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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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: A Unique Shoe (Un-)Boxing Experience

December 4th, 2022

Posted in Packaging | Comments »

Photo purchased from …

My fiancee and I recently went to Nordstrom Rack for shoeboxes. We’re working with our autistic art therapy students to make Halloween dioramas. They will be miniature rooms with a coffin, spider webs, rats, skeletons, plus any drawings the students wish to add.

As a student of commercial printing, however, I noticed the attention to quality and detail in the construction of the empty shoeboxes. We found about thirty of them for our various classes, and two of them in particular stood out from the rest. I’d like to talk about why they are effective marketing items beyond the shoes they once contained.

Marketing Is a Dialogue

Good marketing is a dialogue. It is personal, even intimate. A brand speaks directly to you. If the company has done research into its clientele, its marketing department will be able to describe exactly who the target buyer will be. This person will have specific likes and dislikes, interests, values. They will share many of these with other buyers and may even have certain similarities in their personal history. The detail of this “persona” is impressive, given all the data the company must collect and digest to envision this model buyer. But the good news is that the marketing research will allow a brand (let’s say in this case a shoemaker) to predict exactly what kind of shoes you will want and to give them to you.

Based on this information, the company (i.e., the brand) will work to communicate its brand values, with which you will presumably resonate. This is true (in the case of the shoeboxes) for both the product and the packaging. The shoes have to be outstanding. Granted. But the packaging has to convince you to open the box (the “unboxing experience”) and try on the shoes.

These brand values, which perhaps will include the quality of workmanship, the stylish nature of the shoes, the social conscience of the company, or on an even more personal level just how good you will look and how you will feel when you wear the shoes—all of this has to be reflected in the packaging (the box) as well as the shoes.

Apparently Nordstrom Rack (at least this one store) recycles more than 300 shoeboxes a day. When my fiancee and I went inside for the boxes, we saw aisle after aisle of shoes, multiple hundreds of boxes vying for the buyer’s attention. Since the shoeboxes have sides that obscure the shoes themselves (a little), a lot was riding on the unique nature of the boxes to sell the products inside.

The Sample Boxes

The first sample box I want to describe is entirely covered with a 4-color comic strip (top, bottom, and all exterior sides). It is a Jeffrey Campbell shoebox covered with empowering and empowered women superheros, including one on a motorcycle and one in space in a meteor shower. It is like a comic strip because one hand-drawn image is set off in a black-edged box, with word bubbles for the character’s dialogue, and there are also other signs and word-bubbles across the surface of the box.

I personally know nothing about Jeffrey Campbell shoes. (I’m sure my fiancee knows a lot, since she is very stylish and knows brands well.) However, with no knowledge except my initial reaction to the box and the words “Women Unite,” Resist,” and such, plus the space imagery and bright colors, I would say that the company’s brand values include not only empowerment but also humor. And humor sells. Most people want to “associate” themselves with (to be “affiliated with”) a product and company that embody these specific values, and the job of the shoebox is to communicate these values.

If you open the box and look closely at its construction (the lamination of the commercial printing press sheet over the thick chipboard), you might say that the company or brand pays attention to detail (in general) and durability (in particular). Not all of the boxes in the store would meet this standard, both for quality package manufacturing and creative, unique graphics. So this goes a long way.

The second box is lime green. In fact, my fiancee picked out a number of boxes in this specific color for our students. When we walked down the aisles looking for empty boxes, these in particular jumped out because of the thick, heavy ink coverage of the lime green, which was almost fluorescent in its luminosity. A box like this is distinctive. In a store with multiple hundreds of boxes of shoes, that’s very important.

As with the first box, the thickness of the chipboard broadcasts durability and quality. Like the first box, the green commercial printing press sheet (with only a white, hand-lettered Sam Edelman script signature and logo on the green) totally covers all chipboard in the box (in contrast to a lot of other boxes in the store). Again, to me this reflects the brand’s attention to detail and overall quality. All edges, folds, and corners are crisp and precise, with the laminated paper square to the sides of the box.

What makes this box unique is threefold. First, as noted, you can see it from across the store. That’s good advertising. Sam Edelman chose not to compete with other brands for the customer’s attention but rather to grab it immediately with the color of the box. Second, the surface of the lime green box has a canvas texture, like a painter’s canvas. It feels good in the hands. You can easily grasp the box. And it also feels strong and rigid.

But to return to my assertion that good marketing is a conversation, the “piece de resistance” is an envelope containing a little saddle-stitched print book included in the box with the shoes.

Here’s why it’s unique.

First of all, the envelope is about 2” x 3”. It has a build of about 1/3” on all sides, allowing for the easy insertion and removal of the print book it contains. The lime green background of the box continues onto this envelope and book, with only a Sam Edelman signature reversed out of the green envelope and the book cover. The booklet is printed on bright blue-white paper, so the words and images “pop.”

There’s something personal about the size of the print book. No one else would know you’re reading it, it’s so small. And inside there are hand-drawn images of a man (Sam, presumably Sam Edelman himself) and a woman (the shoe buyer, Libby) engaged in a dialogue.

All of the dialogue between the two of them (set in a small, sans-serif typeface) centers on where the shoes were made, how they were made, and why they are special. At one point Libby even says, “And because of this I want to keep them forever. Shoes say so much about a person.”

As a reader, I’m the proverbial fly on the wall looking at watercolor images of Sam and Libby while listening to their discussion. Some of the illustrations are even accompanied by hand-lettered callouts describing the Sam Edelman shoes.

Overall, it’s an intriguing and personal conversation. And even though I don’t buy women’s shoes I can appreciate my fiancee’s love for this entire packaging initiative. It shows that a brand can do enough research to understand its buyers and deliver a unique product that will satisfy them and help them look beautiful.

The Takeaway

What can we learn from this?

  1. Consider this approach. If you wanted a job at a particular corporation, you wouldn’t just mail in your resume. You’d probably study the company’s website and annual report. Maybe you’d visit the company to see what you could learn. You would try to absorb as much as possible about the company to see how you could specifically contribute (or “add value”) to its operations. A good marketer will do this, too, even with a shoebox. Who is the client? What does the client like and dislike? What can a brand create (both product and packaging) that will please the client? In my view, these two shoeboxes reflect this kind of soul searching into what both brands can offer that is unique.
  2. After a brand is able to articulate the nuances of a buyer’s persona, the brand’s goal is to reflect all of this not only in the product (shoes, in this case) but also in all marketing materials, making relevant design decisions in everything from typefaces to paper choices to color. Every time the buyer interacts with the brand (through signage, a brand’s online presence, catalogs, even “frictionless” interactions with the company’s call center), the brand’s ethos must shine through. That is separate from, but intricately intertwined with, the overall quality and specific attributes of the product.
  3. As a marketer, it is your responsibility to initiate and maintain such a conversation with your customers.

Posted in Packaging | Comments »

Custom Printing: A Collection of Promotional Glass-Printed Items

December 1st, 2022

Posted in Ceramic Printing | Comments »

Photo purchased from …

For about thirty years, I’ve believed that everything is advertising. Everything you present to someone from a business card to a mug sells your brand, broadcasting all aspects of your business from your values to your attention to detail.

That said, a physical object that your prospective client can actually use says more than just a promotional brochure on paper or an email sent to a client over the internet.

In this light, when I was casting about for a PIE Blog article subject this week, my fiancee handed me about ten printed glass bottles. They range from a milk bottle to a Whole Foods bottle promoting both Whole Foods in general and the Whole Foods Beer Market in particular.

An Antique Bottle

The Sealtest milk bottle is an antique, and for me it brings back memories of a simpler time when our milk was delivered to our door (even in our apartment building, even as late as the 1960s).

From the vantage point of a student of commercial printing and a student of graphic design and marketing, I think this is an interesting artifact for a number of reasons.


As a marketing piece, it reflects not only the overall Sealtest brand and Sealtest’s dairy products, but it also gives a nod to the Western Maryland Dairy in Baltimore, MD. Printed notations on the bottle not only identify the dairy location but also speak to the science behind the milk product (in terms of its quality checks and its being pasteurized).

So a cursory reading of the custom printing on the bottle links healthfulness and reliability with the Sealtest brand and the Western Maryland Dairy brand. If you had been a child or adult back in the 1960s and had found this bottle outside your door, you would have relied on it as a healthful and tasty addition to your meal. Such advertising is priceless.


