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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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Archive for the ‘Offset Printing’ Category

Book Printing: Sometimes Moving Text 1/8” Can Save $1,300 or More

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

In prior blogs I have always been a great proponent of making your custom printing vendor an ally and partner. Develop trust and a two-way relationship. It will benefit you both.

This week in my print brokering work I received a suggestion from a commercial printing supplier to whom I had bid out a 11,000-copy perfect-bound book. With a 6” x 9” format and 312 pages, the job involved a lot of custom printing paper, and therein lies the key to the savings.

The Commercial Printing Proposal

The book printer told me that if my client moved the position of type in the book 1/8” to adjust the face and gutter margins, my client could save approximately $1,300.00. He was proactive because he wanted the job. I’m fine with that, since he provided a way my client could save a considerable amount of money. I wanted to give him the work since he had delivered stellar print jobs on a number of prior occasions.

Specifically, the textbook had a face margin of 1/4” and a gutter margin of slightly more than 1/2”. The book printer told me that my client should move the column of text toward the gutter 1/8” on each of the facing pages, leaving a 3/8” gutter margin and a 3/8” face (outside) margin. He could do this automatically. My client would not need to adjust the art files she had produced.

This small change would allow the book printer to use a smaller press sheet for the job. Instead of buying a 28” x 40” press sheet on which to lay out and print the signatures of the book, he could use a 25” x 38” sheet. For 10,000 copies this would save approximately $1,300.00, and for 11,000 copies it would save approximately $1,500.00.

The Details of the Savings

The custom printing supplier explained to me that the goal would be to position the pages of the book signature on the press sheet to allow for an 1/8” grind off for the spine. By grinding the spine edge of the stacked signatures in a perfect-bound book, the printer can give a little more surface area into which the binding glue can seep, holding the print book together better as the reader opens and closes the book repeatedly over the years.

In short, moving the column of type in the print book slightly toward the gutter allows the printer to lay out the pages of a signature on a press sheet more efficiently, leaving enough room for this “grind-off” while placing the same number of book pages on a smaller sized press sheet. This is efficient planning.

What We Can Learn from This

  1. The greater the level of trust you can develop with your book printer, the more he will perceive you as a partner (and vice versa). Therefore, when he knows you have a particular budget to meet, he can research various ways to save you money. Whether this means suggesting a different paper stock (the same printer suggested Soporset as an alternative to Finch for my client’s textbook, although my client did not like the roughness of its surface and decided to stay with the Finch stock), or adjusting the imposition of the print job to use the paper more efficiently, if you have developed a relationship of trust with your printer, he will make suggestions to help you.
  2. The higher the page count and the longer the press run of your print book, the more paper you will use. This is obvious. What is not as obvious is that a small adjustment that can save a small amount per page can provide a sizable savings over the course of a long press run. The potential savings of $1,300.00 to $1,500.00 that the book printer offered my client was due to the large amount of paper consumed during print production. A shorter book with a smaller press run would not have saved anywhere near as much money with this simple design change.
  3. A small change can make a big difference. My client would not need to change the trim size of the 6” x 9” book at all, just the placement of art on the page (i.e., the print book margins). The moral is that you should always ask the printer if your particular design yields the most efficient use of the press sheet. Remember that each printer will have different equipment (potentially different sized presses that accept different sized press sheets), so the answer may differ from vendor to vendor.


My Client’s Final Decision

People have different motives and different goals. I was surprised to learn that my client wanted the book to match the prior year’s version more than she wanted to save $1,300.00 to $1,500.00.

Actually, I can understand and respect her decision. Even 1/8” might be problematic if the text were to fall too close to the gutter. In this case, my client was concerned that some of the 11,000 readers might be uncomfortable with the smaller gutter margin. For her, quality and consistency with prior years’ versions trumped a price savings. (If you’re selling custom printing, it is important to understand the client’s goals. If you’re designing a print book and buying printing, it’s important to understand your boss’ and your reader’s goals.)

Commercial Printing: Domtar’s Dream Paper Promotion

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I just received the new paper promotion booklet from Domtar called Dream. It showcases some dramatic printing techniques on Cougar paper. I thought you might find the book interesting.

Overview of Dream

First of all, I’d encourage you to contact Domtar and request this promotional book yourself. You will be included in Domtar’s marketing database and start receiving free print books like Dream on a regular basis. Nothing beats seeing what a paper company can do with good commercial printing paper and creative design. The paper mills put a lot of money into these promotions, and they are great educational tools.

If you get this print book, first page through it for the overall effect, and then jump to the “production notes” section at the back of the book. Almost every paper promotion book includes a section like this, with a thumbnail photo of each page spread and a description of exactly how the paper company achieved the custom printing effects.

Paper Use in the Promotional Book

Reading the production notes, you can see that Domtar printed the cover of Dream on 130# double-thick Cougar cover stock, smooth finish. Double-thick cover is also known as duplex cover stock. It can either be composed of two different stocks laminated (glued) together, or it can have one side printed one color and the other side printed another color. Paper mills can even produce commercial printing paper with different finishes on the two laminated paper stocks (smooth and antique, for instance). Duplex stocks tend to be thicker than usual, from 100# to 160# (the one used for the cover of Dream is 130#).

