Choosing a PMS color - color gain from offset

Hi all,

I’ve read and experienced first-hand how a pms color can appear darker on letterpress since the ink prints thicker than offset. I know that I can mix a color lighter with transparent or opaque white, but my questions are specific to using inks “straight” out of the can and not mixing them. I have read several posts regarding the mixing, but for now I would like purchase some cans of pre-mixed colors.

1. I was printing on a Pilot and now I have a Windmill. Maybe I was over-inking the Pilot, but the ink appears to be distribute thinner on the Windmill and therefore have less gain. Has anyone else experienced this difference between a press with an ink disc vs. the Windmill?

2. Do you find that the ink gain is consistent for all colors or do some values/colors tend to gain more than others?

3. Is there any kind of rule of thumb: ie: “you can get close if you order one color lighter”… or “lighter colors tend to gain more”… etc

4. I’d like to print an orange/salmon color close to 157. To compensate for the gain, I could order 156 but it looks really light….has anyone printed with these specific colors or ones very close that may be able to advise me?



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Hi Kathy, I can’t help you with your question, but may i ask you one? You mentioned ordering PMS colors - I am about to move into that from just mixing my own by eye. Could you tell me where you order specific PMS colors? thanks - john

Since PMS color keys are printed offset you are getting the thinnest possible showing of the color. I wouldn’t order another color thinking that you are going to have a color loss or gain that you can compute by trying to gauge the thickness of the ink. Ink can be affected by color of the paper, the light under which you are looking, how much the person who mixed it had to drink the night before, but trying to figure ink thickness to color is a waste of time. If you are uncomfortable mixing ink make sure you are able to pass the color of the extra ink to the client, thinking that you will print a bunch of jobs with it usually doesn’t work out that way.

John - PMS colors are purchased at ink manufactories or suppliers who sell ink. Usually be best thing for a beginner to do is bite the bullet and buy the twelve or so PMS colors in one pound cans and learn to mix your own. To buy the book and the ink is about a $400 outlay, but if you want to make minor adjustments in color as you are running a job, you can do it immediately. I have boxes full of one pound cans of ink that were specially mixed for one job and never used again that I acquired from other shops over the years. I have given away huge amounts of ink that I got free for the taking because, as it is a hazardous waste, the shop owners would have had to pay good money to dispose of it.


This is a complicated question. First I would say the key word is “control” in the mechanical sense. Printing PMS colors on a letterpress and an offset press are completely different. Offset uses an ink/water combination to put down more or less ink. An ink swatch can be run light, medium and heavy of the same PMS “color”.

The same is true for letterpress up to a point. On your Windmill, you can adjust the amount of ink by turning the adjustment screws. With multiple rollers, the Windmill lays down a very controlled thickness of ink. The same isn’t true for the Pilot or a C&P with only two or three rollers. A good pressman can put down a good coverage of color with one but the Windmill allows more control. Printing on white paper with PMS colors should allow you to match the swatch book if the ink is mixed correctly. You can have the ink Manufacturer pull a draw down to make sure it matches.

It is interesting about PMS key being printed offset. Every article I ever read about the small company that invented the Pantone Matching System and produces all the swatch books states that they are printed letterpress. And since the colors have to match from book to book, I imagine the ink density is measured on each color to match a specific reading.

The printing processes are different, but the outcome is much the same. Ink on paper. Unless you are shoveling ink onto your image you are not going to see a huge difference in the color.

Thanks for the input everyone! One more question: my ink supplier offered to “body up” the ink for me since I’m letterpress printing. Has anyone else done this or had their ink supplier do this?

John, I’m ordering my ink from Southern Ink in Austin and I’ve been very happy with them. I’ve also heard of people using Van Son and The Oldham Group. Dave Robinson (you can search and find him on this forum) also mixes PMS colors and sells them in tubes. If you don’t want to purchase an entire 1-pound can, you can save some money by ordering the tubes from Dave. He has a number of colors already mixed.

You can try Mix Masters for pre-mixed inks. They are in Lynn, MA. They mix and ship the ink the day you order it, so the turnaround is fantastic, and their prices are reasonable.

I have gone the mix-your-own route, and found it more trouble than its worth, but then again we don’t stray from the colors we choose for our product. In general, I have found that its better to order the ink pre-mixed, and add the ink to opaque white to achieve the density of color that I am looking for. Be careful about trying to mix in the other direction, as you may end up with a whole bunch of left over ink to deal with.

