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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 October, 2012

Newspaper Printing: Don’t Believe All the Hype You Read

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Numerous metropolitan newspapers have cut back from printing daily issues to printing three or more issues a week while shifting resources toward their digital operations. This is a fact, and it is the trend due to a year-over-year drop in print advertising and readership. The Times-Picayune published in New Orleans, Louisiana, exemplifies this.

However, this isn’t the whole story. Based on articles I’ve read and on my own experience, another trend is becoming evident: There is movement toward printing more newspaper titles covering smaller beats, with more targeted readership and shorter press runs.

A Closer View of the State of Newspaper Printing

I recently came across an online article in Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab by Ken Doctor, entitled “The Newsonomics of Near-Term Numerology.”

The article acknowledges the drop in print advertising (according to Borrell Associates), although the drop has been more gradual in recent years:

  • 18 percent decline in 2008
  • 28 percent decline in 2009
  • 8 percent decline in 2010
  • 9 percent decline in 2011

At the same time the Nieman Journalism Lab article notes that smaller newspapers are trending upward. These include daily papers and weekly papers with circulations of approximately 10,000 copies. According to Gordon Borrell, “There are a lot of 10,000-circulation dailies out there, and about 5x to 7x as many weeklies out there.”

The Nieman Journalism Lab article notes that weekly newspapers have been finding a steady stream of advertisers due to the sizable and stable readership. To augment revenue, some of these daily and weekly newspapers have broadened their services to include social media, SEO, website development, and other Internet-based offerings.

So it’s primarily the large metropolitan newspapers that are being hammered by the reduced advertising revenue and the readers’ migration to online news.

“The Newsonomics of Near-Term Numerology” posits that ad revenue may have flattened out for newspapers in the same way it flattened out for radio. Doctor notes that after the advent of television, radio ad revenue dropped precipitously in the 1950s but has “remained a consistent 7 percent share of advertising ever since.” Perhaps this will be the fate of newspapers.

It is interesting to see the stock share prices year over year for five major print news organizations that Doctor includes in his article:

  • Gannett: 64 percent increase in share value
  • New York Times Co.: 49 percent increase in share value
  • Lee: 107 percent increase in share value
  • McClatchy: 63 percent increase in share value
  • Scripps: 60 percent increase in share value

It is Doctor’s view that newspaper companies still left standing have learned to “manage decline and still show a modest profit.” And at the same time these organizations are growing their online digital operations and instituting paywalls to mitigate the effect of reduced advertising revenue.

A Confirming Source for Gannett’s Profits

In my reading this morning I came upon another article, specifically about Gannett’s rising profits (“Gannett Profits Rise for Third Quarter of 2012,” presented in the October 16 Huff Post media section).

Here are some facts about Gannett that piqued my interest:

  • The stock has appreciated about 26 percent in the past three months (according to Evercore analyst Doug Arthur).
  • Gannett has been reducing its reliance on print advertising as a source of funding and has been depending more on revenue from broadcast TV.
  • The latest company report reflects slowing revenue declines at Gannett newspapers.

And here are two related quotes:

“Even the pace of advertising declines at its newspapers has begun to slow. Advertising revenue fell 6.6 percent, compared with an 8 percent decline in the second quarter.”

“As a result of the digital pay model rolled out to 71 markets, circulation revenue rose 10 percent at its U.S. local newspapers.”

So the gist of the article is that:

  1. Gannett is solvent.
  2. It is diversifying its revenue-generating activities.
  3. Its stock is appreciating.
  4. And print advertising at Gannett is not dead.

An Anecdotal Report on Newspaper Printing from the Printing Industry Exchange

The owner of the Printing Industry Exchange also offered some interesting anecdotal information. He has seen increased online activity (live jobs entered into the Printing Industry Exchange hopper for newspaper printers that are members of PIE to bid on). However, these jobs have had shorter press runs.

My Own Anecdotal Evidence on the State of Newspaper Printing

I travel to Ocean City a lot, and I keep my eyes open specifically for broadsheet and tabloid newspapers in the towns along the way. Over the last few years, I have seen an increase in titles relating to Eastern Shore beach activities, real estate, conventions, and the arts. Most of these publications seem to peak during the heaviest beach months of the summer, but they still seem viable year-round.