The inside of the book is printed on 100# Cougar cover, smooth finish. Since the surface texture of both the cover and the text pages are the same, the book has a consistent “feel.” The smooth, uncoated sheet makes the photos on the cover and inside the book appear silky (not as crisp and harsh as photos printed on a gloss press sheet). But the brilliant white of the uncoated Cougar stock gives the ink colors a vibrant look.

Normally, 100# cover stock would be exceptionally thick, but if you compare the double-thick 130# cover paper to the inside text pages, the text pages seem quite a bit thinner in contrast (one of the benefits of duplex cover stock).

If you look closely, you will see that the printer scored all folds. This is a necessary step when working with such thick commercial printing stock.

Samples of Foils and Paper Coatings

The production notes refer to “dot-for-dot” dull varnish. Such a coating would normally seep into the paper fibers of an uncoated sheet like Cougar. Varnishing uncoated stock is a little like putting paint on a sponge. That said, it actually does seal the heavy ink coating (for protection and to avoid scuffing and offsetting). The designer chose “dot-for-dot” varnish rather than flood varnish. This means that only the printed halftone dots of the image were varnished. In contrast, flood gloss or flood dull varnish lays down an even overall coating on both the ink and the unprinted paper.

Other pages in Dream include examples of silver metallic foil and clear foil stamping. The clear foil stamping looks like a gloss UV coating. On the page under the front cover flap, which includes a portion of a face, there is a dramatic contrast between the iris (covered by clear foil) and the rest of the eye and face (produced with only ink on the dull, uncoated Cougar press sheet).

Clear foil is ideal for adding a uniform gloss sheen to a portion of an uncoated stock, since it sits on top of the paper rather than seeping into the paper fibers. The silver metallic foil on the child astronaut page of the Dream book works well, too. Unlike silver ink, the silver metallic foil keeps its full intensity on uncoated stock, and its smoothness contrasts well with the rough tooth of the surrounding uncoated black paper.

Process Inks and Touch Plates

The production notes show where four-color process inks were used and where additional touch plates were added. In one case, the background of a photo in which a man is playing a trumpet has been augmented with fluorescent pink ink added with a touch plate. This extends the color range of the image significantly. Without the touch plate (an additional printing plate on an additional press unit) the 4-color process inks alone could not have achieved such richness of color.

On another page, an image of a skyline at dusk was printed with dense black and fluorescent yellow touch plates. The former accentuates the black (sometimes black ink can look washed out on uncoated commercial printing stock), and the fluorescent yellow ink gives all the lights in the buildings an ethereal glow.

What We Can Learn from Domtar’s Dream Promotion

There’s no better way to learn design and commercial printing techniques than to study the work of the masters. Paper companies put all their skills and financial resources behind these promotions. Their goal is to sell paper, but you can learn a lot from them as well.

In addition, always review the production notes section of a promotional piece. It’s dry reading (a little like reading a cookbook). But you can learn the intricacies of custom printing from a close study of these descriptions.

Large Format Printing: Movie Standee Lightboxes

Friday, July 13th, 2012

As I have noted in many prior PIE Blogs, I install “standees” and other signage in movie theaters as part of my multi-faceted custom printing life. One such standee promotes The Rise of the Guardians, an upcoming animated film. Although this 14-foot wide and 8-foot high cardboard display portrays six of the movie’s main characters on zig-zagging boxes stacked on a wide base, what makes this particular installation intriguing is its structure. The entire standee comprises a set of six “lightboxes.”

How Lightboxes Work

A lightbox is a device incorporating semi-transparent film or paper placed over a light source. Fluorescent, incandescent, or LED bulbs attached to an electronic light-timing device, and positioned within the structure of the standee, illuminate the transparent graphic panels from behind to give drama to the photographic images of this large format printing display.

This is a little bit like a slide or transparency placed on a lightbox, or even more like the backlit advertisements you can find in subway stations and the airport.

What makes lightboxes dramatic is the level of contrast (the difference between the highlights and shadows) in an image. A slide or transparency, or a lightbox at the airport, or even a lightbox in a standee, has a greater color range due to the back lighting than a similar large format printing graphic panel would if it did not have a source of light behind the image. The light source immediately draws the eye to the graphic panel on the standee. Moreover, by placing the lights strategically behind the graphic panel, the designer can accentuate certain elements in the image and downplay others.

How the Rise of the Guardians Lightbox Works

With the aforementioned in mind, here’s how the huge Rise of the Guardians lightbox was designed. Six graphic panels showcasing six movie characters each consisted of printed semi-transparent plastic film sheets stretched over boxes constructed from unprinted cardboard. Immediately behind each semi-transparent panel was a cardboard sheet with cut-outs for one to three fluorescent bulbs strapped to the cardboard with cable ties. Each lightbox also included multiple strands of LED holiday lights controlled by a timing device. Pushing the button on the controller would change the pattern of the flashing lights.

