Do you save money using Digital?

I have worked in both the hot metal and digital side of printing over the past 40 years.
I know that when I went digital the cost put me out of business.
So, has the cost come down?

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Excuse the ignorance, but are you talking about actual digital printers or digital processes used in letterpress?

At first I thought you may have been talking about the digital nature of photopolymer, but then it occurred to me that you could actually be referring to true digital printing.

Where exactly did you see the costs adding up? (or was it actually the price clients were willing to pay going down, taking away any margin?)

If you meant digital printing, I’m guessing it is so much more efficient that the price is kept very low by the market. With an efficient process and low price, production would need to increase greatly to generate enough revenue to remain viable. Then with electronic communication and improvements in accessibility of digital printing, demand for commercial digital printing actually goes down (the opposite direction the business needs it to go).

But maybe that isn’t what you are even talking about…

Sorry I was talking about the cost of digital processes used in letterpress.

It is an interesting question. A lot of it lies on what you consider a capital expense for digital printing. With metal, every bit of type is capitalized. Ideally, for digital, you should capitalize the computer and it’s depreciation—though I doubt many consider the expense given that computers are considered essential appliances nowadays. Certainly the cost of software and digital font purchases should be considered, along with different bases for different plate systems and the actual per job cost of having the plates made and sent to you.

Not sure what the final plate cost (just the plate) is for say a 4 x 6 fold over card (printing in 2 positions) with an actual image of 4” x 4” (2” x 4” twice). Perhaps knowing those costs would give a better idea of cost comparison. If one job on polymer/digital costs as much as a font of type, then I suspect that metal could achieve costs saving over time.


To me with the cost of making a plate on every job, and remaking plates if a error is found the cost would be higher.

To be only artwork used for more than one job could be make into a engraving.

The type is cheaper to correct in my mind.

Last quarter, digital platemaking was 20% of my cost of goods. I would like to reduce that number.


If you exclude the cost of a computer, the software, and fonts, which are required but non-specific in their overall usage, your only unique ongoing costs are film/plates and the initial cost of a base. Other considerations such as time/labor, flexibility, spatial considerations, etc., substantially reduce costs as well.

A computer, a press and its essentials, a garage, and a base, and you’ve got yourself a potentially profitable print shop at a mere fraction of the cost of what it would have been forty years ago.


If there was additional costs to using digital technology to the point where it was driving you out of business, was increasing the price to your customers not an option?

Perhaps if someone specifically wanted something produced digitally you could charge a surcharge to account for the additional material/labor costs.

This is a very interesting question and the replies are equally very informative.

Aaron — It’s apparent you have a lot of experience and knowledge. I’m curious to know, what kind of work did you do with photopolymer plates that made it so expensive? Was it large graphics? Low press runs? Multi-color work? Multi-plate work (i.e. overlapping images)? Shipping out plates for finishing rather than doing them in-house?

In stationery business, used Intertype, ludlow and some but very little hand set type.
Printed with a Heidelberg windmill and a four color business card press both letterpress.
Was making money, purchased an offset press, needed a camera to make negative to make printing plates.
Everytime, there was a small corection the cost of reshoot a negative and making plate was double the cost.

We letterpress we could just reset one line that had the correction and the cost was very low.

I will stay with the Linotype and letterpress, and not go back to plate, or computer or any digital printing again.

But, just want to see if I was looking at the cost wrong. I am not.
If you can find someone with a Linotype or Intertype to set your type for approx. $2 a line the cost of printing is reasonable.

There is a shift in the demand for letterpress, it used to be type, tastefully spaced and printed, now we have multiple colors, blind impression and type combined.
It is easy if you have Film, Platemaking and printing in house, assuming you receive a perfect PDF (usually 8 of of 10 need work), you send the file to the imagesetter, make film, expose a plate and print.

If I would send the File out, wait for the plate to be made and shipped to me, the cost is higher of course. But maintaining wet chemical development for Film is too.

If I look at the 20 last jobs I printed, I have Ludlow, none of it could have been done with Ludlow.

I used to have 20 metric tons of metal type and a full monotype system on my floor on a different continent, now a hdd holds all my type.

With the move to produce a color image by digital technology (Inkjet mainly) and than adding embellishment in letterpress gives pause to the thought if we return slowly to one color letterpress.

Although I am starting in Letterpress now, I have been a publisher and commissioned print in the past. I was sent a proof to sign off and after that any changes were charged to me so the cost of making a new plate etc. was mine as the client not the printers.

The printer shouldn’t be shouldering the cost of corrections after the client has signed off a proof, that way you would go out of business I imagine.

When we are working with photopolymer, we definitely have the client approve an electronic proof, emailed PDF usually, before putting anything in plastic. Then if there are any changes required after approval, like Nturpin said, they are billed for all the increased costs.

If the plate is being made before approval or before being personally satisfied with it then charging the customer for changes would be a stretch.

…so what is the answer? Lead initially coat more but it’s repeated use spreads the cost over the usable life of the type. The photopolymer plates initially cost less, can’t be edited without reprocessing a new plate, far less labor intensive, and have a definate usable life.

I like the concept that many have posted regarding a hybridized approach. The design elements are printed on poly-plates, the text in lead. Unless your a busy busy shop that can reuse the plates before they go bad, this approach wouldn’t work.

So when your a small shop printer, either poly or lead can work, just not both, and as a large shop, PP is the only way to go?

I have NOT been around long enough to see trending in cost of plate processing but has it gone up in the past few years, or down? And same question for the machines that process these plates, are the costs decreasing as they have for digital cameras and computers alike?

When will it be cost effective for small shops to process their own plates?