Back here in the DC Metropolitan area, I have also seen a number of Hispanic publications in various areas I frequent.

My inference from the newspapers I see in my travels are that they are more focused on particular topics or targeted toward specific ethnic groups. They are often tabloid publications and small digests rather than broadsheet newspapers, and it seems that they have shorter press runs.

Poster Printing: A Venue for Art, Marketing, and Politics

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Posters have a long history as works of art, marketing venues, and vehicles for protest. What they all share–in the best of cases–is immediate impact. They’re powerful. They present a single image and a few words (like a small billboard) that grab you.

They also share another quality: mass production. Because of this, modern posters can really be traced back to the perfection of color offset lithography in 1870.

Posters Throughout History

Here are some notable historical posters that make the cross-over between art and marketing:

  1. The Moulin Rouge posters produced by the artist Henri Tolouse-Lautrec in 1891.
  2. The Alfonze Mucha posters promoting everything from dance to cigarette rolling papers in the late 1800s and early 1900s (and notable for their art deco style).
  3. The psychedelic posters of the 1960s, such as the works of Peter Max or the posters promoting the Grateful Dead.

Posters have also been used to convey political messages:

  1. Consider the famous stylized poster of Che Guevera, the Marxist revolutionary.
  2. Or the Rosie the Riveter or “Loose Lips Sink Ships” posters of World War II.

In all of these cases, the aim of the poster has been to use a little text and an eye catching image to elicit a strong reaction from the viewer. Unlike large-format graphics, they are of a limited size, and they are usually hung on a wall. They range from movie posters to travel posters to reproductions of art works to commemorations of events (like concerts or political gatherings).

Custom Printing Specifications for Posters

Here are some specifications to consider when producing posters:

  1. Size: Poster printers will usually suggest sizes ranging from about 11” x 17” to 24” x 36”. The goal is to capture the viewer’s field of vision when he or she is standing at a comfortable distance from the poster on the wall. Along with this, it is prudent to consider the maximum size press sheet your commercial printing vendor can run and how many copies of a poster he can get on a single press sheet.
  2. Paper Stock: A good rule of thumb is to start with 100# text (gloss or matte, although you can also print on an uncoated sheet). Some posters are much heavier, with weights between 100# and 130# cover. Posters hung on exterior walls (consider some of the political posters wallpapering Europe) will be exposed to sunlight and rain. For them to last even a short while, it is prudent to laminate, UV coat, or aqueous coat them. Posters hung indoors may still be exposed to sunlight (through windows) and fingerprints, so in this case lamination is still not a bad idea. (However, if you’re producing a poster for use in a school, for instance, and teachers will need to write on any part of it, you will need to knock out–i.e., not print–the varnish, UV coating, or lamination in that area.)
  3. Folding: Consider whether you will want the posters delivered flat, folded (image in or image out), or rolled and inserted in cardboard tubes.
  4. Press Run: For 100 or fewer posters, you will probably want to digitally print your poster press run. (Commercial printers have different digital and offset equipment, so this cutoff point may vary from 100 to 250 copies.) Above this number, you will probably move to offset printing to be more cost-effective. Let your commercial printing supplier suggest the optimal printing technology, but ask to see printed samples before you proceed. In addition, size may be an issue for digital printing. Some digital presses only accept smaller sized press sheets (although this has been changing recently, and digital presses have been made that can print larger press sheets).
  5. Color: Traditionally, posters have been produced in 4-color process inks, although you may want to add a touch plate (a separate ink) to highlight the color in certain areas of the poster. For instance, purples, greens, blues, reds, and oranges can benefit from additional PMS touch plates to increase the color gamut of the four process colors. You may also want to add a metallic color, or even white.
  6. Overall Design: Keep it simple. The best posters are dramatic because they are simple. They focus on only one concept, and they use a single, powerful image and just a few words to make their point.

Printing Custom Playing Cards

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

When I started my research into the history and printing of custom playing cards to answer a query by a close friend, I expected to trace their origins to the 15th century Italian Tarot deck, used for centuries for fortune telling and rife with mystical, religious, and astrological symbolism. In fact, what I did find was a much older origin in 9th century China, in the Tang Dynasty.

