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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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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Custom Printing: Old, Old Time Printing

August 23rd, 2016

Posted in Printing | Comments »

In the spirit of spring, with all the flowers and trees in bloom, I thought it fitting to discuss some primitive custom printing techniques that have been around (in some cases) probably since the Stone Age. They’re ideal for children’s art parties, and you may even want to do these projects if you have an artistic bent.


The first technique is actually a photographic printing technique. It uses the juices of plants and the sun to make images. This is how to do it:

  1. You prepare the substrate with an emulsion made from the juice of plants, flower petals, or berries. You can grind these into a pulp by hand, using a mortar and pestle, or you can use a mixer. The mortar and pestle is easier to clean and more efficient for small batches, but the mixer is easier on your hands, and it’s more suited to larger batches. In addition, if you use a mortar and pestle, the skins of the berries will be strained away (you won’t be able to sufficiently pulverize them by hand). You can use any number of plants. Research the plants online, and take time to experiment and play.
  2. When you have crushed or mixed the flowers, berries, or plants into a pulp, strain out the liquid using cheesecloth or a coffee filter. (You can also dilute the liquid with denatured alcohol, olive oil, or distilled water, depending on the result you’re after.)
  3. Choose a substrate, like thick watercolor paper, and paint the liquid emulsion onto the material. Keep in mind that the paper will be outside for days or weeks, so it should be durable (not fragile, lightweight paper).
  4. Choose an object, such as a flower or plant. Place the object on the emulsion coated (dry) sheet of paper and cover the paper and object with a glass frame (a sheet of plexiglass will do). As the rays of the sun destroy the coloration in the emulsion, the object covering the emulsion will resist fading (since the paper underneath will get less light). In the course of hours, days, or weeks (depending on your choice of emulsion), you will get a positive image of the object. Remember to choose a positive rather than negative image (think photography) since the sun will lighten the emulsion rather than darken it (as would happen with traditional darkroom-based photographic printing).
  5. If you frame and hang your print, keep it out of the sun, because the fading process will continue in direct sunlight.
  6. For those of you with little patience (like myself) two good plants to start with are corn poppy and dahlia. I found these online. They produce very sensitive emulsions that react quickly to the sun.
  7. Totally unrelated to this process, but directly relevant to contemporary commercial printing, is the fact that even a commercial print book left in the sun will do the exact same thing. I have a number of books with dust jacket spines that are much lighter than the front and back covers. I had these in a bookcase for many years in an office that received intense afternoon sunlight. The sun lightened the ink on the dust covers just as it will lighten the anthotype plant emulsions.


You can produce a similar result to anthotypes with treated light-sensitive fabric (treated with ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide). This process was initially invented to produce photographic reproductions of plants, seed pods, etc., laid on treated paper.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Buy the sunprint fabric (i.e., specially treated fabric made to be light sensitive).
  2. Pin plant specimens–leaves, seed pods, etc.–to the fabric in an artistic design.
  3. Unlike the aforementioned anthotypes, this process goes fast. Once you have covered the fabric with leaves and petals, expose it to direct sunlight. It may help to use a light frame (such as a piece of plexiglass laid over the project). This will keep everything stationary.
  4. In about 15 or 20 minutes for cotton (less for silk), you’ll be ready to bring the fabric indoors. Rinse the material under running water until the water runs clear. The colors should set in 12 to 24 hours.

Hammering the Juice Out of Plants

A third way to do custom printing with plants and flowers is to lay the leaves on thick, absorbent watercolor paper, cover them with paper towels, and beat them with hammers. This releases the natural juices and creates a “contact print.” Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a durable surface, like a cutting board, that will tolerate the abuse. Cover it with a paper bag.
  2. Place flowers on the watercolor paper. You can tape them down to make sure they don’t move.
  3. Cover the flowers and watercolor paper substrate with paper towels or some other form of blotter paper.
  4. You can mark on the paper towels with a pen to identify where you will need to strike the hammer to pulverize the flowers or plants to release their juices.
  5. Try different hammers (ball peen and cross peen hammers, for instance). Hammer across in rows, and then up and down in columns. You will need to hit every part of the underlying plant to release the juices that will print on the watercolor paper.
  6. You can check your work by lifting the paper towel. If you have a complete image of the flower or leaf on the paper towel, you are probably ready to remove the leaves.
  7. Peel, scratch, or rub the pulverized leaves or flower petals off the watercolor paper to reveal the printed images below, made from the juices of the plants.
  8. You will have more or less success with this technique based on the amount of water in the plant as well as the coloration of the flower and the stiffness of its fibers. The paper substrate and your technique with the hammer will also make a difference in the final product.

How Is This Relevant to Printing?

All three are traditional custom printing techniques. This is what people did before they could digitally inkjet images onto fabric substrates for their industrial design projects (presumably decorating their grass-thatched huts, tipis, and yurts).

Posted in Printing | Comments »

Digital Custom Printing: Form Follows Function

August 16th, 2016

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

I was actually starting to write an article about a little book my fiancee bought for her grandson, a book about fish. I had planned to start with praise for the sophisticated use of white ink on clear divider pages to allow for opaque overlays with different art on either side.

This still holds true. And I plan to do it shortly. However, when I checked the printed page with my loupe, I was even more impressed with the color fidelity, the crispness of the images, and the overall color gamut when I realized it was a digital custom printing job.

Now I’ve seen quality inkjet. I’m used to that. But this is an electrophotographic print book—laser printing. It has all of the qualities of an outstanding offset print job, none of the “artifacts” of either inkjet or laser, and none of the waxy appearance of laser printing toner. Wow.

Granted, I am a firm believer in the link between appearance and utility. “Form follows function,” as they say. The press sheet is a dull coated paper, and the ink does have a sheen. My first thought was that the images had been varnished so they would “pop” off the page. But they absolutely do not look like waxy laser printed toner on paper.

How Do I Know This Was a Laser Printed Job?

The first thing I looked for under the loupe was the halftone dot structure and placement. I usually work by process of elimination. I didn’t see the minuscule droplets indicative of inkjet, so I first ruled out this particular technology.

