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Custom Printing: A Primer on Embossing

I was doing research on embossing yesterday, and I found an article that summarized just about everything I had ever read on the subject, so I thought it would be good to share it with all PIE Blog readers. It is entitled “The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Embossing,” and it was posted by Rikard on www.zevendesign.com on 06/14/16. The article discusses what embossing is, how it’s done, what kinds of presses you can use, types of dies you can use, metals used for the dies, counter dies, embossing applications and options, and preparing artwork for embossing.

Here’s a synopsis:

What Is Embossing?

Embossing is a physical finishing process (done after custom printing) that raises a design on the surface of the printing paper above the surrounding paper. A design can also be recessed below the surrounding surface of the paper. This is called debossing. One can perform embossing by itself or pair this process with offset commercial printing, application of paper coatings, or foil stamping.

Embossing is done by pressing the printing paper between a metal die and an epoxy or paper counter die. The die has a single-level, multi-level, or varied-level (also called sculpted) image recessed into the metal. The counter die pushes the paper up into the metal die, molding the paper surface and creating the raised effect.

Embossing does not usually provide a deep impression. Rikard’s article notes that an embossed design usually is only (on average) about 1/64th of an inch deep.

When you want to deboss, rather than emboss, a design, you switch the die and counter die. In this case, as noted above, the design is recessed below the surrounding paper.

What Kinds of Presses Do Embossing?

Rikard lists several types of presses that can handle the pressure (and in some cases heat) necessary for embossing along with their benefits.

A clamshell press opens and closes like a clam and presses the paper between the die and counter die (positioned on either side of the press). It is easy to set up this press and change dies, so it lends itself to short runs of embossing. The Kluge is an example of this kind of press.

A straight stamp press brings the die straight down onto the paper. A straight stamp press takes longer to set up than a clamshell press, but the embossing process goes more quickly, so this kind of press is good for longer embossing runs.

A roll press is similar to an offset press. That is, it has an embossing die mounted on a roller, and paper is fed through the press and under the die. It takes much longer to prepare a roll press for embossing, and the dies themselves are more expensive to create, but the embossing process is much faster than with a clamshell or straight stamp press, so a roll press is the best choice for much longer embossing runs (hundreds of thousands or millions of copies).

Types of Dies

According to Rikard’s article, dies can be made from magnesium, copper, brass, or steel.

A single-level die raises the surface of the paper at only one level.

A multi-level die raises the surface of the paper to multiple levels. It can be prepared by machine (without hand-tooling). It is often created from brass, since brass is very durable.

A beveled-edge die is like a single-level die, but it has a slanted edge (30 or 60 degrees). This process can be used to create very deep dies to keep them from cutting through the commercial printing paper.

A chisel die has no flat bottom, just two edges that come to a point.

A textured die has an etched texture. It has a single level, but it is good for textured images and organic patterns.

A domed die is rounded (in contrast to the “V” shape of the chisel die).

A sculpted die includes multiple levels, curves, and angles at different depths. This process is very complex and requires hand tooling.

A combination die (also called a foil emboss die) achieves both embossing and foil stamping in a single step. However, as Rikard’s article notes, every element of the design that is embossed is also foil stamped (you can’t treat different portions of the design differently).

Metals for Dies

Magnesium is the least expensive metal for an embossing die, but it is also the least durable, lasting for only five to ten thousand impressions (and easily destroyed with a single paper misfeed). It costs half as much as copper and one fourth as much as brass. It is used for single-level dies.

Copper is also used for single-level dies. But it will last for up to 100,000 impressions. Both magnesium and copper can be etched with an acid bath to produce these single-level embossing designs.

Brass is used for multi-level and sculpted dies, and also for combination dies used for both embossing and foil stamping. Brass is much more durable than magnesium and copper, but it is two or three times as expensive as copper.

Rikard notes that “for most common emboss applications, copper dies are the best choice. Not significantly more expensive than magnesium dies, they will last longer and won’t be ruined by a paper jam. Magnesium dies are good for prototypes, due to their low cost and fast turnaround…. Brass dies are a necessity for combo, multi-level, or sculpted dies” (“The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Embossing”).

Dies and Counter Dies

The die itself is made from the metals previously described. Their counter dies, however, are made from either epoxy or paper. In either case, the die is pressed into the counter die material to make a reverse impression. The paper counter die (which is good for short runs) is easily and quickly formed from the die with the heat and pressure of the process.

Rikard notes that “Because an emboss die is metal, the only control you have during the stamping process is the make-ready [the counter die]. By building it up or shaving it down in certain areas you can deepen, soften, or eliminate areas of emboss” (“The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Embossing”). Basically, you can selectively adjust the overall embossing effect without remaking the die by altering the counter die (or make-ready).

Embossing Applications

A blind emboss involves raising the level of the paper but not applying foil or adding offset printing to enhance the design. This is a subtle effect.

A registered emboss involves aligning a printed image or a foiled image with the embossed image.

A combination emboss involves embossing and foil stamping the same design. This is achieved with one sculpted brass die in one operation.

Preparing the Artwork for Embossing

Rikard notes that the prime directive in embossing is to provide artwork in vector format, using Illustrator or InDesign. Raster-based artwork (produced in an application like Photoshop) will create a jagged edge in the metal die that will cut through the paper.

Rikard also notes that embossing is the final step in the “finishing” process that follows the commercial printing process. That is, you can’t laminate or spot coat an embossed design.

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