Printing and Design Tips: August 2023, Issue #253

Printed Liquor Pitcher Sample

My fiancee showed me one of her prized thrift-store purchases today, a Crawford’s Special Reserve Blended Scotch Whiskey liquor pitcher, and explained to me how it was made. My fiancee is a sculptor, so her explanation was quite interesting, especially since it included a description of the method used to transfer the logo and floral type from a ceramic decal to the clay prior to firing.

First of all, my fiancee said the three-sided pitcher had been cast in a mold (with liquid clay poured into the intermediate matrix). This was her belief since the walls of the unique pitcher were so flawless. An alternate method, which would have looked less pristine, would have been to fashion the pitcher by hand from three slabs for the sides (composing the triangular solid form) plus a bottom (triangle) and small pieces for the handle and the covering flaps of the pouring spout. (The latter method would have been used to make one pitcher, while the former would have been used to mass-produce numerous pitchers.)

My fiancee noted that the piece could have been made from any of the following kinds of clay (earthenware, stoneware, or porcelain). Wikipedia defines these as follows:

Earthenware is the least expensive and least durable type of pottery made from a lower quality of clay. Stoneware is durable and more expensive than earthenware. Porcelain is the most durable and expensive and is made from the highest quality of clay. (Wikipedia)

Earthenware is porous, so it cannot be used to contain liquids without being glazed. Again, Wikipedia defines glaze as:

Glazes are a liquid suspension of finely ground minerals that are applied onto the surface of bisque-fired ceramic ware by brushing, pouring, or dipping. After the glaze dries, the ware is loaded into a kiln and fired to the temperature at which the glaze ingredients will melt together to form a glassy surface. (Wikipedia)

Earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain are fired in a kiln (using progressively higher temperatures for each of the three options). This fuses the clay particles together and makes the clay piece permanently rigid and durable. Glazes can be added and the clay pieces repeatedly fired (sometimes three or four times).

Due to the feel and appearance of the ceramic, my fiancee thought it was most probably a porcelain item. She also noted that it had a shiny surface, which appeared to be a gloss crackle glaze (a crackle glaze cracks in the heat of the kiln, but this cracking is thin, shallow, and relatively uniform, and it yields a multitude of facets across the surface of the ceramic piece).

On the upper rim of the liquor pitcher my fiancee pointed out a gold line that was slightly irregular. She noted that the artist had most probably painted this gold onto the rim with a brush. She told me the specific glaze contains actual 22-karat gold and that the initial color of the glaze is red, not gold. The high heat of the kiln (porcelain is typically fired at between 2381℉ and 2455℉, according to Wikipedia) changed the red liquid, revealing the actual 22-karat gold we now see.

So this is everything but the printing component. When my fiancee mentioned using ceramic decals to transfer type and art from paper to the ceramic piece, I couldn’t help but envision the dye-sublimation transfer sheets used to apply artwork to the sides of mugs (in contemporary printing technology).

In the case of dye sublimation, special heat-tolerant ink is inkjetted onto a special transfer paper. Then high heat (using a mug press, special kind of heat press) is applied to turn the solid inks directly into a gas (skipping the intermediate liquid phase), and this gas migrates into the specially treated surface of the ceramic mug.

Apparently the ceramic decals my fiancee said were used to print the logo and floral type on the Crawford’s liquor pitcher work in a similar manner. According to Wikipedia:

A ceramic decal is a transfer system that is used to apply pre-printed images or designs to ceramic tableware, ornamental ware and tiles, and glass containers.

A decal typically comprises three layers: the color, or image, layer which comprises the decorative design; the covercoat, a clear protective layer, which may incorporate a low-melting glass; and the backing paper on which the design is printed by screen printing or lithography. There are various methods of transferring the design while removing the backing-paper, some of which are suited to machine application.

The decal method is often used for the decoration of pottery. A special paper is used but the ceramic colours cannot be printed directly and the actual printing is done in varnish and the color then dusted on. The decal is placed colored side-down on the sized ware, rubbed firmly, and the paper then sponged off. (Wikipedia)

In both the dye sublimation and ceramic decal methods, it seems that special inks or dyes are used that can tolerate either the high temperatures of the heat press (or mug press) or the presumably higher heat of the traditional kiln. In both cases the printed type and logos would need to be printed backwards on the transfer sheet, so the migration of inks, dyes, or glaze materials would become "right-reading" again once transferred to the pottery.

When you think that the alternative to using ceramic inks, dyes, or glazes would be to affix a plastic decal on the side of the mug, the high-fired pigments provide a far more durable product, which is capable of going from the microwave oven into the dishwasher. Essentially the old-fashioned way makes the printing on the side of (in this case) a liquor mug an actual part of the ceramic piece instead of an add-on applied with an adhesive (like the plastic mug decals).

A Fire-Blanket Design Analysis

My fiancee and I are getting old. Both of us have on occasion spaced out and left an electric stove burner on. So in addition to using timers as reminders, I recently bought us a fire blanket, a fiberglass sheet used to smother a kitchen blaze.

What intrigues me is the level of design incorporated into this simple fiberglass product.

The fire blanket resides in a nylon pouch with a grommet so it can be hung on the wall. The pouch is bright red with white information screen printed onto the front and two nylon strips attached to the fiberglass blanket inside. In an emergency you pull these strips and the bottom of the red bag opens, allowing the white fire blanket to drop out.

The pouch is beautifully stitched and covered with just a few instructions and images screen printed in white. These show how to release the fire blanket from the bag and how to apply it in a kitchen fire. All headlines are rendered in an uppercase, sans-serif gothic typeface. All remaining text is in uppercase and lowercase sans-serif lettering. Images are few (only three) and simple. You would know what to do even if you could not read the instructions.

Why is this relevant?

This is an example of functional or industrial printing. It transmits information. It is not educational (like a book) or promotional (like a brochure or annual report). But it does involve printing technology. This is actually a huge venue for contemporary commercial printing.

In the particular case of the fire blanket, it’s also a life or death proposition. Information must be transmitted instantly through pictograms and words. Language cannot afford to be a barrier.

[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.]