Then I looked for rosette patterns in the color images. Halftone dots indicate either offset or laser printing, but an actual rosette pattern to me is a dead giveaway of an offset printed job. It reflects the “irrational angles” at which the four printing plates have been set (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

I saw no rosettes. Moreover, the black halftone dots were pretty much on top of each other in some places.

High quality laser printing would be my educated guess as to the method of reproduction: dot patterns but not at the exact angles that would create the signature “halftone rosettes” of offset; no minuscule (almost continuous tone) ink drops. So I’d say it’s probably electrophotography (xerography, laser printing). Perhaps it is even from an HP Indigo press, or even a Kodak NexPress (although I just compared it to a job I absolutely know just came off an HP Indigo 10000, and I saw a lot of similarities).

So what?

The technology is certainly light years ahead of the typical office color laser printer, with its waxy ink laydown, and it is moving forward with drama and determination. All of this bodes well for digital commercial printing in general.

Back to Form Following Function

Form should follow function. Even the ancient Greeks believed this. That’s why putting a Greek Revival column in front of a window is questionable architecture even now (in some government buildings). Windows are made to offer an exposed view of one’s surroundings, not a view of a supporting column.

In a similar vein, this print book actually uses the technology in smart ways, functional ways.

  1. The book is for young children. It happens to be bound using a combination of “Wire-O” mechanical binding and case binding. This is called “concealed Wire-O binding,” and you’ll find it on a large number of cookbooks. The binding is durable. The pages lie flat. The loops of the binding wire are less likely to come unhooked. And the overall product is attractive. It’s even harder to crush the wire loops because of the covering of the case-bound spine. For a children’s book, like a cookbook, this is perfect.
  2. Since this is a children’s book about fish, it’s helpful to have the transparent overlay pages in the center of the two-page spreads. These conceal a portion of what’s on the right-hand page, but they can be flopped over to the left to reveal something underneath. Kids love surprises. On one spread you see a school of fish swimming over a colorful sea formation, perhaps coral. When you flip the page over, you see a scary eel under the coral (or rock). I was even scared. What makes this effective (other than the ingenious use of the transparent sheet in the center of a two-page spread) is the opaque white printed on the acetate sheet under the colorful coral (or rock). The opaque white completely conceals the eel. The technology supports the editorial goal. Form follows function. Cool.
  3. On another page, the same technique is used to almost completely obscure a flounder lying on the seabed. (The flounder looks almost exactly like the sea floor. When the kids turn the page, they can see how mother nature hides fish in plain sight by making them look like their surroundings.) A hit of opaque white behind the image makes the difference here, too.
  4. On another page you can flip over the transparent acetate sheet to see a “before” and “after” shot of fish being hooked by a fisherman (or woman). On another spread you see the “before” and “after” images of a little bear pulling fish out of a stream for a meal. So in these cases the use of the overlay sheet, and the use of opaque white toner, can provide a time sequence, a sense of one thing happening followed by another. Again, the technology and custom printing techniques support the editorial intent of the author. Form follows function.

It almost makes me want to have kids.

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Update on Dye-Sublimation Technology

August 11th, 2016

Posted in Fabric Printing | Comments »

I came upon an outstanding article about dye-sub fabric printing yesterday. It’s called “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” written by Richard Romano and published on 03/14/16 on I encourage you to Google it. It’s a great primer on this commercial printing technology.

Ever since my last trip to the beach, when I saw some of the new bikinis, I’ve been intrigued by the bright colors and intricate details printed on these bathing suits. Since they were for the most part polyester blends, it was clear to me that I was looking at the new generation of dye-sublimation fabric printing.

Romano’s Primer on Dye-Sublimation

In his article, Romano explains that sublimation is a process whereby a solid changes directly into a gas without first going through the intermediate liquid state. Dry ice would fit into this category, since a block of this substance turns into a cloud of gas rather than a puddle of liquid. Dye-sub commercial printing would be another example.

In dye-sub printing, solid particles of dye in a liquid suspension are jetted onto a receiver paper that has been specially treated to accept the solid dye particles and then to release them onto a substrate (in this case fabric). Since there is an intermediate step, the image printed on the paper transfer sheet is reversed, so it will print “right-reading” onto the fabric.

The next step is to “fix” or “outgas” the dyes onto the fabric. According to Romano, either a rotary or flatbed heat press is used for this step. Due to the heat (375 to 410 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pressure, the dye particles change from a solid state (on the transfer paper) to a gas. The gas then permeates the fibers of the fabric.

When they solidify, the dye particles bond with the fibers in the fabric. In fact, the heat actually melts the fabric slightly, “just enough to open up tiny gaps in the polyester fibers,” according to Romano’s article. When the fabric cools, the dye particles are strongly enmeshed in the fabric. This makes the resulting printed images durable, lightfast, and wash-resistant.

Why Use Dye-Sub for Polyester Fabrics?

Prior to reading “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” I had always wondered why this technology was best suited to either 100 percent polyester fabrics or fabrics with a high polyester content. Apparently, the high heat of the rotary and flatbed heat presses would burn cotton fabrics, but they only slightly melt polyester fabrics, allowing the dye to deeply penetrate the fibers.

Another question I had (which Romano answered) was how printers keep the transfer sheet in adequate contact with some of the new polyester fabrics, which are particularly stretchy. Apparently the transfer sheets can be fabricated with a slight tackiness, so they will hold firmly to the polyester substrate, keeping the material from shifting and preventing blurry images or ghosting.

Also a Good Choice for Rigid Substrates

In “A Closer Look at Digital Dye-Sublimation Printing,” Romano notes that dye-sublimation transfer sheets need not be confined to transferring images onto fabric. An additional use with wide appeal is to transfer images onto ceramic tile, wood, plastic, glass, or metal. This can be done as long as the material can first be treated with a polyester coating. This option opens up numerous industrial printing and interior design applications, from printing on wall coverings and drapes to printing on glass and flooring (albeit in some cases with an additional coating for protection).

In addition, dye-sub printing can be a useful technology for transferring images to mugs and other small novelty products (although for mugs, a special dye-sub press is necessary, which grips the cylindrical mug and applies both heat and pressure to transfer the image). Fortunately, these cost less than $300.

