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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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Commercial Printing: An Envelope-Printing Case Study

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The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

I realize that things go wrong. I understand that as simple a job (presumably) as an envelope printing run can be fraught with complexities.

In that light, a print brokering client of mine recently brought me a job that included an annual report, a letter to constituents, and a large envelope to contain them. Ironically, as the bidding process proceeded and the specifics of the design came clear, the only element of the package that didn’t change was the annual report, a 12-page, 4-color print product on 80# gloss text with an 80# gloss cover and with all pages gloss aqueous coated.

The Issues

First off, my client specified 9” x 12” vs 10” x 13” envelopes. I conferred with the commercial printing vendor and learned that the ideal size for so few items (two) would be 9” x 12”. My client didn’t need anything larger.

In addition, there was a question about paper weight for the pre-made envelopes. I suggested 28# (comparable to 70# text stock) rather than 24# (comparable to 60# text stock) not only because it would be stronger but also because at that size (9” x 12”) a thicker paper would be more substantial. Less flimsy. Plus with a press run of 1,100 copies, the difference in cost would be (according to the printer) negligible.

So far, so good.

The next issue to resolve was whether my client wanted booklet or catalog envelopes. For the uninitiated, this just refers to the position of the flap. If the envelope opens on the long side, it’s called a “booklet” envelope. If it opens on the short side, it’s called a “catalog” envelope.

In my personal view, the booklet envelope is a little more stately than a catalog envelope. Others may disagree. To me it just looks more like a traditional #10 envelope due to the position of the flap on the long side.

That said (which is really a personal choice), a more pressing issue was that according to the printer, who would be doing the mailing work for the job as well as printing all elements of the project, a booklet envelope would be machinable, while a catalog envelope would not.

This means that the printer’s mailing equipment could automatically insert the letter and the annual report into the envelope if it opened on the long side, but if it opened on the short side, then inserting the client letter and annual report would be hand work. That is, this portion of the job would cost more.

This is where I’d suggest making a mental note. At least that’s what I did. I’m not sure whether other printers (perhaps ones that focus more on promotional mailing initiatives) might have other equipment that could insert items into an open-end envelope (or whether most printers would need to charge for hand-inserting). However, I’d encourage you to ask to avoid being surprised.

Bleeds, Screens, Digital Printing, and Heavy-coverage Solids

After the initial bid, which was based on adjusted specs from the prior year’s mailing, I acquired digital art files for the annual report, accompanying letter, and envelope.

First of all, the artwork did not include heavy coverage solids. This was good. If it had included these, the envelopes might have needed to be printed as flat press sheets that would then be cut, folded, and glued into final envelopes. This (called “converting”) would have been expensive. Given the simplicity of my client’s design, pre-made 9” x 12” envelopes could be used.

However, since the envelope artwork had bleeds on three sides, producing the envelope would need to be done as subcontracted work by a dedicated envelope printer (i.e., not by the printer who had otherwise won the bid). The outside vendor would presumably have produced the envelopes on a special “jet press” that would offset print the envelopes (with bleeds). This outsourced work would cost significantly more than initially planned.

So What Is a JetPress?

A jet press is a specific kind of offset press that accepts envelopes up to 12×15 ½ in size and can print up to 30,000 envelopes per hour. These can even print quality images with fine lines, tight register, or halftones (or area screens). They are appropriate for press runs from 500 copies to 100,000 copies. For fewer than 500 copies, a digital press would be more economical. Unfortunately, even jet presses have limitations. For heavy ink coverage on either the front or back (or both sides) of an envelope, you would still need to print the envelopes as a flat-sheet offset-lithographic project and then convert them into envelopes (adding to the overall cost of the job).

Therefore, I encouraged my client to redesign the envelopes without bleeds. The annual report was perfect as it was. The client letter could be done in-house (by the printer) with or without bleeds. And since it was such a short run (1,100 copies), producing these digitally would be much cheaper than firing up a 40” offset commercial printing press. If my client had concerns about the quality of the screens, she could remove the small screen on the envelope.

And as for the envelope, once my client had redesigned the envelope to omit the bleeds, the printer could then produce all elements of the annual report job in house on a digital press (except, of course, for the offset-printed annual report). This would lower the price back to the initial estimate, saving about $1,400. Again, if my client were concerned about the quality of the screens, she could omit the one screen on the envelope.

From this I learned (and if you are a print buyer or designer, you might want to remember) that bleeds often do not add to the cost of a project, but in some cases (as with these envelopes) they jack the price way up. Not all printers have all press equipment. And subcontracting work costs money and takes time.


Fortunately, in my client’s case, the annual report and letter would be sent to constituents with actual postage affixed to the envelopes. That is, this envelope would not need to conform to standards for Business Reply Mail, as paid for by the company that originally sends out the reply mail envelope to potential clients. But since in your case this may or may not be true, I would encourage you to:

  1. Study (online) the US Postal Service’s Business Reply Mail requirements. Or ask for a print book containing this information. Preparing your envelopes (design, placement of type, blank areas on the envelopes) correctly will save you a lot of money by allowing the US Post Office to automate the process (make the job machinable).
  2. Ask your printer about these Business Reply Mail requirements if you prefer. His (or her) print shop may have enough in-house mailing capabilities to have made him or her cognizant of all of these requirements. Some printers I’ve worked with actually do everything (or almost everything) the Post Office does right in their own print shops.
  3. Consider options for business reply mail vs. standard postage (indicia, meter stamp, precanceled stamp, or other stamp), and be mindful of other business reply mail requirements.
  4. Remember that weight affects postage. Ask your printer whether a 9” x 12” vs. 10” x 13” envelope will increase postage requirements depending on what it must contain. Both are large format, so they will cost more to mail than letters.

The Takeaway

  1. Discuss your custom printing and mailing components in depth with your printer. It’s even smart to make a physical, paper mock-up showing the size of the envelope, placement of copy and art on the envelope, and all printed items the envelope will contain. Any problems (potential US Postal Service issues as well as printing and mailing costs) will be evident. Nothing communicates your needs better than a physical sample.
  2. Ask about bleeds, screens, and heavy coverage and how these will affect the cost and schedule for your mailing initiative (as well as whether you will need to subcontract a portion of the overall job).
  3. Be mindful that the run length of your job will determine whether your printer will produce it (envelopes, in this case) on digital or offset equipment.
  4. Look for dedicated envelope and promotional custom printing companies if you do this kind of work regularly. This might save you money, and the printer will most likely be very well versed in all postal regulations.

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