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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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Envelope Printing: A Few Thoughts to Get You Started

If you’re a marketing executive or designer of marketing materials, you know that almost nothing of importance gets to your prospective clients without an OGE (outgoing envelope). In many cases, nothing gets back to you without a business reply envelope (BRE). The only exception I can think of, other than marketing collateral passed out at conventions, is the postcard, since this workhorse of modern marketing travels unencumbered (without an envelope).

So it helps to know something about envelopes.

In my experience there’s a lot to know, and this can sometimes seem quite overwhelming. There are all the different sizes (from small coin envelopes up to 9” x 12” mailing envelopes, or larger for medical x-rays), aspect ratios (ranging from rectangular to square), paper weights, flap shapes, paper surface textures, and methods of closure, not to mention colors and whether or not there is a window.

The most useful suggestion I can make is to ask your commercial printing supplier for an envelope printing template booklet (or poster). I have seen several that address all of these issues in one place. Such a publication is immensely useful.

Custom Printing Methods

There are a number of ways to print an envelope. Direct offset printing right on the envelope is usually an economical choice for a large number of envelopes (let’s say 1,000 to 5,000 or more). If you are printing a small amount of text or simple graphics on the envelope, you can use a small offset press or even a jet press that can print 30,000 to 60,000 envelopes per hour (depending on the color configuration). That’s fast.

Based on my experience, this is the best option for simple graphics. However, based on my recent reading, a jet press even works well for ink that bleeds off the edge of the envelope. To be certain, I would always ask your printer if the complexity of your envelope artwork warrants direct printing on the envelope or offset printing on a flat litho press sheet and then conversion into an envelope.

The conversion option is ideal for heavy ink coverage. Let’s say your envelopes have full ink coverage on both sides. Such a product will be of a higher quality if the job is first printed on a flat sheet and then die cut, folded, and glued into the recognizable envelope form. (Again, this is in contrast to printing on what is called a “blank,” which is a standard size–such as a #10 envelope, which is 4 1/8” x 9 1/2”.) It costs a lot to print and convert envelopes (obviously the exact cost depends on the quantity) because it requires both steel-ruled cutting dies and the conversion steps of cutting the paper and then folding and gluing it into an envelope. So there has to be a good reason to “print and convert,” and this is usually due to the complexity of the printing, the amount of ink coverage, and/or a non-standard envelope size.

The third option is flexography, which is great for huge quantities of printed envelopes (let’s say 100,000 or more). For this technology, a rubber relief plate wrapped around a cylinder prints the envelopes as they pass through the press (in contrast to the offset lithography option in which the plates are flat, with both the image area and non-image area on the same level).

The fourth option, for much smaller press runs, is digital, usually laser printing. What makes this an attractive option is that there is no set up, so even for a short run of 300 envelopes the total cost is reasonable. If you were to do this short a press run on an offset press, your press make-ready would be expensive enough that your cost for 300 copies or 3,000 copies would be surprisingly close. For digital printing, there is essentially no make-ready, so for short runs your overall price will be low.

That said, there’s another reason to like digital printing for envelopes. Every envelope can be different, so either you can change the address information for each envelope (you wouldn’t even add the addressing information on an offset press run of envelopes), or you can vary the teaser copy on the envelope (the marketing blurb that grabs the recipient).

Paper Weights for Envelopes

If you’re specifying an envelope, you will most likely choose a text weight paper. Let’s say you’re inserting three pages that are 50# text, which is also 20# bond (each kind of paper is weighed at a different basic size, so these two paper stocks actually feel the same). You would probably specify 24# envelopes (a little heavier than the letterhead). Two other good choices would be 24# envelopes for 60# text letterhead paper or 28# envelopes for 70# text letterhead paper. Increasing the paper weight a little, like this, provides a sense of gravitas (philosophical weightiness) to the marketing piece. It seems just that much more important.

I have also received much heavier weights of envelopes in the mail. However, you should remember that the heavier the product, the higher the postage. When I was a graphic designer, as a rule of thumb I would specify 28# envelopes for the larger sizes, such as the 9” x 12” catalog and booklet envelopes. I found these a little more durable, since they were thicker than the usual 24#, and this was a benefit if the envelope contained a heavier product than a letter. For letter-sized envelopes, I would specify 24# stock.

Options for Envelope Closures

Here are just a few:

  1. Remoistenable glue. When you insert a folded letter into a #10 envelope and lick it to seal the envelope, you have just used remoistenable glue. This name distinguishes this glue from the glue that attaches the permanently sealed flaps of the envelope.
  2. Button and string. If you have a brown kraft envelope that will travel around your office, you may want to close it with a string that wraps around two paper buttons.
  3. Peel-and-stick envelopes. You peel off a sheet of paper attached to the glue, and the flap sticks to the opposite side of the envelope. This makes it unnecessary to lick a flap before sealing it.
  4. Clasp envelopes. These have a little metal brad that fits through a hole on the flap and then is spread apart to seal the envelope.

Window Envelopes

Plastic patches (that used to be glassine, poly, or celophane) cover windows on envelopes through which you can see the address information. The window patches come in standard sizes (and placements), although there are a few options for each. This is a useful product because you only have to address the letter, not the envelope.

Consider Postage

Keep in mind that the standard cost to mail a #10 envelope is not the same as the standard cost to mail a 9” x 12” envelope. Do some checking with your Post Office before you create a budget. Size matters, and weight matters. To be safe, give your Post Office a sample with all enclosures already inserted.

The same goes for square envelopes. There is a postage premium for such an envelope. Discuss this with your Post Office.

Consider BRE Markings

If your envelope will be designed to come back to you, you must follow the design requirements of the Post Office. These include size and placement of certain preprinted type (in addition to the address) and various scannable barcodes. Placement of these is crucial if you want to avoid heartache and surcharges. The Post Office can provide booklets on preparing business mail.

Find a Good Direct Mail Printer

It doesn’t hurt to develop a good working relationship with a dedicated envelope printer. Not that most commercial printers aren’t a good source for this kind of printing, but printers that focus on envelopes and other aspects of direct mail printing will be fluent in all of the postal regulations. They will be able to give you templates to help you design business reply mail, and they will have all of the printing and inserting equipment to complete the various steps of a direct mail job efficiently and economically. In my experience, such a printer that also does commercial printing is a real gem.

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