printing methods explained

Printing Methods Explained

Don’t know your Screen Printing from your Pad Printing? Think that Digital Transfer is something to do with online banking? Well our guide to printing methods and laser engraving is here to help!

The following will give you a bit of useful insight the next time you source printed promotional products.

Screen Printing

This traditional printing method is very cost-effective for large jobs and produces high-quality results. A woven mesh is stretched over a frame to create a screen, then a stencil is placed under the screen and ink forced through onto the product surface.

Although very efficient for large print jobs, screen printing is not practical for small orders or for printing single products due to the time required to initially set up a job. Because a screen has to be created for each colour component of an image, it is more suited to simple designs compared to digital printing methods.

Inks can be hand-mixed to match Pantone colours. This might also be referred to as spot colour or line colour printing.

  • Pros: cost-effective for large orders, Pantone colour matching
  • Cons: not suited to small orders, can not print on irregular surfaces
  • Suitable artwork: simple designs composed of one or more colours

Pad Printing

Irregular surfaces can be branded using pad printing (or cliché printing). A metal plate is etched with the design and then covered in ink. The excess ink is removed to leave ink only in the impressions on the metal plate. A silicone rubber pad then transfers the ink from the plate onto the product surface.

Like screen printing, pad printing is particularly suited to printing large volumes and inks can be hand-mixed to the required Pantone colour. This might also be referred to as spot colour or line colour printing.

  • Pros: cost-effective for large orders, Pantone colour matching, can print on irregular surfaces
  • Cons: not suited to small orders
  • Suitable artwork: simple designs composed of one or more colours

Direct Digital Printing

Digital printing refers to any printing process that recreates an electronically stored image on a variety of media. There is no need for printing plates and time-consuming setup. Digital printers use inkjet technology to fire microscopic droplets of ink directly onto the product surface. This allows an almost limitless array of colours and can reproduce complex imagery including shading and gradients.

Digital printing is more cost-effective for short runs than traditional printing methods due to the shorter setup time. It also allows precise registration between colours and the reproduction of photographic images.

This process relies on line of sight and is therefore only suitable for printing on flat or slightly curved surfaces.

Digital printing might also be referred to as full colour printing.

  • Pros: suited to small and large orders, less setup than traditional printing methods
  • Cons: cannot match Pantone colours, results are dependent on quality of original image
  • Suitable artwork: high-res photographic images and complex full colour artwork

Digital Transfer Printing

A full colour image is digitally printed onto specially formulated transfer paper or film. This is wrapped around the product and the image is heat transferred.

Digital transfer is not suited to irregular surfaces but is ideal for cylindrical shapes, such as the barrel of a pen. The transfer film can be wrapped around the barrel to reach areas not accessible with direct digital print.

  • Pros: all the benefits of digital but can be used on curved surfaces or the barrel of pens or pencils.
  • Cons: cannot match Pantone colours, results are dependent on quality of original image
  • Suitable artwork: high-res photographic images and complex full colour artwork

Laser Engraving

A collimated beam of light is used to remove the surface layer of a metal product, revealing the base metal (or substrate) beneath. Laser engraving is precise and produces a beautiful effect.

The colour of the finish depends on the type of metal that is revealed by the process, although the engraving can be post-treated to make it a different colour, by chemical blacking, for example.

Laser engraving is a truly permanent branding method – it will not fade or be scratched off, making it ideal for personalising prestige gifts.

  • Pros: permanent branding, high perceived value effect
  • Cons: cannot reproduce multicolour or full colour designs, only suited to metal products
  • Suitable artwork: one colour designs, bold fonts and shapes


We hope you’ve found this guide useful. Why not bookmark this page for future reference or share a link with someone who might like it?

All of these branding methods are available from The Pen Warehouse, the UK’s leading supplier of promotional pens.

Phyllis Tuckwell Pen Warehouse

Pen Warehouse Support Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice

Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care are a charity close to our hearts. Not only are they based in a neighbouring town, many members of staff have had family members cared for by them or been involved in fundraising. They do extraordinary work, looking after people with terminal illnesses and supporting over 250 patients each day. Only about 20% of their funding comes from the government – the rest comes from charitable donations and the hard work of their fundraising team.

We were delighted to be able to help out recently with a donation of 2,000 Alaska Frost Ballpens, printed with the charity’s logo. Customer Service Administrator, Jade Fuller, met with Samantha West, Community Fundraiser at Phyllis Tuckwell. The pens will be used in promoting the hospice’s 40th anniversary.

To find out more about Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care or how you can help, go to www.pth.org.uk.