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Riso printing guide

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about risography: where it comes from, how it works and all the amazing quirks.

Check our workshops here if you want to try it first hand.

The risograph is a duplicator from Japan, invented by Noboru Hayama and commercialised by the Riso Kagaku Corporation. 

In history, the japanese have always been at the forefront of innovation in the field of stencil printing. Their much sophisticated and refined printing techniques such as woodcut prints have influenced Europe and artists such as Van Gogh or Manet. 

In 1946, Noboru Hayama sets up a mimeograph print company called ‘Riso-Sha’ (riso meaning ‘ideal’) and developed an emulsion ink. The first ‘Riso-graph’ was a mimeograph-type duplicating device, released in 1958.

Riso developed the stencil making process, creating higher-speed master-making machine, until the risograph as we know it launched in the 80s. The risograph was geared towards high-volume print run. The marketing was simple: if you need to make more than 50 copies, it’s cheaper to do it with a Riso.

The risograph also exported in Europe, and was mostly used by schools, churches, prisons, political parties, that enjoyed the practical and cheap qualities of risography printing. 

More recently, the risograph has known a renaissance in the art and design world. The focus of riso printing nowadays is much less the quantity but the effects,  vibrant colours, quirky process and experimental quality of the technique itself, that attracts more and more creatives.

*history drawn from Risomania

The risograph is a stencil-printer principally designed for high-volume printing, but whose vibrant colours and unique aesthetic have taken over the art and design world. 

To most people, a risograph looks like any other printer in an office, but the core of its process is much closer to screenprinting, yet digitalized and thus able to produce bigger quantities at a cheaper price. For those unfamiliar with screenprinting, their similarity comes from printing one layer of colour at a time using stencils.

The way risography works is by creating a thermographic stencil made from a very thin polyester resin film: the ‘master’. The masters are created by sending a design through the computer or the machine’s scanner. To do this, the artwork is first separated in series of greyscale layers, one for each colour. The opacity of grey impacts on the density of ink later printed on the paper. Digital signals are sent to the thermal head within the duplicator, which burns perforations into the stencil. 

The master wraps itself around the colour drum - a part of the machine that contains the ink - and the paper is sent flat into the machine. From this, you can print 1 to 10,000 copies at a very high speed. 

To create a multi-colour print, the colour drum is changed, a second layer of the design is sent to the machine, and prints on top of the first layer. Superimposed, the  risography inks created a vast array of vibrant new colours.

Many imperfections and quirks happen during the printing process, a part of the charm of risography, as it which produces unique prints.

If that all still seems very abstract no worries! Read along the next tabs, as we’ll break down the different steps of the riso process.

Drum: interchangeable unit of the machine in which is inserted the ink tube. One drum corresponds to one colour/ink.  

Master-making unit: this is where the layers of your design are being made into a stencils made of thin thermo-sensitive paper, that are then placed under the drum.

Click on the tabs to discover how the risography process unfolds.  

This is your artwork on the computer!

We will now separate it into different layers: one for each colour you will print in. We turn the layers into greyscale mode, as the opacity of black is what will define the density of ink coverage and thus the intensity of the colour.

You can now send the first layer to print. It is best to start with lighter colours or layers with little ink density to avoid marks.

Before clicking print: make sure you’ve inserted the right colour drum for the layer that you are printing!

Put paper in the paper tray first (otherwise the mahcine stays still), and once you’re certain that you’ve chosen the effects that you want, the right format etc click PRINT. 

Sometimes it takes a bit, and it’s very noisy; but here you go! The master-making unit has read the design and burns the blank stencil into sall perforations that imitate your design. 

The master wraps itself around the drum and two or three sheets of paper are sent through the machine and behind the drum automatically. The first prints usually don’t have a lot of ink, that’s normal. 

Now that you master is ready, the paper can be sent to print directly through the control board: you can send 10-10,000 copies and choose the velocity. The first prints will usually have more ink

coverage, so each print will end up unique. 

Here’s first layer ready!

 Now change you drum, send the second layer to print and follow the same protocole. The colours will superimpose and create new colours will is always super exciting!

Little advice: risography inks don’t dry perfectly, but the more you wait between layers, the more the paper will have absorded the ink. That will help avoid stains and marks!

Repeat the process as many times as layers you wish to print in!

Your prints are ready, each of which are unique, having their little imperfections and quirks :)

Riso inks are made of soy oil and are liquid, not coated or fully opaque, which means they can overlay and create an infinite range of new colours. 