Hi everyone. I also just learned this valuble lesson. I have a client that has ordered business cards with a full reverse of 165 orange. 165 is a very easy color to match .50 yellow and .50 Warm Red. I mixed the ink and printed a sample, which the client promptly rejected. The coverage was awesome, but it was brighter/darker than the PMS book that they chose from. So thinking that I may have mixed it wrong, I had my local ink company mix the ink. Guess what? It’s exactly the same color. I’m afraid the client is going to scrap the job if I can’t find a solution, but from reading these posts, that’s just the way it is. I even did a “run down” on the ink by sarting with full ink and then lifting the rails on my Heide to se a progression as the ink gets lighter. It does eventually get close, but to the point where it looks like a bad print job and that the ink was run too light. I guess I’ll just have to bite the bullet and tell the client that it is what it is. Problem is that the rest of their marketing materials are offset and the want it to match. Oh…and did I mention the client is an Ad Agency? Nuff said

I do a lot of numbering, someone told me to try 165 orange thats what they use for red. I told him he was crazy that 165 on an offset looks as orange as a pumpkin but what the heck i’ll try it, now my customers want it for their red numbers, i still can’t believe how red it prints on the letterpress and how orange it is on offset. Dick G.

Hi Jay,

I just went through a similar ordeal. Seems to happen a lot on colors in the pantone book that use transparent white for the mixing base. The full reverse is another thing, since the large solid area on letterpress gets wonky, and is a design better suited for offset. Add in the fact that they already had offset printing done, and it’s easy to see why they might get confused.

I’m writing a little checklist for consultations to make sure I remember this for future jobs, but it is disconcerting to get into a corner like that…

Good luck!

Hello Jay,

I haven’t had a lot of experience trying to match Pantone colors, but what I’ve found is that I have to do it by eye. (I.e., forget the formulas, let the force be with you.) I’d take all the yellows and reds I had, along with both opaque and transparent white, and spend some time just experimenting. Start with yellow and add red little by little. If you find you’re going in a hopelessly wrong direction, start again with a different red. Add opaque white if it seems to need more body, and transparent if it seems too dense. If you find it’s just too bright, a teeny tiny bit of blue will tone it down. Maybe it’s because I spent many years as a watercolor artist, but I’ve always been able to hit it just right.


I’ve been running cards and to keep the PMS color what they want I put the ink on the windmill lightly and add transparent white. It enables you to push more ink without affecting the color. Offset people showed that to me and works great. Ron

I order my pms colors pre-mixed in 1lb cans. There is an ink company about a half mile from my shop and it is just too easy. This does leave me with a lot of ink in the shop (about 500 colors and counting) but I make that list available to my clients for no extra charge, and offer an upcharge to those who require a “special order” color not found on the list. I love this method. I raid my inventory of colors daily.

For most colors, you can get close to the pms chip with no manipulation (I have Heidelberg Windmills and KSB’s) but it is such a thin coat that it appears very “salty”. In my experience, about 9 out of 10 clients dont dig the salty look, so I cut the ink with opaque white which enables me to use much more ink without the color gain. And when it really matters, I’ll double or triple strike, and the color solidity slaps you in the face, still with no color gain.

I also really love to use etching inks like Charbonnel. These inks are made with many times more pigment than your average modern ink and the coverage is second to none.

Please clarify something for me…did you mean transparent white or opaque white? Doesn’t opaque white affect the color? Ron

Yes Ron, I use opaque white. It does lighten the ink in appearance, but still darkens when printing. So I can mix the ink lighter than the desired pms, and add ink on the press until I match the color. To me, thats a lot easier than trying to take ink off to match the color. The added opacity also really helps the solids. I’ve had some colors react poorly though, so its not 100% foolproof.
I know some people use transparent white, but I’m not a big fan. Transparent white is just a vehicle for the other color, and I’ve found that it just dilutes the pigment, and the amount of pigment is important, especially on the real absorbent stocks. Opaque white makes a tangible color correction while adding pigment.

Thanks for clearing that up. Although we use transparent white it’s probably not enough for it to really start affecting the color, but your comments are really interesting. I’ll be thinking about it. Ron