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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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Archive for August, 2011

Book Printing: Working with Your Printer to Correct Problems (Revisited)

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

I recently wrote a blog entry about a client who had produced a short, saddle-stitched booklet with an uncoated “Sand” (essentially beige) cover stock and white text stock. Things hadn’t gone as well as expected between the book printer and the client.

A recap of the goals and problems

My client had printed 4-color ink on the beige cover stock to simulate printing on a paper bag. She had accented various portions of the cover with opaque white ink (at the suggestion of the custom printing vendor), and had also printed both mid-sized type and small type in opaque white ink on the inside covers (C-2 and C-3). The white ink on the front and back cover worked well enough, although it was more subtle than expected and didn’t “pop.” Inside, however, the text was readable only under pressroom lighting (5000 degrees Kelvin, the same as sunlight).

My client, the designer, had not been happy with the results. She had expected more contrast between the small white type and the brown background in this book printing job. For the same reason, her client had not been happy. So I wasn’t happy.

The solution the business printing vendor proposed

We worked out an agreement whereby the end-client would send all copies back to the custom printing service. The printer would tear off the covers, reprint them and rebind the book, trimming the book slightly smaller than before. To avoid the problems with the opaque white, my client created a blue process color mix for the small type and mid-sized type. She also elected to print a process mix to create the brown background color rather than using actual brown (or Sand-colored) paper. Any part of the overall design she wanted to “pop,” she just left white (the background color of the press sheet). That way she didn’t need to print white on beige and risk having the beige show through the white.

Regarding the cost, the custom printing vendor offered to charge just under $800.00 plus shipping. He noted that the list price of this remedial work would normally be $2,400.00 (that is, he offered my client a $1,600.00 credit).

The client’s reaction to the finished product

This is what the end-client said: “I think it was worth the time and investment to get it redone. The text pops more and overall just looks better. I think using the “faked” brown paper was a good solution. You really cannot tell unless you pay close attention to the edge of the paper.”

My analysis of the whole process

Many print buyers would have blamed the business printing vendor and demanded a credit. Then they would never have used this printer’s services again. I wanted to avoid this. The custom printing service had done outstanding work for an incredibly low price, on time, repeatedly, over the course of the past year and a half.

It could be argued that the printer should have questioned the light type in the prepress department. It could also be argued that the light type on the press sheet should have been a red flag. Even if the printer had been able to read the type under the 5000 degree Kelvin pressroom lights, the type was still very faint. The custom printing vendor even admitted this.

Perhaps my client should have brought to the printer’s attention early in the process that she intended to use opaque white ink for small type as well as for portions of the background illustration. Or she could have avoided using opaque white for type altogether, because it is risky (light type on a mid-toned background is seldom as readable as you might expect).

Regardless, both sides gave a little. Going back to the end-client’s response, (“…it was worth the time and investment to get it redone”), we see how a partnership between a client and a business printing vendor can allow a problem to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The client found the payment fair and reasonable for the additional work and the improved design.

It is all too easy to blame the vendor and kick him to the curb. In fact, the total cost (initial printing plus the reprint) almost exactly matched the next lowest bid.

If the client had been adamant and had asked the custom printing service to shoulder all the blame and the entire cost, the client would probably have lost any future goodwill of the printer (if he had decided to use the printer’s services at all). Given the quality and overall price of the printer’s work, this would have been a shame.

Everyone makes mistakes, including printing companies. A custom printing vendor that is a good partner works with a client to achieve a mutually acceptable, fair resolution to the problem.

Large Format Printing Expands Options for Fine Artists

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Digital large format printing has taken an increasingly prominent role in the fine arts.

I was both pleased and a bit surprised to see at a recent art league show in Rehoboth, Delaware, just how much of a foothold inkjet printing has taken in the market for fine art prints. It is also becoming accepted as a valid artistic tool by the artists themselves.

