Which is a more environmental ink: soy ink, oil-based ink, or rubber-based ink?

We get asked a lot about soy ink from our customers, since there’s this general feeling that soy ink is THE greenest ink out there. That’s not really true. Soy sheet-fed ink has to be just 20% soy to be labeled a soy ink (the exact % of soy varies depending on the specific ink). Rubber-based and oil-based inks both have 20-30% vegetable-oil (soy and linseed). Linseed oil is the traditional letterpress ink vehicle: it’s what Gutenberg used when he first used ink. Also keep in mind that soy inks are really geared toward high speed printing and loaded with lots of driers—they’re usually very thin, liquidy inks, not ideal for letterpress. In our experience, soy inks don’t transfer well to letterpress printing, and you’ll get the same environmental impact from using oil-based or rubber-based inks.

When do you recommend I order a custom ink instead of mixing the ink myself?

Custom inks are a good alternative if you don’t have all the the Pantone Basic Colors but you still want to put a specific Pantone color on your press. Some printers prefer ordering custom mix inks for every job they print, though this can get expensive (and, since custom ink mixes come in 1 lb cans, you’ll have a lot leftover).

We recommend going with custom ink particularly in these two situations:

  • you’re going to be printing the same color ink over an extended period of time—for example,  we ordered custom ink mixes of all the ink colors in our Smock and Bella Figura ink libraries so we can offer consistent color for all customer jobs. This way, if you order a custom ink of say 476U, you’ll know when you need to reorder it a year later it will look exactly the same.
  • you’re printing with very light colors or a pastel ink. The formulas for such inks require very precise measurements (.2% yellow plus 99.5% trans white, etc.) and it’s difficult to mix these colors accurately yourself.

Tell me more about the ink colors that you carry.

We offer all 14 base Pantone mixing inks. These inks, paired with the Pantone formula guide, will allow you to mix any of the guide’s hundreds of Pantone colors.  The base inks are: Red (032); Pantone Black (mixing black); Blue (072); Green; Transparent White (mixing white); Orange (021); Process Blue; Purple; Reflex Blue; Rhodamine Red; Rubine Red; Violet; Warm Red; and Yellow. We also carry opaque white for printing white or printing on dark paper stock; universal printing black, the perfect black letterpress ink (available in oil-based or rubber-based only); and custom mixes that match any Pantone number. View a PDF of the Van Son color chart.

How do I print with light toned letterpress inks on dark paper?

With letterpress, we most often print dark ink on light paper, because that is letterpress printing’s strength! Light ink on dark paper is really best suited for engraving. That said, if you really want light ink on dark paper, just be prepared for paper to show through. Think “chalkboard” for the end results. Letterpress uses transparent inks. Even with opaque white, printing light ink on dark paper will be like using a thin coat of white paint on a brown wall: you’ll see the brown color through the paint. If using a pure white ink, you can run a piece through the press twice to create a more dense color. Metallic inks will be more opaque and are the most popular choice for paper cover-up with dark papers.

How do I firm up my thin letterpress ink?

Add magnesium carbonate to your ink. Magnesium carbonate is available in our Supplies section from Boxcar Press.  Inks are measured by their tackiness or stickiness and their body or how stiff it is. An ink’s body can be drippy like chocolate syrup topping or thicker like frosting or paste.  The ink can also be described as being long or short.  Long inks are tackier and when pulled up straight from the can will have a long tail.  The white powder of magnesium carbonate will stiffen your ink and reduce tackiness.

What letterpress ink should I use: oil base, rubber base, or acrylic?

We recommend rubber-based inks for general letterpress printing—it’s the type of ink we use in our own print shop. Rubber-based inks dry by being absorbed into the paper. That makes them ideal for the cotton and bamboo blends of paper used in letterpress. Use the oil-based inks if you’d like a glossier ink that works well with coated papers . Oil based inks dry by oxidation or air drying. That is why they can form a skin on the top of the can after opening and why you won’t want to keep it on your press overnight. Try the acrylic if you’re looking for a glossier ink that can still stay open on the press. Acrylic inks will also harden in the can quicker than rubber-based inks so long term storage can be a factor.

It is best to mix only like inks from the same family—oil base with oil base, rubber base with rubber, and acrylic with acrylic.