The Future of Dye-Sublimation Fabric Printing

Richard Romano describes the future direction of dye-sublimation fabric printing, noting that the trend is away from transfer paper and toward direct-to-fabric printing. However, in this case the dyes would still need to be sublimated in order to adequately bond with the fibers of the fabric.

What We Can Learn from Romano’s Article

  1. The first thing I see is explosive growth in the decoration of everything from garments to wall coverings, sheets, linens, and other useful and aesthetic fabric items. Furthermore, I see this spurring interior designers to create personalized environments for their clients, with no end to the vibrant coloration and intricate detail, as well as the unique, fully customizable presentation of the graphics.
  2. Client interest in fabric printing has spurred increased sophistication within the technology, which is creating a virtuous circle with manufacturers developing new dye-sub capabilities and thus further increasing consumer interest.
  3. Using a transfer-sheet-based workflow allows vendors to stock fewer items (for instance a stack of transfer sheets that can be applied to individual t-shirts as the client chooses a particular size and cut) instead of needing to stock multiple shirt colors in multiple sizes with the same printed images. This approach can reduce the need for both inventory and storage space.
  4. Any such growth in custom printing is exciting to see, particularly when it touches so many world economies.

Posted in Fabric Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Using Bags to Sell Fast Casual Food

August 2nd, 2016

Posted in Packaging | Comments Off

With our hectic schedules, my fiancee and I eat more fast food than I’d like to say. We have found that you can sleep, eat, and run a business from the privacy of your own car.

That said, a few of the bags in which the fast food has been served have piqued my interest due to both the simplicity of their presentation and the power of their marketing message.

The McDonald’s Bag

My fiancee is addicted to Egg McMuffins. I love the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. What has struck me, though, is the power of simple, bold colors on unbleached kraft paper (i.e., paper bags). On its main bag, McDonald’s has printed its name, the golden arches, and its signature tag line (“I’m lovin’ it”) in bold primary colors. Moreover the golden arches are positioned slightly off center on the back of the bag, and they extend onto the bag’s side.

A small red vertical bar out of which the tag line is reversed balances the larger (but lighter) golden arches, creating an asymmetrical weight distribution. This actually evokes more drama, movement, and excitement than would a centered, symmetrical approach to the same information. In particular, the golden arches’ extending off the back and onto the side of the bag gives a more expansive feeling to the design.

What really intrigues me, though, is the treatment of the iconic “McDonald’s” moniker.

“McDonald’s” has been set in an extra-bold, sans serif typeface, broken down into three lines of type. It is printed in a light blue ink, so the heaviness of the typeface is somewhat subdued in an elegant and sophisticated way.

Keeping true to the current fashion of breaking words arbitrarily (not hyphenating them at syllabic points), the McDonald’s logo has been broken down into these three groups of letters: “McD/on/alds.” I understand and appreciate the first line. It offers the traditional nickname for the company: “McD’s.” The letters “o” and “n” fill the next line, which is set under the first line with just a smidgen of space, providing an almost sculptural look reminiscent of the “I(heart)/NY” image from 1977, created by Milton Glaser. The shape of the letters is striking, and the lack of leading makes this even more evident. It also ties the first line closely to the second.

As noted before, there are no hyphens. This is rather avant garde, placing the design (and the patron holding the bag) in the position of the intellectual or artist (i.e., stylish and contemporary). The third line contains the letters “alds” set in a much smaller point size but again placed under the preceding line with almost no leading.

Even though the word has not been broken into identifiable syllables, it nevertheless reads like the expected “McDonald’s” with the added benefit of looking avant garde, artistic, and cool.

As a final note, all three lines have been placed immediately against the left vertical fold of this panel of the bag with no surrounding space. That is, the type abuts to the fold. This creates even more drama. In addition, the structure of the three-line word, “McDonald’s,” is perfectly left and right justified. This accounts for the differences in type size of the letters on the three lines (so they will be precisely justified), but it also allows the bag-holder’s eye to travel down the contour of the letterforms on the right-hand margin.

So What Does This Get You?

Some people just eat the food. I like to read between the lines. This is what I learn from this McDonald’s bag:

  1. McDonalds is rebranding itself to look environmentally aware and sensitive. The bag is made of unbleached kraft paper (no caustic chemicals were used that might harm the environment). The lightness (thin ink film) of the red, yellow, and blue custom printing gives prominence to the absorbent kraft paper.
  2. McDonald’s has an artistic eye. The bag reflects an aesthetic sensibility.
  3. Artistic implies “intellectual.” Therefore, the branding invites the viewer to join the exclusive realm of the intellectual while eating his/her burger and fries. People have a need for affiliation, and a good marketer will draw the viewer into the small and exclusive “club.” And McDonalds is an ace at marketing.
  4. The homage to the big, blocky sculptures of the 50s and 60s (as reflected in the large, heavy type) reinforces this artistic, upscale look.

Pretty soon you’re stopping at McDonalds several times a week, as my fiancee and I do, absorbing both the food and the marketing message relayed through this custom printing job.

The Chipotle Bag

I’ve written in earlier PIE Blogs of my love for the simplicity of Chipotle’s commercial printing materials. A hand-drawn illustration, a little type in brown ink. The minimalist look can go a long way.

Chipotle has been producing “Cultivating Thought—Author’s Series” bags that wax philosophical. The one in front of me has about a thousand words, in stream-of-consciousness style (like William Faulkner or Gabriel Garcia Marquez), addressing our tendency as a species to not watch where we’re going or be present where we are. It’s called “Two Minute Driving Lesson” (by Jonathan Franzen). The article weaves in and out of driving skills, politics, the ecology, and philosophy, basically asking the question: “If you’re taking such an extremely short view, how are you even supposed to see a pedestrian who’s starting to cross the street?”

Actually, it literally asks this question. Franzen’s query takes up most of one side of the bag, printed in brown ink in a simple sans serif face (not unlike the McDonald’s bag but in a less bold type) with generous leading between the short lines of text. There’s also a Chipotle logo bleeding off the right bottom side of the bag, and the “Cultivating Thought—Author Series” tagline mentioned above reversed out of a solid brown that bleeds off the right, left, and bottom of the bag.

As a culture, we seem to be moving away from images in our marketing materials to embrace type, both for its message and for the sheer visual beauty of the letterforms.

