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What is Foil Stamping?

A print brokering client of mine produces an annual case-bound book covering the past year's activities of Congress. It is produced on a heatset web press. The fabric covered binder's boards that comprise the hard-back cover are decorated with gold foil stamping, listing the title of the book, ISBN number, etc.

How is foil stamping done?

First of all, the short answer is “with heat and pressure.” A heated metal die cuts through a ribbon of gold foil (it may look like gold, but it really is a base metal) and deposits the diecut letters onto the substrate, pressing them into the fabric of my client's book so they will adhere.

This is a time consuming and expensive process since it requires the making of a metal die from an InDesign file. My client lays out all wording that will be on the book cover exactly as she will want it to appear, and a metal appliance not unlike a cookie cutter is created that will stamp out the foil letters onto the back cover, spine, and front cover of the book. For this reason, a new die will need to be made each year (this is an annual publication), and if my client finds any errors in the proof, the die will need to be made again as well.

Once the die has been produced, it is locked up in a foil stamping press. As the press runs, the die will strike each case side (composed of fabric-covered binder's boards for the front and back covers and spine). The die strikes the gold foil, deposits the foil on the binding fabric, affixes it with heat, and then moves on to the next cover.

What other alternatives does a book designer have for a case-bound book cover?

Foil stamping is expensive and time consuming. Most printers must subcontract the die making, and this lengthens the production schedule. Nevertheless, there aren't many ways to get the title of a book onto the cover if it is made of fabric. So, if you're designing a book and you want an alternative, consider gluing a printed press sheet directly to the binder's boards. You've probably seen this done on textbooks. This allows you to offset print (or digitally print) any number of ink colors you need right on the cover, while not paying for a die to foil stamp the cover fabric.

In most cases one would also add a dust jacket (an added expense to print, trim, and affix to the book) over a foil stamped fabric “case side.” This provides quite an elegant and upscale look and adds stature to the printed product. However, you may not need such a look, or you may not want such an expense. By offset printing a press sheet and then laminating it to the cover binder's boards, you get a more informal look—and you probably won't need to design and print a dust jacket. It's a different look, but it may be a good option.

If you do choose to foil stamp the cover of a case-bound book, how would you specify this procedure to your print provider to get an accurate cost estimate?

First, familiarize yourself with foil stamping on other case-bound books. You will see that in the majority of situations, there is only text (and no graphics) on the back cover, front cover, and spine. When you specify this process for a bid, you need to tell your printer how many square inches of foil stamping you plan to use, whether the foil stamping will be on the front cover, back cover, and/or spine, whether it will be text only, and what color of foil stamping material you will want.

In the case of my print brokering client, the books are always adorned with gold foil. My client could have chosen silver foil as an alternative. However, increasingly, manufacturers of foil stamping materials have been offering black, pearlescent, and even clear foils for foil stamping effects.

In fact, you may even choose these new foils for other uses than foil stamping case-bound books. For instance, you may choose a black press sheet for an elegant invitation to a party, and then wonder how to print on the paper to ensure that the ink will be readable. Since it won't (the short answer) unless you employ screen printing (instead of offset printing) technology, you may choose the alternative of foil stamping the text for the invitation. It would be the same process as for the case-bound book. You would have the printer create a die for the entire text block. Then he would apply heat and pressure on a foil stamping press, forcing the metal die to cut through the foil and deposit it (in this case) on the black paper of the invitation.

Web vs. Sheetfed

The two types of offset presses you might use to print the books, brochures, posters, etc., that you design are sheetfed presses and web presses. The difference has to do with the format of the paper used in the printing process.

To feed a sheetfed press, you would load the press with a stack of individual sheets. These might be anywhere from 20” x 26” (for cover stock) to 25” x 38” or 28” x 40” for a text sheet. The actual measurements will depend on the dimensions of the press (you might use a 25” x 38” sheet in a 40” press, for instance). The measurements will also depend on the standard format in which the paper mill provides the paper (a text sheet is customarily provided in 25” x 38” format, but you can also order a 28” x 40” sheet in many cases). Or, your printer may trim down a larger sheet (a parent sheet) to fit his press.

In contrast, a web-fed offset press uses rolls of paper (which are usually cheaper for the paper mill to produce than cut sheets since they have not yet been trimmed to their final size).

In the majority of cases a printer can order a particular paper stock (a particular weight, paper surface, and color) in either rolls or sheets, depending on the press he plans to use. In some cases, however, a printer will trim paper before the press run using a “roll sheeter.” This is a device that chops a continuous roll of paper into multiple sheets (think of a roll of perforated paper towels, which starts as a roll but yields sheet after sheet of paper for your cleaning needs).

When loaded on a large web press, a roll of printing paper provides a continuous stream of paper, which flows through the inking units of the press at a much faster pace than individual sheets travel through a sheetfed press. The ink units deposit offset ink on the plates, as with a sheetfed press, and the plates transfer the ink to the press blankets and from there onto the paper. Finally, cutting and folding equipment folds the web of paper into signatures or cuts the ribbon of paper into flat sheets, which may then be further processed.

Web presses and sheetfed presses focus on different print run lengths. In most cases, sheetfed presses are used for shorter runs, while web offset presses are usually saved for longer runs. Printed products from sheetfed presses are often of a higher printing quality than those produced on web presses; however, web presses have been improving in leaps and bounds and now come very close to sheetfed offset in the quality of their output.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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