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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: Some Options for Classy Invitations

Let’s say you have to make a classy invitation for a gala work event, maybe a special dinner. It has to look great, very up-scale. What are your options for commercial printing?

Offset Lithography, Letterpress, and Engraving Technology

First of all, let’s define some terms.

Offset printing works on the principle that oil (i.e., ink) and water don’t mix (each repels the other). Image areas on an offset plate attract ink and repel water, and non-image areas repel ink and attract water. This oil and water balance must be precise, but it effectively allows the commercial printing plate to be flat (a “planographic” process).

In contrast, letterpress is a “relief” process. Raised areas of the printing plate hold the ink and deposit it on the image areas of the paper.

A third option, engraving, involves recessed image areas (type, etc.) on the custom printing plate. These are either cut by hand or burned into the plate chemically or with a laser. Ink is applied to the printing plate and then rubbed off the flat surface of the plate, leaving ink in the recessed letterforms. This ink is very thick. The intense pressure of the printing press forces the paper into these recessed image areas to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper. This is called an “intaglio” process, and it is used for some fine art prints as well as for commercial printing.

Using These Technologies to Print Invitations

To get back to the invitations for the gala event, commercial printing is a tactile medium. How an invitation feels in the hand is as important as how it looks, even if the average recipient of the invitation may not be conscious of the tactile component of the job. How the invitation feels will exert a subliminal yet profound effect.

Offset Lithography

That said, your first option is to print the invitation via offset lithography. If you choose a special paper (based on its weight, surface texture, and color), and if you create a heart-stopping design, this may be the perfect option. For instance, if you choose a dark paper and print with opaque white ink or perhaps silver ink (used in two passes, or “hits,” since one pass may not be opaque enough), the printed product could be striking.


The second option noted above is letterpress. Since image areas are raised above the surface of the plate, when they deposit the printing ink they also compress the paper, or mash it, where they strike. Like engraving, this can produce an intriguing, tactile effect. If you attend a Renaissance Fair (with participants in costume), sometimes you will see a letterpress being used. Physical pieces of lead type are laid into a “chase,” and paper is laid over the inked pieces of type. Then pressure is applied mechanically to force the paper against the type. Although more modern versions of letterpresses are more streamlined and less romantic, they essentially do the same thing. And if you print your invitation via letterpress (and especially if you have chosen an interesting paper stock), your final printed invitations will be both a tactile experience and visually memorable.


But let’s say you want something more formal. Engraving may be your best option. What’s special about engraving is that the printed image area on the page (such as each letterform in a text-only invitation) is raised slightly. By forcing the image areas of the paper into the inked areas that have been incised during platemaking, the engraving process causes the final printed product to have slightly raised type. (And on the back of the paper you can feel the slight indentations behind each letterform.)

Engraving is a very old craft, and an engraved invitation therefore has an air of gravitas, particularly if you have chosen a special paper for your end product. (Just as an interesting note, engraving has also been the main option for custom printing stock certificates and money.)

If you choose engraving, it’s wise to consider the following:

    1. The process is time consuming and therefore expensive. Also, few printers will offer this option. Skilled engravers are required for making the engraved plates (by hand, using a laser, or via chemical etching).


    1. You may be limited in the typefaces you can use, due to the specialized nature of the process (i.e., how the letterforms are cut into the copper or steel plates).


    1. Engraving presses are very small. Due to the extreme pressure required, printing anything larger than about 4” x 8” may require more than one pass through the press (thus raising the price).


    1. Inks may not tolerate heat well. So tell your printer if you plan to run engraved material through a laser printer.


  1. As noted above, a major part of the “effect” depends on the feel of the paper. Make your choice of paper count.

Two More Options

Here are two more options that come to mind for creating striking invitations:

Foil Stamping

Let’s say you have chosen a dark, thick paper stock, and you don’t want to run the risk that the opaque white ink or two hits of silver ink won’t be opaque enough. An alternative would be foil stamping (either metallic or colored foil). The commercial printing vendor will need to have a cutting die made (subcontracted). Then, using the foil stamping die with a combination of heat and pressure, the printer will cut an image or lines of type from the roll of foil and affix the foil to the printing paper.

Depending on the thickness of the letterforms and rule lines, this can yield a dramatic effect (talk with your printer to make sure he can hold the detail in thin letterforms and rule lines). You can even use black gloss foil against a black matte press sheet for a subtle effect, or as noted above you can use a white (nonmetallic) or silver foil. But keep in mind that this is expensive. You need to pay for the stamping die as well as the foil application.

Thermography: The Economy Option

You may have seen thermography on business cards. The type and art have a raised feel like engraving.

Thermography starts with an offset printing pass using a slow-drying offset ink. Then thermographic powder is sprinkled on the ink. Then a vacuum removes all thermographic powder not adhered to the offset printing ink.

Then heat is applied to the printed product. The heat causes the thermographic powder to bubble up on the ink and create a raised surface. It feels quite a bit like engraved printing (from the front only, since there are no indentations on the back of the press sheet as there are in engraving, where the paper has been forced into the inked recesses of the engraving plate).

But thermography can be a very affordable option.

Nevertheless, there are some drawbacks:

    1. Thermographic printing is not abrasion resistant. Images can scratch.


    1. Thermographic ink does not tolerate heat. Don’t run thermographically printed products through your laser printer.


    1. Although you can use thermography for coarse halftone screens, keep in mind that fine halftone screens may plug up.


    1. Avoid printing large solids. They may blister.


    1. You can print multiple colors. However, I’d personally design the product to keep the colored inks from touching (i.e., avoid the need for ink trapping), since the heating and bubbling up process used in thermography may not be as precise as needed. Or at least discuss “ink trapping” with your printer before you proceed.


  1. Avoid printing thermographic images across folds. The ink may crack.

That said, if you design within these limitations, you can craft a beautiful invitation (or letterhead or business card). And it’s far cheaper than many of the other options, since you don’t need to pay for a cutting or foil stamping die.

And, if you do some research and you’re lucky, you may even find a printer with a Scodix digital enhancement press, which can build up 3D surfaces digitally (so they feel a bit like thermographic printing).

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