From a graphic design approach, the lights served a purpose. The fluorescent bulbs illuminated and accentuated the movie characters (usually their faces, since the printed graphic film through which the light shone was more transparent in the lighter colors). LED flashing lights were set behind images such as birds or sparks coming from a magic wand. The flashing lights simulated movement.

Technical Implications of Lightboxes

With the design implications in mind, I also thought about the technical aspects of this large format printing piece. For instance, some of the 100 to 200 miniature lights lay in direct contact with the cardboard standee. In this case I was not concerned. After all, the amount of heat given off by LED lights does not come close to that produced by incandescent bulbs. (My concern was for a potential fire hazard.) Regarding the fluorescent bulbs, I also had no concern. They give off minimal heat, and they were held in a fixed position within recessed cardboard light-holders using plastic cable ties.

Other Lightboxes

I have installed many other lightboxes in movie theaters. None has been as dramatic as this 14-foot construct (which took 14 hours to assemble), but most have been built around a fluorescent light source. However, one lightbox for a Katy Perry film included a semi-transparent mirror. On the back side of the mirror (within the cardboard structure of the standee) four or five incandescent bulbs were alternately turned up to full intensity and then turned off—repeatedly–using an automatic light dimmer. My concern in this case was due to the nature of the lights and their installation. The bulbs were incandescent and therefore gave off more heat than fluorescent bulbs and LED bulbs in other lightboxes. Furthermore, their sockets were just pushed into holes in the cardboard and then lights were screwed into place. So I was concerned that there might be the potential for contact between a hot bulb and the cardboard of the large format printing standee leading to the potential for fire. I have not heard of this actually happening, so perhaps I was just overcautious.


I find the use of fluorescent, LED, and incandescent lights within such a structure to be most interesting.

I also find it intriguing to see how marketers can custom print images on semi-transparent plastic films, and then light them from behind with various kinds of bulbs timed in precise patterns, to accentuate elements of the backlit graphic panel and create movement within a dramatic large format printing job.

Such a project forces the designer to balance aesthetic needs with such diverse sciences as physics and electronics to create a compelling yet functional custom printing piece.

Custom Printing: More News on the Power of Print

Monday, July 9th, 2012

I subscribe to a monthly magazine called GD USA (Graphic Design USA). An article by Gordon Kaye entitled “Print Is Getting Smarter” in the June 2012 issue of the magazine challenges the notion that commercial printing is dying with their 2012 GD Print Design Survey.

I find this interesting, and you may as well, since the survey supports a number of pro-print assertions with both statistics and commentary from the design community. Who is better than a designer to know what kind of custom printing work is being produced and why?

It’s a long article, so I’d encourage you to search for it on the Internet through the GD USA website, but I want to share with you a few of the survey’s findings under the actual subheadings of the GD USA article.

Finding: “Designers Still Value Print”

Quotations in this section of the survey focus on the unique character of custom printing work as a personal, sensory experience (in contrast to the primarily visual nature of the computer screen). The designers quoted in the survey used such words as “tangible,” “texture,” and “dimensionality” to describe print. One designer even noted that “holding something in your hands can have more impact than just seeing it on a screen.”

Finding: “Print Is Crucial to the Business of Design”

This section of the GD USA survey quantifies the importance of custom printing in the mix of communications channels. The survey notes that 74 percent of the average designer’s time is spent working on print projects and 71 percent of the average designer’s projects include a print element.

Interestingly enough, the accompanying list of the kinds of media the survey respondents have designed in the past year includes print and online in the top two positions (96 percent and 72 percent respectively) and point of purchase/packaging (at 62 percent) as the third medium.

This actually supports my own view, expressed in prior blogs, that boxes and cartons, and at least certain types of signage, will be with us for some time. More importantly, however, it shows that almost every designer who responded to the GD USA survey creates custom printing projects.

Finding: “Brochures and Collateral Are Bread and Butter”

The top ten kinds of commercial printing projects respondents have created in the past year include brochure printing and collateral at the top of the list, then sales promotions and self-promotions, invitations and announcements, direct mail, posters, advertising, identity materials, packaging/point of purchase, annual reports, and finally publications.

From this I can infer the following: While printed periodicals and corporate documents may have become less pervasive, advertising, graphic displays, and the simple but direct vehicle of the brochure still exert a strong print presence. Somebody must read them because marketing firms are paying lots of money for their production and distribution.

Finding: “Print Is Getting Smarter”

The GD USA survey notes that 72 percent of respondents are “designing print projects that have digital or interactive components (QR Codes, etc.) built in” and 70 percent are “designing print projects that are extended or repurposed from online versions.”

Commentary on this aspect of commercial printing work notes the important place of digital printing. The variable nature of digital presses allows publishers and marketers to tailor their printed products to the specific needs and interests of their audience.

Moreover, the ever increasing ability of marketing firms to segment and target their prospective clientele allows them to reduce the number of printed pieces while ensuring that each printed piece conveys important information to an interested reader. And the increased number of ways to respond to a printed direct mail piece (for instance through QR Codes and PURLs) allows interested prospects to immediately connect with the company, research their interests in greater depth, and take the next step in the buying process.