The multiple decks I saw in my research presented a vast array of imagery. This was clearly an art form as well as a focus for games of chance, magic tricks, divination, and feats of manual dexterity (cuts, spreads, fanning, etc.). The pictures themselves–from woodcuts to modern lithography—reflected both a long history and an artistic sensibility that caught my interest.

Options for Printing a Deck of Custom Playing Cards

Beyond the four suits, with each ranging from the ace to the 10 plus the three court cards, even modern playing cards present opportunities for unique designs.

One commercial printing vendor for playing cards offers custom faces, custom backs, and specialty decks.

The custom backs provide marketing opportunities. One of the samples promoted a popular film, another advertised a resort hotel, and a third showcased an automobile. In all cases, the designer had assumed that in the course of playing multiple card games, the dealer and other card players would absorb the company’s specific marketing messages. I would assume this to be true, given the repeated exposure. (Just like refrigerator magnets or notepads, a branded deck of custom playing cards reinforces a vendor’s name in the minds of its users.)

The custom faces do essentially the same thing, using the space around the numbers and the patterns of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades for images of people (maybe the young man of honor at a bar mitzvah, a series of models for a glamour magazine, or even a product photo).

Specialty decks include everything from educational cards (information on selected topics printed on the backs of each card) to motivational cards (with each containing a positive affirmation for inspiration).

Printing Specifications for Custom Playing Cards

Here’s a short list to consider when specifying playing cards (perhaps as a promotional item for your next convention):

  1. Consider the finish of the card, such as smooth or linen. Playing card printers may offer only limited options.
  2. Consider the color of card. You may want 4-color ink, for example, on the face and back of the card.
  3. Give thought to the packaging. Not all card decks need to come wrapped in cellophane and inserted in a cardboard box. You may want to create a custom wood box, for instance, with a logo screen printed on the wood. Or you may want a custom-designed cardboard box.
  4. Determine the press run. For the more ornate jobs involving screen printing on a wood box and offset printing on the playing cards, keep in mind that the unit cost goes down as the press run goes up. In these cases, you’re paying for complicated make-ready work.
  5. Consider personalization. To what extent do you want the imagery to change on the front and back of each card. For example, will it be different for each card or just different for each suit?
  6. Choose the card size. Standard poker size is 2.5” x 3.5”. That said, you can negotiate larger and smaller sizes with your commercial printing supplier. Just consider how many cards you can get on a single press sheet (ask your printer what size sheet fits his press). If you can keep the layout of all 52 cards on one press sheet, you’ll pay less overall than if you need to print the cards on two press sheets and incur the cost of two press runs.
  7. Consider the stock. For custom playing cards, the stock is usually brilliant white, for contrast with the artwork. Adding a plastic coating for durability is also prudent, since the cards will be handled repeatedly.

Why Should You Print a Deck of Custom Playing Cards?

For an event, in particular, it’s a treat for the participants to walk away with a memento, a way to remember a pleasant experience at a later date. It’s also good for marketing and name recognition. But more than anything it’s just plain fun, since people like to play cards.

Printing Comic Books Through the Ages

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

I hadn’t really looked closely at a comic book since I was a teenager, but the advent of graphic novels piqued my interest, so I did some research into how comic books are printed.

I assumed they would be like a small-format magazines printed on newsprint with a gloss cover. I was a little behind the times.

Comic Books: A Grand Tradition

First of all, I was surprised to learn that comic books harken back to cave paintings, tapestries (think of the Bayeux Tapestry that tells the story of the events leading to the Battle of Hastings), and the illuminated manuscripts painstakingly illustrated by monks. Throughout history, it seems that people have recorded important events with pictures.

In addition, those of you familiar with the British Romantic poet William Blake might recall his work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which he also illustrated to match the poetic storyline, creating a work not unlike a graphic novel.

Paper Choices for Old School and New School Comics

Starting in the 1930s and for a number of decades thereafter, American comics were printed in 4-color ink on newsprint, often with a thicker, gloss-stock cover. Apparently this has changed a bit over time, since the comic book custom printing vendors I researched offer multiple options for commercial printing stock, usually starting at around 40# to 50# text weight for the interior pages and 40# to 80# text weight for the covers (coated and uncoated).

