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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 Directly on Kraft Paper Tubes

Photo purchased from …

A client of mine came to me this week with a question, “Can you print directly on kraft paper tubes?” She is the senior VP of design at a firm that makes, packages, and sells lip balm. She didn’t want to print and affix labels to the cardboard tubes.

In these days of digital commercial printing, a question like this elicits two further questions: “How can you print directly on cardboard tubes?” and “Why would you do this?” I’d actually like to add a third question, “What vendors do this kind of work?” since as a commercial printing broker I’m tasked with finding suppliers.

Design Issues

I’m going to start with the overall design question because it’s the simplest in some ways. Logistically it’s easier if you can decorate a tube without the extra steps of custom printing labels and affixing them. But that’s not a good enough reason because even though the label step disappears, other issues arise with direct printing on tubes.

So the next reason would be the intriguing nature of the design. We expect to see labels because that has been the technology of choice for centuries. And since the goal of marketing is to capture the prospective client’s attention, doing something new, like printing directly on the tube, will distinguish the product from the competition. It will look cool.

But I think the most important reason is that printing directly on a mailing tube, just like printing directly on the product container, opens up the space available for marketing information and design and makes the marketing design seem to be more a part of the entire product. A label has a small format. This limits the amount of sales and product information you can include, and it feels separate from the product somehow.

To illustrate my point, think about shrink sleeves for bottles. These allow for printing imagery and text all over the soda bottle (for instance), not just on a small label. This gives the product a more expansive feel aesthetically. The same will be true for my client’s direct-printed kraft paper tubes.

The Old Technology

Let’s start with the old technology, prior to inkjet commercial printing. Depending on how the screen is set up, it is possible to screen print marketing creative on a cylindrical surface such as a cardboard or plastic tube. (Think about the bottles of shampoo you have seen on which the text and logo have been directly printed without a label.)

With custom screen printing, ink is forced through a mesh screen onto a substrate. A block-out stencil keeps the ink from printing on the non-image area, while open portions of the stencil allow the ink to pass through the screen and onto the substrate.

In the case of screen printing on a paper or plastic tube or bottle, the tube or bottle can be rolled (like a rolling pin) as the squeegee pushes ink through the screen and onto the bottle. Rolling the tube allows the image to be applied to the entire cylindrical form.

The downside of such a process is that make-ready takes a long time. Hence screen printing (which was apparently invented in China to print patterns on fabric) works well for longer runs. Short press runs really aren’t economically feasible.

Another technology suited to printing on 3D surfaces is pad printing. In this case a rubber ball on the printing equipment is pressed against an inked plate that has been imaged with the design you want to transfer (to a golf ball, for instance). Ink is applied to the plate and then a doctor blade removes the excess ink. Then the rubber ball is compressed against the surface of the plate, taking up the inked image. Finally, the rubber ball is compressed a second time onto the 3D surface (the printing substrate), and the rubber ball releases the image (in this case onto the golf ball).

So these have been the options prior to “direct-to-object” and “direct-to-shape” inkjet printing.

The New Technology

By its nature, inkjet printing (in general) lends itself to short runs and variable data printing. So it is more economically feasible in many cases than the custom screen printing and pad printing options noted above.

What makes this so intriguing to me, though, is not just the variability of the printed content but also the flexibility of the ink application.

Direct-to-object printing, based on my research, includes printing on thick, flat rigid surfaces. For instance, you can print a graphic image directly on a door with a flatbed printer that accepts a thick substrate. This I can easily understand. In this case, printers can even use UV inks (instantly cured with UV light) to allow for printing on non-porous surfaces, such as metal or glass, and they can even print additional UV ink layers to create surface textures or faux-embossing. Coatings can even be added in this way.

But overall, this is still printing on a flat surface, even though it also allows for printing on almost-flat substrates such as bottle caps (or coasters) affixed in individually fabricated “jigs” that keep multiple items immobile and ready to print.

What I find intriguing, though, is the ability to print on uneven 3D shapes such as cylinders. In this case bottles, cans, shampoo packaging, and cups can be robotically rotated (spun, like the drinking cups and bottles that are screen printed) and decorated on all sides.

The next step up from here is the direct-to-shape inkjet printing devices in which the printheads are robotically maneuvered to print on substrates that aren’t even flat, using inks that can print on glass, plastic, steel, and tile. As long as the operators can input detailed information regarding not only the design and positioning of the graphics but also the intricate measurements and the specific uneven contours of the substrate, the robotic imaging heads can jet the ink in precise position and then coat it for durability. Granted, this requires precision. But it allows for custom printing on uneven surfaces such as footballs, helmets, and in my client’s case kraft paper packaging tubes.

So while you consider this new information, think not only about the three-dimensional, variable positioning of the inkjet printheads and also of the white underprinting, the multiple colors for the main imagery (maybe CMYK plus light magenta, light cyan, maybe red, orange, green, or purple—up to 10 inks or coatings) and you have an incredible range of color (color gamut) printable with photo-realistic imagery on practically any surface, flat or irregularly three-dimensional (like a football).

In addition to promotional items, this has serious implications for functional or industrial commercial printing, for such products as license plates, appliance panels, toys, etc.

Now, Where Can You Find It?

So, my client came to me with this specific custom printing need. Needless to say, I was clueless as to where to start my search for an appropriate vendor. This is what I did:

    1. I put specs up on the Printing Industry Exchange website. Hopefully, these will attract a few new vendors, which I can then vet.


    1. I went directly to a few printers who produce out-of-the-ordinary promotional items. After all, mugs, pens, and such are ideal for this technology.


    1. I specifically checked out a presentation-binder company that had recently produced a job for one of my clients. They don’t do direct-to-shape printing, but they gave me some names. Nothing helps like word-of-mouth advertising. I knew the suggested vendors would be high-quality printers.


    1. I went to a consolidator (a large commercial printer that buys up many, many other commercial printers) I had worked with, one of the largest printers in the US. I knew that since they had printing plants across the nation, they might have at least one vendor who could do this work. Also, I knew that their huge size and multiple printing plants would make the overall price reasonable (i.e., they would benefit from their economy of scale).


    1. I asked one overseas vendor. (A supplier I had spoken with earlier approached me about a job on which he had bid. I told him that the older project was no longer a live job, but then I mentioned this new job and sent photos.)


    1. As noted above, in all cases I sent photos. Nothing describes a job better than a photo. I sent multiple photos to all of these vendors.


  1. I called a digital printing press sales representative I know. He sells the digital printing equipment (in this case direct-to-shape inkjet equipment) to commercial printers. Then he sets it up and trains the print shop staff. Then he refers business to the newly equipped digital printing supplier. So he knows everybody who has the direct-to-shape printing equipment his company manufactures.

Now, we’ll see what happens.

If you’re in a position like mine, buying commercial printing for a new or unusual product, consider any or all of the steps I took (particularly requesting references from trusted vendors). These combined with a thorough review of printed samples provided by suppliers will help make your final choice of vendors a prudent one.

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