So What Does This Get You?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. People still read. In fact, in the morning while eating cereal, a lot of people read the cereal box. Chipotle marketing execs are smart, and they realize they have a captive audience. Presumably people will read their fast casual food bags while eating (unless they are on their smartphones).
  2. Brown type on light brown kraft paper just feels ecologically sensitive. Perhaps it even makes you want to stop at Starbucks for a latte. Hand-drawn illustrations incorporating witty, provocative signs above a frazzled driver in a car (just like my fiancee and me, driving to and fro’ with our McDonald’s and Chipotle bags) add humor. However, they also evoke a sense of recognition in the reader. He or she is “hard-wired,” as the bag says, to be short-sighted. Like the McDonald’s bag, the Chipotle bag draws the reader into the experience and provides a sense of affiliation. “We are all part of this group,” the reader can say. And, as we know, affiliation sells product.

The Overall Outlook

First of all, I’m pleased to see any marketing collateral that requires people to read. We don’t do enough of that as a culture. More than that, I like marketing collateral that is edgy and that makes people think. Both the McDonald’s and Chipotle bags do this.

Finally, I think it’s masterful marketing to use a platform (or substrate in this case) that will be right before the eyes of the person eating the hamburger, fish sandwich, or burrito, to not only sell the product but to also challenge the user to think.

Andy Warhol would be proud.

Posted in Packaging | Comments Off

Custom Printing: New Digital Equipment Is a Game Changer

July 26th, 2016

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments Off

A commercial printing vendor I’ve been working with for about a year just hit the trifecta. They installed three new pieces of digital printing and finishing equipment, and I think this will be a game changer for this firm. I just received their press release, and I want to share the information with you and then explain why each piece is a step forward, both for this particular vendor and for the industry as a whole.

The HP Indigo 10000

I have written many times about my high regard for the HP Indigo press. For the first time, I strongly believe that with this particular technology digital commercial printing can match or even exceed the quality of sheetfed offset printing. That said, up until recently the maximum sheet size for the Indigo was approximately 13” x 19”. This left out many jobs otherwise ideally suited for digital printing (such as short-run pocket folders).

In contrast, the HP Indigo 10000 that this particular printer just installed takes a B2 sheet. This makes the press competitive with other 29” sheetfed presses, allowing for digital production of short-run or versioned pocket folders, large-format brochures with multiple folds, etc.

In addition, due to the liquid toner technology of the HP Indigo, this digital press has no dot gain to worry about, and there are no problems with trapping (printing one color slightly overlapping another, in order to avoid gaps between colors). The ElectroInk dries instantly, so wet-trapping is unnecessary, and all trapping is dry-trapping.

And with the extended inkset (up to seven colors, including ElectroInk white), the Indigo can accurately match the greater majority of Pantone colors. Therefore, PMS colors used in corporate identity logos can be faithfully simulated.

The HP Indigo 10000 can print on substrates ranging from 45# text to 150# cover. The press will accept coated and uncoated sheets, as well as colored and metallic papers, and stock used for folding cartons. In addition, the Indigo 10000 will print both sides of the sheet at once (which is known as duplexing).

What This Will Mean for the Local Printer I Work With

  1. First of all, this commercial printer will now be able to compete with sheetfed offset printers using 29” presses. The trim sizes of their jobs can be much larger than with the prior generation of HP Indigo digital presses.
  2. This commercial printing supplier will be able to offer quality equal to or better than its competitors who are using offset equipment.
  3. Since the HP Indigo accepts a much wider selection of paper than many other digital presses, this commercial printing vendor will not be limited in choosing printing stock. If a designer specifies a particular press sheet, either the printer will be able to use the name brand stock or substitute a comparable press sheet.
  4. This commercial printer will be able to help its clients better target marketing prospects. Because every piece produced by the HP Indigo can be customized, it will be possible to personalize each product and tailor the content to a specific audience (or even to individual prospects). In the long run, this will save money in postage. It will also increase the effectiveness of marketing initiatives.

The Horizon Cross Folder AFC

The custom printing supplier I work with also bought a Horizon Cross Folder AFC, which is an automated folding and cutting machine. Here are some of its features:

  1. The folder has a 15-second set-up time. An operator can set up any of 17 pre-programmed folding patterns from a touch screen console.
  2. The Horizon Cross Folder AFC will accept a wide range of paper stocks and will operate at up to 42,000 sheets an hour.
  3. The folder will even set the paper roller gap automatically based on the thickness of the paper inserted into the machine.
  4. The folder rollers are made of steel and polyurethane, which will ensure both longevity and a good grip on the paper, which will produce accurate folds.

What This Will Mean for the Local Printer I Work With

Basically this translates into speed and accuracy. The equipment will do an excellent job, but it will do it faster than older folding equipment and with less operator intervention. This will therefore translate into lower production costs, and that will allow for shorter production schedules that will cost less money.

The Horizon StitchLiner

The printer I work with also bought a Horizon StitchLiner. According to the press release, this saddle-stitching equipment performs flat-sheet collating, scoring, folding, stitching, and three-knife trimming in line. What this means is that magazine and book signatures don’t need to be folded on one piece of finishing equipment and then taken to another for stitching and trimming into booklets. All processes can be done using one piece of finishing equipment.

Not only is the equipment comprehensive, but it is also fast. According to the press release, each station on the stitcher can be set up in less than 30 seconds (from 8.5” x 11” to 5.5” x 8.5”). The operator can do this on the touch screen by noting the sheet size and booklet size. Make-ready can be done in less than 60 seconds.

In addition, the operator console will save up to 200 different pre-programmed jobs, and the equipment can stitch and trim up to 11,000 two-up booklets an hour.

What This Will Mean for the Local Printer I Work With

As with the Horizon Cross Folder, this stitcher will speed up production, reduce operator intervention, and lower consumer prices. At the same time, the equipment will allow this commercial printing vendor to meet or exceed the quality of prior work.

A Few More Observations

Moreover, what I personally find interesting about this equipment is the recent move by equipment manufacturers toward digital finishing. Prior to this, jobs produced on digital presses had to go through traditional folding, stitching, and trimming equipment. This push to automate finishing and to group together multiple finishing operations bodes well for the industry.