This bottle exemplifies custom screen printing. If I closely examine the printing with a 12x printer’s loupe, I can see that an initially thick film of ink had been applied to the bottle (presumably) 50 or 60 years ago, and that this film had been scratched away in places over these five or six decades through heavy use and overall age. To me it almost looks like pigment that was scratched off a layer of glue, and if I didn’t know better I’d assume the writing was an applique attached to the glass bottle after the molten glass had cooled. However, I know that for multiple decades custom screen printing has been the method of choice (prior to digital printing) for decorating glass.

Why? Because once the screen-printing frames have been prepared and the stencils attached to the mesh, this is the most economical way to print on glass. Also, the thickness of custom screen printing inks lends itself to rich, dynamic colors. And yet screen printing multiple colors requires a lot of make-ready. So the fact that the Sealtest bottle is printed only in the Sealtest brand color red would lend further credence to my guess that the commercial printing was done via custom screen printing (also known as serigraphy).

The bad news is that custom screen printing is ideal only when printing a few colors (and simple graphics). The good news is that it is perfect (and cheap per unit cost) for simple graphics and mid- to long-run jobs–even at the present time, and even with the availability of digital glass printing.

A Shot Glass, Frosted Absolut Glass, Two Beer Glasses, and the Whole Foods Beer Bottle

What all of these have in common, and how they differ from the Sealtest milk bottle, goes way beyond drinking milk vs. drinking alcohol, although this is a part of the story.


Milk (and the staid nature of the branding on the bottle) is for people of all ages. It is a staple of one’s diet, and the tone of the marketing on the bottle is serious, reflecting Sealtest’s reliability and the healthful nature of the milk the bottle contains.

In contrast, the Blue Bell shot glass, with its frosted ultramarine blue background and its silhouette of a young girl in a bonnet leading a cow by a rope (plus the words Blue Bell printed below the image), suggests a transition from milk (the cow) to alcohol (the shot glass). The branding, while traditional, is more dramatic in nature, given the contrast between the ultramarine background and the white, thick, screen printed ink (this time I’m sure, because the ink is so abundant).

And there’s a little humor in custom printing milk imagery on an alcoholic shot glass. Beyond everything else, if you can make someone laugh (as a marketing professional), you have their tacit approval. You’re half way to the sale because the prospect is having fun.

The frosted Absolut glass takes the same marketing route. The vertical lines of the mixed drink glass echo the vertical lines of the Absolut Kurant Imported logo typescript. (The marketing artwork is an ad in black and purple printed on an opaque plastic applique, a bit like a shrink sleeve.) The background black script typeface and a line drawing of a leaf with currant berries make the whole glass into an advertisement. But it looks upscale, so if you’re holding the glass, you can be a part of the leisure class.

The two brown beer glasses and the Whole Foods Beer Market bottle form the final group of glassware. The background glass color is a deep brown, and there is a nice heft to all three pieces. The custom printing is all in white, except for the blue Whole Foods logo on one side of the bottle. On one of the glasses, there is a chatty tone in the printed commentary about making beer glasses out of beer bottles. On the other glass is a notation about how if you can read the type on the glass (which is upside down), then you’ve spilled your drink.

So most of this is light, chatty, and above all funny. Humor, as noted above, sells. Remarkably well.


Since all three of these final pieces were crafted close to the present time (when compared to the Sealtest bottle, the shot glass, and even the Absolut tumbler glass—presumably), it is much easier to see what techniques were used for the custom printing work. In fact, I would venture that all of them were printed via custom screen printing. Why? Again, because of the thick, rich application of ink. There is something opulent about such a generous laydown of pigment. Like butter.

What Are the Printing Options?

Here’s the rundown:

  1. Custom screen printing is great for printing a few colors (the beer glasses and bottle all have white ink on the brown glass).
  2. Screen printing is great for mid- to long-run printing. If you’re doing a short run of bottles for a craft brewery, consider UV inkjet or digital ceramic printing.
  3. Unfortunately, since custom screen printing is time consuming to set up, it requires long runs, and that might lead to extra storage costs (warehousing, inventory, etc.).
  4. Screen printing is not great for multiple colors or photo-realistic imagery.
  5. Screen printing is out of the question for variable data.
  6. UV inkjet is an ideal option for short-run, multi-color, variable-data printing on glass. The UV inks cure instantly when exposed to UV light. And you can use a non-permeable substrate (like glass).
  7. Unfortunately, UV ink application just sits up on the surface of the glass, so it can be scratched off over time. Longevity and hard use must be taken into consideration.
  8. That said, there are ways to digitally print ceramic inks on glass (containing “frit,” actual particles of glass along with the pigment). Using ceramic digital inks you can print the glass and then fire it such that the printing actually becomes a part of the glass. (The ink doesn’t just sit up on the surface of the glass as it does with UV inkjet printing.)
  9. When all is said and done, if you want to pursue a less high tech (and presumably less costly) route, you can always print and apply clear-backed labels. These would probably be printed via flexography (water based ink printed with rubber printing plates). Unlike screen printing inks, however, flexographic inks are not particularly opaque, dense, or rich because they are not as thick as custom screen printing inks.

The Takeaway

So at least you have some options. And, as I’ve noted regarding the various printed glass items my fiancee gave me for analysis, what you’re selling (the brand, the product) and the image you’re trying to convey will be as important in choosing a commercial printing technology as are the length of the press run, the detail in the imagery, and the number of ink colors you want to use.

Posted in Ceramic Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Consistent Branding in Packaging

November 27th, 2022

Posted in Box Printing | Comments »

Photo purchased from …

Increasingly, my fiancee and I depend on products ordered online. You push a button, and the boxes show up at your door. We recognize the delivery trucks by their sound out on the neighborhood street, just like the mail truck and the garbage truck.

Amazon. UPS. These entities are their brand, and their brand comprises everything from the look of the boxes (and the imprinted logos) to the kindness of their drivers, to the color of and imprints on their uniforms.

Clearly, this is the core of the new economy: the convenience of one-click ordering plus door to door delivery. We now take it for granted.

Consistent Branding

For years my fiancee and I have received products from one of these large distributors, and for years this distributor has presented a consistent brand image in their packaging. The logo has been consistent and eminently recognizable, even from across the street. Even their logo mark (without any type) has been iconic.

All custom printing except for the brand mark (or pictorial mark) on the carton (without the name or other type) has been on the packing tape strapped across the brown corrugated cartons. Even the second color, used as a minimal highlight on the packing tape, has become immediately recognizable along with the solid brown of the corrugated packing boxes.

Just recently, however, this established brand image has changed a bit. Boxes are now printed on all surfaces with imagery and an additional logo for an upcoming movie franchise. The otherwise recognizable brown of the carton is obscured by this promotional printing. From the white of the reversed type on the box I can assume that all custom printing was done on a white press sheet that was later laminated to the corrugated board of the cartons. That said, under a 12-power printer’s loupe, the random dot pattern in the halftone images suggests to me that inkjet imaging was the chosen commercial printing technique.

Perhaps this is either a short-run test of the new packaging or even only one localized version of the box (perhaps only in my fiancee’s and my neighborhood), with other custom printing on cartons sent to other customers.

Furthermore, another package from the same distributor arrived today, promoting the same film franchise. However, in this case the background color printed on the vinyl bubble-wrap envelope is different from both the first (mustard-colored rather than various tones of brown) newer version with the “altered” print presentation (printing all over the box and a secondary logo for the film franchise) and the long-standing “look” of the original almost-blank carton. So these are relatively major graphic changes.

Why Does This Matter?

Granted, in the world as it is, this is not a crisis by any means. It is just marketing. But to me it is a curious event, based on my understanding of the goals and processes of brand maintenance.

In marketing, the goal is the immediate recognition of a brand by potential clients. If this is a new brand, such buyer recognition can only come from a certain number of exposures to the marketing image and message. (I’ve heard it’s six to ten impressions. The number is less relevant than the concept of awareness and positive associations growing organically over time and arising from the customers’ seeing consistent imagery.)

This nurturing of brand recognition in the minds of potential customers depends on consistency across a number of defined areas. Such consistency includes the treatment of the company logo (everything from colors to size to placement on a printed product), to the typefaces associated with the logo and any tagline or any other writing on the box, brochure, banner, sign, billboard, or any other printed or digitally displayed promotional piece.

But Branding Is More Than Just the Logo

Branding is more than just the logo. It is all of the intangibles linked to the logo and other related graphic presentations. From there, by association, the graphic presentation itself absorbs and then reflects the values of the brand (or corporation). Amazon, Chewy, and UPS do this beautifully.