I did a little investigation just a short while back through my accounting records. While the cost of raw photopolymer has gone up considerably the charge for plate processing is not too dissimilar from what it was twenty years ago. And even though the material cost of silver-based film negatives has skyrocketed in the last few years (because silver has roughly doubled in value), I still get my film negs processed at roughly 40 percent less than I did twenty years ago.

So even though the costs of materials has risen quite steeply the charges for processing of film and photopolymer are held back to 1990 levels because of market resistance and thus, purposeful deflation.

No, I would not say that the market price for used machines “designed” for processing photopolymer plates have dropped but has slightly risen. Used A&Vs were routinely priced at $3500. Now they are around $4000 to $4500.

If you use enough plates to quickly recover the cost of purchase of a machine, cover its maintenance and repair, and the cost of raw material, the time is now to buy a machine and process your own plates. Those are really big ifs though. Generally you would be far better off just printing and outsourcing for the basic materials used in production. You’d likely make more profit that way. If profit is not why you print, then you certainly do not need the financial burden and labor constraints of a processing machine.


I’m also just starting out in letterpress but have worked in printing my entire professional life (which is not that long, granted). I’m a manager/designer/IT guy/counter person for a small offset/digital printing company, so I do have quite a bit of experience with CTP offset and the design that goes along with it. As others have said, the customer should be signing off on a proof (inkjet, laser, emailed PDF, etc) before any plates are burned. If they come back with changes after the fact, they must be held responsible for those costs. They are the ones wasting the supplies not you.

Another point to consider is equipment you already have. I have a press, but almost no type, cuts or rule. As a long-time designer, I already have a computer, professional design software, more than 6000 fonts and years of experience with all of them. I can build a UV plate imager for less than 100USD. I can start making my own photopolymer plates for less than 200USD. A plate base is between 100 and 300 USD. Buying new foundry type from any of the suppliers I’ve seen costs something like 50-100USD per fount, so I could buy between two and ten founts of type for what it costs to be set up for PPP printing for years. New engraved cuts cost a fortune and vintage ones are hit-or-miss. For me, digital output to Photopolymer is a no-brainer.

In your case, you had already invested the quite large capital outlay necessary for the typecasting equipment and supplies so anything new and different was going to be a losing proposition.

Finally, using modern, professional layout software and well-made typefaces allows for truly fine quality typesetting if you take the time to learn how. I can do so much more with digital type than anything but the absolutely highest quality metal founts with dozens of special characters and extra widths and such would allow. I can more easily avoid rivers and maintain an even “shade” to the block of text with digital. I can adjust leading, kerning and letterspacing (no matter what FG said!) in ways that metal type simply can’t match.

When I first started reading this, I was surprised by the initial statements that “going digital” could be more expensive than using letterpress. What about the cost or value of one’s time? If nothing else, for many kinds of work letterpress is simply vastly more time-consuming, both for initial typesetting, and the labor in printing it.

Then much later Aaron mentioned that he did mostly stationery work. That made more sense of it, as business cards, letterhead, envelopes and invitations often have relatively small amounts of text on them, and are often printed in relatively small quantities.

We’ve been in the letterpress business for 53 years, and while the digital / polymer option is great, it’s not always the most cost effective for me. What I can’t set by hand on the Ludlow I have a magnesium engraving made. If it’s an envelope then I choose Poly for it’s ability to take a beating and not get damaged. Also, Poly is great for something typeset on computer, but personally it loses something to me. It’s just a personal thing, but for me ‘real’ letterpress involves metal being printed onto paper as it just has that beautiful, but less than perfect look. I can buy engravings for a lot less than what I am paying for a Poly plate.

In my days the mark of a quality pressman was to print something cleanly and leave no ‘embossing’ on the back of the stock. But today’s letterpress printers smash the crap out of the stock so that it’s literally debossed into the stock. Go figure! It looks good, but by old world standards it’s a poor job. :-)

Drop down to press area levels and i would say setting the press for a photopolymer plate takes longer than it did for hot metal , polymers take stick better than metal but getting inking correct and the need for perfect rollers in order to use them means the press condition and maintaining the rollers to be up for the use of polymer is going to be more expensive , a correction using hot metal may take three minutes on the press but a polymer its an hour down for a new plate.

Hello guys, for me the cheapest route to digital was when we got a Kimosetter 410 direct to plate system. It is the fastest route to producing a printing plate using poly plate that is imaged or “printed” on the Kimosetter. It looks like a regular printer but instead it has film ribbons and the image is transferred by “heat” unto the plate. It has a native RIP that you can control the screen rulings from 65 lines per inch for newsprint or rough bond to 120 lines per inch if we print halftone images decently on cougar smooth vellum or even cast coated sheets.
I have never seen a more efficient workflow in the digital side of plate preparation for offset than the Kimosetter 410. The cost of the polyplate is less than $2 each and you can add the “imaging cost” to another probably $5 for films and time.
I have seen the “migration” of jobs from what was used to be letterpress to offset and then to copying which seemed for a while “killed” the offset printing when you talk about runs of more than 3,000. Copying even black and white can become costly when you talk of long runs. Offset was able to fight back with the Kimosetter but then the drawback is the first cost of acquisition as they now sell for some $4,000 +
We got ours in 2009 and we have been smooth sailing since then. Most of our BnW printing or 2-colors spot: a black and a PMS color are now all run by offset with Kimoplates.
Digital printing “sees” a black and a PMS color as a “full color” and you the owner now have to pay the “clicks” at the end of the month. And the customer is not too happy either with the total cost once he sees the bill.
We use our letterpress once in a while for special applications needed. Thanks for sharing all your thoughts on the subject.


I don’t really follow what you are saying. Will the kimosetter 410 produce a photopolymer plate that can be mounted on a boxcar plate and then printed on a letterpress? Or is it producing some other type of plate used on a different press?