All of this equipment is ideal for packaging work, and this alone implies good things for the packaging and folding carton arena of commercial printing.

As mentioned before, in the realm of digital printing, the move toward larger sheet sizes also positions digital printing to compete head to head with offset. Clients and printers will be able to choose the appropriate technology—digital or offset—based on the length of the press run and the need for personalization.

Finally, these advances have spurred new developments in equipment for traditional offset printing.

This is an exciting time for both digital and offset custom printing.

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments Off

Commercial Printing: Working with a New Printer

July 21st, 2016

Posted in Printing | 2 Comments »

When you decide to work with a new printer, a moment comes when you just take a leap of faith. At this moment, and in the time leading up to it, what can you do to ensure success?

Backstory: A Case Study

I recently priced out a 4- or 8-page self-cover booklet to a printer I work with regularly. It is a short run (250, 500, or 1000 copies) of an almost square job (8.5″x9.5″ folded), so the printer has priced the booklet on his HP Indigo digital press. Based on the client’s description of the piece, I gave the printer the option of running the job using offset equipment (as a 2-color job) or digital technology, and he thought digital printing would be more cost-effective.

His prices were great and very much in line with my expectations. Given that this custom printing supplier is usually the low bid, I didn’t bid the job to any other commercial printing vendors. My client was happy with this plan.

However, my client’s client asked for a second bid (for due diligence), so I bid out the job to a new printer. I had been referred to this particular commercial printing shop. The reference had been stellar, but in my prior attempts to start working with this printer, his prices had been too high.

I therefore expected the second printer to come back with prices that were higher than the first printer’s bid. But they were significantly lower, and they were based on offset custom printing (2-color offset).

What could I do? I actually wasn’t prepared for success. This had been a perfunctory second bid.

Factors in Choosing a New Printer

As a printing broker, I had to decide whether to encourage my client to consider this new printer. The price was right (several hundred dollars lower). The associate of mine who had recommended the printer had done a lot of work with him. The printer was therefore a known quantity. I felt I could depend on him.

Still, I emailed the printer and asked for samples of comparable work, something in line with my client’s specs. Based on the samples, I’ll decide whether to share the new printer’s bid with my client. I will look for such things as even trims, pleasing color, and tight register (which will be visible under my 12-power loupe).

And then presumably I’ll have to take a leap of faith. Granted, it is a reasonably small job, and I usually like to start a new printer out with something relatively small and easy, and develop trust from there.

Other New Printers I’ve Chosen This Year

I have also thought about the two other new printers I have added to my list this past year. Here’s how I made my decision to hand over a real job, to take the leap of faith:

Printer #1

The first one, a book printer, had been courting me for a year. I had seen samples and had liked them. The pricing was good, but for almost a year I didn’t have a live job that fit this printer’s equipment. I had spoken with the sales rep on the phone numerous times, and I trusted her. Again, it was an intuitive thing, a gut feeling. But the book printer’s website, equipment list, samples, and references were good. Even though the printer was halfway across the United States, I eventually had an appropriate job and gave it to this printer. In some ways I think the sales rep made the ultimate decision easier. I liked and trusted her. I had based my decision on the quality of the samples and the pricing, but I think on some level we all choose vendors based on our feelings of trust and connection with them. I was very pleased with the final print job, a digital print book with a case binding. I plan to go back to this book printer as soon as I have another appropriate job.

Printer #2

I chose a second printer last year based on a 17-year business relationship with the two principals of the commercial printing firm. At the time, they had been working for another print vendor, but I had developed a high level of trust with them over the prior 17-year period. Granted, I also visited the new printing plant, solicited a number of bids on selected jobs, and closely checked a number of printed samples. But on a certain level, I was willing to take the leap of faith and send the printer a live job (a rather complex one for a first job) based on the personal and business relationship I had developed over the years with the two principals (i.e., the level of personal trust).

I think that ultimately, after I have vetted the samples, estimates (for completeness, accuracy, and attractive pricing), and references, I select vendors with whom I have a feeling of personal rapport and trust. That is the ultimate deciding factor, particularly when selecting a new vendor. It’s an intuitive decision, ultimately, but not one based entirely on feelings. Rather it is based on a mass of data that comes together in a gut feeling of either wanting to work with the vendor or not wanting to work with the vendor.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Start with measurable qualifiers. Check estimates carefully. Look for errors and omissions from the specs you submitted.
  2. Look closely at printed samples. Check the printer’s attention to color register. Are all the plates aligned? Is the folding neat and precise? Are trims and margins accurate? If any of the samples are problematic, bring this to the sales rep’s attention.
  3. Check references.
  4. Consider visiting the printing plant. Look for happy workers and a clean pressroom. It’s a good sign if the presses are running rather than idle, and it’s also a good sign if the lighting is good, the workflow of the machinery makes sense, and there is an attention to cleanliness and order.
  5. Think about how you would feel working with the sales rep. Do you trust her/him? Answer this carefully, since he/she will be one of your prime contacts at the plant: i.e., your lifeline. Do the same with the customer service rep.

Posted in Printing | 2 Comments »

Book Printing: Coordinating All Aspects of a Print Job

July 10th, 2016

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I’ve been asked by a client of mine to not only find a suitable book printer for her 488-page plus cover, 8.5” x 11”, perfect-bound textbook but also handle the warehousing and fulfillment. She has also asked me to research e-commerce options for these tasks.

This is how I’m approaching the job.

Determining the Custom Printing Parameters

The first thing I did was review a PDF of the book to determine its specs. It seemed to me that starting with the finished product, as well as the press run and budget, would be the best approach. Then I could consider storage and fulfillment issues.

I had been given a book printing budget of $10,000. In reviewing the PDF of the book, I saw that it was very long (essentially a textbook) and that it would need to be printed in 4-color throughout (very expensive).

Two years ago I had actually solicited bids for this job (which had never been printed but only formatted for the organization’s website). Here it was again, and the book printing budget was about a sixth of what it had been. (That is, I realized that the approximately $6.00 unit price from the prior year’s estimate would go up dramatically as the overall cost dropped by $40K.)

