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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: Printing Photos and Type on Cakes

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About twenty years ago when I was consulting with a congressional publisher I attended a birthday gathering at which I saw my first printed cake. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the concept. I couldn’t picture how it had been done. Inkjet, I assumed, but I couldn’t envision the print heads elevated over a three-inch-deep sheet cake. Also, I thought about the health issues. How could you print on a cake and not compromise the health of those who ate it?

Fast-Forward to the Present

Here we are twenty years later and this is the going rage. In fact, it’s no big deal. You just inkjet print the cake using equipment that accommodates the depth of the cake (high-end printers), or you print on frosting sheets or edible paper that you just apply to the top of the sheet cake. And, of course, you use food dyes instead of commercial printing inks. Moreover, you can print on some equipment that will also cut out edible letters or any other design elements.

To understand this technology, in my imagination I picture a food-safe (FDA compliant) version of a Mimaki printer and knife plotter. If you look online, you’ll see one of these non-food printers. They are large-format inkjet printers that also have knife-trimming capabilities (a knife held vertically like a pen in a plotter) to cut out (for instance) a circle around a printed label. In contrast, in the case of the food printers I’m describing, you’re just printing on, and cutting, food.

When to Do This and When Not To

First of all, you need a dedicated printer. Start your research with Canon and Epson. If you buy one of these printers, you can’t use it for anything else. On the one hand, you don’t want to contaminate with traditional commercial printing inks the hardware you will use for food. Also, based on my reading, you can gunk up non-food inkjet equipment if you try to repurpose it for custom printing on food.

For this reason, the articles, blogs, and online conversations I’ve read on the subject suggest that you only buy a food-safe inkjet printer if you plan to use it at least once a week. If not, you will wind up fighting with the hardware rather than using it. (Think about a traditional inkjet printer that you use only occasionally. In my experience, at least, the print heads clog up or the ink dries, so you can wind up paying for all new ink cartridges each time you use it, if the time in between uses is long enough.)

Also, you don’t want the food-safe ink (or food coloring) to go bad.

So with these caveats in mind, you may actually want to have someone else print on your cake. If so, Morrisons, Dairy Queen, and Costco are three vendors you might want to contact. They have the volume to buy more complex inkjet machinery for custom printing on food. You create the art files on your computer (to their specifications), and they do the rest.

Cricut Cutting Machine

When I saw this name, I was initially confused, thinking it was a typo. But in fact it is a food-safe “cutter” that is quite ingenious. I’d start here if you’re doing research. A friend of my fiancee’s has one and loves it. She uses it for her catering business.

According to its literature, the Cricut “is ideal for cutting icing sheets, wafer paper, fabric sheets, and fondant” (Cricut promotional information from Cricut website). These are all cutting functions, so I’m not absolutely certain whether Cricut also prints images. If not, you have the Canon and Epson options noted above.

One thing I like about Cricut is that you can use online software to design images for your cake and then just print to the small (like a desktop printer) Cricut cutting machine. Or you can use the software offline. And you can even do this with your phone (no computer needed).

To go back to the substrates noted above (“icing sheets, wafer paper, fabric sheets, and fondant”: Cricut website), all of these are food products laid on top of the flat cake (and blended into the cake or not blended into the cake depending on the specific material). In short, you can eat them, they won’t make you sick, and they either taste sweet (some with a hint of vanilla) or they are tasteless. However, some are easier to cut than others, so if you’re interested, you may want to do some in-depth research.

Substrates to Print On

A further note on the substrates (not necessarily just for Cricut) is that icing sheets usually have backing plastic. You print on the icing using the food-coloring inkjet printer and then carefully pull the plastic backing sheet away from the icing (some of the blogs reference freezing or applying heat to the back of the plastic sheet to facilitate its removal). Then you lay the icing sheet on the cake. If you proceed correctly at the right temperature, the icing will blend into the cake. Then you can put the cake in the refrigerator. The literature suggests using it within two weeks (even though the printed cake will still be edible for several months). This is not about freshness; rather it is about keeping the printed photo image sharp.

The other option for custom printing is wafer paper, paper based on potato starch, water, and oil. I also read that it has been called rice paper. This has no backing, unlike the icing sheets.

Other Substrate Options

If you start custom printing a lot of images on cakes, you may want to explore other substrates as well, such as cookies, cupcakes, and scones. Many of the food printers you can buy have layout sheets on which you position the edibles before printing them. You can even, apparently, print on the marshmallow foam on top of a cup of coffee. You can print on marzipan, powdered sugar, sugar paste. The list goes on.

One of the spec sheets I read notes 10 to 30 seconds as the printing time per food item on the food mat (layout sheet), and further notes that food items can be up to 2.5” in diameter (or wider if you’re printing fewer food items).

Granted, if you have this kind of volume, you’ve either decided to go into business for yourself making cakes in your basement, or you are paying a dedicated cake vendor to use the high-end equipment in this way.

(I realize this is totally off subject, but this specific commercial printing technology can also be used to print on flower buds. So if you’re a romantic, or a bit kitschy, you may want to give your beloved a printed sheetcake, printed flowers, and Cricut-cut images applied to cupcakes. You might even want to include a latte with her/his image inkjetted onto the marshmallow foam.)

Imaging Requirements

As with any other commercial printing project, it is important to start with good imagery. This means high quality, crisp focus, good tonal range in the photo, and proper resolution. As with any other printing technology, low-quality images will not get better when you print them. So if you’re printing on icing, you’ll want to start with the best photos.

What We Can Learn from This Technology

The definition of printing is expanding. Now we print on ceramic tiles, bedsheets, drapes, and in this case even food. Presumably all substrates have their limitations, so it’s prudent to do the research and use high-quality art files.

You get what you pay for. Personally, I’m a great believer in using other people’s equipment. Often a dedicated cake maker can afford a much higher quality printer than you can. Also, you don’t have to worry about maintenance. (Keep in mind that even offset print shops often farm out their bindery work.)

Finally, I think this is just a step toward more 3D custom printing. Now you can print direct-to-object (you can print on a football). You can produce in-mold labels (no labels to affix to the plastic bottles). And you can even 3D print hamburger meat (or so I’ve read) via inkjet technology.

We now live in a world where digital commercial printing (both 2D and 3D) is expanding and inkjet is becoming a dominant and flexible technology. Personally, I’d encourage you to read everything you can on the subject. It seems to be rife with possibility.

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