The qualities and attributes linked to the visual depiction of their brand may include quality, responsiveness, speed, knowledge, environmental stewardship, fairness. The list goes on. When the company employees do their jobs well, compassionately, and knowledgeably, they help foster a positive customer experience. (A business-owner friend of mine also uses the term “frictionless” to suggest that it should be easy for the consumer to get what she or he needs from the corporation, or brand. That is, in his own business, my friend tries to eliminate stress for the customer within all transactions.)

In addition, the brand is reflected in the interior design of the company buildings, the signage, the customer uniforms, and especially, least I forget, both the look and the “frictionless” user experience of the website (and how successfully and seamlessly the website is linked to the physical brand presence).

As an analogy, consider Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov’s dog began to automatically salivate when he heard a bell. This was because getting his dog food and hearing the bell had been linked physiologically and psychologically because they occurred simultaneously. Once food and the bell had been linked in the mind of the dog, Pavlov could ring the bell and fido would salivate.

Branding works in much the same way. You have a great experience in the store and with the product, and you associate these with the interior design of the store, the colors, signage, logo. Once the brand values and experiences and the graphic presentation have become linked, when you see a consistent presentation of the logo and brand colors, you salivate. I mean you remember all of your good experiences with the company and you buy more product or service.

I actually understand this on a conscious level, but I also respond to it just like Pavlov’s dog because it serves my needs. I know I will get what I want from the transaction with the business.

For instance, I moved my cell phone service to Cricket from another carrier a number of years ago. On a whim, my fiancee had suggested that I visit a Cricket store when I was dissatisfied with my current carrier’s price and service. I also didn’t like the little add-ons and extra fees and taxes that drove the prior carrier’s price much higher than the advertised monthly cost.

I actually had a good experience in the Cricket store. They were helpful. The monthly cost matched exactly what Cricket had offered in its promotional literature (with no hidden fees or taxes). And now I recognize the logo and other elements of the branding wherever I see it, even from a distance while driving. And since the initial fortuitous meeting at this first Cricket outlet, every Cricket store I’ve been to for help has solved my problem (at any given moment of crisis) immediately and successfully. That is, they provided consistency and frictionlessness.

Brand Dilution

To return to the concept of brand consistency, I’m not sure I’d have the immediate recognition and positive associations with the logo and logo treatment (colors, typefaces, logo mark) if I drove past a strip mall and saw a different Cricket logo, maybe different colors, or if I received direct mail with a different logo or printing or color treatment. I’d be confused. I wouldn’t get the immediate “aha” moment (the norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin coursing through my brain). And the key there is immediate.

So when we look at the distributor whose boxes wind up on our porch on a regular basis, having some of them be different visually, and without even a visible link (base background color, level of simplicity vs. complexity in imagery and type treatment, etc.), this difference may cause confusion, a lack of immediate recognition of the brand and its associated attributes and values.

I call this “diluting the brand.” I even refer to it with my fiancee when we’re choosing art projects for our art therapy work, since we have a brand, too, which encompasses everything from our art projects to our billing invoices. Our goal is always to build the brand, or “burnish the brand,” as I call it, not dilute the brand.

So in the case of door-to-door delivery and the graphic treatment of the distributor’s cartons, I personally think there’s a risk of diluting a brand by presenting the logo, typeface, corporate colors, or any other aspect of the corporate “look” in different ways. Again, why? Because consistency breeds recognition, and change risks confusion (particularly change that deviates dramatically from the treatment of the prior corporate branding).

The Takeaway

No matter what you design, whether it is for the internet or for commercial printing projects, from products to promotional literature to wall signage for a store, consider how your individual item fits in graphically with everything else the company displays or sells. Think about everything as a complex system with minute interactions between each component part. But most of all, think about how all of these elements not only work together visually but more importantly how they support and reflect the core values of the brand.

Posted in Box Printing | Comments »

Custom Printing: Consistent Color in Functional Printing

November 21st, 2022

Posted in Product Design | Comments »

Photo purchased from …

At the top of this article you will see a glorious photo taken at sunset. The purples and yellows are rich and vibrant. The same intensity might characterize a photo of a verdant meadow. There are certain “memory colors” that we depend on seeing. They have to be “right.” When they are not (within a certain tolerance), that’s a problem.

In this light, I am sharing this question from a product designer working with a huge American entertainment brand. His is a story about color accuracy and consistency.

Here’s the client’s question:

“How do I spec a ‘white’ for printing on a metal base material? The problem is the white roll material comes from different sources even from the same manufacturer. The base color is then the background white to our graphic. It varies from gray to pink to antique white. None of these are good. I want to spec a white color to lay down as a spot color, so I can get consistent color from factory to factory. What is the solution? FYI, what I am referring to is a slow cooker metal wrap graphic.”

I called this designer immediately, and we spoke for a half hour.

The Backstory on the Manufacturing and Custom Printing Job

The product designer noted that four separate manufacturers produced the slow cookers in China. I first asked about consolidating the vendors, since maintaining consistency when working with multiple sources is difficult. The designer said that due to budgetary constraints, using one vendor was not an option.

Among other things (such as the manufacturers’ using different inks and different colored substrates), there was one other challenge. The three manufactured and printed items would be packaged together.

This was a problem. If you look closely at printed cereal boxes next to one another in the grocery store, you’ll see that from press run to press run (and presumably from printer to printer), there’s some—or a lot of–color variance. However, once you get the cereal home and are eating it, you usually forget the slight difference in packaging color.

This is because the human brain (in most people) cannot remember color for very long. Moreover, it is usually only when two items that differ in color are side by side that the difference stands out (unless they are memory colors, as described above).

This is where we had problems. The product designer’s slow cookers were all supposed to have red printing on a consistently colored white base. Since the colors differed slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, and since the products were packaged side by side, the color variance was visible.

What I Suggested

My suggestions to the product designer fell into a number of categories:

Technology Used

I suggested that the product designer ask what technology the four separate Chinese manufacturers were using. For instance, my expectation is that they use either inkjet printing or custom screen printing. Granted, it is possible that some other technology is being used; however, knowing exactly how the manufacturers are adding color to the base material of the slow cookers is a good start.

Types of Ink Used

From there, I encouraged the product designer to find out what inks the manufacturers are using for the custom printing. For instance, are they using UV inks, since these can be printed on non-porous substrates? Also, presumably, if one manufacturer is using custom screen printing ink and another is using UV inkjet ink, there might be a variance, particularly if one color is a solid hue and another is a color build. It would probably be helpful as well if the product designer could determine whether the inks are solvent, eco-solvent, or, as noted above, UV inks.

The White-Ink Base Printing

The product designer’s comments about the variance in the color substrate raise an interesting point. One could lay down a base of opaque white and print a red color (presumably consistent among the four vendors) on the white. But what kind of white would be chosen?

I did a quick search online for white pigment (specifically the mineral content of various white inks). This is what I found: Zinc White, Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Sulfide, Lithopone, Alumina Hydrate, Calcium Carbonate, Blanc Fixe, Barytes, talc, silica, and China Clay. All of these minerals and other substances affect the perceived color of the base-white commercial printing.

Therefore, I encouraged the product designer to research what kind of white inks the four Chinese manufacturers have been using and then ensure that these will be consistent going forward.

Specifying and Proofing Color

With all of this in mind, I told the product designer that specifying color and proofing color were important elements of standardizing the colors of future jobs.

Regarding color specification, I encouraged the product designer to start with a successfully printed sample (with the color exactly as he wants it to be) and have a local printer check the color with a spectrophotometer. Unlike a printer’s densitometer, a spectrophotometer will actually determine the base white color and red surprinting ink and quantify these in numbers that will be recognizable (and able to be copied) by different commercial printing vendors associated with different manufacturers.

In addition, when printing ink on paper, I have always trusted “drawdowns.” These are made with your chosen ink smeared on your chosen paper substrate. You don’t see the photos or the actual typeset copy of your job, but you do see how the ink itself will look on the paper you have chosen. I suggested that the product designer ask whether a similar process was available from his manufacturers.

I also suggested that the product designer request a “contract proof” (of the white background and red lettering) before the final print run. Such a proof is considered an agreement between the client and the vendor. If the final print job does not match the contract proof, the printer has to make everything right or extend a discount.

