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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 ‘Die cutting’ Category

Custom Printing: How Do You Die Cut Something?

Sunday, August 21st, 2022

Photo purchased from …

I’ve been writing a lot of blog posts recently about a collection of five forms I had been asked (by a large commercial printing consolidator) to source. As a printing broker, I often have to find commercial printing firms for individuals and business organizations, but this was the first time another printer (especially one so large) had contacted me.

One of the elements of these five forms (almost all of which were either 8.5” x 11” or 8.5” x 14” with a print run every six months of up to 600,000 copies) was 4” x 6” “kiss-cut” labels. The forms themselves were to be produced (printed, perforated in specific places, and/or converted with attached labels and label liner paper). Then all forms would be imprinted (printed again with variable data on Lexmark laser printers). So it was a sweet job—a huge job, with regular reprints.

All of this work involved either die cutting or post-press operations related to die cutting (which include scoring and perforating).

What Is Die Cutting?

First of all, what is die cutting? Die cutting is analogous to cutting out cookie dough with a metal cookie cutter. Using a letterpress (or for longer runs a flexographic press) and metal die rules set into a flat wood base, you stamp out any number of shapes you might choose. (These rules are also heat tempered, so they can withstand the stamping pressure of the letterpress during the cutting.) The photo at the top of this article shows a press operator die cutting cardboard. The shapes on the plywood base are the metal die rules and the rubber supports.

If you take apart an envelope, you will find that the flat blank envelope has an irregular shape. The same is true when you take apart a pocket folder or a small product box like a cosmetics package (until it is completely flat). There are all kinds of tabs and slots, as well as irregular corners.

The three-knife trimmers in a custom printing supplier’s finishing department cannot make these irregular cuts. So you need to first create a metal die cutting apparatus, then die cut your packaging (or whatever other product) blanks, and then finally remove the scrap or waste, leaving the intended shape behind. Only then can you fold, assemble, and glue together the flat sheet into a three-dimensional package (or pocket folder or envelope).

This is the gist of die cutting and assembling a product. The thing to remember is that die cutting is a separate process from commercial printing, so you pay for an additional step. You also need to pay to have the metal die rules fashioned and then set into a flat wood base (a little bit like a flat, thick printing plate with raised areas for the metal cutting rules and rubber pieces to support the paper or cardboard substrate). You (or actually your printer) must also store the cutting die for future reprints. Since this is such specialized work, it is usually subcontracted out, so the die cutting portion of your print job will add to the overall time needed for production.

That said, you can also set up score lines (pressure applied to the paper used to set creases that can facilitate later folding operations) and perforations, and all of these can be done in one pass on the letterpress, saving time and money.

Regarding die making and die cutting prices, in my experience the cost of the metal die has ranged from about $200 to $500 depending on its size and complexity. Since the die can be reused, if you reprint a job regularly you’ll save money. Moreover, if you need to make a standard cut out (let’s say a rectangular window on a card-stock report cover), your printer may already have an appropriate die used for other standard jobs, so you may not need to pay the custom die making cost.

That said, there’s one more thing to consider. If you do too many die cuts on a page you will weaken it. You will notice that even a rectangular window cut out of a 65# cover stock report folder to reveal the first page of the document inside will make the top and sides of the 8.5” x 11” sheet more flimsy than the portion of the cover stock that has not been die cut. So keep this in mind as you determine the size of the die cuts, their complexity, and their position on the final trimmed page.

What Is Kiss Die Cutting (i.e., “Kiss Cutting”)?

To get back to the five subcontracted forms noted above for the commercial printing consolidator’s client, these include a number of elements we just mentioned. First of all the perfs. The perforation rule is set into the wood base at a particular position for a particular length of either horizontal or vertical perforation.

This cuts the paper just like a die rule does; however, the cuts are very small and no scrap or waste is removed. The printing portion of the job precedes this die cutting process.

The final and most complex part of die cutting the commercial printing consolidator’s forms involves the labels. This is why only specialized forms printers replied to my RFQs (request for estimates) for these jobs. The forms printers would need to add adhesive to the back of the 24# bond (or 90# index or 60# cover) base sheets for the forms. Then they would need to attach the thin label liner paper (the slick base paper underneath most labels that protects the label adhesive).

And then they would need to die cut the bond-paper or cover-stock labels without damaging the slick liner sheet behind the 4” x 6” labels. That’s precision. It’s also why these are called “kiss cut” labels. The die cutting has to go through the labels but not through the liner sheet behind them.

Optional Approaches and New Technologies

I know I said early in this article that die cutting is done on a letterpress or flexographic press (i.e., not an offset press), but there is an exception to this rule. A commercial printing supplier can actually attach a perforation rule to a press unit on an offset press and do minor perforations in line with the printing process. However, this will eventually destroy the rubber press blanket (remember that in offset lithography, the printing plate first prints the image to the blanket, and then the blanket prints the image to the paper substrate).

So why would a printer do this? Speed and cost, because for a simple perforation it would eliminate the need to subcontract the perforating step to a letterpress shop.

One final caveat, which is actually a good thing. If your die cutting design is too complex for the traditional die cutting process using metal rules, you may consider laser cutting. I’ve seen snowflakes (or similar lattice work designs) cut out of business cards. There’s no way a metal cutting rule could render this kind of detail. Instead, such intricate work must have been done with a laser.

If this appeals to you, you might want to research Highcon technology. This company manufactures equipment that can do perforations, die cutting, and scoring directly from digital data without the need for metal cutting or scoring rules. Some of this digital technology actually builds up a thickness of polymer (for instance, to make a creasing or scoring rule) using only the digital art files.

The Takeaway

  1. The most important thing to do if you’re considering a die cut is to plan everything well in advance. Talk to your printer. Specifically ask about the additional time he will need to produce your job.
  2. Also, ask about using a pre-struck die, a standard die that will save you the cost of preparing a new custom die.
  3. Ask about ganging up die-cutting, scoring, and perforation tasks for your job to simplify the overall process and reduce costs.
  4. If you’re doing a perforation, ask about a “wet perf” (the term I learned in the ‘80s for perfs done in line on an offset press). I believe it’s also called a “litho perf.” Doing such a perforation inline on the offset press would only be appropriate for very simple work (nothing intricate).
  5. Design your die cut with size, location, and complexity in mind to keep costs manageable.
  6. Ask your printer about some of the new digital cutting, creasing, and scoring technologies. These may actually lower your costs, since you won’t need to pay for metal cutting, perforating, or creasing rules.

Custom Printing: Options for Die Cutting Work

Sunday, December 20th, 2020

Prologue and Background

The key word that got me thinking was “tooling.”

My client had reviewed a commercial printing estimate, and had asked what the tooling charge was for, particularly since her client had already paid the printer for the prototype. The print job was a flooring sample presentation binder that would contain 32 wood chips (.5” x 1” x 2”) to showcase the flooring product. (more…)

Custom Printing: Laser vs. Rotary Die Cutting

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

I watched a video recently on YouTube. It showed a laser cutting machine producing a series of “kiss-cut” labels and then winding up the roll of labels while removing the scrap, or waste. I felt like it was the mid-’60s again and I was watching the original Star Trek TV show. The laser really has come of age. (more…)


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