Large format print reproduction of photographs on canvas

Among other artistic images, I saw large format photographic works printed on canvas, which was then stretched over wooden stretcher strips. The images extended past the edges of the stretcher strips and were attached to the back of the wood, giving an expansive feel to the artistic works while eliminating the need for a frame. It was impossible to see from a distance whether these were photographs or photorealistic paintings. Of course, the imaginative vision of the photographer made the pieces true works of art rather than mere decoration. The (presumably) digital cameras and large format printing inkjet presses with extended ink sets were tools, just like the art brushes of more traditional artists.

Giclee prints give artistic merit to large format printing

Other artists were selling multiple copies of a few large oil paintings or acrylic paintings. With the originals priced upwards of $4,000.00 and some as high as $10,000.00, high-quality giclee prints of the originals gave art lovers the ability to purchase an otherwise unattainable work. Dithered images created with minuscule specs of color, and produced without halftone patterns, approximated the originals to a striking degree. Given the extended color gamut of the newer inkjet large format printing equipment (including light cyan, light magenta, and sometimes red, green, blue, and orange, as well as a number of different black inks), vibrant large format prints are now achievable. The artists carefully review the prints for color accuracy and then sign them. They are true artistic products.

Screen printing for aesthetics rather than utility

We have spoken recently in this blog about the uses of silkscreen in the graphic arts and large format printing. Of course, this was initially a fine arts process, and many artists at this community show were displaying their silkscreens. Instead of printing logos on t-shirts, they had broken down landscapes or portraits into selected colors and had printed images in register with one another by forcing ink through silk or synthetic screens (one per color, in register with one another) onto fine paper. In some prints I could see how areas of the still-life pictures had been blocked off with a masking agent prior to the ink’s being forced through the stencil. Some artists had gone back into the silkscreen images to build up further texture with paint or gesso, and had even added sand for texture.

Traditional lithography vs. offset lithography

Other fine artists had chosen traditional lithography, in which images are drawn on a porous stone or a metal plate with a waxy, crayon-like implement. The greasy image repels water, so when the stone or plate is wiped down with water and then covered with printing ink, only the image areas drawn with the waxy crayon accept the ink, while the non-image areas accept water and repel ink. Pressing a sheet of fine paper against the plate with a lithographic printing press yields an artistic print. Registering and printing multiple stones, or plates treated the same way, yields a multi-colored lithographic image.

This traditional lithographic process bears a striking resemblance to the offset lithography produced by printing companies, although traditional lithography uses any number of mixed color inks, while offset printing companies use offset lithography to simulate any number of colors by overlaying halftone screens of transparent process inks. The traditional technique doesn’t use screens, but both processes are otherwise the same.

Even offset lithography has found a place in artistic reproduction. An offset custom printing service, by adding touch plates of extra PMS colors, can expand the color gamut of a poster printing run, for instance. The fine artist can have an offset business printing vendor produce a limited run of a vibrant work. Using a loupe you will still see the halftone dots, so the image will not be one-of-a-kind, but the aesthetic qualities and artistic value will still be present.

Online Printing Services: Book Printing Options for Proofing- Hard-Copy vs. Remote Virtual Proof

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

A client recently contacted me regarding a book printing job, a perfect-bound textbook for high school students. The 312-page book has black-only ink for the text, while the cover is 4-color plus one PMS ink. The online printing company manufacturing this book for my client has recently installed a new virtual proofing system called Rampage Remote.

I personally have used this technology before (and another vendor’s remote proofing technology called InSite). In both cases, the business printing service provides a virtual link on the computer to a proof of the preflighted, imposed, press-ready files from which the final plates will be burned. The actual product the designer or print buyer will see is a PDF of each individual page on his or her computer monitor.

Which to choose?

My client wanted advice on what to do: request a virtual proof or a hard-copy proof from the custom printing service.

