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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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: Embossing, Debossing, and Foil Stamping

Since the dawn of time humans have sought to embellish things. This is evidenced by everything from the floor mosaics in Rome to the illuminated manuscripts hand-copied by monks.

So it was no surprise to me when an associate of mine asked about embossing, debossing, and foil stamping as methods for decorating print books, certificates, and the like. Therefore, I went to school on the subject, and this is what I found.

Paper Embossing and Debossing

Paper embossing and its close cousin paper debossing involve pressing flat sheets of paper between two components of a die to either raise an image above the surface of the paper or lower it below the surface.

In either case, an engraver prepares a metal die for the top of the paper and a corresponding die for the bottom of the paper. These dies fit exactly into one another. That is, recesses in one half of the die correspond to raised areas in the other, whether these are strokes of letterforms (for text) or line artwork. When a special press is used (with one half of the die apparatus above, and one half below the press sheet), the force of the printing press against the dies (plus additional applied heat) causes the paper trapped between the dies to rise above the surface of the paper or fall below the surface of the paper (embossing or debossing, respectively).

It is the skill of the engraver who makes the dies and the quality of the fibers within the flat sheet of paper that allow the image to rise or fall without tearing the paper. Because of this, it is important to choose typefaces (and type sizes) as well as thicknesses of rule lines that are wide enough to not cut the paper and to be readable after the embossing or debossing process. (It pays to consult your custom printing supplier on this.)

There are several options for embossing and debossing. The first is the “blind emboss,” which involves only the raising or lowering of the image on the paper (and not printing or foiling anything). This creates a subtle, sophisticated effect. You may have seen the results of blind embossing on a notarized document or even a “This book is the property of…” stamp inside a print book you have borrowed. (You can get such personal embossing stamps online for your own library with your own name on the die. If you look closely, you will see the two interlocking elements of the die.)

The second option is the “registered emboss.” That is, for such an embossing or debossing process, you raise or lower the image in exact alignment with a corresponding printed or foil stamped image (more about that later). If the effect is created with ink and embossing dies, the process is called “color registered embossing.” If metal foil is used with embossing dies, the process is called “combination stamping.” In either case, the goal is to have the embossed or debossed image in precise register with the inked or foil-stamped image.

Another thing to consider is the order of these separate processes. First you print the image(s) on the press sheet. Then you emboss the press sheet on a separate press. If you think about it, this makes sense, since the pressure of offset commercial printing would crush the delicate embossed or debossed image(s). So anything you need to do other than the embossing or debossing step has to come first. This includes varnishing and laminating as well as custom printing.

Correspondingly, the press used for the stamping process is more like a letterpress than an offset press. That is, the two pieces of the press come together vertically, up-and-down, to press the image into the paper fibers (in contrast to the rotary nature of offset commercial printing). Names of presses to look for online to see this process in action include Kluge, Heidelberg, and Kingsley.

Regarding the dies used in embossing and debossing, the metals for their fabrication include zinc, magnesium, copper, and brass. For the following reasons, embossing and debossing can be very expensive:

  1. Die-making is a specialized skill. A limited number of vendors can make dies. This also adds to the time needed for their fabrication.
  2. Embossing and debossing are processes separate from the printing component of your job, and they are done on presses that not all printers may have. This also adds to the cost and the turn-around time.

To go back to the combination emboss noted above, which both foil stamps and embosses an image, this process accomplishes both goals at the same time using the same die apparatus. This die is sculpted, usually made of brass, constructed to maintain tight register between the embossed image and the foil-stamped image, and made to also trim away the waste foil (any non-image area not needed for the registered embossing). Again, you pay for this ingenuity.

Foil Stamping

I think a description of foil stamping at this point will make the whole procedure of combination stamping easier to visualize.

For metallicized foil stamping, a roll of foil is used that has a liner (the base layer of the sheet, also called a release layer), the adherent (glue) layer, and a layer of chrome or aluminum. The metallic layer can be made to “simulate” gold, silver, copper, and bronze. In addition to metallics, printers that offer foil stamping can use colored foil that is not metallic but that has a gloss or matte finish as well as the pigment. They can also use holographic foils. (You may see that these have been used on some paper money or, perhaps, on your driver’s license as well.)

Using the same or similar presses to those used for debossing and embossing, the foil stamping process applies heat and pressure to attach the adhesive foil to the substrate (for example, a diploma with a foil-burst seal of achievement). At the same time, the die cuts away any scrap (anything that’s not the image area).

So when you want to bring together the die-based processes of embossing/debossing and foil stamping, you can create elegant effects using these combination sculpted dies.

Uses for Foil Stamping and Embossing/Debossing

Embossing/debossing and foil stamping, either by themselves or together, can be used to adorn paper or leather. Therefore, they’re especially useful for specialized art books. But if you look closely, you’ll also find these techniques used in a lot of functional printing (industrial printing) as well. For instance, hot stamping is often used to mark or embellish plastic pieces of televisions, kitchen appliances, and audio equipment. You can also see foil stamping on cosmetics and cosmetics packaging, as well as RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags. As noted before, you’ll also find them on some paper money and identification cards (like driver’s licenses) and other security-printed items.

What You Can Learn from This Discussion

Think about ways you can use either embossing/debossing or foil stamping (together or separately). Keep your eyes open, and you will see these techniques more and more. Walk through a department store and check out the cosmetics counters. Look at print book dust jackets in book stores. You’ll see foil stamped bursts on some of the dust jackets. All of this will give you ideas for using these adorning techniques.

If you want to apply any of these techniques to your own work, approach your commercial printing supplier early in the process. Discuss both costs and scheduling. Add extra time to your production schedule. In particular, ask about what fonts and type sizes will work the best as well as how thick to make your rule lines (for underlining or boxes). Be safe. Ask for printed samples to make sure you and your printer envision the same results.

Stay abreast of emerging digital adornment (or enhancement) technology. You may want to Google “Scodix Based Printing.” It is increasingly possible to build up surfaces, textures, and colors (including metallic colors) digitally (kind of like 3D printing) to simulate the look of both embossing and foiling. Personally, I find this exceptionally exciting, since it makes die-making (and the related costs and extended schedules) obsolete.

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