In short, the goal is to use custom printing wisely as one of many coordinated channels for communicating with one’s audience.

Finding: “Everything Old Is New Again”

Here’s a good quote from a GD USA Survey respondent: “It is special receiving a well-designed printed piece in the mail or on my desk. It cuts through the online noise like nothing else.”

I get a whole lot of spam in my email box. Granted, some is useful. Sometimes I relish the information that comes to me through news aggregators, online brochures for computer equipment, and blogs about printing. But I do get a huge number of emails.

I can therefore appreciate the views noted in the survey by designers who see a particularly well-executed print project as rising above the crowd of other marketing messages.

Here’s one final quote: “Print may have a smaller market share, but it will have a larger impact on people’s attention.”

In Conclusion

Print is not going away. However, it is no longer the only communications medium. The goal is still to make one’s message stand out from the noise. Savvy marketers and other communicators are those who can successfully convey their message through an effective mix of the available media to interest and influence their readers.

Check out the rest of the GD USA Annual Print Design Survey. It addresses other issues as well, including views on sustainability, what designers expect from their printers, the role of the paper mills, and online print buying.

Book Printing: Understanding Freight Terms Can Save You Money

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I received an estimate today for a book printing client of mine. She had increased the press run for her company’s annual textbook, but the freight estimate had actually gone down significantly since last year. So I contacted the commercial printing vendor to question the change.

Truckload vs. Less Than Truckload (TL vs. LTL)

If you print a large, multi-page job, the cartoned books may actually fill an entire shipping container. This is known as a truckload (TL) and is an ideal situation. A truckload is dedicated to you. You don’t share the contents of the truck (or other container), so your job goes directly from the origin to destination (particularly useful if your entire shipment goes to one location). There are no other clients’ job cartons on board to be moved around, taken off the truck and perhaps even moved to another carrier (and hence less potential for damage). The pricing is even different (cost per mile rather than per pound) and is often much less. In the case of my client, the increased press run moved her job to a truckload shipper and accounted for the lower price.

The alternate approach to freight is LTL (less than truckload), which is what you will usually need for smaller jobs. Usually, your job and others will go to a hub, where they will be unloaded, inspected, sorted further, and reloaded for subsequent miles of transit.

Since LTL deliveries are routed indirectly, and handled and potentially inspected multiple times, it takes longer for an LTL shipment to reach its destination than a TL shipment.

Benefits of LTL Deliveries

In almost all cases, the size of the delivery will determine whether you will get TL or LTL pricing. And, normally you would want a dedicated truck. But here are some of the benefits of LTL service:

  1. If your job is small, you will still pay a fraction of the cost of hiring a dedicated truck to deliver only your job.
  2. In addition, many LTL vendors will offer additional services, such as “liftgate” service (if you don’t have a loading dock), residential delivery (which is more complicated than commercial pick-up or delivery), inside delivery, and pre-delivery notification. Of course these services come at a price (based on weight or offered for a flat fee). In contrast, many TL carriers will not provide these services, so there are benefits to LTL freight.


Putting Costs in Perspective

To put this in perspective, my client’s job, a 6” x 9” perfect-bound print book with a press run of approximately 11,000 copies, would cost about $700.00 in freight for a truckload (since the quantity of printed books filled an entire semi). Last year, since the press run was smaller (approximately 7,500 copies) the estimates for LTL freight came closer to $1,500.00. So the savings is rather dramatic.

While this is usually not something you can control, being moved from an LTL carrier to a TL carrier does offset the higher cost of printing more copies of your book (or other job), and it is something you might want to ask your commercial printing supplier to research. You might be pleasantly surprised at the pricing benefits you will reap if your job is large enough to warrant TL freight.

A Quick Checklist for TL Freight

If your finished and cartoned job:

  1. weighs more than 10,000 pounds
  2. goes from one point of origin to one destination
  3. and fills an entire truck container


then you might be eligible for TL service.

FOB (“Freight on Board” or “Free on Board”)

FOB stands for “freight on board” (at least in domestic shipping; for international shipping, it can mean “free on board”). It specifies who pays for the loading and shipping of your final job. “FOB Loading Dock” or “FOB Origin” will indicate that you bear the cost of transporting the job back to your office or warehouse. More importantly, if the carrier damages your product, it is your responsibility to seek redress from the carrier.

In my experience, FOB notations are listed on estimates for larger jobs, such as long runs of print books. However, even some smaller commercial printing vendors will charge separately to send your job to your office, particularly if the delivery is interstate.

Things to Consider

Here are some things to keep in mind.

  1. Like the cost of paper, the expense of transporting your job from your custom printing supplier to your warehouse may constitute a large portion of the total cost of a job. Therefore, it behooves you to discuss delivery with your printer and get the terms in writing.
  2. Local printers may have delivery trucks in your area regularly and may therefore roll the cost of delivery into the price they quote. Vendors located farther away may include a line item in the estimate for freight, based on the ZIP Code you provide for delivery. In either case, don’t make assumptions. Address freight directly, both in terms of cost and who is responsible.
  3. That said, you could conceivably arrange for freight yourself. Personally, I wouldn’t suggest this. I like the idea of having the commercial printing supplier take responsibility for the timely, accurate shipping of the job, without any damage. I can sleep easier when this is the case.