One of the commercial printing suppliers I called preferred to print sheetfed work on 60# or thicker stock. From this I assumed that the thinner comic book papers would only be appropriate for longer press runs printed on web presses. With a ribbon of commercial printing paper from a web press roll traveling through a web press, it is possible to keep tension in the paper and therefore use a much thinner substrate than a sheetfed press would tolerate without jamming.

Size and Format for Comic Books

Based on my research, I learned that comics tend to be 16 to 32 pages (in even 16-page signatures), either self-cover or plus cover. One comic book printer offered three separate formats ranging from 6.625” x 10.250” (standard) to 5.5” x 8.5” (digest) to 8.575” x 10.875” (magazine). Based on these specific dimensions, my assumption is that this particular custom printing supplier uses a web offset press.

Ink Choices for Comic Books

Traditionally, comic books have been printed in 4-color process ink. Interestingly enough, since the art is drawn (i.e., illustrated rather than photographed), “Ben-Day” screens were used in the 60s and 70s to create tinted and shaded areas. These were screens of equal sized dots—unlike halftone dots, which are of varying sizes—overlapping and printed in the four process colors to simulate areas of flat color.

If you look at the Pop Art parodies of comic book images that Roy Lichtenstein painted in the 1960s, you will see enlarged dot patterns for the tinted and shaded areas. (These enlarged dots simulated the coarse line screens needed for printing comic books on newsprint stock.)

Based on my research, I found that modern comic book printers offer either process color or b/w printing for their comic book magazines.

Binding Methods for Comic Books

Most comics are short, so they are saddle-stitched magazines. However, for graphic novels (much longer comic books), perfect binding is a more appropriate option. In the comic book world, however, a perfect bound book is referred to as “squarebound.”

Graphic Novels

Wikipedia refers to graphic novels as works of nonfiction, “thematically linked short stories,” and “fictional stories…bound in longer and more durable formats.” Essentially, they are actual print books or pictorial novels, and they are aimed at adult readers. Japanese “magna” would fit in this category. (Interestingly enough, these Japanese print books are read from back to front, and from right to left on each page.)

Where to Print Comic Books

Comic books are essentially magazines. If they are printed on newsprint, they are essentially small tabloid publications. Therefore, the best pricing for such a print job would come from a custom printing vendor that specializes in magazines or newspapers. Printers that produce advertising supplements would be ideal as well. In contrast, both quick printers and commercial printers might be able to print these jobs, but their prices might not be as competitive.

If the comic book needs to be printed on very thin coated or uncoated stock, or newsprint, a printer with a web press would be the ideal vendor.

If the comic book is a graphic novel, with qualities more akin to a perfect-bound book, your best bet would be to engage the services of a book printer.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you will only print a few hundred copies of a comic book, you might want to look at digital printing (printing based on laser imaging, also called “xerography” or “electrophotography”). This will be much more cost effective than offset printing.

The Final Arbiter

It’s all about how the book feels in your hands as well as how it looks. That is the tradition of the comic book.

Printing Custom Pocket Folders

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Custom pocket folders are both functional and a good marketing tool. If you’ve ever received a pocket folder containing a stack of printed samples from a custom printing vendor, you appreciate the way everything stays together in the folder, allowing you to file it for future reference. Conversely, custom pocket folders present an image of the commercial printing provider as aesthetically savvy and technologically astute.

For your own design work, what do you need to consider when creating customized pocket folders for a client?

Choose an Appropriate Paper Stock

Your first consideration should be the kind of paper. A gloss coated sheet might be more appropriate to showcase photographs, whereas a matte, dull, or even satin press sheet might create a more subdued appearance that would facilitate reading large amounts of text. A third option would be an uncoated sheet. This might give a more environmentally-friendly tone to the design. You might even consider a textured paper such as linen or felt, with patterns embossed into the press sheet. After all, custom pocket folders engage not only your visual and aesthetic sensibility but also your sense of touch.