I also suggested that the product designer send all commercial printing suppliers a package containing the shrink-wrapped slow cookers side by side. If it is obvious to him that the colors are off, it should also be obvious to the four Chinese printers. And it would be a good starting point for determining the cause and successful resolution of the problem.

Color and Light in General

Just to keep the discussion lively, I reminded the product designer that color is a function of light and vision. Colors look different under different lighting conditions. (For instance, at night a red car is gray.) To complicate matters, women apparently see color better than men. And, if you look at a colored object and then cover first one eye and then the other, your two eyes will see slightly different colors (at least mine do). So color is changeable and subjective.

That said, there are two terms I shared with the product designer that reference color consistency in both the commercial arts (and custom printing) and the fine arts. They are “metamerism” and “simultaneous contrast.”

Metamerism refers to the fact that some color patches appear to be either identical to one another or different from one another depending on the ambient light. Apparently this condition is more evident in grays, whites, and dark colors (so in the product designer’s case this might be a contributing factor).

Simultaneous contrast, which is closely related, refers to the fact that certain colors placed next to one another (complementary colors, for instance) will each affect how the other is perceived (as opposed to how they look when viewed separately). This speaks to how much our eyesight affects how our brain registers color. I personally think this is interesting but not as directly pertinent to the product designer’s situation with the white metal slow cookers with surprinted red type.

The Takeaway

Regarding the product designer producing slow cookers, I really didn’t know why he was having problems. But he did leave our conversation with a systematic approach to isolating, and then identifying and potentially resolving, the problems with the inconsistent industrial printing inks.

In your own work, if you are faced with a problem like this (with either ink on paper or ink on physical products), first determine the technology and inkset being used. Then consider the substrate (and give thought to printing a layer of opaque white under all other inks to provide a consistent base color).

Use precise, generally-agreed-upon conventions to communicate color (percentage of CMYK, for instance, and maybe even readings from a printer’s spectrophotometer).

Communicate color using printed samples (your chosen ink on your chosen substrate), and when in doubt ask for an ink drawdown. In addition, always request a contract proof.

All of these approaches (and especially seeking to resolve color fidelity issues by isolating all components of the custom printing process) will go a long way towards your success in printing beautiful, consistent color, even when you need to work with multiple commercial printing vendors.

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Commercial Printing: Make Your Paper Swatch Books Your Second Best Friend

November 13th, 2022

Posted in Paper and finishing | Comments Off on Commercial Printing: Make Your Paper Swatch Books Your Second Best Friend

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I suppose it’s better to make your spouse or significant other your best friend. But if you buy commercial printing or do graphic design for a living, it’s smart to have a paper merchant as your BFF right after your printer. A deeply knowledgeable paper merchant is a truly valuable asset.

First of all, paper is made at a limited number of mills around the world. The mill is not the paper merchant. The paper merchant is a conduit between paper mills and printers. What she or he adds to the transaction is knowledge and connections. She or he can understand your paper needs, work to find a good source, and coordinate everything with you printer. This costs nothing to you as a buyer.

What a paper merchant offers on a physical level that you might want to request is a collection of paper swatch print books. I have about fifteen corrugated paper swatch book cartons (display boxes) upstairs that include the following: stationery papers, coated paper stocks and uncoated paper stocks, digital paper stocks (specifically suited to inkjet and laser printing), text stocks in various intense colors that might be good for a special invitation (see the colorful photo above), and cover stocks paired with text stocks (so I can better decide what cover paper is right for a print book or annual report).

I’m sure I’ve missed some, or a lot, but you get the idea. Ask your paper merchant (or your commercial printing supplier, if you don’t yet have a paper merchant) for a comprehensive supply of these kinds of sample books, and then purge and replace them every so often, based on the date (ask your paper merchant her or his advice about paper swatch book replacement). Think of these as Pantone Matching Books but for paper (color, surface coatings, brightness, whiteness, weight, caliper, etc.) rather than for ink hues.

In my own case I have to admit that my collection of paper swatch books is out of date. Therefore, I only use the books to specify paper qualities, not brands. This is because specific brands of specific categories of paper come and go.

So it’s important to have current paper swatch books if you do graphic design for a living, but you can see why even out-of-date paper books are useful.

Two Sample Paper Swatch Books

Downstairs in my office I have two paper swatch books for immediate access. They are approximately 5.5” x 8.5”, perfect bound, with a crisp vertical press score running parallel to the binding. Both are from Sappi (one of the owners of paper mills). I believe it used to be called Warren, back in the day, until Sappi bought Warren.

On the cover, one book notes “Lustro,” and the other notes “Opus.” These are two paper lines produced by Sappi. Lustro is a #1 sheet (the brightest possible, also called premium). I believe it is bleached during its manufacture to increase its brightness, which refers to the amount of light a paper reflects. One hundred percent would be the highest. Current online information for Sappi Opus notes that it is 94 bright. The cover of the book notes that this is a #2 stock.

Whiteness, on the other hand, refers to the quality (as opposed to the amount) of reflected light. You may refer to a blue-white (or solar-white) sheet vs. a yellow-white, natural, or warm-white sheet. If you read the paper swatch books, you’ll come upon such language.

Keep in mind that blue-white paper appears brighter than natural white or yellow-white paper (and may be a bit hard on the eyes for extended passages of text). Then again, paper affects what’s printed on it, and a cream, natural, or warm-white shade will add its yellow-white tone to the transparent inks printed on it. In short, you may not like the flesh tones if you print people’s faces on a warm-white stock.

All of this can be physically seen, as well as described (along with numbers from various paper quality scales) in the text of these paper swatch books.

To return to the samples, Opus is a #2 grade of paper as opposed to Lustro, which is a #1 sheet (although I don’t see it online, so I believe it may have been discontinued—another good reason to stay current). In my experience #1 sheets are 96 bright or higher, so the 94 specification for Opus is consistent with its being noted as a #2 sheet on the cover of the paper swatch book.

To put this in context, the brightness numbering convention goes even further down to #4 or #5 sheets, many of which have impurities that will make them last a much shorter time before decomposing. Their brightness numbers would be closer to 74-79 for a #4 sheet and 69 to 74 for a #5 sheet (according to Wikipedia). These look a bit dingy when compared to brighter sheets.

Personally, I think the numbers themselves are less important than their relative comparison. Moreover, a #4 or #5 sheet isn’t a bad sheet for a web-offset-printed auto parts catalog for a mechanic, something that doesn’t have to look pristine or last a long time. I just wouldn’t use these papers for an annual report.

On the bright side (no pun intended), a premium sheet costs more than a lower-number sheet (#4, #5, commodity, etc.). Also, if the paper swatch book uses words like “free-sheet,” you know that the paper is of good quality because this means it is free of impurities.

Paper Surface Coating

Lustro lists the following as optons for surface coating (the clay—and other components—that comprise the liquid surface coating applied to the paper). This makes ink sit up on the surface of the press sheet rather than seep into the paper fibers. This is called “holdout,” and it is what allows for crisp, colorful photos. Newsprint paper would be the opposite, an uncoated sheet that soaks up the ink like a sponge. Photos get muddy and lack detail. Photo halftone screens must be coarse (like 85-line) for newsprint rather than 133-line and above for a nice coated sheet.

In the paper swatch books, Lustro is noted as being available as patina, dull, dull cream, and gloss, while Opus is noted as having the following options: matte, dull, and gloss.

What does this mean? A dull coating is smooth and flat but not as smooth as a gloss coating. It actually scatters reflected light and therefore makes reading text easy on the eyes compared to gloss. However, photos don’t jump out as much as they do on gloss coated paper. If your book is heavy on text, your readers will thank you for a dull sheet. In my experience, matte is just a less expensive dull with a slightly rougher texture (actually a slightly less even surface coating). To refer back to whiteness specifications noted above, dull cream is a yellow-white version of Lustro Dull.

Extra Coatings

The additional coatings (gloss vs. dull varnish) noted in the paper swatch books are actually applied on the commercial printing press (in contrast to the original surface coatings, which have already been applied when your printer buys the paper).

That said, both of the Sappi paper swatch print books show a portion of the main sample photo coated with gloss varnish, dull varnish, and then no varnish. In this particular case, in the Lustro book, there is a glamour shot of a model printed across sample sheets of patina, dull, dull cream, and gloss paper, with each sheet sticking out slightly beyond the prior one (for comparison). The varnish, as noted above, coats the image in horizontal strips from the top to the bottom of the page. Sappi noted that the image is printed in 4-color process ink (i.e., no extra colors; plus all process colors are transparent, unlike some other inks).

