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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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Archive for the ‘Cards’ Category

Custom Printing: A Unique Printer’s Holiday Card

Sunday, January 19th, 2020

A commercial printing supplier I work with producing jobs for a number of my clients sent me a unique holiday card recently. I was touched by the thought, but even more than that I was intrigued by the card’s production values.

This was a truly unique, striking digital (presumably) product, particularly considering the amount of time I have spent wondering just how this printer must have achieved the effect.

And that is what makes a printed product not only a work of art but also a masterful promotional product, in this particular case showcasing the skills of this commercial printing vendor.

A Description of the Card

First, let me describe for you exactly what makes it special. The card is presented in the horizontal holiday card format. It is printed in white ink on a thick black printing stock. On the front of the card is the contour of a sweater printed with snowflake patterns, a city skyline, a statue of George Washington, and a statue of what looks like a dancing Fred Astaire.

The printer’s logo is on the back of the card, and inside the fold-over holiday card are the words “Merry Christmas” and a handful of snowflake designs falling from the fold-over part of the card down into its main panel. Nothing else. Except for the name of the printer and a few snowflake designs on the words “Merry Christmas.”

Doesn’t sound unusual at all, does it? Not a show-stopper. So why am I gushing? Because the card is a dense black (unusual for winter holidays), the ink is white (and it actually covers the black background with no pinholes, which is very impressive), and the press sheet is a rigid, rubberized stock. If you don’t touch the card, it’s attractive. But once you pick it up, you’re sold. Not only on the quality of the card, but on the abilities of the commercial printing vendor. And that’s good advertising.

How Was It Done?

First of all, covering black custom printing stock with anything and making it appear opaque is hard to do. The process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for offset printing are transparent. So you would see the paper through the ink.

In the past, printers have gotten around this problem by foil stamping a black card with, say, a silver metallic foil. This involves making a metal die to stamp out the film, and this costs money and takes time (it’s almost always subcontracted work).

Another work-around has been to print a background of opaque white ink, and then print all CMYK text directly over this opaque background. (Opaque white includes titanium dioxide, and this will significantly reduce the visibility of the black paper behind it.)

So upon receiving the card from this commercial printing supplier and having my interest piqued, I took out my 12-power loupe and checked the card under a bright light. This is what I saw:

  1. The white ink/toner (not sure yet) was very thick.
  2. In spite of this, I could not peel off any of the type (so it doesn’t seem to be a hot-stamping foil).
  3. The white ink had random sparkles of red and blue in the body of the pigment.
  4. In other areas of the card (such as the line drawings of the snowflakes inside the card), the white ink was thinner, and a bit of the background black color showed through.
  5. Some of the type and images had a gloss coating not present on the other design elements.

What can I deduce from my observations?

  1. A card like this could have been done with some sort of custom screen printing process. (Screen printing ink is very thick and opaque.) However, this would have been an expensive job, and the ink would probably have been even thicker than it already is. In addition, the fine detail on the sweater outline (i.e., the fur on the squirrels printed on the sweater) would probably not have been possible to achieve due to the thickness of the ink.
  2. As noted above, the job could have been done with heat-applied white stamping foil. However, this would have been expensive, and I could probably have peeled off at least something from the design.
  3. The speckles are a dead give-away of a digital printing process. Toner-based laser printers scatter toner particles a bit, and the particles are very small. Digital ink jet printing also applies minuscule dots of colored ink side by side to create the impression of additional colors. But on this particular holiday card, the red and blue specs looked accidental, as though the toner particles had landed randomly on the otherwise white imagery.
  4. If financial prudence is taken into account, my educated guess at this point is that the holiday cards were created with a digital technology, not offset printing, custom screen printing, or foil stamping.
  5. With this in mind, I know the following about certain brands of toner-based digital printing equipment. Some of the equipment prints not only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, but also a thick white toner mixture that can cover a black or transparent background to provide a bright base for any subsequent printing.
  6. I also know that these same digital toner presses can print spot gloss and matte coatings. This could explain the reflectivity/sheen on some but not all of the imagery on the card (the words “Merry Christmas” but not the name of the printer immediately below the holiday greeting, or the gloss coating on some but not all of the snowflakes above the holiday greeting).
  7. Now, for the paper. There are papers based on cotton (such as bond) or wood fibers (most other commercial printing papers), and then there are papers based on synthetic materials or plastic. Yupo is a synthetic paper. It has a rubbery feel.
  8. There are also luxury, soft-touch matte paper surface coatings that give printing stock a rubbery feel that kind of grabs onto your fingertips. My educated guess at this point would be that either the paper is a synthetic product, or it has been covered with a rubberized coating.
  9. I also know that many brands of digital laser printing equipment will also lay down coatings (so not just cyan, magenta, yellow, and black plus opaque white toners, but also usually one or two specialized coatings: either matte or gloss). And these can be used to flood the sheet (to make it feel rubbery or smooth), or they can be used to highlight one or more items on the page (i.e., as a spot gloss or spot matte application).

