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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 Printer’s Holiday Card

A commercial printing supplier I work with producing jobs for a number of my clients sent me a unique holiday card recently. I was touched by the thought, but even more than that I was intrigued by the card’s production values.

This was a truly unique, striking digital (presumably) product, particularly considering the amount of time I have spent wondering just how this printer must have achieved the effect.

And that is what makes a printed product not only a work of art but also a masterful promotional product, in this particular case showcasing the skills of this commercial printing vendor.

A Description of the Card

First, let me describe for you exactly what makes it special. The card is presented in the horizontal holiday card format. It is printed in white ink on a thick black printing stock. On the front of the card is the contour of a sweater printed with snowflake patterns, a city skyline, a statue of George Washington, and a statue of what looks like a dancing Fred Astaire.

The printer’s logo is on the back of the card, and inside the fold-over holiday card are the words “Merry Christmas” and a handful of snowflake designs falling from the fold-over part of the card down into its main panel. Nothing else. Except for the name of the printer and a few snowflake designs on the words “Merry Christmas.”

Doesn’t sound unusual at all, does it? Not a show-stopper. So why am I gushing? Because the card is a dense black (unusual for winter holidays), the ink is white (and it actually covers the black background with no pinholes, which is very impressive), and the press sheet is a rigid, rubberized stock. If you don’t touch the card, it’s attractive. But once you pick it up, you’re sold. Not only on the quality of the card, but on the abilities of the commercial printing vendor. And that’s good advertising.

How Was It Done?

First of all, covering black custom printing stock with anything and making it appear opaque is hard to do. The process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for offset printing are transparent. So you would see the paper through the ink.

In the past, printers have gotten around this problem by foil stamping a black card with, say, a silver metallic foil. This involves making a metal die to stamp out the film, and this costs money and takes time (it’s almost always subcontracted work).

Another work-around has been to print a background of opaque white ink, and then print all CMYK text directly over this opaque background. (Opaque white includes titanium dioxide, and this will significantly reduce the visibility of the black paper behind it.)

So upon receiving the card from this commercial printing supplier and having my interest piqued, I took out my 12-power loupe and checked the card under a bright light. This is what I saw:

    1. The white ink/toner (not sure yet) was very thick.


    1. In spite of this, I could not peel off any of the type (so it doesn’t seem to be a hot-stamping foil).


    1. The white ink had random sparkles of red and blue in the body of the pigment.


    1. In other areas of the card (such as the line drawings of the snowflakes inside the card), the white ink was thinner, and a bit of the background black color showed through.


  1. Some of the type and images had a gloss coating not present on the other design elements.

What can I deduce from my observations?

    1. A card like this could have been done with some sort of custom screen printing process. (Screen printing ink is very thick and opaque.) However, this would have been an expensive job, and the ink would probably have been even thicker than it already is. In addition, the fine detail on the sweater outline (i.e., the fur on the squirrels printed on the sweater) would probably not have been possible to achieve due to the thickness of the ink.


    1. As noted above, the job could have been done with heat-applied white stamping foil. However, this would have been expensive, and I could probably have peeled off at least something from the design.


    1. The speckles are a dead give-away of a digital printing process. Toner-based laser printers scatter toner particles a bit, and the particles are very small. Digital ink jet printing also applies minuscule dots of colored ink side by side to create the impression of additional colors. But on this particular holiday card, the red and blue specs looked accidental, as though the toner particles had landed randomly on the otherwise white imagery.


    1. If financial prudence is taken into account, my educated guess at this point is that the holiday cards were created with a digital technology, not offset printing, custom screen printing, or foil stamping.


    1. With this in mind, I know the following about certain brands of toner-based digital printing equipment. Some of the equipment prints not only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, but also a thick white toner mixture that can cover a black or transparent background to provide a bright base for any subsequent printing.


    1. I also know that these same digital toner presses can print spot gloss and matte coatings. This could explain the reflectivity/sheen on some but not all of the imagery on the card (the words “Merry Christmas” but not the name of the printer immediately below the holiday greeting, or the gloss coating on some but not all of the snowflakes above the holiday greeting).


    1. Now, for the paper. There are papers based on cotton (such as bond) or wood fibers (most other commercial printing papers), and then there are papers based on synthetic materials or plastic. Yupo is a synthetic paper. It has a rubbery feel.


    1. There are also luxury, soft-touch matte paper surface coatings that give printing stock a rubbery feel that kind of grabs onto your fingertips. My educated guess at this point would be that either the paper is a synthetic product, or it has been covered with a rubberized coating.


  1. I also know that many brands of digital laser printing equipment will also lay down coatings (so not just cyan, magenta, yellow, and black plus opaque white toners, but also usually one or two specialized coatings: either matte or gloss). And these can be used to flood the sheet (to make it feel rubbery or smooth), or they can be used to highlight one or more items on the page (i.e., as a spot gloss or spot matte application).

So What’s the Answer?

I haven’t a clue. I do think, however, that these options noted above are the potential technologies the commercial printing supplier could have employed. And, based on what I know, the most cost effective way to do this for a (presumably) short run that would go only to the printer’s clients, digital commercial printing would be the best option.

Just for fun, I also checked online and read the printer’s equipment list. They do have one digital toner press that could have produced this card. (Another one would have been Kodak’s NexPress.)

I also sent the sales rep an email asking for details. We’ll see what he says.

The Take Away

So how can you use this information in your own work? First of all, if you like something, deconstruct it. Figure out why you like it and how it was created. This includes not only the design but (as in this case) all of the custom printing and finishing operations employed. If you can understand how something was done, you can use this information and these techniques when designing your own jobs. You will also know exactly what to ask the printer, particularly if you have the physical samples. (For instance, you could show the printer this card and say, “Can you do this?”)

Finally, take a lesson from successful marketing professionals. If you can make someone take as much time as I have taken looking at the card and wondering how it was done, you can bet this same client will come back and buy such a product/process when an appropriate job comes up. That’s priceless advertising.

The Reality

Just prior to my submitting this article for publication, I heard back from the printer’s sales rep. The Christmas cards had been printed on Neenah Touché Black Soft Touch Cover, on a 5-color Ricoh 7210X (a digital, toner-based press). The first pass was white ink, and then the second pass was a clear spot overprint.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: A Unique Printer’s Holiday Card”

  1. Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the issues.
    It was truly informative. Your website is very
    helpful. Thanks for sharing!


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