Riso inks some in 21 colours (Panton system) and 50 custom colours. By overlaying different colours, the effects will differ a lot which offers a whole new world of colur experimentation. 

Here at Sonriso, we own 5 colours drums, including a faux CMYK combination that allow us to create a range of new colours including greens, purples, oranges and browns. 

Risography inks never fully dry, and can create stains and mark if the density of ink is too heavy. It is also better to avoid big blocks of colours.

The risography machine reads colour density in greyscale. The opacity of the grey will define the ink coverage. 

The risograph prefers mat, uncoated papers as they will absord the ink. Otherwise the ink will not dry and stain forever. 

You can choose any paper between 60 g/m² to 300 g/m² inclusing tinted papers, or textured (however effects can be predicted). 

We currenty have a stock of Fedrigoni Arena Rough Natural White papers in 2100, 120, 200 and 300 g/m², that prints incredibly well. We print only in A4.

As with any printer, the riso will not print full bleed and you should be aware of the dimensions of the margins when creating your design.

The maximum document size is A3 but the maximum printable area is 204mm x 290 mm, that is a little bit smaller than an A4. 

Be aware that if your design is full bleed, you can decide to have a white margin surrounding the add, or to add a 2-3mm bleed (which implies that the print size will be smaller than an A4).

Preparing artworks for prints is surely the most complicated part of printing in risography and there are many ways it can be done.

If you print with us, we’ll take care of preparing the artworks for prints. But without going into too much details, here are the basics of separating colours and preparing a design to print in riso.

Printing in risography means deconstructing a digital image into several layers, so as to reconstruct it in print. 

There are two simple ways to separate the colours following the CMYK colour profile:

Photoshop Channels:

This one is used especially for photography and handdrawn illustrations, but you can separate any image with that technique. Photoshop has the capacity to read the colours of an image and separate the channels. If you open your image on Photoshop, change the mode to CMYK, and then go to Channels> Split Channels. Four new tabs will open: one for each layer in greyscale mode. These correspond to the files to send to print.

Illustration by Camille gressier (@camille_gressier)


this one can actually be a little bit of a brain teaser, but if you are working with vectors on illustrator, you can manually separate them into different layers  and put them in greyscale, choosing the opacity depending on the color coverage you wish to print in (a very simple example above). 

There are two main effects that can be created with risography: halftone or grainy. These effects corresponds to the way the perforation of the stencil is made: or by smaller random dots (grainy) or more organised bigger dots (halftone). Another effect called solid, is used for texts and thin lines. 

As a general rule, the grainy effect is used

for illustrations and the halftone for photos. But what’s great with riso is that it’s all about experimenting, so you can play with those rules.

Halftone effect (left) and grainy effect (right).

However digital, the process of risography printing remains rather analogical and a lot of quirks and little imperfections are part of it. 

When printing in riso one must embrace a part of surprise, imperfections, lack of control and enjoy the serendipity that comes with it. 

But so you’re aware, here’s some the common quirks and mistakes the process involves:

Registration/alignment: Our favourite quirk ! The different layers of print might not align perfectly like illustrated on the right. Because of printing on layer of colour at a time, it means that you have to replace the paper in the paper tray. Riso machines ain’t the latest technology, and the way the paper enters the machine means it might be displaced by 1 to 3 mm.

Roller Marks: If you are printing in more than one colour it is very likely that slight roller marks will appear, due to the feed-tire picking up ink from the previous layers. To avoid these as much as possible, print the lighter colours first and give time for the ink to dry (ideally a day or two).

Double-side printing and ink transfer: Marks can appear from double printing because of the pressure roll when the prints are piled up.

Colour variations: The first 2-3 prints will always be drafts for the ink to get on the stencil and print. After these first trial prints, the next 3-5 prints will have heavier ink coverage because stabilising. What that means is that the exact result of the colour might depend from one print to the other.

Again, this is very important that you are aware that embracing imperfection is part
of the process. If you are looking for a print that will reproduce your design 100%, maybe riso is not the appropriate technique.
Registration and alignment 

Roller marks and ink transfer 

Risography is known for being more ecological than other printing method.

That is for several reasons. The ink, made of soy oil contains lower levels of volatile organic Coumpounds (VOCs), and using them results in lower amounts of air pollution from toxic emissions being generated.

The riso printers also use less energy than heat-intensive printers and are faster. 

Avenida del Manzanares 104-6, 28019, Madrid
   @sonrisostudio         hola@sonrisostudio.es         +34617252584
Avenida del Manzanares
104-6, 28019, Madrid
hola@sonrisostudio.es +34617252584