So What’s the Answer?

I haven’t a clue. I do think, however, that these options noted above are the potential technologies the commercial printing supplier could have employed. And, based on what I know, the most cost effective way to do this for a (presumably) short run that would go only to the printer’s clients, digital commercial printing would be the best option.

Just for fun, I also checked online and read the printer’s equipment list. They do have one digital toner press that could have produced this card. (Another one would have been Kodak’s NexPress.)

I also sent the sales rep an email asking for details. We’ll see what he says.

The Take Away

So how can you use this information in your own work? First of all, if you like something, deconstruct it. Figure out why you like it and how it was created. This includes not only the design but (as in this case) all of the custom printing and finishing operations employed. If you can understand how something was done, you can use this information and these techniques when designing your own jobs. You will also know exactly what to ask the printer, particularly if you have the physical samples. (For instance, you could show the printer this card and say, “Can you do this?”)

Finally, take a lesson from successful marketing professionals. If you can make someone take as much time as I have taken looking at the card and wondering how it was done, you can bet this same client will come back and buy such a product/process when an appropriate job comes up. That’s priceless advertising.

The Reality

Just prior to my submitting this article for publication, I heard back from the printer’s sales rep. The Christmas cards had been printed on Neenah Touché Black Soft Touch Cover, on a 5-color Ricoh 7210X (a digital, toner-based press). The first pass was white ink, and then the second pass was a clear spot overprint.

Custom Printing: Hand-Printing Your Holiday Cards

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

It’s the holidays again, and whatever holiday you celebrate, it’s always nice to receive a physical, paper card with a handwritten note. It goes miles beyond a virtual card. I really do believe that.

I’ve given thought recently to ways you can produce individual works of art if your card list is manageably short. Some of these methods I’d like to try in the next year with the autistic students my fiancee and I work with, since they lend themselves to fine art printing as well as greeting card printing.

Monotype Printing

You will find this referred to as both “monoprinting” and “monotyping,” but the more accurate term for what I’m describing is monotyping: that is, painting an image on a flat plate (it was originally a copper plate, but you can use anything from glass to plastic as long as it’s flat), and then printing this plate on finely made paper.

This is custom printing, since you’re transferring an image from a plate to a substrate, but you only get one “truly” original print each time you do it.