Commercial Printing: Creative Ways to Save Money

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

If you’re really in a pinch and have no budget for your custom printing job, there are still ways to save money. This blog will primarily address smaller jobs, such as materials for a wedding or a small business, if you have one. I’ll also throw in a few ideas for big commercial printing jobs.

Saving Money on Paper

I had a print brokering client many years ago who needed business cards and hang-tags for items she planned to sell at a craft fair. Each business card or hang-tag included her business logo and some text. It was a simple custom printing job, but my client had no money to spend.

I went to a printer with whom I had developed a relationship over the years and discussed the job. I also went back into his paper supply room and looked for opened, old (but usable) 80# cover stock in a selection of colors (mostly muted neutrals like grey, off-white, light brown, and a subdued light green). Since these were already trimmed down to 8.5” x 11”, they would fit his smallest press (known as a duplicator), which also had the lowest hourly rate.

I planned to run black-only line art and text, and let the color of the paper provide the color for the job. Along with the consistent type treatment, the similar earth tone colors would provide a uniform overall “look” to the job. Not running any PMS colors would save money as would producing a one-color job on (essentially) free paper that would otherwise have gone to waste.

To save even more money, I laid out the whole job in InDesign to fit on a single 8.5” x 11” page. Along with crop marks to facilitate the post-press trimming process, I laid out a number of hang-tags and a number of business cards side by side on the sheet. I used up all the space I could, placing an extra hang-tag or business card here and there to fill out the press sheet (this is known as imposition, and is usually done by the printer).

I don’t remember exactly how many of each fit on a page: let’s say six business cards and two hang-tags. Since I had collected about 200 scrap 8.5” x 11” sheets with roughly equal amounts of the four tinted colors, I knew that, once trimmed, the single master imposed press layout multiplied by 200 sheets would yield 1,200 business cards and 400 hang tags.

The entire custom printing job probably cost a little over $100.00 for prepress, printing, and finishing for several reasons:

  1. I had collected the scrap press sheets myself that probably would have been thrown out eventually, even though they were perfect for an artist with a certain urban grunge look to her work.
  2. I had produced the imposition for the job (which only took a little math and not much work).
  3. I limited the job to one color on a very small press.
  4. And, most importantly, I had developed a long-standing relationship with the commercial printing vendor, who worked with me to meet the client’s budget.


Variations on the Theme

Here are a few options that are similar, and hopefully equally useful to you.

  1. The printer who did this job also printed my business cards at another time for almost nothing. Why? Because I said he could put them on any 80# white stock with any other job he was already printing–at his convenience, with no deadline.
  2. The approach I took for my business cards can be altered a bit to fit your situation if you are printing a few different jobs. You can lay out all of the jobs on the same press sheet. That way, all jobs can go through prepress and the press at the same time and then only become separate jobs at the trimming stage.

Note: This only works if all jobs can be produced on the same weight of commercial printing paper. If you need business cards and a thin paper brochure, you can’t do this. However, if you’re printing business cards and fold-over photo notecards, you can “gang” them (which is the printer’s name for this operation). You may note that ganging is what I did for my client’s business cards and hang-tags. It’s also a creative way to save money on larger jobs, and process-color work as well.

This is actually how quick printers and online business card shops can charge so little for business cards. If you take one business card to a custom printing vendor, he will do the prepress work and print the job by itself on a press. Therefore, you may pay $200 or more for the business cards. If you go to a printer that does gang runs of business cards, your cards may be on press with many, many other clients’ work. All clients for a particular run can then split the cost of the prepress work, press work, and finishing. In this case, your cards might cost $10 or $20.

One More Hint: the Odd-Lot Paper Market

Sometimes your commercial printing vendor can buy paper through the secondary market, also known as the spot market. Note: This may or may not be a good idea for recurring publications, since your paper may not be available when you need it. However if you are flexible (i.e., willing to accept substitutions), you may want to ask your printer if he has a relationship with an odd-lot vendor. Keep in mind that some of the paper lots also may be of less than optimal quality and runnability. Therefore, your printer may not want to do this. But it is a good way to get a remarkable deal.

One final word on paper from such a source: I’d suggest this only if you are producing a long run of a multi-page publication. In other words, it is only a prudent way to save money if you have a large job that requires a lot of paper.

The Moral of the Story

Think outside the box, and consult your custom printing supplier early and often.

Book Printing: Short Folds Are Cheaper Than Die-Cutting

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

This is a case study showing how a judicious use of folding rather than diecutting can save you money in your print buying work.

A print brokering client of mine, who is a designer, wants to produce a print booklet for an event her client is hosting. She envisions six 2-page spreads plus some introductory material and some follow-up material. She has therefore requested a 16-page, self-cover, 6” x 9” booklet with a press run of 3,000 copies, to be printed in 4-color process inks on 80# cover stock. A simple job. So far, so good.