First of all, I noted that the virtual proof would be produced from the actual, final files from which plates would be burned. This all but assured my client that no errors could creep into the process. Since the file used to produce an inkjet proof and the file used to produce a press-ready plate are usually slightly different, an error not visible on the proof occasionally will show up on press. By using a Rampage Remote proofing workflow, the online printing vendor would eliminate this chance.

I also noted that the price would be the same either way, for hard-proof or soft-proof, and the schedule would be the same as well. That said, it was possible that not needing to send the proof both ways by courier or UPS would save a little time.

I encouraged my client to ask the book printer for a hard-copy inkjet contract proof for the textbook cover and a Rampage Remote virtual proof for the text.

Why did I offer this advice?

Color on an LCD, CRT, or TFT display is composed of the additive primaries: red, green, and blue. In contrast, color on a digital inkjet proof is composed of the same subtractive primary colors used on an offset printing press: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Granted, algorithms have been devised to coordinate these two color spaces, but they do not always exactly match. Color presented on a monitor may be slightly different from the same color on an inkjet proof. In addition, even if the digital information driving the color monitor is accurate, an improperly calibrated monitor will display inaccurate color. I felt that since my client had the time for an inkjet proof of the 4-color cover, it would be prudent for her to request one.

The text of the book printing job was another matter. Since the book was to be all black ink inside, there would be no potential color shift to address, so there was no reason not to request a Rampage Remote proof. My client would get the soft proof a day earlier than a hard-copy proof (i.e., no courier), and she could print out a copy of the text on her laser printer to facilitate proof review prior to the book printing.

Avoiding moire patterns

One thing that bears repeating here, however, is that the color inkjet hard-copy proof of the cover would not show the actual halftone dot structure of the final press job produced by the book printer. For that matter, neither would the hard-copy laser proofs she could have received for the text. Both inkjet proofs and laser proofs have their own halftone screening algorithms. If you look at a laser print under a high-powered loupe, you will see a dot pattern (but it won’t be the same as a PostScript halftone pattern on a platesetter). If you look at an inkjet proof under a loupe, it will appear to be almost continuous tone (actually, it’s made up of “dithered” color, also known as FM screening–minuscule spots of ink distributed randomly rather than in a regular AM screening pattern). The halftone screening patterns visible in an enlarged view of your digital printing service’s Rampage Remote PDF might actually approximate the dot pattern of the final printed piece more accurately.

Why is this “technospeak” relevant to you? In some cases, if the halftone grids conflict with regular patterns in the images themselves (for instance, with a checkerboard pattern or a Scottish tartan), undesirable moire patterns may be visible in the business printing vendor’s final book printing run. The only way to catch this prior to printing is with a true PostScript halftone dot proof, such as the Kodak Approval, which is rare and expensive these days. If you think this may happen to your job, point out the potential patterns and screen conflicts to your custom printing supplier, and ask for his advice.

Book Printing with Digital Printing Companies: Holding Detail in Highlights and Shadows

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

A client of mine is preparing a high school textbook for custom printing with an online printing company. The layout is complete, and she has turned her attention to adjusting the cover and text photos. Today she asked for the “dot range” the business printing provider could hold on press.

While this sounds esoteric, it really can be broken down into a relatively easy concept, and it is very important to understand this concept if you are preparing your own photos for an offset custom printing vendor (which in most cases you will be doing).

What about black-only photographs?

When I spoke with the prepress department at the digital printing company, I learned that they could hold a 2 percent dot for highlights and a 94 percent dot for shadows. What this means is that within a grid of halftone dots (an inch by an inch square), the total area covered by black halftone dots would be 2 percent. Since the line screen for this press would be upwards of 150 lines per inch (150 rows of halftone dots), the dots in this one inch by one inch space would be very, very small. The digital printing service could still maintain fine detail within the halftone screen at this level. Everything lighter than this would be the white of the book printing paper stock.