After you have chosen the paper coating, surface texture, color, etc., you need to consider the paper weight or thickness. I wouldn’t suggest going below 110# cover stock, but I have seen heavier stocks used successfully for custom pocket folders (up to 14 pt., or approximately 120# cover). This provides substantial heft to the piece. A heavy stock can lend an air of stability and seriousness to a pocket folder (and, by association, to the business, service, or company it represents).

Choose the Ink Colors for Printing the Custom Pocket Folders

As with any job of this sort, it’s important to consider whether you will print a simple one- or two-color piece or a more intricate 4-color job. Of particular importance will be where you place the color. When you dismantle a pocket folder (pull apart the glued edges), you will see that the pockets are actually on the same side of the press sheet as the front and back panels of the folder, whereas the interior of the pocket folder is printed on the opposite side of the press sheet.

If you print a 4-color process job and you create a process color build for the interior and exterior, the colors might not exactly match. After all, when you assemble the pocket folder, you will place the pockets (one side of the press sheet) next to the interior (the other side of the press sheet). Any color variance will be obvious. One way to avoid this is to either keep the interior of the pocket folder white (the color of the press sheet) or create two distinct process color builds (one for the interior and one for the exterior of the pocket folder).

When choosing a color scheme for the pocket folder and creating the design, consider any cover coating you may want to add, such as a varnish, aqueous coating, or UV coating. Your commercial printing supplier will knock out (i.e., not print) any cover coating where glue strips will hold together sections of the converted pocket folder. That said, you need to ask your printer to also omit the cover coating from any portion of the pocket folder on which you will want to write with ball-point pen.

The Physical Dimensions of the Pocket Folders

Physical dimensions start with the size of the folder. (The standard size is 9” x 12” for 8.5” x 11” inserts; however, other sizes can be produced as well.) Your printer will want to know the finished size (the final size once the pockets have been folded in and glued, and once the pocket folder has been closed).

Next you should consider the size and shape of the interior pockets. Some pockets are flat, or horizontal. Some are scalloped (curving inward; that is, high on the exterior left and right and sloping downward toward the center of the pocket folder).

You may also want to add business card slits on either the right or left interior pocket. This will help you personalize the pocket folder.

Finally, consider just how much material your pocket folder must hold. In fact, it’s wise to make a physical mock-up at this point and insert papers or brochures into the folder pockets. This will give you a sense of what the completed package will look like and how it will feel in your hands.

If your flat pockets won’t hold enough, you may need to add a “build” to the spine and pockets. For the spine, this just means that there will be two parallel folds (creating a thick spine) instead of one (creating a flat spine). A slightly thicker spine will allow the pocket folder to hold more enclosures. A build in the pocket is similar, with extra paper glued along the side and bottom of the pocket to give it depth (and thus more capacity).

Digital Printing as an Option for Custom Pocket Folders

Digital presses are now accepting larger press sheets. A flat pocket folder is rather large, before the press sheet has been die cut and the pockets folded in and glued. If your final size is 9” x 12” and you have 4” pockets, then the flat press sheet would be at least 18” wide (for the front and back panels) and 16” deep (the interior height plus the 4” pockets). It would actually be larger than this if you account for bleeds and for any glue tabs needed to assemble the finished pocket folder.

An HP Indigo 10000 digital press will accept a 29.5” x 20.9″ sheet size with an image size of 29.1” x 20.1”. This is good news if you’re producing either a short press run of custom pocket folders or pocket folders containing variable data printing. Not long ago, the largest press sheet a digital press would accept was closer to 12” x 18”. This made it nearly impossible to print a flat (unconverted) folder with pockets and bleeds on a digital press. (However, some printers were able to circumvent the size limitations by printing the pockets separately and then gluing them to the front and back panels.)

But since digital presses now accept larger press sheets, you have printing options that didn’t exist a few years ago. You can digitally print the complete layout for the folder, the pockets, and the glue tabs at one time prior to die cutting and assembling the finished product.

An Interesting Note About Paper Grain in Custom Pocket Folders

Usually you would fold a paper cover of a perfect-bound book with the grain of the paper (that is, with the majority of paper fibers running parallel to the spine). However, for a pocket folder, you would score and fold the press sheet “against the grain,” or perpendicular to the paper grain, to create the spine of the folder. This will ensure the durability of the pocket folder spine (with or without a build), since the folder will be opened and closed numerous times and since paper tears more easily with the grain and is stronger against the grain.