I started by approaching one of my favorite book printers. I knew this firm had in-house binding and that it was in the Midwest (where pricing is much lower than here on the East Coast). I had assumed a press run—based on the budget—of no more than 1,000 copies. Nevertheless, based on my client’s preferences, I requested pricing for 1,000; 1,500; and 2,000 print books. I also requested warehousing and fulfillment information and fees.

A Rude Awakening

When the estimate appeared in my email, it was more than twice the budget. So I called up the sales rep. She noted that the quality of her vendor’s sheetfed printing was outstanding, but for the lower price I sought, I needed a heatset web offset printer.

With this thought in mind I went back to the prior year’s estimates, since two of the vendors had been heatset web book printers. Granted, the pricing was lower, but it was clear that a revised bid for the lower press runs would still exceed the budget.

An Alternative

What to do. So I contacted another, local vendor with an HP Indigo 10000. I knew this commercial printing vendor had just purchased this digital press and was excited about its use. I also knew it accepted a 20” x 29” press sheet (unlike smaller HP Indigo presses), and I thought this would make the process (a short press run of a long print book) more competitive. The request for quote is in this printer’s hands. We’ll see what happens. That said, the plant manager offered an intriguing suggestion for producing the book. Since my client has $10,000 to spend, this printer could digitally print an initial press run, and then follow up with an additional press run after my client has sold the books and reaped the profits. Given that this would be a digital press run, setting up the job to print a second time at a later date would be less expensive than if it were an offset printed job (since there would be far less make-ready work involved).

Fulfillment Issues

At the same time, I’m researching online vendors, for both book printing and fulfillment. Having worked with local and out-of-state brick-and-mortar shops, I’m somewhat hesitant to choose an online printer. I have a cadre of vendors with whom I have a history and level of mutual trust. That said, I will keep an open mind. At this point, I have the per-page cost from one of the online print shops (I’d call this a web-to-print vendor). I can now compare the $.07 per page cost to whatever pricing my usual vendors offer.

The same online vendor will unbundle the job and offer fulfillment without printing. If my client chooses this option, I would have the job printed traditionally at one of my brick-and-mortar shops, and then send all books to the fulfillment house. One of these has an online presence, so I could choose and bid on keywords, set up a pay-per-click ad account, and in this way entice potential readers to buy my client’s textbook. The company would then handle orders, pick-and-pack fulfillment, billing, warehousing, inventory calculation, and any returns.

I have listed all of these functions: printing, delivery, online marketing, warehousing, fulfillment, and returns, and will get multiple bids from both web-to-print and traditional brick-and-mortar shops. Then I’ll devise a pricing grid to compare the costs. I’ll also have a list of expenses to deduct from my client’s selling price, reflecting her potential profit on the print book sales.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

This is a learning experience for me. I would encourage you to approach it in the same way. Consider the following:

  1. Break down the printing and distribution process into all of its component parts: printing, finishing, delivery, warehousing, inventory management, marketing, order fulfillment, returns, etc. Then set up a spreadsheet to compare all estimates.
  2. Weigh the pros and cons of whether to have an online vendor or a brick-and-mortar printer complete all of these tasks. Consider the cost, but also consider your level of trust in the vendors. Remember that one shop does not need to do all of these tasks. You can split printing and fulfillment between two vendors, for instance.
  3. Consider the appropriate printing technology for the job: offset or digital. Talk to various printers about the length of the book and its press run to see what the cut-off point would be to make one technology more or less economical than the other.

Posted in Book Printing | Comments Off

Custom Printing: Post Mortem on Color Swatch Book

July 4th, 2016

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments Off

I just received printer samples of my client’s color swatch book. To recap, I have been working on this job with my client for almost a year and a half now. It is a series of 22 swatch books not unlike PMS color pickers used in the graphic arts field.

However, in this case the print books help you choose fashion colors based on your complexion, hair color, and eye color. It seems rather scientific, although I couldn’t explain it when my fiancee praised the samples and asked how to use them. In addition to having different complexioned faces on their covers, all I see is a 60-color selection (per book) of swatches that seem to differ (from book to book) in terms of their color choice (for example, earth tones vs. bright warm tones) and intensity (saturated colors vs. more neutral colors).

The books look superb. Since I am a print broker, that’s what really matters to me. That the commercial printing supplier had sent me printed samples of the job made my follow-up conversation with my client much easier. After all, she lives almost halfway across the country. Fortunately, when we spoke, I learned that she thought the books were gorgeous.

Good Choices During the Production Process

Choice of Design/Production Workflow

My client was on a tight budget, and the initial pricing from the graphic designer was far too high for my client’s resources. So I suggested that she buy a month-to-month license to InDesign and learn to produce the art files herself. I made her a template to use, and then talked her through a number of rough points. But she did do it herself. My client made sure everything was exactly right, and saved a lot of money in the process. Of course, success in this area reflects her commitment to her work and her ability to learn new things quickly. Even though she had never done any design work, she did have an art background.

Choice of Printer

I had initially chosen another printer with a Kodak NexPress. Close to the beginning of the job, the printer confessed that his estimator had made a mistake. He had underpriced the job. It would cost at least twice as much. The estimator had been fired, but where did that leave me and my client?

Fortunately, another printer had been looking to me for new business. I listened to the sales rep’s pitch and also reflected on the fact that I had known her and another principal at the new printer for 17 years. Moreover, she was continuously offering suggestions on the other jobs I was sending her for estimates. When I made the switch from the first printer to the second (who also could meet my client’s budget), I thought it would be a good move. Looking back now, I think it made all the difference.

Proofing Continually

In producing the prior edition of the fashion color swatch book, my client had had a bad experience with an overseas printer. Among other things, she had not seen adequate proofs, and the final printed colors had been wrong. To remedy this, I made sure the new printer provided samples and proofs at all stages of the process: samples from the Indigo digital press, samples of the lamination, and samples of the binding materials. I didn’t want my client to have any surprises.

Fortunately, the printer was willing to slow down the process a bit to allow for the proofs. (Interestingly enough, my client only changed one or two pages, but seeing the various proofs and binding and coating materials gave her the confidence that the final product would satisfy her and her clients.)

What Went Right with the Job?

I’m going to start with the most recent choices, because these small details have made a big difference.