Conversely, the digital printing company could hold a 94 percent dot in the shadows. That is, within a one inch by one inch square, assuming a line screen of 150 lpi or higher, 94 percent of the area would be filled with halftone dots. As halftone dots go, these would be rather large. Anything darker than this would become solid black. One reason for this is that my client’s book will be printed on an absorbent, uncoated stock (70# Finch Opaque), which soaks up ink. Using a percentage halftone dot higher than 94 percent would cause the ink to spread on the press sheet and fill the entire area with black ink.

(Keep in mind that offset custom printing is a binary process. In any given area, there is either ink or no ink. Within a black-only textbook, this means either black ink is present or absent. When reproducing halftones, the business printing vendor can simulate shades of gray by printing halftone dots of different sizes within a regular halftone grid pattern. The percentages we are discussing pertain to this halftoning technology.)

How does this work for full-color images?

My client’s black and white textbook has a cover, which will be printed on a gloss coated press sheet. This paper will have better ink hold-out than the uncoated paper inside the book (that is, ink will sit up on the surface and not seep into the paper fibers). Therefore, the halftone screen for the four photos on the cover will probably be finer than for the text. More than likely, the business printing vendor will employ halftone screens with rulings upwards of 175 lines per inch.

The digital printing service informed me that the press can hold a 3-2-2 dot at 270 percent. Let’s break this down.

Full-color printing is done with halftone screens, but unlike the black and white images in the textbook, the cover is printed with four halftone screens at different angles to one another: one halftone screen on each of the press units (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black). Assuming that the 3-2-2 refers to highlights (because the numbers are so low), we can read these as 3 percent Cyan, 2 percent Magenta, 2 percent Yellow, and 0 percent Black (because the business printing vendor confessed that 3-2-2 was really 3-2-2-0; Black has no number and hence is zero).

At the other end of the spectrum (the shadows), the total ink coverage cannot exceed 270 percent. This gives the designer leeway. Let’s assume that all four process colors at 100 percent density would equal 400 percent coverage (C, M, Y, and K x 100 percent each). This would be far too much ink. The press sheets would stick together. It would be a mess.

Therefore, the business printing vendor has learned through experience that the press used to print my client’s book cover can hold a shadow within a 4-color image of up to 270 percent ink coverage. Depending on the color composition of each of the four full-color images in my client’s cover design, any one area of shadow might be made up of (for instance) C-80, M-20, Y-15, and K-120—or any other combination of screened percentages not exceeding a total of 270 percent.

Color halftones are still halftones.

Remember that color halftones are still halftones. Each of these numbers represents a screened percentage within an inch by inch space. The halftone screen is higher (175 lpi or above), and the screens are set at angles to one another, but they’re still screens, just like the halftone screens for the black ink images inside the textbook the book printer is producing.

Brochure Printing: From Paste-up to Computer Design

Monday, August 15th, 2011

A colleague who started designing art files for book printing a few years ago asked me to distinguish between layout and paste-up. The question brought to mind all of the changes in the field of design and custom printing over the 34 years I have been in the business. I’ll provide an answer for the question my colleague asked, but I will go further to mention some of the other changes I have witnessed.

What is layout? What is paste-up?

First of all, I think of layout as the arrangement of visual elements on a page. It is the artistic component of the design and production process, which includes the choice of formats (whether you have chosen a book printing or brochure printing format, for instance), size and number of folds (whether the job is a wrap fold or accordion fold), type faces and point sizes and placement and treatment of images, whether the job will be 2-color or 4-color, and color placement. This is just a short list. I’m sure I’m missing many elements. Basically, layout is the organization of visual information on a page or in an entire book. It is now done on a computer, but when I started in the business, it was a physical process done on an art board.

Paste-up, in contrast (which is now defunct), involved physically positioning strips of type galleys, rule lines, and patches of “rubylith” (as placeholders for photos) on a sheet of layout paper. The designer used rubber cement (or, when I started doing paste-up, the adhesive was wax that was heated and rolled out onto the back of the sheets of type) to affix and immobilize the pieces of the type galleys (paragraphs and headlines on photosensitive, resin-coated paper). Everything had to be straight, precisely aligned. Any flaws would be visible on the negatives, the plates, and especially the final printed job delivered by the custom printing service.

