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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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: Digital Inkjet Printing on Floorboards

I had mentioned about nine months ago that my fiancee’s house had burned. Now we are in the rebuilding phase after the house fire, so I am reviewing more samples of flooring than I really want to see. Ironically, many of them have looked like wood but have been a manufactured, inkjet printed flooring product.

The Flooring Samples I’ve Seen

At a flooring warehouse I visited, the flooring samples fell into a limited number of categories. Some were hardwood and contained planks with tongue and groove joints. That is, one side of each board had a recessed grove while the other side had a wood extension that fit into the groove on the next board. Tongues and grooves ran the entire length of each board. These planks, while differing in their length, were solid wood through and through. You could see the patterning from the planks cut from the maple tree, for instance, and they were visible on the front and back of the board.

My assumption was that these floors would outlive the house owner and could never be gouged enough (by accident) to damage the plank. Even with a deep gouge, the floor board would still look like maple, or oak, or whatever other hardwood.

At the other extreme were the vinyl floors. These were still printed to look like wood. They had the swirls and knots of the maple and oak woods. You could see the edges of the 3-inch, or 5-inch, or other width planks, but if you looked more closely, you could see that even the edges of the planks had been printed onto vinyl sheets that when glued to the floor would give the impression of wood planks. These had been printed via inkjet technology and then topcoated for durability.

When I looked closely at their edges, these planks appeared to have a rubber or plastic bottom sheet, then a manufactured layer (chipped or pulverized wood glued into a solid block), and then a thin veneer on which the flooring pattern had been printed. Clearly, if you had a floor like this in your kitchen and dropped a sharp knife, point downward, you would inadvertently cut through the part that looked like wood, revealing the fake under-layer.

Other flooring samples called laminates included thin sheets of real wood attached to a manufactured floorboard base. Manufactured (or engineered) flooring was completely man-made to look like wood. And finally there were the selected cork floors. Although the latter looked somewhat fragile when compared to wood, it still had a sense of being “natural.”

How These Floors Are Printed

An article on the Surface & Panel website (entitled “Digital Inkjet Flooring Perfected: A New Approach” and written by Suzanne VanGilder) explains the NextFloor approach to printed flooring. Although this flooring decorator goes way beyond simulating wood patterns in synthetic floors to include more creative, artistically dramatic products, it seems that the first step to a good flooring inkjet job involves preparing the substrate.

The first step is to coat the boards with a filler that seals and smooths out the surface to provide an even surface for the inkjet custom printing. It also seals the board against moisture. Next the operator applies a base coating to which the inkjet ink will adhere. A proper mixture will allow for ink absorbency into the coating but not for sideways ink migration. This base layer will also fix the ink after custom printing and protect the ink surface from sunlight. To complete the process, the bottom of the plank is also roll coated to keep out moisture.

Once coated, the flooring planks can be inkjet printed. Each printhead sprays one color (of the CMYK inkset) along the length of the board, followed by the other colors. Due to the digital nature of the process, there can be a much larger variance in the decoration inkjetted onto the floor boards than would have been possible with an analog process. (Granted, for NextFloor, the inkjet printing process often does not simulate wood but rather prints a dynamic graphic design on the boards.)

Such inkjet custom printing often employs a water based ink instead of solvent ink, an eco-solvent ink, or a UV cured ink. The goal at this point is to provide a surface that will be lightfast and resistant to water.

The next step is to topcoat the floor boards both to protect them against wear and tear, and to provide a gloss coating that will give depth to the inkjetted design and coloration. According to VanGilder’s article, NextFloor coats the floorboards with “HotCoating PUR topped with acrylic UV lacquer.” The topcoating can even be textured (or embossed).

Why Inkjet Printing of Floorboards Is Noteworthy

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Patterns on the floor can be repeated less often, so with a judicious placement of the floorboards during installation, you can give the impression that the pattern never repeats.
  2. The process is eco-friendly.
  3. You never have to worry about warehousing large supplies of flooring. You can just create them as needed. There is only a minimal cost in getting the equipment up to speed for a print run.
  4. You can print photographs and text on the floorboards, so why stop with simulated wood patterns. If you can imagine it, you can print it on the floor.
  5. All of this expands the definition of commercial printing. Industrial digital inkjet printing is becoming valuable for flooring, tiles, wall-covering, drapes, bedsheets. You name it. And that’s just in the realm of interior design.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Digital Inkjet Printing on Floorboards”

  1. Colin says:

    I’ve noticed the same thing on ceramic tile… look closely and you can tell that some of it is inkjetted as well.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for posting a comment. I’ve seen this, too. I think it’s really interesting how inkjet technology can make one thing look like another so convincingly.

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