water and oil just don’t mix together.
I suggest you watch the video below to get a beginner’s take on what offset litho printing is all about.
Now, for a more detailed look at how litho printing works, check out the video below.
Basically, this is how litho printing works:
Offset lithographic printing, the most popular type of lithographic printing, begins with the pre-press stage where a digital file is broken down by color (usually 4 colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, black).
Then, a laser etches these 4 different colored images to 4 different undercoated aluminum plates called printing plates (or sometimes called press plates).
Each of these 4 printing plates is then loaded onto 4 rollers known as the plate cylinders.
During the printing process, the plate cylinders start to continuously roll. Meanwhile, each plate cylinder is being dampened with water and oil-based ink.
Now, why would you want the printing plate to be dampened with water and oil? Because the oil-based inks stick to the image area but do not stick to the negative areas (the areas where there’s no image).
Now, the image on the plate cylinder is image is printed on another cylinder with a rubber blanket, called the blanket cylinder. The addition of this “blanket” process results in a clearer and sharper final image and is where offset printing gets its name.
Paper is loaded, one by one, into the start of the press and is passed between the 4 different colored blanket cylinders and yet another cylinder, called the impression cylinder. When the paper is between the blanket cylinder and the impression cylinder, it receives the printed image in one of the CMYK colors and is then passed on to the next blanket/impression cylinders to receive another color.
After the page has traveled through each of the 4 different colored units, it is piled at the end of the press with a thin layer of powder separating each page so that the printed image can dry without sticking and marking the other pages above and below it.
Litho printing is best suited for larger volume prints as most of the cost is in the initial setup and the price per print will fall as the quantity goes up.
What Is Digital Printing?
Digital printing is the process of printing digital-based images directly onto many different materials.
Digital files such as PDF, JPG, and PNG can be sent directly to the digital printer to print on different kinds of papers, canvases, fabrics, synthetic materials, and other surfaces.
Digital printing differs from litho printing because digital printing machines don’t need to use printing plates. Instead, digital printers print the image directly onto the paper (or whatever materials you’re using).
Digital printing enables additional advantages, like quick printing edits, making small inexpensive test samples, and enabling print-on-demand companies to print a single art print only once a customer has purchased an item (like iCanvas, Society6, and Redbubble).
How Can You Tell the Difference Between Digital and Litho Printing?
Digital printing technology is evolving fast, the quality is continuously improving, and the quality mimics offset lithographic printing.
So how can you tell the difference between digital and litho printing?..
Chances are you won’t be able to notice the difference with your naked eye.
Litho Printing vs Digital Printing: Which Is Better?
Digital printing is much faster and cheaper than litho printing, with pretty much the same high-quality outcome (depending on the quality of the printers, of course).
However, litho printing does have a few advantages. For example, if you need a high level of color accuracy, choose litho printing. Litho printing can also use metallic inks (like gold, silver, and bronze).
So now that you know the difference between digital and litho printing, go ahead and buy art (my favorite spot for finding offset lithographs is Etsy), support independent artists, and HAVE FUN shopping!