Custom Label Printing Options

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Custom label printing is sexy. No, really. Here are two quotes from (from “Resilience Shown by Label Industry As Positive Signs Predict Growth in 2012-2013”):

“There are few industries which are showing positive signs of growth and the label industry is one of them. With a 2.5 percent growth predicted for 2012-2013, the American label sector is continuing to thrive due to constant innovation and methods to improve quality and quantity with reduced costs.”

“The newspaper printing business might be going down due to readers following more technological advances, but due to a huge food and beverage market in the United States, label printing continues to drive the economy.”

Bottom line? Businesses need labels to market their services and products and to operate their facilities. And labels are physical, printed objects that can’t exist exclusively on a tablet or smartphone.

I think this is exciting, and I think it’s supported by the dynamic growth in digital printing. While flexography and screen printing had been the technologies of choice in prior years, new digital presses (both inkjet and laser) can now print one label, or thousands of labels, while adding variable data information to each item, without the set-up charges of the older printing methods. Infinitely variable digital die cutting can even bypass the expensive step of creating metal dies to cut the exterior border of the custom labels.

And should the job require a long run without variable data, flexography and custom screen printing are still viable options and can potentially be more cost-effective than digital printing.

A Plethora of Options for Custom Labels

Here’s a short list of some of the label products available:

Property Identification Labels: These identify equipment, furniture, and other business assets. They can be numbered or barcoded sequentially, and they can be printed on plastic or metal foil substrates.

Bumper Stickers: These are actually custom labels as well. You can buy bumper stickers on a more durable, weather-resistant vinyl material, rather than on paper, and you can even laminate them for increased protection.

Dome Labels: These are custom labels with a raised polyurethane dome over each label. The dome gives a 3D appearance to the artwork on the label.

RFID Labels: These require an integrated system of labels, “readers,” and software, but they allow wireless transfer of data (without physical contact) using radio-frequency electromagnetic fields.

Wine Labels: With or without metallic foil treatments, these custom labels are unique in their requirements. The adhesive must stick to cold, wet bottles, and the ink cannot bleed or smear.

Food Labels: Similar to custom bottle labels, these must not contaminate the food within the packaging, so issues of toxicity must be carefully considered and controlled.

Window Decals: These include adhesive labels and static cling labels (which attach to windows and mirrors with only a static charge and no adhesive). Window decals must not degrade when exposed to sunlight and moisture, so color-fastness of inks and durability of substrates are a consideration.

Tamper-proof Security Labels: Some of these custom labels include holograms. Their goal is to deter tampering or even to self-destruct when an attempt is made to remove the labels.

Some Things to Consider When Specifying Labels

  1. Label Shape (round, oblong, rectangular, or rectangular with rounded corners). A good way to save money is to choose standard shapes and sizes using pre-made, rather than custom made, dies. Or ask your commercial printing supplier about laser die cutting.
  2. Label Ink Colors (one-color, two-color, process color). Some vendors will offer a limited color palette but will provide any PMS color for a surcharge. Ask about the printing method: screen printing, flexography, or digital printing.
  3. Material (plastic or metal foil). Think about durability. Will the labels be used outside, in heat or in cold?
  4. Special Finishing Treatment (embossing, die cutting). Do you want a special treatment for a seal used on a certificate, for instance?
  5. Numbering of Labels (consecutive, random, with added barcodes). Accuracy in numbering is crucial, so make sure your vendor can handle this aspect of printing.
  6. Adhesive (removable, permanent). Some labels will even stick to metal engines or cold, wet wine bottles.
  7. Presentation (rolls, sheets, fan-fold sheets). Think about how the custom labels will be applied. Any kind of automated application equipment may require a particular presentation of labels on a roll or sheet.
  8. Intended Use (inside, outside, in extreme temperature conditions). This pertains to the adhesive, the substrate, and potentially the coating (such as a laminate).

As with any printed product, ask for samples and test them. Talk with your commercial printing vendor about the intended use and ambient conditions, as well as the presentation of any variable-data information. Labels need to be functional first and attractive second.