Paper Weight

Paper sample books include swatches of all available paper weights, both cover and text. This is useful for two reasons. It shows you, without guessing, exactly how thick each sheet at a particular weight will be (since they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and from paper to paper, even if the specification numbers are the same).

This way you can choose from a sample piece of paper rather than a reference number online or in a print book. Moreover, you can better pair a cover weight sheet with a text weight sheet. You can even ask your paper merchant for a paper dummy (an unprinted copy of a sample book made up with your chosen papers). This way you’ll know exactly how a print book of a particular length will look and feel before it has been printed and delivered.

The Takeaway

What can we learn from this? First of all (do as I say, not as I do), keep your paper book collection current. It will be easier to communicate with your printer. Failing that, use old paper books to only determine specifications, not brands. For instance, with my old books I can still see how a 100# cover sheet and a 100# text sheet for a book will look and feel with a dull, matte, or gloss coating. Then I can ask for brand suggestions and request a paper dummy.

If, on the other hand, you have a current set of paper swatch books, you can select a particular name brand, ask for that or comparable, and, even more importantly, you can see how a 4-color photo will look on the paper stock with a dull, gloss, or no varnish.

All of this will help you visualize the final product and even feel it in your hands. Neither of these can be done if all you have are the reference numbers online for paper brightness, whiteness, finish (the dull or gloss spec), and caliper (thickness at a specific paper weight). Trust your hands and eyes first. But do look at the paper books under various lighting conditions, such as sunlight (5000 degrees Kelvin, like the pressroom observation booths) and maybe incandescent, tungsten, and fluorescent light as well.

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Custom Printing: Grand-Format, Wall-Size Banners

November 6th, 2022

Posted in Large-Format Printing | 2 Comments »

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When I was a consultant working with a large Washington, DC, magazine publisher, one of my tasks was to coordinate the commercial printing and installation of a huge banner (an inkjet printed cover of one of the company’s magazines). I also helped the printer with the installation.

I’m a great believer in learning on the job. Just as it didn’t hurt to learn how to use motorized pallet loaders, plastic skid wrapping, and industrial freight elevators when my fiancee and I were doing freelance display installations for Chanel, neither did it hurt to help install a three-story-high banner on the side of the magazine publisher’s exterior wall.

This is what I learned. Hopefully it will help you in your custom printing work.

Design Considerations

First I had to find a vendor. Not all vendors produce large-format print graphics. In this category I include all forms of inkjet work produced on either flatbed printers (for rigid substrates) or roll-fed printers.

Fortunately most inkjet printers include large inksets (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, sometimes a second black, sometimes light cyan and light magenta, sometimes white, sometimes red, blue, and green, or even orange and purple). The goal is this. The more additional colors beyond the traditional CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) color set, the wider the color gamut and the more individual hues (such as specific corporate colors) you can match. So if you need to select a large-format print shop, I’d encourage you to approach a dedicated sign-maker or ask a trusted commercial printing supplier for a referral. Referrals go a long way in ensuring product quality, vendor skill, and deadline reliability.

Regarding technical specifications, consider size and resolution. For a large-format print image, you don’t need 300 dpi resolution if your banner will be three stories high. This would create an unnecessarily large (and time-consuming to print) art file. From a distance, your eye is perfectly fine with 80 dpi, or whatever else your printer suggests. (So ask him specifically.)

Presumably he will want a PDF file (not InDesign or Photoshop) of the job. But you should ask about the overall size. Most probably he will ask you to make the banner file the exact size of the final art (to avoid needing to enlarge the artwork when printing). He will probably also ask you to embed the fonts in the file or, more likely, to convert the type into outlines. He will definitely ask for files in CMYK format rather than RGB format. (If he does accept RGB files, he will still need to convert them to CMYK files on his end, so it’s best for you to make the shift before submitting the file so you can see how this will affect the overall color.)

What Will You Print On?

If your banner will be hung indoors, you might consider some kind of fabric (maybe for a table throw, interior wall banner, or roll-up banner stand). But for the kind of exterior banner I needed to provide to my consulting client, vinyl was the best choice. After all, it had to withstand the elements (sun, rain, and wind), which are very hard on a banner.

In this case I had the vendor stitch together the sections of the huge magazine-cover photo image, since the final banner was larger than the 16-foot width of many grand-format, roll-fed, inkjet printing machines. The vendor also hemmed the edges of the banner to improve durability, and added metal grommets along the edges to accept the rope for tying the banner to the side of the building.

Inks were also a consideration. Dye-based inks are more vibrant than pigment-based inks (solutions of water and dye molecules rather than larger particles of pigment suspended in liquid). However, dye-based inks are less weather resistant. More than likely, your printer will suggest a solvent-based, eco-solvent-based, or even UV ink that will tolerate rain and sunlight (which otherwise will cause the color in the inkjet inks to fade).

Be specific when talking with your custom printing vendor about whether your product will be an exterior banner, a bus or car wrap, or a billboard. You may also want to ask about lamination to increase durability, depending on what inks and substrate your printer will use. How long you will need the banner to be outside will also make a difference (three days, three months, three years). Solvent-based inks have the greatest longevity, eco-solvent inks slightly less, and water-based inks least of all. Unfortunately, the most durable inks also pose the largest health and environmental concerns.

Accounting for Wind

Wind does interesting things to banners. When I was hanging the banner on my client’s building with the sign manufacturer, I was struck by how even a gentle wind would catch the vinyl banner like a sail. To keep such a large banner from taking flight, the banner vinyl is often slashed in a regular (often curved, like horizontal “C’s”) pattern. The wind just travels through the vinyl material, and the pattern of slashes is minimal enough to not really compromise the overall look of the banner from a distance.

Interestingly enough, a similar technique is often used for large-format banners that cover windows in buses (or that cover vendor shop windows). These are called 60/40 mesh banners. (I have also seen them outside on fences, so the breeze travels through 60/40 mesh as well.) When a banner or bus wrap has been printed on 60/40 mesh, from a distance the eye sees the portion of the image that is printed and doesn’t really notice the matrix of regularly-spaced holes with no commercial printing ink.

But again, even though it can be used to reduce wind interference, 60/40 mesh is primarily a way to allow bus riders to look out the windows and those outside the bus to just see the banner wrapped around the vehicle.

Two More Considerations

Large-format graphics such as my client’s three-story banner may also show up as billboards, depending on how they are designed and positioned. Interestingly enough, one of the considerations for such a banner is viewing angle.

From a marketing perspective, it’s important to get the attention of the viewer when she or he is driving (especially true for a billboard but also true for a building wrap). In my client’s case, the front of the building was at a 45 degree angle to the road and right next to it. So it was visible for a number of seconds to those driving by.

In contrast, a banner facing a road or highway at a 90 degree angle might be missed, or it might be seen only for an instant. You may want to think about this, and ensure that the viewer gets as long an exposure to the image as possible. Of course this is also why you want to only include a few words on the banner along with a striking image. (Don’t make the viewer take more than an instant to process the information while driving.)

This is relevant in terms of safety as well. If the banner faces the street at a 90 degree angle, and the person driving looks away from the road to see the banner, she or he will be at serious risk.

Final Thoughts

So, as with most other printed products, a large-format print banner (whether a building wrap, a bus or car wrap, or a 60/40 banner covering a store window) has both a design component and a functional, production component.

The best large-format graphics make a dramatic statement with only a few words and a striking image in brilliant color. They don’t make the viewer take more than an instant to process the information. But it’s also important to consider the best vendor for such a job, as well as the proper inkset (both the hue and the ink formulation, whether dye-based, eco-solvent, UV, or solvent), file resolution, and document size.

Your printer is your best ally in helping you get this kind of work done.

Posted in Large-Format Printing | 2 Comments »

Custom Printing: Increase Your ROI with Tchotchkes

October 31st, 2022

Posted in Promotional Products | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Increase Your ROI with Tchotchkes

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When I was a baby, my father spoke to me in French, Yiddish, and German, as well as our native-born English. Perhaps that is why I have always been intrigued by words. So when I first heard the word tshatshke (Yiddish) or tchotchke (Slavic, as per Google), it piqued my interest. The word means (among other things) “trinket.”

Over the years, the word tchotchke has been appropriated by the promotional-item custom printing market. In this context it refers to everything from branded cups and mugs to clothing such as caps, to branded pens, to the fold-up fabric chairs that come in canvas carrying bags. As diverse as these may be, they all share one attribute. They all include a company’s logo, corporate color scheme (usually), and tagline.