These are the steps:

  1. You use commercial printing ink, oil-based artist’s paint, or even water-based paint to prepare your image on the glass or plastic printing plate. Then you lay either dry or damp paper over the plate, and using a spoon, a roller, a Japanese baren, or even the drying rollers of an old washing machine, you apply even pressure to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper.
  2. Since you have neither a raised nor a recessed image on the plate, your first image is the only original. If you try to print again, you will get a “ghost” image, which may actually be to your liking. It just won’t be exactly like the original, and it will be lighter.
  3. You can add ink to the plate with a brush and then print again (but it will be a slightly different version).
  4. You can also go back into the original print with brushes and paint (or ink) to add to, or adjust, the image.
  5. Even though you only get one original image this way, you can combine the brush strokes of painting with some of the characteristics of printing (such as the dense, rich tones). What you often get is a happy accident, a combination of spontaneity and experimentation that you might not be able to otherwise consciously create.
  6. You have both an additive and subtractive approach to monotyping. The additive option is what I just described (adding ink to an otherwise blank custom printing plate). The subtractive option involves inking the glass or plastic plate entirely and then using a rag, brush, stylus, or other implement to remove the ink you don’t want to print. You can even use your fingers.
  7. Another option involves rolling out commercial printing ink onto one sheet of printing paper (or onto a printing plate), laying another piece of paper over it, and then drawing on the back of the second sheet with a pencil or other implement. When you peel off the second sheet from the first (or from the printing plate), what you have is a line drawing made from the ink that has been pulled up off the plate onto the back of the sheet by the pressure of the pencil.
  8. In addition to painting or drawing further on the final print with ink and a brush, you can also wipe the plate clean and then paint a different color image onto the “matrix” (i.e., the image area of the plate). If these two different color images are in register (the same meaning as in commercial printing), you will have a coherent, multi-colored print.
  9. Giovanni Castiligone is credited with having invented the monotype, but Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and William Blake also used this technique extensively.
  10. The term “monoprint,” while often used interchangeably with “monotype,” really refers to a plate (called a matrix) that has one or several permanent features but that you still alter in some way from print to print. You can have some consistent lines and tones but change the rest of the overall image from impression to impression (in terms of color, line, tone, etc.).

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

In this world of digital media, where everything is evanescent, temporary and without physical form, a hand-printed holiday card will make a distinctive impression on your clients, your friends, or your family. Each image of a monotype is unique, plus you have the tactile qualities of the paper that set these cards apart from digital-only holiday greetings.

Relief Printing, Easier Than Monotype Printing

As an alternative, the relief print is a much easier to create when you need multiple copies. However, it still yields a hand-designed and hand-printed card. If your list of recipients is long, this might work better for you than a monotype.

Anything that can be cut away to expose an upper level and a lower level will work. I’d suggest wood, which was the traditional medium for woodcuts, but it is often hard to cut, depending on the particular variety and its density. A good alternative would be a linoleum block, which is a block of wood with a sheet of linoleum on one side (this is called linocut printing).

You use knives and gouges from an art supply store to carve away any part of the image that will not print. Once you ink the plate, only the raised image areas will accept ink. The non-image areas will be far enough below the surface of the plate to not receive any printer’s ink.

Once the plate has been cut, ink it with a brayer (a roller that applies an even film of printer’s ink). Then lay a sheet of custom printing paper across the surface of the plate, and rub the back of the paper with a wooden spoon or a roller, or run the plate and paper through a printing press (an art press, not a commercial printing press).

The linocut printing plate will not have the characteristic grain of a woodcut, and it won’t last for as many impressions, but the overall process will be much easier to master than woodcut printing.

In addition, if you use more than one custom printing plate (in register with the others), you can produce multi-color prints (one color per plate).

Alternatively, you can print one color, clean the plate, then cut away sections of the linoleum that will not print in the successive color, and ink the plate with another color of ink. (This is called “reductive printing,” since you are reducing the linoleum plate for each successive color.)

You can even do this kind of relief printing with softer materials. For instance, my fiancee and I have used styrofoam plates from grocery store meat departments (the plates under the shrink-wrapped cuts of beef, pork, or lamb). These are easy to cut with a stylus such as a pen or pencil, or even the point of a pair of scissors.

Or you can even cut a potato in half and then use a kitchen knife to carve relief areas (image areas and non-image areas). Or you can take a bar of soap and cut it into a relief plate.