Here’s the Catch: The Divider Tabs

In order to distinguish among the six 2-page spreads, my client initially suggested tabs. She had heard that thumb tabs (the kind that stick out beyond the face trim of a booklet) would need to be folded in to avoid being cut off during the trimming process. This is usually true for a multi-page book, but in this case, each page spread would have a thumb tab (so there would be no text pages between thumb tabs and presumably no need to fold the tabs in prior to trimming).

When he heard about the proposed design, the printer I had initially approached for an estimate was concerned for two reasons. On a design level, thumb tabs might be inelegant or unsightly. And on a custom printing level, they would require a die (which would cost multiple hundreds of dollars) and die-cutting time on other equipment (possibly a letterpress).

My client suggested tip-on tabs instead, but this too would be a separate process involving gluing additions onto the booklet pages.

My client then asked about designing the print booklet with staggered, diagonal cut-outs in the top right-hand corner of each page. The first page with the diagonal (triangle) cut-out would be slightly smaller than the next, which would be slightly smaller than the one after that. Printed colors could further distinguish between the diagonal cut pages. (Basically this would be a diagonal version of the thumb tab.)

The Alternative the Printer Suggested

The commercial printing vendor proposed an alternative: to do the same thing with horizontal, staggered pages. Each of the four 4-page spreads in the 16-page booklet would have a slightly shorter fold in the front of the book (the low-folio side), while the back pages (the high-folio side) would all be flush.

That is, the back eight pages of the print book would all be 6” x 9”, while the eight pages moving from the front of the book to the center spread would each be 1/2” shorter in width than the following page.

Again, a different ink color for each vertical strip could further distinguish between the page spreads.

One Printer’s Savings in Avoiding Die-Cutting

The booklet with the vertical short-folds would be the cheapest version by far. Why? Because it would not involve any dies or die-cutting on separate equipment.

The bids actually both arrived today, and the pricing of the printer with whom I had discussed the job reflected an additional $600.00 for the die cutting of the diagonal step-down corner tabs.

Interestingly enough, the second printer charged much less (about $200.00 less for the vertical step-down folds but almost $600.00 less for the diagonal version). Apparently he could do the diagonal trim on the cutting equipment without creating a die or doing any die-cutting.

What We Can Learn from this Case Study?

I think there are four lessons to take away from this custom printing scenario.

  1. First of all, all printers have different skills and equipment. Although the norm for a job like this would be to die-cut the diagonal corner step-down tabs, the second printer has offered to do the job without the surcharge for the die and die-cutting. If he does not succeed and has to manufacture a die, it will be at his expense.
  2. The second lesson is to see how helpful it is to approach a commercial printing supplier early. The first vendor I approached offered his knowledge of the cheaper vs. more expensive ways to produce a print booklet. He could have produced any of the four options, but he wanted to save my client money.
  3. The third lesson is that a custom printing job requiring die-cutting gets expensive. The printer has to create the metal die (even if it’s just one diagonal trim that’s repositioned for each of the 4-page spreads) and then take the time on other equipment (usually not a rotary offset press) to die-cut all the press sheets. This adds both time and cost, sometimes without providing a more compelling print book design. (Again, the second printer’s offer to trim the diagonal pages without a die is unusual.)
  4. The fourth lesson is that the cheapest book printing option is not necessarily a bad one in terms of design. In fact, the bold vertical lines of the successive short folds could be quite dynamic, particularly if set off from one another with contrasting colors.

Commercial Printing: Advances in Product Packaging

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

In a world where offset and digital custom printing are struggling for a place among digital-only communications media—such as e-books, Yelp, and Facebook–product packaging work is actually growing.

Advances in Digital Packaging Presses

Until recently, the main focus of digital custom printing within the packaging arena had been custom labels. For flexible packaging beyond custom label printing, the options included offset printing and flexography. However, this has started to change.

The drupa commercial printing trade show highlighted the HP Indigo 10000 (a B2 press, accepting sheet sizes up to 29.5” x 20.9”) that will be ideal for the folding carton and flexible packaging market.

Why is this such good news:

  1. The ability of the press to accept a 29.5″ x 20.9” press sheet allows operators to either produce larger printed products or impose more units on a press sheet. Prior iterations of the Indigo had accepted press sheets closer to 12” x 18”. Accommodating larger press sheets will allow HP Indigo to potentially compete head to head against sheetfed offset presses.
  2. Sustainability of both product and packaging is a deciding factor for many people when purchasing consumer goods. The ability to produce more environmentally sound packaging via digital custom printing is a major selling point, particularly in terms of the waste reduction and productivity enhancing qualities of digital printing.
  3. Mass customization of data and images has become essential as well. The new, larger-format digital presses allow for combining packaging with variable data coupons, tickets, and surveys, thus integrating dialogue marketing with product packaging work.
  4. The variable data capabilities of digital presses such as the HP Indigo 10000 allow commercial printing vendors to add individual barcodes or QR codes to packaging. This helps in tracking individual products, coding and controlling inventory, and identifying counterfeit products.