Why are these so popular? Why do marketers adore these items?

More Bang for the Buck

Promotional items are useful. Therefore, when they are handed out for free (at a convention, for instance), the recipients usually use them for a long time. So when you take the starting point (the cost of the entire printing run of perhaps $2,000 for 10,000 ballpoint pens) and divide the overall cost by the press run, each pen costs $.20.

But when you consider that a potential client who likes the heft and writing style of this pen uses it for a year (or, as research shows, even up to four years according to Industry Today as well as Robert at and sees the branded corporate colors and logo 1,000 times in that year, then the cost per impression (each time the potential client sees the marketing message) is $.0002. (These are entirely fictitious numbers, but you get the point—you get more bang for the buck.)

Moreover, this is addressed in popular marketing theory regarding how people become aware of a new company. Apparently it takes five to seven exposures to a new brand to ensure “recognition” and “conversion” (buying something, asking for more information, leaving your email address online, etc.) in the mind of the potential client. So in both cases (cheap unit cost and repeated exposure), there’s nothing like a tchotchke.

Popular Tchotchkes for 2022

In this light I did further research online and found an article by Patric Black, president and CEO of It is entitled “Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” (01/19/2022). It’s quite a good starting point, since it also explains why the particular promotional items are so popular.

Embossed Apparel and Outerwear

According to Patric Black, apparel is at the top of the list, especially embossed apparel, because embossing provides a unique feel and appearance, and because it suggests high quality. (This perception of product quality also enhances the perceived quality of the brand the apparel displays.) The embossing is done with a raised seal, heat, and pressure. It gives a sculptural look and feel to the canvas (of the sports cap, for instance).

Black’s article notes that apparel is so popular because it is useful and because (if it’s of a high quality) it projects an image of status. Think about branded items from Gucci and similar designers. And if the embossing is done on “cotton, polyester, leather, pleather, fleece, and polar fleece fabrics” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”), the items will provide an “upscale look with a fresh alternative to traditional decorating techniques” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). Moreover, unlike some commercial printing techniques (such as inkjet custom printing), embossing “will not fade or wash away” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

Wooden Kitchen Utensils

I was surprised that these are so popular, actually, but it does make a lot of sense. Many people (myself included) enjoy cooking as a hobby and way to relax. It seems to me that in this frame of mind a potential client may be more open to absorbing the marketing messages they see repeatedly as they are cooking with branded wood utensils.

Furthermore, unlike metal utensils, wooden utensils don’t conduct heat (you don’t accidentally get burned), they don’t melt, and they don’t scratch expensive pots and pans. They also “will not react chemically with the acids in food and won’t leave a metallic aftertaste,” and they “will not release harmful chemicals into the food you prepare” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). They are durable, resistant to breakage, and far less likely than metal or wood to spread bacteria (some woods like bamboo are even antimicrobial). And for those who are environmentally conscious, wood is a good choice because it is “biodegradable, renewable, and non-toxic” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

Dyed Caps with Patches

“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” notes that caps (headwear) are #3 in the list of ten top promotional items (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). The bright color grabs the attention of the viewer, while the marketing message on the patch seals the deal. The article specifically references adhesive patches which can be easily applied and removed, although I have also seen very attractive embroidered patches sewn onto the caps.

Vibrant Drinkware

This category, as noted in Black’s article, would include cups and mugs of various kinds. Since we’re usually drinking something (even water or juice), these are very useful, as well as a way to add bright color to one’s presentation (i.e., it’s fun as well as useful). As I recall from prior research, this kind of item can also be imaged with custom screen printing or dye sublimation. A logo on such a bright product can be very effective.


“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” includes wearable blankets, weighted blankets, socks, and spa kits in this category.

Here’s why they are so popular. Wearable blankets and weighted blankets (even the right kind of socks) can make you feel warm, comfortable, and pampered. They wrap you up. In a world that has been especially anxiety producing of late, the idea of feeling safe and protected is very appealing. This is also especially true of the spa kits Patric Black includes in his list (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). For a number of years, people have missed the pampering that comes with such beauty products as “bath bombs, bath salts, and some essential oils” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). These spa kits can also provide items for re-gifting and allow recipients to try new products.

Seed Paper

There are actual seeds bound within the fibers of these papers. You can plant them and they will grow. Such promotional products as seed paper project a brand’s environmental awareness, given that they can be printed “on 100% post-industrial, recycled paper and dyed with all-natural vegetable-based pigments” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”). These promotional products provide a sense that “the world can be restored” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

Personal Protectant

“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” includes branded pepper spray and personal alarms in this category. Presumably with the rise in crime over the past few years, these will potentially be useful safety devices as well as a brand statement.

Packaging and PR Boxes

This category overlaps a bit with spa kits. The whole idea of kits is to expose recipients to new items they might like. Also, people like to open gift boxes. They call this the “unboxing experience.” A savvy marketer who includes quality, unique products in aesthetically appealing packaging, and who adds a personalized note to the recipient, all in the coordinated brand colors of the supplier, with prominent logo, phone, and web information, can go a long way towards a sale (called a “conversion” in marketing parlance). People like pampering and (good) surprises. Such promotional products can also create a bridge between physical marketing materials and online marketing, each of which will enhance the other. And such PR boxes can encourage the recipient to share items with friends, increasing the reach of the promotional product (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).


“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” addresses sporting events in this category (including foam fingers, for instance, and inflatable “thunder sticks” you bang against one another at an event or match). These and even cowbells (which are the right shape to emblazon with a logo) are perfect for a marketing message. And they will get used repeatedly. Or, you could print a logo and tagline on a resistance band. At the gym or even at one’s office desk, such a product will remind the potential customer of the brand image.

Outdoor and Leisure

Finally, “Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022” notes items that pertain to having fun outside, which is particularly understandable after more than two years of COVID lockdowns. This category includes can “koozies” (to keep your beverages cold) and on a larger scale the full-size beverage coolers themselves.

You can even print on a matchbook, “great for indoor fireplaces, outdoor fire pits, and even a classy way to light candles” (“Top 10 Promotional Product Trends for 2022”).

The Takeaway

Tchotchkes just work. Put your marketing message on any or all of the items Patric Black noted in his list. It’s an inexpensive, especially effective way to market your business.

And here’s another option, which Black didn’t mention: USB sticks. Everyone needs them these days. You’ll get your message out repeatedly to your prospective clients.

In terms of design and custom printing, it’s important to keep your branding consistent (colors, logo, and layout). Also, make it easy for your prospect to contact you. Include your website and phone number on everything.

These products rely on a number of commercial printing technologies, from custom screen printing to inkjet printing to dye sublimation to pad printing. Some are even embossed or embroidered. Discuss all of these options with your commercial printing supplier.

Keep in mind that promotional item printing is a specialty. Not all printers do this kind of work. Approach the printers you trust, and if they can’t meet your promotional product printing needs, ask them for suggested vendors they trust.

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Custom Printing: Marrying 3D Printing with Lost-Wax Casting

October 24th, 2022

Posted in 3D Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Marrying 3D Printing with Lost-Wax Casting

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In these PIE Blog articles I haven’t discussed 3D custom printing very often because I have had trouble wrapping my brain around the technology involved. While I still do not really understand how these printers work, I recently became more interested when I read about how 3D printing has been used increasingly to marry the 6,000-year-old technique of lost-wax casting with the precision and relative ease of digital CAD (computer aided design).

The process is faster and less labor intensive than traditional injection molding, so the prices for the casting component of manufacturing can go down, while the precision of the “geometry” (the structure of a digitally produced graduation ring, for instance) can go up.

What Is 3D Printing?

First of all, as a general overview, 3D custom printing is a type of additive manufacturing (insofar as the material used is built up layer upon layer rather than ground away from a solid block of metal or plastic). There are various ways to do this using powders or filaments (like plastic string from a spool), but essentially the raw material is expelled through a heated jetting device (like inkjet printing) to create a three dimensional object on the moving build plate of the printer.

Depending on the technique and the substance used, this material can be hardened, or cured, by exposure to a laser, chemicals, or even UV light (just as UV commercial printing inks will cure when exposed to UV light). Or, powdered particles can be fused together (called sintering) by exposure to a laser to create the material for the final product. The constant thread through all of this is that the final item is more or less complete, more or less detailed, and more or less durable depending not only on the raw materials but also on the method used to combine them layer by layer into a physical object.