On an entirely different note, we have even done Japanese fish printing with our autistic students. Granted, we used rubber fish, unlike the traditional Japanese method, but this was still relief printing, since the raised parts of the fish (such as the scales and side fins) printed while the recessed areas like the eyes did not.

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

Going back to the oldest methods of printing by hand will increase your understanding of modern commercial printing because, at its deepest levels, even computer-controlled offset printing has a direct link to the original custom printing techniques.

Creating your holiday cards by hand will also yield a printed product that is personal, unique, and a joy to hold in the hand. You can’t say this about an e-card. Make a special impression on your family and friends with the techniques of old-school printing.

Printing Custom Playing Cards

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

When I started my research into the history and printing of custom playing cards to answer a query by a close friend, I expected to trace their origins to the 15th century Italian Tarot deck, used for centuries for fortune telling and rife with mystical, religious, and astrological symbolism. In fact, what I did find was a much older origin in 9th century China, in the Tang Dynasty.

The multiple decks I saw in my research presented a vast array of imagery. This was clearly an art form as well as a focus for games of chance, magic tricks, divination, and feats of manual dexterity (cuts, spreads, fanning, etc.). The pictures themselves–from woodcuts to modern lithography—reflected both a long history and an artistic sensibility that caught my interest.

Options for Printing a Deck of Custom Playing Cards

Beyond the four suits, with each ranging from the ace to the 10 plus the three court cards, even modern playing cards present opportunities for unique designs.

One commercial printing vendor for playing cards offers custom faces, custom backs, and specialty decks.

The custom backs provide marketing opportunities. One of the samples promoted a popular film, another advertised a resort hotel, and a third showcased an automobile. In all cases, the designer had assumed that in the course of playing multiple card games, the dealer and other card players would absorb the company’s specific marketing messages. I would assume this to be true, given the repeated exposure. (Just like refrigerator magnets or notepads, a branded deck of custom playing cards reinforces a vendor’s name in the minds of its users.)

The custom faces do essentially the same thing, using the space around the numbers and the patterns of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades for images of people (maybe the young man of honor at a bar mitzvah, a series of models for a glamour magazine, or even a product photo).

Specialty decks include everything from educational cards (information on selected topics printed on the backs of each card) to motivational cards (with each containing a positive affirmation for inspiration).

Printing Specifications for Custom Playing Cards

Here’s a short list to consider when specifying playing cards (perhaps as a promotional item for your next convention):

  1. Consider the finish of the card, such as smooth or linen. Playing card printers may offer only limited options.
  2. Consider the color of card. You may want 4-color ink, for example, on the face and back of the card.
  3. Give thought to the packaging. Not all card decks need to come wrapped in cellophane and inserted in a cardboard box. You may want to create a custom wood box, for instance, with a logo screen printed on the wood. Or you may want a custom-designed cardboard box.
  4. Determine the press run. For the more ornate jobs involving screen printing on a wood box and offset printing on the playing cards, keep in mind that the unit cost goes down as the press run goes up. In these cases, you’re paying for complicated make-ready work.
  5. Consider personalization. To what extent do you want the imagery to change on the front and back of each card. For example, will it be different for each card or just different for each suit?
  6. Choose the card size. Standard poker size is 2.5” x 3.5”. That said, you can negotiate larger and smaller sizes with your commercial printing supplier. Just consider how many cards you can get on a single press sheet (ask your printer what size sheet fits his press). If you can keep the layout of all 52 cards on one press sheet, you’ll pay less overall than if you need to print the cards on two press sheets and incur the cost of two press runs.
  7. Consider the stock. For custom playing cards, the stock is usually brilliant white, for contrast with the artwork. Adding a plastic coating for durability is also prudent, since the cards will be handled repeatedly.

Why Should You Print a Deck of Custom Playing Cards?

For an event, in particular, it’s a treat for the participants to walk away with a memento, a way to remember a pleasant experience at a later date. It’s also good for marketing and name recognition. But more than anything it’s just plain fun, since people like to play cards.


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