Round Corners

The client, the printer, and I chose 1/8” rounded corners instead of 1/4” rounded corners for the print books. This part of the process required making a metal die to cut the finished swatches after they had been printed on the HP Indigo digital press. Initially we had planned for 1/4” round corners, but the printer’s rep had seen samples and had thought that for such a small color book (approximately 1.5” x 3.5”) the 1/4” corners looked huge. To save time, she “texted” me photos of both options. I agreed with her assessment, and so did my client. Prior to text messaging, this step would have required several days to mail, receive, and check hard-copy proofs.

Lamination Instead of UV Coating

At the proof stage I had the printer send out samples of my client’s actual job produced on the HP Indigo press. The printer had also added a UV coating for protection. However, when my client ran her fingernails across the printed sheets, she could mark the printed color swatches below the UV coating.

My client’s clients would be paying a lot for these little swatch books, and anything that made them look old quickly would be a problem. So to remedy the situation the printer’s rep suggested 1.2 mil lamination instead of a UV coating. She sent me samples, and it seemed to be a much more durable option. I sent the samples on to my client, and she agreed. As I review the finished print book samples now, I see that this was a good choice.

A Metal Screw and Post Assembly

My client had mentioned that in a prior printing of this job, the print vendor had used plastic screw-and-post assemblies to bind the loose color swatches. Because my client (and her clients) had in some cases needed to disassemble the books to add or remove color swatches, these plastic screws had in some cases broken or become difficult to use. I had suggested metal assemblies for this second printing of the job. Now, looking at the finished product, I think that, in addition to the increased durability, the metal binding screws just make the job look more substantial. (And, again, for a high-cost product, a quality appearance goes a long way.)

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. First of all, do a post mortem on all jobs. Even if this just means that you reflect for five or ten minutes on what worked and what didn’t, you’ll learn a lot, all of which will contribute to the success of future design and print projects.
  2. Choose a good printer. Find someone interested in your job who will make suggestions and be flexible. In short, choose a partner, not a vendor. In many cases, it’s better to scale back the project goals to lower a printer’s price than to choose a low-cost printer just because he can meet your budget. After all, you get what you pay for.
  3. Ask for samples. Before you choose printing and binding processes and materials, it helps to actually see and touch them, to see how they work and feel. (After all, both printing and binding are physical processes.)
  4. Ask for proofs. Proof early and often. If something isn’t right in a proof, be thankful. It’s better to find the error at the proofing stage than to find it after your job has been delivered.

Posted in Digital Printing | Comments Off

Book Printing: I’m Thrilled with the Printed Samples

June 24th, 2016

Posted in Book Printing | 2 Comments »

A few weeks ago a client of mine took delivery of a short run of case-bound books. I didn’t get mine until today, and I was thrilled with the results. Particularly since I was using a new printer in the Midwest that had been courting me for over a year. I had liked the pricing and samples, but this was my client’s work. It had to look great. The printed sample made me glad I had chosen this book printer.

Backstory on the Print Book

To provide some context for the printed sample, let me describe the product. It was a 650-copy print run of a 536-page, 8.5” x 10.875” case-bound textbook. In prior years the job had been the same length but the press run had been over 1,000 copies. Unfortunately, the prior year’s vendor needed to print 1,000 or more copies to make its heatset web press profitable, so I was on my own to find a digital book printer. Fortunately, I was able to do so.

Now the prior year’s printer could have produced the book digitally, but it would have potentially cost more. Also, the prior year’s printer offered only limited binding capabilities. The binding would have been subcontracted, and the options for binder’s cover cloth would have meant not matching the prior year’s book. This was not an option, since my client’s clients had been purchasing issues of the textbook year after year for some time. A lesser quality binding would have diminished the overall quality of the job. Furthermore, my client’s clients paid a handsome price for the print book year after year, so the quality and especially the consistency of the books with prior years’ editions were non-negotiable.

The New Printer

The new book printer had provided an estimate slightly lower than the prior year’s price for an offset-printed book. For a book of this length (albeit one with a low press run), this was surprising. When I learned that the printer had in-house case binding capabilities, I understood the low price.

(As a point of information, most book printers cannot do their own case binding. They don’t have the volume of work to justify the cost of the equipment. So outsourcing is a necessity, and this can drive up prices and lengthen production schedules.)

Furthermore, this printer was in a geographic area with a lower overall cost of living (when compared to my own and my client’s). Therefore the printer could offer lower prices than many other vendors.

In addition, having in-house case binding capabilities made a huge difference. The schedule and pricing were especially attractive, and the book printer could provide more options than the much larger book printer I had sent the job to in prior years.

The printer was able to offer the same Arrestox B deep green book binding cloth with Rainbow Oatmeal flyleafs and endsheets. (Basically this means the cover cloth and the color, texture, and speckled finish of the endsheets were exactly what had been used for prior offset-printed editions. Had the prior year’s vendor done such a short, digital press run of this year’s book, the cover cloth and endsheet material would have been more generic and would not have matched prior editions of the book.)

The new book printer was also able to foil stamp the covers in-house (approximately 30 square inches over the front and back cover and spine).

What Was Missing?

Of course, nothing is perfect. I can live with that. In this case, the new book printer was unable to offer headbands and footbands (the little cloth attachments that give color to the binding where the stacked press signatures come together at the spine). This was a nicety, not a deal breaker. In addition, the print book was square backed and tight-backed (unlike prior editions). That is, the spine of the book was not rounded, and there was no opening between the folds of the book signatures and the spine when the book was open on the table (allowing the book to lie flat more easily). Again, this was noticeable but not a deal breaker. Only an experienced printer or bookbinder would see the difference, and the overall look was not “wrong,” just different.

How Was It Done?

Due to the short length of the press run (650 books), even though the book was a long one (536 pages plus cover), the job lent itself to digital laser printing (electrophotography) rather than either sheetfed or web-fed offset printing. Upon receipt of the book, however, I did ask the vendor what equipment had been used (I have not yet heard back). The book printer’s website unfortunately did not have an equipment list. Presumably it was a high-quality press like an HP Indigo. I was pleased with the consistency of the printed area screens and the quality of the halftones. (I didn’t see banding or artifacts in the screens.)