What Is Injection Molding?

Prior to 3D custom printing, manufacturing shops that needed to create a part (either plastic or metal) had to create an injection mold. The designer had to produce a 3D model (usually by carving it), then reproduce the inverse image of the model (i.e., a mold with an empty cavity in the shape of the final object).

At this point, molten metal or plastic could be poured through an access hole to fill the empty mold. Then, after opening the mold, the designer could remove the final product. This could be done multiple times as needed. As with all analog printing processes (to which you might draw an analogy), all of these injection molded (because the material had been injected into the mold) pieces were identical.

This took a long time (and therefore cost a lot) because the molds had to be tooled and ground to create each part (of, for example, a motor, with a large number of individual parts that had to be injection molded and then assembled). Also, the process was not as precise as it might have been, so it was necessary to grind or tool the component parts, removing any extraneous material (imagine a perfect metal bolt, but with little pieces of metal sticking out that must be ground off before it can be used).

What Is Lost-Wax Casting?

This is very similar to injection molding. A figure or model is created (carved, for instance) and then covered in wax (to the desired thickness of the resulting statue (let’s say a bronze sculpture). If the metal sculpture will be hollow, then a core can be added inside the wax model. On top of this model the designer slathers a thick layer of heat resistant plaster. Wax tubes like the limbs of a tree (these are called sprues) are added. These will create pathways through which the final metal can enter the mold and noxious gases can exit the mold. When the mold is inverted and then heated in a kiln, the wax turns to liquid and runs out of the mold through the pathways, leaving a negative (or inverse) image of the initial model.

Then, molten metal can be poured into the empty cavity in the mold. When this has solidified, the mold can be opened and the metal statue removed.

As with injection molding, some final grinding and machining work must be done on the final bronze casting.

3D Modeling, and the Marriage of Injection Molding and Lost-Wax Casting

Now, with the advent of 3D digital printing, the 6,000-year-old lost-wax casting technique can be used to make products (and especially prototypes and molds) accurately, efficiently, with precise detail, and with far less post-mold machining work on the final component pieces (let’s say a graduation ring, since it may include raised portions and incised lettering, or whatever other complex, multi-layered “geometry” or design work).

Using CAD (computer aided design) software, which in this case has been simplified and is therefore more user-friendly than complex, traditional CAD/CAM software, the designer can produce wax models on a 3D printer that can be covered in a mold-making material, heated to let the wax run out, and then poured with metal to produce the final molded components.

This is a much faster process than traditional injection molding. The process, from model-making to mold-making to final metal product or component item, can take days rather than weeks (often up to 12 weeks the traditional way). In addition, the process is much more precise (think about the multi-level design, filigree, and lettering in a graduation ring, for instance), so post-molding processes such as grinding are minimized when compared to more traditional “investment casting,” the contemporary version (without 3D printing technology) of lost-wax casting. Plus, you can easily make changes to the wax model (perhaps various iterations of the graduation ring design) with the CAD software and 3D print a number of wax images quickly.

Furthermore, it’s possible to produce prototypes quickly and then incorporate any revisions into the final model. Speed equals lower costs. And the resulting items are more detailed and precise, as well as significantly faster to produce using the marriage of lost-wax casting and 3D custom printing.

The Takeaway

For those of you who entered the commercial printing or graphic design trade because you’re artists, you may very well find it enjoyable to learn about processes that cross over from the fine arts to the graphic arts. (Keep in mind that Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec was a poster designer and illustrator as well as a painter, and Andy Warhol was an illustrator as well as a painter.)

Discovering ways in which traditional methods, such as lost-wax casting, have been incorporated into modern graphic design (and product design) can enrich your understanding of what you do in your day-to-day design work and why.

There are many more areas in which the fine arts and commercial arts overlap. These include collagraphy (adding various collage materials to build up a paper custom printing plate, then varnishing the composite whole to make the plate waterproof, and then printing the plate). And they even include carving a design in a styrofoam plate (the kind used for saran-wrapped pork chops in a grocery store) and then printing this as a plate (as my fiancee and I have done with our art therapy students).

In all cases, commercial printing depends on aesthetics, the appreciation and creation of beautiful items, as well as the selection of the quickest and most technically effective approach to making multiple copies of something—whether it is a two-dimensional print book page or fine arts etching, or a three-dimensional component part of a toy automobile engine, using lost-wax casting models produced on a 3D printer run by CAD software.

Posted in 3D Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Marrying 3D Printing with Lost-Wax Casting

Custom Printing: The Many Faces of Functional/Industrial Printing

October 20th, 2022

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: The Many Faces of Functional/Industrial Printing

Photo purchased from …

I had an “Aha” moment this week when I read that 3D printing was one of the fastest growing venues for functional or industrial printing.

I hadn’t really thought about it before. But producing objects with 3D print equipment exemplifies the definition of functional printing.

Functional (or industrial) printing is a component part of manufacturing. Its essential quality is that what is printed helps make the product useful, that the printing is part of the intended functionality of a device. Whether it’s a clock face, a circuit board in a computer, or the dials on a clothes dryer, printing is integral to the process.

Within this context I recently found an article online entitled “Key Areas in the Functional and Industrial Print Market” ( This article lists nine segments of the current printing environment that fit this description. All of them are growing.

  1. Decor and laminates
  2. Ceramics
  3. Electronics (including displays and photovoltaics)
  4. Glass
  5. Aerospace and automotive
  6. Biomedical
  7. 3D printing
  8. Inkjet printed textiles
  9. Promotional and miscellaneous items

I don’t believe I’ve seen as comprehensive a list before. When we look more closely, we see that many of these depend more on analog technology than digital technology for various reasons. However, we can also see that some of the items are actually quite appropriate for digital technology.

Digital Options

Let’s start with textiles. From time immemorial people have been custom screen printing bolts of fabric that have then been cut and sewn into finished garments. This works well for producing huge runs of fabric, but the initial set-up activities as well as clean-up activities are labor intensive and therefore not conducive to short runs. So smart clothiers have played it safe. Once they have had a reasonable certainty that a specific product will sell, they have produced large manufacturing runs. All the way down the supply chain the manufacturers have then stored excess inventory (some of which, presumably, eventually became obsolete, not to mention expensive to store). This entire production process had also been time consuming. Producing only one item quickly (such as a prototype) had not been practical.

However, with the advent of digital inkjet technology, it has become quite reasonable even to wait for a clothing order before inkjet printing the patterned fabric that can then be cut and sewn into a single (or five or ten) garments. Smaller fabric inkjet print shops closer to the clothing buyer have been able to replace some of the larger shops that had depended on custom screen printing bolts of fabric.

Digital printing is also ideal for certain 3D objects. In addition to component parts of shoes, jewelry, and even houses, which are jetted (or extruded) layer upon layer into a 3D solid using spools of plastic filament wire, this technology is being used to produce body parts for medical use as well as food. In addition, metals of various kinds are increasingly being used in the 3D manufacturing process.

According to “Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” (Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022), ceramic tile printing has been another venue for digital technology. Initially, custom screen printing was the preferred technology for long runs of ceramic printed tiles, but as consumers demanded more personalized designs produced within tighter schedules, inkjet custom printing has taken over much of this work.

Analog Processes

For some uses, analog is still best, depending on two things: the length of the press run and the required durability or special qualities of the commercial printing inks.

Consider computers. Shell’s article mentions the explosive growth of “printed batteries, RFID tags, circuit boards, membrane switches, thin film transistors, capacitors, coils, and resistors” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022). The growth of printed electronics has “facilitated widespread, very low-cost electronics for applications such as flexible displays, smart labels, and smart textiles that monitor an athlete’s respiration rate and heartbeat” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022).

These functional printing applications depend more on analog technologies. This is due to the exceptional variety of analog inks in contrast to digital inkjet inks. More specifically, analog inks are not only more durable, but they also can be formulated with “conductive silvers, resists, dielectrics, ceramics, silicones, epoxies, etc.” (“Making Functional and Industrial Printing a Part of Our Daily Life,” Johnny Shell, 05/09/2022).

Sometimes even the printing technology itself makes a difference. Apparently, screen printing is better suited than digital inkjet for “producing the fine lines needed for printed circuitry” (“The 2022 State of the Functional and Industrial Printing Segment,” by Dan Marx).

Utility Is Key

In all of these cases, a few general approaches (or mindsets) and an incredible amount of specialized knowledge are essential, not to mention equipment (which can create a high cost of entry into functional and industrial printing).