From art boards to negatives to printing plates

Each printed page had a physical paste-up board, which was photographed by the custom printing vendor using a huge, horizontal camera. The negative film the printer used to capture the image on the paste-up board was placed on chemically treated metal and exposed to light to yield a press-ready printing plate. Light went through the transparent portions of the negative to chemically alter the plate below, while the opaque portions of the negative blocked the light. A chemical development process yielded the final custom printing plate.

Whether the final product was a blueline proof (blue type and images on thick paper used as a proof to show placement of all graphic elements) or a negative, the process was photographic in nature. It was also mechanical, insofar as custom printing plant staff had to assemble all the negatives of rules, type, and images on “goldenrod” sheets (“flats”) in preparation for the photographic exposure of the plates.

Design and production tasks have moved to the computer

Now, all of this is done by computer. The designer no longer receives galleys of type from a dedicated typesetter (long strips of photosensitive type paper with a single column of type interspersed with headlines). He or she no longer pastes these up by hand to create art boards (which were also called “mechanicals”). The designer uses a computer to complete many of the tasks that used to be the purview of the custom printing provider’s prepress department. Then the designer hands off the file electronically to the printer (with no actual galleys and no physical “mechanicals” ever made).

The business printing provider skips the stripping stage, no longer assembling photographic negatives of images and type onto the goldenrod flats. Having abandoned the negative stage entirely, the printer images the custom printing plate directly from the computer.

Where does publication design go from here?

At it’s most extreme, the designer’s computer (the page composition and image editing software) drives the platesetter by proxy (the same art files transmitted to the custom printing shop, once electronically imposed, drive the business printing vendor’s platesetter).

One step further down the road would be printing directly to the press (which is how digital printing works, whether it is ink-jet or high-end xerography on a HP Indigo digital press). Instead of, or at least in addition to, printing multiple copies of one master, the digital process allows for mass customization (infinitely differing copies all printed by one digital press).

At the final extreme, we omit paper entirely and publish directly to the Internet. Which, according to numerous marketing studies, will not happen any time soon because people still love to open and read their physical mail. Direct mail is growing, not diminishing, and is taking a complementary position to Web marketing. Like radio and TV, custom printing and the Internet will continue to coexist and complement one another for the foreseeable future.

Screen Printing with an Online Printing Company: Print on Almost Anything

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

At some point in your schooling, maybe even in grade school, you probably did some screen printing. Maybe in art class. Using a frame with a stretched nylon screen, perhaps not as fine a mesh as a stocking, you used a squeegie to force printing ink through a stencil attached to the screen and onto the paper below. It’s a simple process, and essentially the same as commercial silkscreen (also known as screen printing or serigraphy).

Where might you see examples of screen printing?

The screen printing process deposits a thick film of ink on a variety of substrates. You may have seen a portion of text printed right on the wall at a museum to describe the paintings or sculpture in the room. More than likely, this was done via screen printing.

The printed t-shirts you wear (those with thick ink deposits rather than appliques) are another example of screen printing.

Probably the silkscreen you used in school differed from commercial screen printing presses in only a few respects. First of all, it probably only had one screen. When you wanted to change inks to print new portions of your artwork in different colors, you probably had to clean the ink off the screen, remove the stencil that blocked ink from the non-image areas, and then attach a new stencil prior to printing the next color.

A commercial screen printing press, used by online printing companies, can have a single flat bed on which the paper or fabric rests and multiple arms with screens bolted onto them that can be rotated into position to lay down ink onto the t-shirt, convention portfolio, or whatever else you’re printing. This will speed up the printing process significantly.

Also, your school silkscreen probably used a screen made of silk or a synthetic, whereas commercial screen printing presses can use polyester mesh screens or even more durable stainless steel screens.