Advances in Offset Lithography

KBA, Rapida,Heidelberg—these are the heavy hitters in offset custom printing, and these companies have been expanding their offset printing options for product packaging, as evidenced at drupa and elsewhere.

For instance, one particular press, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 offers eight printing units and coating units, as well as UV-ink printing capabilities. It allows for in-line printed dull and gloss varnish effects, and the use of opaque white, metallic inks, and substrates such as aluminum coated cardboard.

Why is this such good news:

  1. As with other commercial printing arenas, packaging faces cost, quality, and turn-around pressures. Being able to print multiple design effects in-line speeds up the manufacturing process and controls costs. Increasingly, such eye-catching effects as printing on metallic foils can be produced efficiently, allowing packaging to really stand out on store shelves.
  2. Press automation improves make-ready times, reduces waste, and improves overall efficiency. For instance, the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-8+LLYLX3 includes automated pile changing at the feeder and delivery ends of the press. It is increasingly possible to provide eye-catching packaging faster and more economically.
  3. Many of these packaging presses are hybrid, including both offset and inkjet capabilities. This means that variable data can be added during the press run rather than in a separate pass. Printers can use such capabilities for adding QR codes, barcodes, and other variable data, or for error detection.
  4. Closed loop, electric eye devices constantly monitor the color density on press, making adjustments as needed to match preset color data. This leads to faster throughput and less waste, as well as improved color fidelity.
  5. Presses such as the KBA Rapida include automated process synchronization. For instance, 41” Rapida presses can change plates automatically while the press automatically washes blankets, cylinders, and rollers. Again, speed translates into cost-savings and improved turn-around times.
  6. The production of flexible packaging consumes vast amounts of power due to long press runs and high heat requirements (the ovens for drying ink on web presses, for instance). With energy-reduction in mind, KBA has developed VariDryBLUE, which captures heat from the initial drying units and reuses it for subsequent drying processes, reducing heat, saving energy, and lowering carbon emissions.


Product packaging seems to be immune from the encroachment of digital-only media. That said, digital technology has been instrumental in improving the speed, quality, cost, and environmental impact of this custom printing work.

Custom Printing: Drupa Highlights Future of Printing

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Wikipedia defines “bellwether” as “any entity in a given arena that serves to create or influence trends or to presage future happenings.” In the arena of offset and digital printing, this word fits drupa perfectly.

drupa (spelled with a lowercase “d”) is the quintessential printing trade show. Held for 13 days in Dusseldorf, Germany, this event brings together experts from all aspects of the printing field to share knowledge and discuss trends. In many cases it is the top managers of various firms who attend, and since major commercial printing equipment manufacturers have booths at drupa, many of these managers order their new presses, folding equipment, and such, right at the drupa trade show.

In addition, according to the Packaging Europe website, this year’s drupa reflects an international presence, including more than 190,000 foreign visitors, with the highest number of attendees representing Germany, India, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, Switzerland, and Italy.

What Does This Say About the Future of Custom Printing?

When you consider the international nature of drupa’s attendees and their “decision-maker” status, plus the list of new equipment on display by such vendors as Goss and HP, plus the high number of actual orders for heavy press equipment placed during the trade show, you can see that divining the trends at drupa can give us a global view of the state of printing.

These are my assessments based on reading I have done about this year’s drupa.

  1. Print is not dead. OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are investing heavily in new commercial printing processes and devices (digital and offset) because they have buyers for their equipment.
  2. Print is pervasive. The international nature of the attendees attests to the international market for custom printing.
  3. Major trends in printing reflected in drupa seminars and exhibits include the following: digital printing, printing of packaging materials, hybrid technologies mixing offset and digital printing, new technologies such as Nanography ™, environmentally sound printing practices, and automation in commercial printing technology.
  4. More workflow-oriented rather than technology-oriented trends include integrated media campaigns; the future of print books, newspaper printing, and magazine printing; dialogue marketing; and packaging.

On a More Global Level, What Does This Mean?

  1. Print must compete with digital-only media. E-books are creating an ever-larger footprint. Many newspapers are merging the staffs for their digital and print editions and reducing the frequency of print editions to a few issues a week.
  2. However, print (both offset and digital) can do things digital-only media cannot. Textured UV coatings (soft-touch and sandpaper) show that digital-only media cannot provide a tactile experience. And this is still important, on some level, for some printed products, to the vast majority of people.
  3. Print buyers are demanding a faster turn-around for more customized work. Equipment that offers both offset and digital capabilities can accommodate short, variable-data work on a tight deadline.
  4. Buyers, in general, will not accept being “talked at” by advertisers. Increasingly, advertisers are developing ways to interact with prospective buyers, through integrated promotional efforts involving digital and offset printing as well as various forms of social media. Studies are beginning to reflect the synergistic nature of cross media initiatives. For instance, combining a direct mail campaign with a QR code and a PURL can yield a much higher response rate than would a print-only or email-only advertising initiative. Clients want vendors to interact with them. Integrated media serves this purpose.
  5. Packaging isn’t going away. When we enter a grocery store or a computer store, the packaging contributes to the saleability of the products. That said, being able to create one box or 1,000 is becoming important, so digital custom printing technology has been making inroads into packaging work.
  6. Digital printing in general seems to be the wave of the future. Many of the high-end sheetfed digital presses are accommodating larger press sheet sizes (and in so doing are competing head-to-head with offset sheetfed presses). In addition, web-fed inkjet presses are coming into use for newspapers and books. The digital equipment is larger, faster, and better, increasingly rivaling or exceeding the quality of offset lithography.

