Which basic ink colors should I get?

Hi all you helpful peeps!

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, I am setting up a small printing studio. I am currently looking into ink. I have decided to go with rubber-based ink after some research. However, I have limited funds and am hoping for some input on the essential colors. I know there is a basic set of 14-16 colors (depending on if you include a couple of types of white and black), but I can’t afford that, even in tubes (I am committed to tubes). I also see a very basic set of 6 on Boxcar’s website, but that seems too few. The tubes are anywhere from $11-$15 where I’m getting them (the orchid guy; if you know of another supplier, bring it on!), and I can afford about $100 or so. Some questions I have after some research include:
- which black to get? would one black cover both basic printing in black AND mixing with black?
- am I right to choose opaque white if I get just one white?
- any idea why the Boxcar basic set of 6 would include warm red vs pantone red?

If anyone can recommend about 8 “must-have” colors, I’d be eternally grateful!

Thanks so much,

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Opaque white is a must. I have two reds and two blues (reflex and Pantone). black and a yellow. A brown. I make my green and every other colour. The hard part is to mix just the right amount . Mix over rather than under. I use bulk 35mm film tins to store ink. All Van Son rubber. If you are overprinting to get another colour on the press consider a transparent medium for mixing. Very interesting I have had a Van Son ink chart on the wall for a couple of decades and most have been colour fast. I can keep a colour on a press for at least a week as I’m very slack about washing up presses!

Opaque white yes. Not sure why you are commited to tubes. 1 lb cans are better and not sure that they are better priced. Some inks can be bought pre-mixed like PMS 185 Red, 347 Green, etc But back to a basic set. Yellow, warm red, rubine red and rhodamine red, base green, process blue, reflex blue,violet, purple and orange. There are 4 colors that are just a denser pigment of the base color you do not need. You can use a black that is not the mixing black but keep in mind that it will have some blue in it so not as pure for mixing (especially light colors or 4 digit pms shades which I would not offer anyway to a client.

Aren’t you putting the cart before the horse? If I were you, I would determine the colors I wanted to make and then get the base colors I would need to make them. Or better yet, get only the colors you need, to print some samples of your work to show prospective clients, and then wait until the clients order things and then get colors (or base mixing colors) as you need them.

The reason there are so many Pantone* base colors is that if you have them all, you will be able to make all the colors in the PMS book. However, you may never need to make most of those colors. A lot of the Pantone colors are needed only to make the purest, most brilliant colors, and again, you may never need to make those colors. For instance, if you are willing to do a little experimenting with mixing, you can make a lot of greens with Pantone Yellow and Pantone Process Blue (as well as using white and a little black at times). You can buy green, and you CAN make a more pure, brilliant green with Pantone Green, but you may never need that pure a green, and green is one of the more expensive inks. (The pigment is the most expensive component in an ink).

As another example, you can make pinks (as well as reds) with Pantone Rubine. You will be able to make some additional pinks with Pantone Rhodamine, but you may never need to, and Rhodamine is VERY expensive.

When mixing, keep in mind that the closer the bases are in their color, that you are mixing, the more pure the mixed color will be, and vice versa. This is the reason, for instance, that people recommend getting two red bases, warm red and rubine. They use warm red to mix the yellowish reds and oranges, and rubine to mix the blueish reds, purples, etc.

I was an ink color matcher in industry, among other things, and could go on and on. If you have any questions, I would do my best to answer them.

*Pantone is a registered trademark

Thats really useful to me even with 50 years of printing. I do mix greens mainly though, it just never kept well. And yes i’m a tin man not tube. Rubine is one of my reds and a very useful piece of advice is to have a pantone chart. It is very inspiring and then I just go for it with what I have. I’m rubber based ink because i’m handset type and linocuts and it a great ink to run with. i hope this is helping our new comer. (The ink also smells nice and you can find other printers that way or listen to the sound of a Linotype!)

If your on tight budget u can get cyan magenta yellow and black process colors with this 4 colors you can make more than 24000 combinations with this book http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-media/product-gallery/0811827577/ref=c... as guide line or if you dont want the book you can get the percentages from coreldraw forexample, including pantone colors not exactly the same but very similar for example for pantone red 032 mix 90 percent magenta and 60 percentyellow .then you just use a digital weight scale and you have your color right away with having to throw away your precious ink for rhodamine red the mix is 9cyan and87 magenta .
You can also ad some some transparent white to this 4 colors in case you want th smoothen them a little.

I could not see working without the fade-resisitant PMS inks: 032, 021, 012, 072, especially the 032 which is a very traditional printer’s flame red. And of course opaque white.
Today, designers look at swatches and color-matched screen images, and may never see the aged product in the field, when there’s nothing remaining on the sheet but black and blue ink. Standard PMS reds and yellows are fugitive. Is that how you see your work?

These posts are immeasurably helpful!!! THANKS (and keep ‘em coming!).

I am really grateful to BriarPress for the willingness of experienced printers to help us n00bs. I did train and did a bunch of printing at the IPRC here in PDX, but there are limits to what you can do/learn/experience there. (For example, the inks are all donated, a mishmash of rubber/oil/soy and MANY unmarked cans, all of which are gouged or dried beyond use.) There are many things that I cannot do there to perfect my printing, like adjusting anything on the printing press, which is why I really wanted my own printing press.

I pick up my press in 30 minutes — could not be more excited! (And I’m sure I’ll be on here heaps more once I pick it up!) (With a handtruck, moving blankets, straps, etc.!)

- Katie

Buy ink as you need it, especially if you have a tight budget. You need black and red, but any special colors can be ordered as you need them, and charged to your customers as they should be. A Pantone color mixing book is a must, and you will spend most of what you have allotted for ink on that. Until you are able to comfortably mix colors you should purchase what you need, rather than what other people think you need.


