Mixing PANTONE Ink Formulas for Letterpress

This is a post I created for my previous blog, but since I’ve received good feedback, I’m posting it here as well.  Enjoy!

I’ve found that color matching is one of the more difficult aspects of letterpress printing, so I’ve compiled what I’ve learned about mixing PANTONE colors to help you out!

Prior to mixing ink, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

  1. Before you can even think about mixing a PANTONE color, you must have a squeaky clean press.  Even the slightest trace of color from a previous run will alter the color that you labored to create.
  2. Another consideration prior to mixing is the color of the paper on which you’ll be printing.  Letterpress ink is transparent by nature, so the color of the paper will affect how the ink appears to the human eye.
  3. You’ll need all of the colors necessary to create a PANTONE color.  These are:  Red 023; PANTONE Black; Blue 072; Green; Transparent White; Orange 021; Process Blue; Purple; Reflex Blue; Rhodamine Red; Rubine Red; Violet; Warm Red; Yellow; Printing Black; and Opaque White.  I bought my set from Boxcar Press, and they should last for decades.
  4. One last pre-mixing consideration is that PANTONE ink formulas are meant for offset printing, not letterpress.  In offset printing, a thin layer of ink is laid on the paper, whereas in letterpress, the ink is physically pressed into the paper.  Therefore, letterpress lays down a thicker layer of ink than offset, but the ink itself is generally more transparent.  What does all of this mean?  I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but you’re not a machine, so you’re never going to have the perfect Pantone color…but it’ll be close!

Now that you’re aware of the pre-mixing considerations, let’s get to mixing some ink!

  1. First you need a scale.  I bought an Ohaus scale off Amazon, it came highly recommended by a letterpress instructor from Railway Station Press, where I took a letterpress class a while back.  This is an ideal scale because it measures small portions down to the decimal, and can be zero-ed out.  I place a piece of aluminum foil on top of the scale so that I can measure the ink without ruining the scale, then zero it out.  This way you’ll get an accurate reading on just the ink proportions.
  2. Refer to your PANTONE Uncoated Formula Guide for the color you’d like to create.  Look for the “parts” that make up the color, that’s the text right below the swatch.  For the purpose of mixing ink,  substitute parts for grams.
  3. Start with any of the colors, skim the top of the ink and drop a dollop onto the foil.  Keep adding or subtracting ink until you reach the parts/grams that you need.  Scrape the ink off of the foil and onto a flat glass or granite surface, making sure to get every last bit!  Repeat this process with each of the ink colors required to make your Pantone color.
  4. Once you’ve measured out all of the colors, use the glass or marble slab to mix with an ink knife (you can also use a putty knife).  Scrape and mix thoroughly, and you’re done!
  5. I like to make my colors prior to printing, so I scoop them into airtight containers, using masking tape around the edges for extra protection.  Since I have the memory of a hamster, I write the PANTONE color on a mailing label and stick it to the container so that future me has the option of looking it up, and there you have it!  PANTONE letterpress ink.

In Pictures:

Pantone Formula Guide

1. Choose your PANTONE color. I chose PANTONE 207U because I’d like to print my “Hip Heart You” cards to be a perfect match with some deep red envelopes that I have on hand. 207U was about as close as it gets!

Measuring Ink

2. Measure your ink substituting grams for parts. I started with 14 grams of PANTONE Rubine Red


3. Measure all ink colors required to create the PANTONE color you’ve chosen.

Mixing Ink!
4. Mix that Ink!

Final Color

5. And here it is, PANTONE 207U…ready for printing!

Why Letterpress?

Wikipedia describes letterpress as “relief printing of text and image using a press with a “type-high bed” printing press and movable type, in which a reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper to obtain a positive right-reading image. It was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid 15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century.”  In a nutshell, letterpress printing presses type/image into the paper, whereas conventional printing lays ink flat on the surface of the paper. 

Letterpress may have started in 1440 AD, but for me, it started in 2008.  I had been working as a corporate graphic artist for a few years and reached a crossroads – I wasn’t happy in my job, and I wanted out.  I researched my options and decided that a Masters in Graphic Design was the only cure, so I started trudging down that path.  But before making the leap, there were two things that I felt I needed to do.  First, I wanted to build my portfolio.  And second, I needed to try taking a graduate-level class while working full-time to see if it was feasible for someone like me (meaning someone who can’t live without a good night of sleep.)  So I signed up for a typography class at a local university in the hopes of attaining both of those goals, but unbeknownst to me, began down a completely different path.

The syllabus required “A Typographic Workbook” by Kate Clair.  The cover of the textbook showed type locked into a chaise with furniture and quoins.  At the time, I remember thinking that it looked cool, I had no concept of how deeply in love I was about to fall, or how painful it was going to be.

No more than a week in to the class, I realized it was going to be far more work than I had bargained for.  I quickly found myself overwhelmed with working full-time, attending class twice a week, and completing all of the projects in a way that wouldn’t get me ridiculed in front of the class by our notoriously tough professor.  It was a trying time, and I toyed with the idea of dropping the class daily.  Tears were shed, “I can’t do this” was said, and many a good night’s sleep was neglected, but I kept going.  Don’t get me wrong, I hated every minute of it.  But the one thing I found myself looking forward to was our reading assignments, and the history of typography.   

Graphic design began with early humans painting in caves, although the term “graphic design” wasn’t coined until the 1920s.  But for a typophile like me, it began in 1440 with Gutenberg and his printing press.  I had never put much thought into the inception of graphic design before this class, but as I read, I found that it was as interesting to me as any novel. So I googled.  And I discovered that there’s a new generation practicing letterpress, albeit not in the way that it was originally intended, but as an art form.  I knew then that I had to find a way to at least try it.

I was initially drawn to letterpress by its history.  As a graphic artist an amateur photographer, I have a tendency to get wrapped up in the newest gadgets from Apple and Canon among others.  Using archaic type and machines that were 50+ years older than me was out of character, but irresistible.   I googled some more, took a class at a local studio, and so it began.  I was hooked.  (And I dropped that graduate idea like a ton of bricks.)

I’ve been a letterpress printer for 3 years now.  When I print, I feel a deep connection to the past, and to those in my field before me.  Aside from the history, I love the tangibility of the process, and of the finished product.  For a girl who graphically designs in front of a computer all day, I can’t tell you how good it feels to manually arrange individual lead and/or wood letters into something beautiful.