So here we are. It’s an exciting time. The next drupa will be held in Germany in June 2016. Who knows what will be on display (maybe even some of the new 3D printers).

Custom Printing: Sappi Addresses Color Management

Monday, May 28th, 2012

After reviewing The Sappi Standard #5, I checked out the Sappi website and found another booklet entitled The Sappi Standard #2, Managing Color. I thought this would contain useful information, so I ordered the print book, and I wanted to share it with you.

Although the book addresses ways to extend the color gamut with touch plates, ink substitution, and hybrid 6-color printing, I think it’s most useful information pertains to controlling color from the monitor to the inkjet proofer or laser printer to the final offset printed copy.

Without color management, you will have no idea whether what you see on your monitor will match what you see on press. That’s scary, given the high cost of mistakes in custom printing. The goal, as the Sappi book notes, is to coordinate the color profiles (ways color is defined on each piece of equipment in the design and printing chain) and map these to each other and to an objective standard, so that a job printed anywhere in the world will match the same job printed anywhere else.

That is, not only should the soft proof on the designer’s computer monitor (rendered in the RGB color space) match the output of the commercial printing vendor’s inkjet proofing device, but the printer’s inkjet proofer should also be “fingerprinted” to his offset press. But color management should go even further. The printer’s press should be calibrated to an objective standard (such as G7). Presumably, all G7-certified print shops will come up with visually identical (in terms of perceptible color information) print products regardless of the press equipment they use.

The Sappi promotional print book, Standard #2, Managing Color, could easily be 500 pages of dense technical material. (The book is actually very short, but there’s that much information in this area of prepress.) That said, here are a few concepts to get you started in your own research into color management.


Images rendered on a monitor use red, green, and blue light to produce a given hue. In contrast, images produced on a laser printer, inkjet printer, or offset press employ the process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to create a given color. Since the RGB color gamut is larger than the CMYK gamut (more reproducible colors), software must adjust “out-of-gamut” colors, mapping them to the next closest reproducible CMYK build when converting from the initial on-screen image to the file that your commercial printing supplier will print on his offset press. By doing this, the color mapping software must compress the color gamut (from the larger RGB color space to the smaller, press-ready CMYK color space).

Color Management

Color management software can measure, in numeric form, the perceived colors visible on a scanner, monitor, proofing device, or printer. This data file, called an ICC device profile, describes the behavior of color on that specific scanner, monitor, proofer, or press. These profiles can then be compared and adjusted to ensure consistency from one device to another.

What Is G7?

G7 is a standard, a protocol of sorts, that allows commercial printing suppliers across the world to match the output from their proofing and custom printing devices. According to the Sappi color management book, they do this by “defining the gray balance and neutral print density curves.” That is, they reference the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black halftone dot area used to produce a neutral gray color on a device.

It’s All Up to You

All of this becomes either very abstract or very scary. Eventually, you, the designer, must take responsibility for the color on your computer and monitor to ensure that the color you see will be the color you get in your final printed product.

The Sappi Standard #2, Managing Color gives you a list of what you need to do:

  1. Request your offset or digital printer’s ICC color profile. Your goal will be to match this offset or digital press characterization to your own system.
  2. Use off the shelf software and hardware to measure and characterize (or profile) the elements of your design system (particularly your monitor and inkjet printer).
  3. Do this every two weeks (or at least calibrate your monitor and inkjet printer once a month).
  4. Remember that monitors will change their ability to render colors as they age, and each device will have a different color profile (even monitors of the same make and model).
  5. Keep the area surrounding your design workstation visually neutral (gray or muted colors in the background) so as not to affect your perception of on-screen color.
  6. Remember that ambient light in your design studio, such as sunlight, will affect your perception of color as well as contrast.
  7. Paper weight and quality will affect color rendition. The more ink the paper can hold, the more faithful the color will be.

My Personal Advice

Color management is difficult to master. Personally, I’d always request a hard-copy proof for a color critical job. Make sure the proofing device is fingerprinted to the press (your commercial printing supplier will know what this means). You want to make sure your printer can match the proof you see to the final offset printed product.

If you don’t like the proof, just be happy that you caught the problem before your job went to press. Consider the cost of a proof an investment in the success of the job rather than an expense.

If the color on the proof is wrong (or the image has a color cast), adjust the original files, and then request another hard-copy proof. When the proof meets your standards, then and only then give your custom printing vendor the approval to go to press.


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