Photo screen printing provides new options.

Initially, artists either blocked non-image areas of the screen by applying a thick film or painted portions of the screen with block-out solutions to prevent ink flow. Starting about seventy years ago, photography was brought into the screen printing process (think of the pop art posters created by Andy Warhol).

In photo screen printing, the screen is coated with a light sensitive emulsion that is selectively exposed to a light source through a positive image of the artwork (the reverse of the process whereby offset printing plates are burned). The (positive) stencil keeps the light from reaching the image area of the artwork. When the screen is exposed to light, the light source hardens only the non-image areas, allowing the emulsion on the image areas to be easily washed away with water prior to printing. Non-image areas remain blocked out on the screen. With process inks, four screens, and considerable skill, a screen printer can produce full-color photographic images on a wide variety of substrates. Although the thickness of the screen printing inks makes fine-screen halftone work more challenging, the process is evolving.

When should you choose screen printing?

There are a few major reasons to choose screen printing.

First among these is the ability to print on unusual surfaces such as walls and garments. This is in part because screen printing does not require the intense pressure of offset lithography, so you can print on surfaces that are not flat. You can even print on mugs, pens, and such, depending on the flexibility of the screen and your creativity in devising holders for the objects.

Set-up (make-ready) operations for screen printing are involved and lengthy, however, adding to the cost of the process. Therefore, screen printing is your best choice for longer press runs. For shorter press runs, digital printing processes such as inkjet printing are coming into use (even for items that are rounded, such as pens or mugs), depending on the ingenuity of the printer in developing carriers to hold the items motionless under the inkjet nozzles.

You may not have realized this, but…

Here are some uses for screen printing, some of which you may never have imagined:

  1. Electronic printed circuit boards
  2. Medical devices
  3. Glass, wood, metal, and plastic items
  4. Clocks and clock faces
  5. Snowboard graphics

As you cherry-pick your team of digital printing companies, it’s a wise decision to include a quality screen printing shop in the mix.

Sticker Printing and Label Printing: More Options Than You Might Think

Friday, August 5th, 2011

What do you need to know about printing custom stickers? It seems this would be a fairly straightforward genre of printing, but there are actually a number of things to consider when buying custom stickers (or labels).

Consider the intended use of the sticker.

For indoor use, such as a name badge or a label for a large envelope, 70# matte or gloss label stock should be fine. (This is often referred to by its brand name, “Crack’n Peel,” since you bend the paper to break the backing away from the label, and then just peel away the backing sheet.)

Crack’n Peel labels are ideal for light-duty uses, since you will not be exposing the paper to moisture or scuffing. Of course, you would also need to specify the number of ink colors and the size of the custom sticker. Most printing companies start small with uniform sizes, such as 2” x 3/5” and go up incrementally, although you can also specify a custom size for sticker printing.

More durable substrates exist for demanding uses.

For more demanding uses, you will need more durable label stock. A wine bottle label, for instance, would require a stock that can adhere to a cold, wet bottle. A label used on food packaging may need to be printed on a similar stock for the same reasons. So in addition to the press run, ink colors, etc., describe to your business printing vendor the final use for the custom sticker or label.

Custom stickers used outside, such as campaign and political stickers, may be printed on vinyl substrates rather than paper. This material will withstand sunlight, moisture, etc., particularly if laminated.

For really demanding uses in extreme conditions, such as for labels in factories, you might even choose matte anodized aluminum coated with an acrylic adhesive, which will bond to plastic and bare metal surfaces. These labels resist abrasion, solvents, and extreme temperatures.

You can also specify that the custom stickers be printed on a clear vs. white substrate, and you can have them printed within diecut circles, ovals, squares, or rectangles. Also consider whether you want the label or sticker printing run to be provided in sheets or rolls. If you choose rolls, be sure you specify your preferred unwind position (the orientation of the custom sticker on the roll) on the quote requests you send your printing companies.