Thanks Devils Tail. I really want a Pantone Formula Guide, and may get one off eBay when I need it. Fortunately, among the MANY accessories that came with my printing press, I discovered that I have a good selection of rubber based in in 1 lb cans in PRISTINE condition. (Also got three complete and very new (and useable) fonts of type, a boxcar base, some random furniture, 3 quoins and a key, and more!)

What is pristine? The problem with rubber base ink, and perhaps acrylic base ink as well, is they age and solidify by chemical reaction in the can even if unopened. On the other hand, oil base inks oxidize and develop a skin, but the ink underneath is still workable. Might need new drier, hickeys will need to be removed.

Amazingly helpful thread!


Thanks for sharing I’m learning a lot!

I’l a little late to this discussion but if I may add for future readers…

I recently set up my letterpress shop and was also on a tight budget. I ended buying the basic ink starter pack from Boxcar Press. It is possible to make close to 300 Pantone colors from it alone. I’ve also acquired a list of these Pantone colors from Boxcar Press and created an online chart that references the closest RGB color. This chart is pretty handy for helping clients and designers choose a Pantone color that will also suite their budget. You can find the color chart here: http://basicink.co


Snapsize, that is a good idea, but I would be cautious about asking the customer to pull up your online color chart on their monitor, expecting a given color to look the same on their monitor as it does when viewing an actual color swatch shown in an actual Pantone book (under the correct lighting conditions, but that is a whole other topic).

To get a meaningful customer OK on a color, before printing a job, I think they would need to see the swatch in a Pantone book. Then if you show them a Pantone book, they might say “that’s not the color I want,” and then they might pick another color in the book that you can’t make with your “basic six.”

Just some things to think about…..

Pantone is a registered trademark.

Why is the term “reflex” in phrases such as “reflex red” being used? Just what does it mean and is there such a thing as a non-reflex [color]? Thanks, Neil

I don’t recall ever hearing of reflex red, but checked the internet for reflex blue and turned up the following:


Don’t get into mixing custom colors, order them. It keeps the color consistent, when they reorder.
Refer to your colors as the PMS number (Pantone Mixing System). This will avoid the mistakes using light brown, dark brown, Hunter green, etc. The PMS number will be what the customer sees as they look in a Pantone Book, that you should purchase. Keep this in a dark drawer so your colors don’t fade. Don’t buy an old book. Never compare your color match to a copier or a computer screen.

My basic list would be Browns 469 and 470
Reds, 185, 199
Opaque Yellow
Reflex blue, 293
Green 354
Braden Sutphin Ink Co. in Cleveland, Ohio or one closer to you.

The suggestion of ordering the necessary custom colors at first might seem strange, since you said you were on a budget… but if you aren’t feeling comfortable charging the client the money for a couple of cans of ink, I suspect you aren’t charging your clients enough :)

Once you’ve done a few paid jobs, you should be able to afford a set of inks for mixing and a PMS fan.

snapsize, do you happen to have an updated link for the basic PMS color chart you created? I contacted Boxcar and they couldn’t help me.

You said: “I’ve also acquired a list of these Pantone colors from Boxcar Press and created an online chart that references the closest RGB color. This chart is pretty handy for helping clients and designers choose a Pantone color that will also suite their budget. You can find the color chart here: http://basicink.co”

However, I contacted Boxcar and they did not have any list of these Pantone colors unfortunately.

budgeting for ink was never really an issue for me. but two separate designers in the past decided to have their own colours. so they picked their PMS colours, went out and purchased their own Van Son rubber based finest inks and I stored the inks for them.

the colour selection lasted about a week. then we were intermixing the selected colours. after a month or so we were back using ANY Pantone colour from the book. we forgot about the pre mixed colours, probably they are solidified in the cans anyway.

I stock all the basic colours and offer the 1825 colours from the Pantone+ books. except the metallic colours, I refuse to print them.
I did not purchase all the basic colours at the same time. I got first the basic ones for the original 740 Pantone colors, the 3 digit ones, then I purchased the rest as needed for the jobs.

I don’t remember finding for which colour is the Yellow 012 used for.


Louie, here is a previous thread with a discussion of 012 yellow:


hello Geoffrey,
thanks for the link. I have now an Excel database of 1855 ink mixes and I forgot to check there for the Yellow 012 usage. it is used in 65 colours from 7548 to 7767 with number gaps in between. these numbers are quite recent additions, aren’t they? before my database, I somehow recall seeing the Yellow 012 as a base colour, but could not find its usage in the mixes.

oh my, and there is even more … LOL … I missed out on these. for some reason no one designer picked these colours. I don’t have the Yellow 012 ink, never had !!!!!!



You sound like you’re doing fine without 012, so that’s great! More power to you!

I can’t remember when the 4 digit PMS numbers came along, but I would guess around the year 2000, give or take. I could be far off. Does anyone else remember, or have a collection of PMS books with different dates so they could provide a more definitive answer?

Pantone could have added groups of 4 digit colors, such as the 7000 series as you mention, at different times. Although I used Pantone books with 4 digit numbers before I retired at the end of 2010, I don’t remember anything more specific than that, unfortunately.

I don’t print much, so the one ink I have in a tin skins over and has to be dug out when I use it. The tubes, on the other hand, work quite well for the small jobs i print. I plan to replace the black tinned ink with something in a tube when I run out… several years down the road. In your place, I just bought some ink I thought I might need; black, brown, blue and red. So far it has worked out, but your asking advice from people who likely know more about the subject is better than my methodology. Never tried the rubber-based inks. In eighth grade printing class, we used oil-based inks, so that’s what I ordered. If the job is a long one, say more than three hundred impressions, the ink starts to dry. Might try the rubber based inks some day.