For such a short press run, I assume a table-top binder had been used for the case-binding work, although I may be wrong. In most cases this would be far too short a run for a large, production-quality case-binding set up.

Regarding the 4-color dust jacket, I’m not quite sure how it was printed. Under a loupe I see what looks like the traditional rosettes of offset halftone work. This would actually make sense. A 650-copy press run of a single sheet (the dust jacket) would not be cost prohibitive, and it would be slightly better than even the highest quality digital printing. Moreover, the image size for most of the higher-end digital presses is still close to or slightly above 12” x 18”. Since the spine was close to 2”, this would have left no room for the front and back covers and spine plus flaps plus bleeds. I asked the printer and haven’t heard back yet, but I won’t be surprised to learn that it had been offset printed. (If it had been printed digitally, the size of the press sheet would have required one of the largest sized digital presses.)

What You Can Learn

  1. First and foremost, if you are doing case binding, or even perfect binding, try to find a vendor that can do the work in-house. In many cases this won’t be possible, and it need not be a deal breaker, but your turn-around time and the cost of your product will benefit from this in-house equipment if you can find it. In fact, being open to vendors outside your immediate geographic area is a good way to find printers with in-house case binding.
  2. Be aware that digital printing often does not come with all the options available for an offset-printing run (no rounded spine, in my case). Think about what you do and don’t really need. A book printer with in-house binding will probably give you more options.
  3. Always ask for printed samples.
  4. Consider vendors outside your immediate geographical area, but also factor in the cost of freight. Books are heavy and cost a lot to transport.

Posted in Book Printing | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: Address Delivery Requirements Early

June 21st, 2016

Posted in Printing | 2 Comments »

I’m helping a commercial printing client of mine produce an 88-page-plus-cover perfect bound book of poems. It’s gratifying to assist in the creation of a literary work in a world where we seldom have time to pause and reflect.

The final details, prior to submission of InDesign files, have included such items as my client’s transferring funds to the book printer (to cover the paper purchase), confirming the book length and press run, and getting my client to think about delivery.

Delivery is usually not a concrete enough concept at this early stage, but it still helps to get my clients thinking early, since it will be all too real in about a month. Today I found a delivery manifest from a book printed for the same client about a year ago. I’m using it as a starting point. It actually raised some interesting issues I wanted to share with you.

Structure of the Delivery Form

When you think of the number of cartons needed for a 1,500-copy, or 10,000-copy run of a paperback book, it starts to make sense why you should draft a detailed delivery manifest. An error can require a lot of physical labor to fix.

In creating this delivery manifest the first items I added were the following four headings: “Number of Copies,” “Destination,” “Carrier,” and “Due Date.”

Number of Copies

Among other things, I made sure all of the deliveries added up to the total press run, no more, no less. You laugh, perhaps, but it’s easy to make a mistake here. This also forces you to think about the books (or other printed products) as complete, individual units. Prior to this, they may have been a collection of specifications including page counts, page sizes, paper choices, etc. Now they are individual units, and their distribution must be accurate.


Destination is a more complex item. Here I put not only the complete street address but also names and phone numbers of people responsible for taking delivery of the job. In many cases these contact people will need to know the delivery date and time prior to the truck’s arrival (by a certain number of hours or days).


In some cases the printer will want to deliver the print books. In other cases, the printer will want to hire a separate carrier to deliver them. For my particular client, based on the location of the printer, the fulfillment house (rather than the printer) will drive to the printer’s factory, pick up the books, and drive back to the fulfillment house. It pays to spell all of this out on the delivery form. (It keeps you focused on the details of all of the deliveries, and it provides a single document that all participants in the production and distribution process can refer to—repeatedly.)

I also like to give the book printer the option of choosing the best way to deliver the job instead of making this decision myself. This is particularly true if the printer is far away geographically. No one knows better than the printer’s customer service representative which local trucking companies are the best, what their routes are, and how the job has been prepared (i.e., the number of cartons and whether the job will require a full truckload or an LTL—less than truckload—delivery). If this sounds complicated, what it really means is that the customer service representative can get the best deals, so it’s prudent to let her or him do the research. Just make sure he or she lets you know the options.

Mostly, the choice of carrier will depend on the delivery location, due date, and number of cartons and/or skids of print books (or other printed products).

Due Date

If you look closely at a printer’s estimate, you’ll see that some printers include the date shipped while others include the date delivered. Your main concern will be when the completed job will arrive at your warehouse. So make sure you discuss the due date early and include it on the delivery form, where all participants can see it. In most cases, the fulfillment houses, warehouses, etc., will want sufficient notice as to the window of time in which the delivery will occur.

Extra Information

I always ask all of the freight carriers for their own specific packing instructions. These can include the following:

  1. Fulfillment houses may want all print books to have specific barcodes that display the U.S. price and ISBN.
  2. Warehouses and fulfillment houses may want the book cartons to be marked with the book’s title, ISBN, carton quantity, and carton weight in both readable and barcode formats.
  3. Warehouses may want shipments to be accompanied by a packing slip that indicates the quantity by title, the number of cartons on each pallet, and the number of pallets. They may want the packing slip attached to the pallet or inside an accessible carton marked “packing slip enclosed.”
  4. They may require shipments of more than a limited number of (for example, 10) cartons or a certain number of (for example, 300) pounds to be palletized and shipped by truck to avoid rough handling and potential damage. They may also require that pallets not be double-stacked in the truck.
  5. Warehouses and fulfillment houses may stipulate that shipping charges for books are the responsibility of the publisher, and that all shipments must be sent prepaid.
  6. They may have requirements for the size of the assembled pallet (for instance, 40″ x 48″ x 48″ high).

It is wise to do everything these warehouses and fulfillment houses request in order to ensure accurate shipment of the proper number of books, undamaged in transit, and accurately accounted for throughout the delivery process, the inventory, and the pack-and-ship fulfillment process.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The best thing you can learn is to be precise, comprehensive, and accurate. Once you have a delivery form like this, you essentially have a contract. All participants at your place of business (in marketing, new product development, etc.), as well as the printer and the distribution facility will have a physical document to which they can refer, and which they can amend if necessary.

Posted in Printing | 2 Comments »

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