You can even add numbering or bar coding. Let’s say you need sequentially numbered stickers for bags of platelets in a blood drive. More than likely, such labels will need to have a metal foil backing adhesive to stay put whether the bags are in the lab or the refrigerator.

Printing Methods

Prior to the advent of digital printing, printing companies produced labels and stickers on flexographic presses. That is, rubber plates attached to press rollers printed the images on the label stock. This was a relief process (raised lettering and graphics on the rubber plates). You could often identify the flexographic printing by the thicker ink “stroke” around the images and letterforms (offset printing would not have this outline around the graphic elements). But recently, printing companies with laser imaging equipment (including high-end xerographic presses such as the HP Indigo) and inkjet presses can produce custom stickers for their clients as well.

Book Printing with Online Printing Companies: How to Settle a Dispute So Everyone Wins

Friday, August 5th, 2011

No matter how long you’ve been buying custom printing servcies from online printing companies the time will come when something goes wrong. Online printing companies are staffed with human beings, who are fallible, so from time to time it will become necessary to work through a difficult job, to find a solution the digital printing service can provide that will satisfy your needs.

A client contacted me today, disappointed with a job that had just been delivered. I looked at the samples that I had received and noted that opaque white letters on the inside covers were barely visible on the beige uncoated cover stock.

Doing the research

I took a breath. Then I did some research. My client, the custom printing vendor, and I had discussed adding opaque white, but the two options the printer had proposed were to print the opaque white under the image on the front cover as a “ground” to keep the beige paper from darkening the transparent process ink, or to use the opaque white as an accent (spot placement within portions of the cover art). We had not discussed using opaque white for any text.

I reviewed the collection of sample promotional books that I had received from paper manufacturers, looking for information on (and examples of) opaque white usage. I found a sample of opaque white lettering (a large headline) on a deep blue stock, and a description of how to use opaque white as a ground for printing process color images. The white ground (or base) made the images “pop,” or stand out from the surrounding tinted paper stock. In both promotional sample books, the opaque white had been printed twice (a “double hit”), yet the effect was subtle. When I checked under a loupe (a high-powered magnifying glass used by printing companies to view fine details on printed press sheets), I could still see flecks of the blue substrate through the white headline letters.

Talking with the online printing company

I asked the printer why his prepress operator had not flagged the white type as potentially problematic, and why the pressman had not commented on the barely legible type on the beige paper during the press run. The surprised printer noted that the type had been faint, but still legible, under his pressroom lighting.

This got me thinking. Pressroom lighting is 5000 Kelvin (which is the same color as sunlight). It is not the same as the light emitted by my LED desk lamp or the fluorescent bulbs or incandescent tungsten filament bulbs in the house. I went outside. In sunlight, the text was light but readable. I went back inside and called the printing service. I explained my findings. The CEO agreed that the text was too light. He wanted the client to be happy.

Working together toward a solution

To keep costs down, and because the text of the booklet was beautifully printed, we determined that the best way to proceed was to reprint the covers, tear the old covers off, and attach the new covers. The online printing company agreed to do all work by hand to keep the variance in retrimming to 1/16” or less. (Retrimming a book that has had its covers removed and replaced risks making the head, foot, and face margin uncomfortably tight, since retrimming makes the book slightly smaller than it had originally been.)

The client would pay to have the books sent back to the business printing provider, and the printer would do all work “at cost” (about half the retail price). We also discussed the schedule. We wanted to make sure the client could mail the books in a timely manner.

In addition, the designer decided to change all white type to blue type (it is always a risk to print small, serif type in a light color on a middle-toned, tinted press sheet). She decided not to risk this. If she had wanted to keep the white type, the custom printing vendor could have improved the ink’s opacity by adding silver ink to the opaque white ink. He could also have used white metallic foil instead of opaque white ink for the text, but this would have required an additional stamping die (at the cost of approximately $500.00).