Options for Printing T-Shirts

Monday, October 1st, 2012

I wanted to know how t-shirts were printed, so I checked out YouTube (an incredible resource for short “how to” films). I assumed that screen printing and heat transfers would be the major methods for printing on t-shirts, and the YouTube videos confirmed my expectations.

Screen Printing T-Shirts

A screen printing press looks a bit like an octopus. It has multiple arms, each supporting a single screen. Although one name for the process is “silkscreen,” the screens are now usually nylon or metal. Each screen prints one color on the t-shirt, and each color station includes a flat, ironing-board-like support for the shirt. You place the t-shirt around (as opposed to just on top of) this support as though you were “dressing” the support panel. This places only one layer of fabric on top of the support and therefore keeps the fabric absolutely flat once the screen has been lowered.

Once the screen is on top of the fabric, you can pour the thick ink mixture onto the screen and draw the rubber squeegie across the mesh, forcing the ink through the open areas of the screen (but not through the areas masked off by the design). Once this step is complete, the ink must dry. (Usually the solvent is flash dried with intense heat, although UV inks are now often used in screen printing, and these dry instantly upon exposure to ultraviolet light.)

To step back a bit in the screen printing process, the masks used to block out certain areas of the design while allowing ink to pass through other areas are prepared in the following way.

  1. You create the design on a computer using a raster art (bit-mapped) or vector art (line art) program, such as Photoshop or Illustrator. Alternatively, you can scan an image and save it in Photoshop. For this process, you need a positive (rather than negative) image.
  2. A light sensitive emulsion is slathered across the bottom of a screen stretched over a wood or metal frame.
  3. The art (laser printed in black toner on clear acetate) is placed on the glass of a lightbox. The stretched screen with the light-sensitive emulsion is placed over the art
  4. The intense light within the light box exposes the emulsion on the screen.
  5. The screen is then hosed down with water. The water washes away the liquid from the area that had been blocked by the artwork. The non-image areas of emulsion, which had been hardened through exposure to the light, do not wash wash away.
  6. Then the t-shirt can be printed, as noted above (one color per screen, consecutively, with each color in register with the others).

Benefits of Screen Printing T-Shirts

Screen printing ink is thick and saturated. You can print brilliant colors on fabric, and the t-shirts will withstand many washing cycles without the printed art showing any wear and tear.

T-Shirt Heat Transfers

Both laser printing and inkjet printing can be used to create artwork that can be fused to a t-shirt. Special transfer paper (designed for either inkjet printing or laser printing) is used in the process. The operator prints the graphics and type backwards (in a mirror image) so it will be “right-reading” once transferred to the t-shirt. Using heat and pressure (a hot iron against a t-shirt placed on a rigid surface) the operator can transfer the image from the carrier sheet to the fabric of the shirt.

Screen Printing vs. Heat Transfers

It has always been my experience that custom screen printing allows for thicker ink deposits with brighter colors, as well as more durable designs. That said, screen printing is not cost-effective for short print runs since preparation for a screen printing run takes a lot of time.

In addition, many t-shirt printers can only apply one or two colors to a t-shirt with custom screen printing. However, the more skilled screen printers can actually print 4-color process work (including halftone images). It’s just more tricky to produce this level of detail on fabric using the thicker screen printing inks, so the image will not be as precise as a sample of 4-color offset lithography on paper. In addition, some screen printers have the skill to print on darker colored fabrics while others prefer to only print on white t-shirts.

Heat transfers (laser or inkjet) are cheaper than screen printing for shorter runs since they do not require set-up time. It’s also easier to transfer highly detailed artwork to the t-shirt, since the transfer actually sits up on the surface of the shirt rather than seeping into the fibers of the fabric.

However, it has been my experience that heat transfers are not as durable as screen printed t-shirts, and the inks are not as brilliant as custom screen printing inks.

The Future: Direct to Garment Inkjet Printing

One final method is gaining traction as the technology improves. It is called “direct to garment printing.” The process omits the transfer sheet. Instead, inkjet or dye sublimation equipment prints the artwork directly into the fibers of the garment. This means the image is less likely to crack than a heat transfer image sitting on the top of the t-shirt fabric. And unlike screen printing, this digital process can be infinitely variable. You can print a different image on each t-shirt.


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