First of all, in terms of approach to the custom printing work, flexibility and repeat testing are key. If a particular ink must withstand both high heat and intense cold, depending on the location of the product (let’s say an automotive dashboard in a car sold in both Florida and Alaska), the ink must be formulated for maximum durability. Or if the ink must adhere to an unusual substrate, or if it must be a conductive ink, all of this must be taken into account. And everything must be repeatedly tested under appropriate conditions.

Unlike graphic commercial printing, industrial printing depends on consistent use over time in diverse conditions. (For instance, my fiancee and I were given a computer keyboard a few years ago. The keys were backlit, with clear keyboard letters to allow the interior light to come through. The effect was stunning, especially in the dark. However, the ink used to print the keys was not very durable, and as the paint flaked off and the letters changed shape, I was not happy. I replaced the keyboard just recently when it started malfunctioning electrically as well. The replacement keyboard is less flashy. But it seems to be much more durable. Little things matter.)

The Takeaway

If you are a graphic designer, art director, print buyer, or production manager, how can the aforementioned information help you? Maybe you’re a print designer, and you only produce books or maybe only marketing materials.

Personally, I think that it helps to expand one’s view of commercial printing by understanding the different facets of a huge industry. I know that I used to think of printing as putting ink on paper, and then toner or inkjet ink on paper, in order to educate readers or to persuade them to do something. I really didn’t even consciously see all of the printed information on cars, computers, and household appliances as part of the custom printing arena. But they are, and very much so. And then I really didn’t realize that the various layers of silicone in computer touchscreens could also be “printed.”

On the one hand, if you are a graphic designer, you may want to know that your skills are transferable from what you’re currently doing to functional or industrial printing, just as design skills for print can be transferable to on-screen design for the internet. (After all, products as well as publications need to be designed.)

On the other hand, understanding which technology to use for various functional printing goals may benefit you as well. (For instance, based on the need for durability and the required press run, either an analog process like custom screen printing or a digital process like inkjet printing may be preferred. Understanding this approach may serve you well in whatever segment of commercial printing that you pursue.)

So my final suggestion is that you keep studying, keep reading about all the various segments of commercial printing. It will empower you in whatever you do.

Posted in Industrial Printing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: The Many Faces of Functional/Industrial Printing

Custom Printing: Thoughts on the Current Paper Shortages

October 16th, 2022

Posted in Paper and finishing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Thoughts on the Current Paper Shortages

Photo purchased from …

About two months ago I received a call from a large printing consolidator asking if I could help them with a job they couldn’t do in a timely manner. It was a series of six kiss-cut forms (bond laser paper forms, perforated, and then glued to a backing sheet and die cut around the labels for easy removal).

After the printing, perforating, and die cutting steps, these forms would be imprinted with variable information on a Lexmark laser printer. The press run for each of the six components of this job ranged from about 60,000 to 200,000 copies per form, at least twice a year. It was a sweet job.

This was a relatively easy print job, and the consolidator, which had multiple plants scattered across the United States (and at least one in China) had come to me as a printing broker for only one reason. They couldn’t get paper for the job, anywhere (including their China plant). Because of the paper shortage, this commercial printing consolidator could only offer their client a sixteen-week turn-around on a job that probably should have taken less than a month including shipping.

My initial response was that in a sixteen-week schedule, I could probably print the job myself and then perforate and die cut it in my garage using a pizza cutting wheel. Needless to say, my hubris didn’t serve me well.

I checked any number of printers across the United States, plus my sources in China, Canada, South Korea, and India. There was no paper to be found. At the time (this was two months ago, as noted above), the paper shortage was contained (i.e. , certain grades of paper could be easily purchased and others—the heavier stock the printing consolidator’s client required—could not). So the printing consolidator and I lost the job and fortunately parted as friends. But the process of searching for commercial printing stock over the course of a month was truly sobering.

What Caused the Paper Shortages?

This experience motivated me to do some research into what was happening. I had spoken to colleagues who said that the shortage was worldwide, generalized across multiple kinds of paper, and apparently not ending any time soon; however, it was less dire for existing customers. The last point surprised me, but I have found that a lot of my existing customers have been able to print their jobs—albeit over a much longer schedule—based in part on existing relationships with printers. Apparently printers have specific allocations (but no extra stock beyond this) from the mills, although sometimes they don’t even receive the full allocation of the custom printing stock they expected.

After talking with my contacts at various printers, I went online and found some intriguing articles describing a perfect storm including a number of events (some of which actually started before COVID but were affected by it) that caused the shortages. Here are some of the things I learned:

  1. According to the Ironmark website (in the article “Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage”), “several North American paper mills closed because they simply couldn’t compete while contending with increased labor costs, stricter environmental laws, and older equipment.”
  2. Because of this, these paper mills changed from offering commercial printing and writing papers to manufacturing high-margin premium grades and packaging board (since the packaging industry had been growing exponentially). With fewer North American sources for custom printing and writing papers, overseas vendors stepped in to fill the supply needs. In addition, there had been a recent business-process-shift among printers from stocking paper inventory to buying paper “just in time” (called JIT, sometimes hours or days before needed), thus leaving their paper inventories at a low point (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).
  3. Then COVID hit. This cut back available labor for paper mill production and also slowed shipping of finished paper to paper merchants and other distributors. COVID actually came in waves, so paper production went through fits and starts, as demand for paper surged when each wave of COVID abated. But papermaking is a demanding process that takes months to ramp up again after each successive slowdown. And at the same time, paper consumers were back in business, using up accessible inventory and seeking to manage the surging demand for commercial printing. Again, this was within the context of a pre-COVID shift at the paper mills from manufacturing custom printing and writing stock to making paperboard packaging (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).
  4. The paper shortage has affected paper manufacturers around the world, “currently contending with labor shortages, shipping delays, and increased prices” (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”). (For offshore vendors, the shipping delays have also been affected by long lines waiting for access to US ports—with ships’ sometimes being staged 150 miles offshore waiting to unload their goods. There have even been shortages in shipping containers, since most have been in use on ships waiting to enter US ports or ports in other countries.)
  5. Printers the Ironmark article referenced have noted paper price increases from 20 percent to 40 percent over the past six to nine months. Ironmark also noted that the shortages are affecting all grades of paper, not just the coated stocks initially impacted by the slowdown. Cover stocks have also been affected as well as text stocks and uncoated paper (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).

You may also want to search online for “Where Has All the Paper Gone?” by Matt Marzullo (12/21/2021), also from Ironmark, and “Paper Shortages: What’s Behind the Problem and What Can We Do?” by Lou Caron (03/30/2022), from All of these articles will give you a good overview of the confluence of disparate causes that began before the COVID-pandemic slowdowns and are continuing to wreck havoc with the supply chain. And when papermaking finally catches up with demand, paper prices will drop. Margins will drop. And this will be within the current environment of inflation in general and higher labor costs in particular (“Paper Shortages: What’s Behind the Problem and What Can We Do?”).

So What Can We Do About This?

All of the articles I have read have noted three ways to address paper shortages if you are a buyer (graphic designer, production manager, art director, etc.):

  1. Plan ahead. Assume there will be much longer production times for jobs based on paper availability, so start early.
  2. Keep in constant contact with your commercial printing suppliers. (In one case I waited a little too long between emails, and overnight one printer I was working with changed his schedule for a print book for a client of mine from 12 to 16 weeks. Needless to say, I had to find another vendor.)
  3. Be very flexible regarding paper specifications. (Usually, I say that you should specify paper for your printers based on specific qualities rather than based on its brand. Now I encourage buyers to consider coated vs. uncoated, premium vs. commodity paper, different paper weights—anything your printer can accommodate. Better to have different paper than you’d especially like than to not have any paper for the print job at all.)
  4. One thing I did recently to address paper shortages was to split a job between two vendors. One version of a client’s print book was a lower-quality, laser-printed version. I went to a digital supplier that proofed the book through an InSite portal. This vendor was set up specifically for this kind of work. They had the paper, the schedule, and the expertise. The same client also needed a higher-value version of the print book, produced with French flaps via offset lithography. Most vendors offered a 12- to 16-week turn-around time. But for this job I found one (actually a commercial printing vendor rather than a book printer) that would do the job in five weeks for a premium. Since my client absolutely needed to deliver finished copies to the book distributor by a certain date, she was willing to pay the higher amount.

Posted in Paper and finishing | Comments Off on Custom Printing: Thoughts on the Current Paper Shortages

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