Unfortunately, the beige paper was a special order item, adding to the cost of reprinting the covers and also lengthening the schedule (acquiring paper would take three days). So I suggested printing the beige of the background as a process color screen on white uncoated cover stock. After all, there were no flecks in the paper. It was easy to replicate the “sand” text sheet with process color inks. The client and printing company agreed. The reprint cost and timeline were both abbreviated.

Working with online printing companies as partners

We all worked together as partners, finding a workable solution at a fair cost (shared by the custom printing provider and the client) within a workable time frame. It was clear to me that the client felt taken care of. And both the online printing company and the client can now work together comfortably in the future. Ironically, the printer’s prices had been so good that, even including the additional cover reprint cost, the total price of the job still matched the next lowest estimate for printing the booklet in the first place.

Custom printing is an art, as is negotiating. Problems occur from time to time. Approaching the business relationship as a partnership and seeking ways to resolve the problems yields the best results for all.

Large Format Printing and Poster Printing: Avoiding Mechanical Ghosting

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Here’s a trick I once saw at a business printing vendor who was doing large format poster printing for a client of mine. The job in question was a process color poster with a heavy coverage PMS border around a central, full-color image. After having problems with mechanical ghosting, the custom printing service tilted the entire poster on the press sheet. I’d never seen this before; nor have I seen it since. And I’m sure it made for challenges on the trimming equipment.

Let’s see what we can learn from the experience at this large format printing vendor.

What is mechanical ghosting?

Ghosting is a problem printing companies face in which faint images from one part of a press sheet show up elsewhere on the sheet. In other cases, mechanical ghosting can involve light or dark areas of ink coverage that are inconsistent with their surroundings (and that don’t reflect what is actually in the art files).

Various design elements precipitate this kind of ghosting, but printing large format posters (or even small book covers) with an image surrounded by a PMS border can cause particularly challenging ghosting headaches. This is because the press deposits a lot of ink at the top of the border (the width of the poster), then very little along the sides of the border (a narrow strip running the length of the poster along both sides), then a lot of ink at the bottom of the border. (This is called ink starvation: i.e., printing a lot of ink, then very little ink, then a lot of ink). The result is an inconsistent ink deposit, with an overinked top and bottom border edge, and sides that are too light.

Evening out the ink flow is a solution.

Some online printing companies add “ghost bars” or “take-off bars.” These are extra blocks of solid ink coverage outside the live image area, added by the printing companies in prepress and platemaking, in order to make the press lay down more ink along the sides of the poster. These “take-off bars,” as the name suggests, are then trimmed away during the finishing stages of production, after presswork is complete.

Another option, if there is not enough room on the press sheet for take-off bars, is to screen the top and bottom of the border slightly. Without the screen, the horizontal part of the border at the top and bottom of the large format posters would be darker than the sides. Screening back these portions of the design in anticipation of mechanical ghosting can even out the ink density all the way around the border.

This solution was employed by one client to avoid mechanical ghosting on their magazine covers. This company screened back (i.e., lightened) the top and bottom of the yellow border around the cover of their magazine, and the mechanical ghosting actually equalized the ink on the border so it was the same all the way around the central image. Granted, I would think the reader’s eye would be more forgiving with yellow ink than with a darker color, but for this magazine and its custom printing vendor this solution worked.

Cocking the image

The custom printing vendor I worked with employed a different solution. Since only one image of the poster printing run fit on each press sheet, with an ample non-printing area, the business printing service was able to tilt the poster slightly on the sheet (maybe 40 degrees). As this “cocked” poster traveled through the press, the tilting actually evened out the amount of ink deposited by the press rollers. There was no single portion of the poster, when tilted in this way, that required that much more ink than any other area. Granted, the custom printing vendor did also add take-off (or ghost) bars to further equalize the ink lay down, but I think the tilting made all the difference. With all the printing companies I have worked with since this poster printing run, I have never seen this trick repeated.


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