Printing and Design Tips: November 2020, Issue #232

Die Cutting a Printing Project

One of the major goals of printing is to make your print job stand out from the crowd, to capture the attention of the client or prospective buyer. On some level it all comes down to this. And one of the qualities that sets apart one print job from another is die cutting, a procedure done on a letterpress using a metal cutting rule. It is a separate process from offset or digital printing. Therefore, you need to understand the process and make allowances for a higher cost and extra time in the schedule.

First of all, what kinds of die cuts can you create? Anything that is not a right-angle cut (such as cutting a press sheet down to a book of 8.5" x 11" pages) requires a die cut.

If you cut out a window on a pocket folder or booklet cover so the title on the first page shows through (a simple format used in report covers you might use for a college thesis, and something you can buy in any stationery store), you would need to die cut this rectangle out of the press sheet. Even though the cut-out portion is a rectangle, it is an interior cut-out (as opposed to the exterior, right-angled cuts around a square or rectangular book page, invitation, etc.

A more intricate die cut might be the shape of your logo cut out of cardboard backing for a unique fold-over invitation. Along these lines, a print brokering client of mine once designed a key-shaped booklet. It had front and back covers and individual, unbound pages of a thinner paper stock within the book. All pages were die cut in the shape of a key and then assembled on a metal keyring. This project, printed in four-color inks on both sides of the key-shaped pages, was mailed out in a padded envelope for protection in the mail. The job was unique and attention-getting because of its unusual shape. And since all of the keys were of the same size, my client only had to pay for one metal die with which to die cut all pages of the key-shaped booklet. Granted, this was an expensive project, but it was striking. It caught the attention of the recipients and presented the company branding in a exceptional light.

Or here’s another option. Some of my most cherished print books in my personal library, particularly the case-bound ones, came in presentation boxes, boxes with all sides covered except for the one into and out of which the print books can be slipped for protection. Usually these presentation boxes have little half-circles cut out of the edge of the open side of the box, which allow the thumb and forefinger to grip the book and remove it from the case. Because these are not flush, right-angle cuts, they too must be die cut.

The list goes on. It is only limited by your imagination. Die cutting, along with other enhancements such as adding gloss and/or dull coatings, foil stamping, embossing and debossing, can make an attractive product into a stunning one. Furthermore, in addition to report or book covers and point of purchase displays (which require many die cuts of varied complexity, necessitating complex metal dies or even multiple dies), this technique can be useful for brochures and product packaging.

For instance, take apart a pharmaceutical or beauty product carton, and you’ll see just how complex it is. You can see all the intricate shapes of all of the die cuts as well as the hot-melt glue used in the folding and assembling of the box. What started as a flat printing sheet was then die cut into flat box blanks and then converted--folded and assembled with glue--into a three-dimensional box for your vitamins. And this is in addition to the four-color printing, UV coating, and foil stamping embellishments on the cardboard substrate.

(As an interesting note, the metal dies really provide more of a coarse perforation result. The part of the design that will be removed--the scrap--is still attached to the press sheet in a few places, even after the letterpress has stamped the die cut design. This is so the scrap pieces of printing stock do not inadvertently fall out of the press sheet and into the die cutting equipment. Because of how this process is done, it is very easy to punch out and remove the scrap pieces at the proper point in the process.)

What Do You Need to Do to Prepare Your Artwork for Die Cutting?

First and foremost, talk with your printer early in the process. Not every design you can envision will lend itself to die cutting. The angles have to be achievable with bent metal cutting rules. Also, any thin paper shapes you cut for an intricate design have to still be sturdy enough to stand up on their own. In short, this is a physical process yielding a physical product. The final print job has to look good and be physically strong.

This might require a few things of you as a designer. The printer may have you change or simplify the design of the complex die cut to make it workable. And/or he may suggest that you choose a heavier paper stock, less likely to be crushed or mangled in the die cutting process.

Your printer will also give you an idea of the extra time required for the die cut as well as the extra cost. Almost always this requires subcontracted work. (Printers usually have dedicated vendors who make the metal cutting dies and in many cases they even have the die cutting itself subcontracted out to vendors who have letterpresses and who specialize in this work. )

It is my experience that printers will need to add several days (or even a week) for die making, and in my experience dies can cost upwards of $500, depending on their size and complexity.

One way to speed up the process is to submit an art file for your die cut before you upload the rest of the job (the remaining book cover and book text files, for instance). This way your printer can work with the die cutting subcontractor while you are finishing the balance of the job.

In addition, your printer will want you to provide a separate file for the die cutting, showing the exact size, shape, and placement of the cut or cuts. He will tell you how to provide the file. Most likely it will be a simple black and white image.

New Technology for Die Cutting

Many years ago I started seeing incredibly intricate die cutting work on such printed products as business cards, in one case something as complex as a snowflake. I could tell right away that the technology was different. After all, bending the metal pieces of the cutting die into shapes of this complexity and then inserting them into a base made of wood (which would then be loaded into the letterpress to make the cuts) seemed implausible or impossible.

I did some research and learned that lasers had been used to cut the paper. Since this was a number of years ago, I’m not sure exactly how it was done. However, at this point in time I have seen equipment that has been improved to do exactly this kind of work in reliable, cost-effective ways, again, with lasers.

What’s interesting about laser die cutting is that it is an entirely digital process. Art files on a computer can drive the lasers directly, eliminating the need for metal dies. This not only speeds up the process, but it also eliminates the need to store metal dies for future client jobs.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]