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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 Type Forms on Vases, Furniture, and Bottles

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During our numerous visits to thrift stores over the years, my fiancee has bought a plethora of objects with words printed on them. She is a sculptor (that’s one of the skills she brings to our art therapy work), so printed, 3-dimensional objects of interest to her include everything from furniture to vases to giant clocks, even words printed on bottles. (She loves advertising art and found objects.) The list goes on.

Now to me, as a student of commercial printing, this is of interest because I can see how printers print on substrates other than paper. In fact, the first thing I often do when we get home with a new thrift-store purchase is to take out my 12-power printer’s loupe and analyze the print job closely, considering both the aesthetic effects and the technical elements of the print job.

The other thing that interests me is the different cognitive experience of seeing a printed cabinet, for instance, with type rather than a picture or other image printed on it. What little I know about the brain from studying both graphic art (as well as commercial printing) and the fine arts (painting, drawing) has made me conscious of the different parts of the brain involved in seeing and responding to words vs. pictures.

The Furniture

Most of our furniture with words as opposed to pictures printed on it is in the realm of cabinetry. Both pieces that come to mind as good examples seem to have been printed using stencils. If you think back to World War II and the ammunition boxes (which my fiancee also has) stenciled with various letters and numbers, stenciling starts with images, patterns, or letters cut out of a background.

When you place these stencils on the furniture and then paint over the open areas with paint and a brush, you can then lift the stencil off the furniture to reveal a completed image. Then you can do this again and again on other portions of the same furniture, or on other pieces of furniture. This significantly reduces your time and effort when compared to freehand lettering.

Stenciling is also done within the custom screen printing process. In this case a stencil is attached to a fabric or metal screen. Using ink and a squeegee to spread the ink and force it through the screen and open areas of the stencil, you can produce any number of duplicate images. Screen printing is usually done with a base attached to the screen frame, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. In the late 1970s, when I was working at an art gallery, I saw museum personnel custom screen print paragraphs of type right on the wall as descriptions and explanations of an exhibit they were preparing.

In my fiancee’s case, it looks like either method may have been used. If you decide to look closely at your own printed furniture, use a printer’s loupe and look for especially thick ink. That’s one of the clear and obvious characteristics of custom screen printing ink.

The Bottles and Ceramic Vases

I’m thinking specifically of a set of beer mugs my fiancee found that had been created from brown glass beer bottles. Interestingly enough, although all of them have lettering on the surfaces (quite a bit of type), only one writing sample is upside down. In this case the writing notes that if you can read this glass, you’ve spilled your drink.

Given the thickness of the ink, I would say that all of the glasses had been printed with screen printing ink. If you can create a jig that will stabilize the glasses and then spin them around their central axis, you can use a flat custom screen printing frame to print on the curved surface of the glass.

Another option, which may have been used for a much larger vase my fiancee found at a thrift store, involves glazes. The word glaze is derived from a Middle English word meaning glass. In the case of the larger vase, my educated guess would be that the words were painted on with liquid glaze of a particular color, and then the vase was fired in a kiln at an especially high temperature. A glaze seals the surface of earthenware pottery making it impervious to liquids. It can also be used to add a color (or paint an image or add type letterforms, as in this case).

As an alternative, it is possible to print the imagery and/or type (backward, or wrong-reading) on decals and then transfer the images from the backing sheet onto the ceramic piece (printed right-reading) prior to kiln firing. As with the example of furniture decorated either with screen printing (serigraphy) or by hand painting over stencils, it is much easier to make multiple copies quickly by using decals than by hand-lettering the words.

The Printed Clock Face

One of the items my fiancee collects is clocks–of all sizes, from tiny ones to clocks used as round table tops to a wall clock maybe three feet in diameter. I used to run around the house replacing batteries as they ran out, but after a certain time I stopped worrying and just kept live batteries in a few centrally located clocks.

The large face of the three-foot clock appears to be an offset lithographic print on paper. Why? Because of the halftone dots I see with my 12-power printer’s loupe and because it has been produced on paper. Thicker items usually (but not always) need printing techniques other than offset lithography due to the intense pressure of the custom printing rollers against the substrate, which could crush a wood (rather than paper) printed clock face.

So most probably the face of this particular clock was printed on paper, which was diecut and then attached to the wood backing with an adhesive prior to being mounted within the round clock structure.

How the Brain Processes Visual Information

The brain is a fascinating organ. Although it is not as cut and dried a process as I’m about to describe, different parts of the brain process different kinds of information. For instance, for the photo at the top of this article (a photo of colorful, printed mugs decorated with both text and imagery), the right side of the brain usually processes spatial, artistic information, while the left side of the brain usually processes more linear, logical information (like words). It has been found, since I first read about this process multiple decades ago, that certain things you might think would be processed in one hemisphere of the brain (perhaps the left hemisphere for logical information) might also have an aesthetic component that is processed by the other side of the brain.

So in the case of my fiancee’s furniture, clock faces, and ceramics incorporating words and numbers more than images, it is quite possible that they intrigue her because they stimulate both the logical side and the artistic side of her brain. (Granted, I know very little about science, but this is nevertheless an interesting thought.)

The Takeaway

I see at least three things you might want to consider if you are a product designer or even just a lover of fine art and graphic art:

  1. Printing on actual 3D products may be considered either “functional printing” (such as letters on a computer keyboard or other images used to help you operate a device) or aesthetic printing (such as printing to highlight the beauty of the letterforms themselves on the furniture and ceramics my fiancee bought at the thrift stores).
  2. In producing effective design work, it helps to be aware of these distinctions and to understand how the brain processes different kinds of information in different ways and in different parts of the brain. This awareness can help you communicate more effectively with those who see and respond to your commercial art.
  3. It helps to approach any physical, 3D-printed item with the following question in mind. “What kind of printing technology would be the most effective and efficient for printing on the object?” Some will lend themselves to offset lithography, some to flexography, some to stenciling, and some to custom screen printing. In many cases both the material on which you are printing and the number of copies you are making will determine your choice of a particular commercial printing technology. Therefore, the more you know about the various options, the better able you will be to choose the most appropriate method.

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