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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 ‘Inks’ Category

Custom Printing: Spruce Up Your Design Work with Metallics and Foiling

Wednesday, July 28th, 2021

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Nothing shines like gold. Nothing is as opulent. So when you print an invitation to a classy event, or you design a business card for an upscale customer, consider adding the luster of this metal to your print product.

That said, commercial printing of metallics does have its challenges, shall we say, but it’s worth it. It really does make an impression.

Offset Printing Metallics

First of all, gold ink is not really gold. It is composed of flakes of reflective metal (actual metal) such as zinc, copper, aluminum, or bronze (depending on whether you’re creating a gold look or a silver look) suspended in the vehicle, or fluid part, of the ink. Because of this, it can flake off, or it can tarnish. Therefore, it’s essential to print on a gloss coated stock and coat the sheet after the custom printing process with an aqueous or UV coating. The reason for choosing the coated sheet is that the ink sits up on the surface of a coated sheet (more effectively on a gloss than matte sheet) and does not seep into the paper fibers as much as with an uncoated sheet. (This is called ink holdout.)

(Personally, I’d also ask your commercial printing vendor about the chance that the specific coating may adversely react to the metal and foster tarnishing. I know that a press varnish will yellow over time, and this could cause problems as well. So also tell your printer how long the printed product needs to last. Is it a promo piece that will be received, looked at briefly, and discarded, or does it need to look good for a long time? You may even want to ask about shelf life if, for example, you’re printing 1,000 business cards. You don’t want the last 500 copies to look tarnished.)

Metallic ink (whether gold or silver, or even a metallic blue or red, which are currently in vogue) is not one of the process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). So you will need an extra unit on an offset press, which will also cost a bit more. The additional spot ink, which will fall into the category of a PMS Metallic Ink, will need its own printing plate. It cannot be combined with the process color screens to create another hue.

All of this presumes you have chosen offset custom printing, although I would assume that any of the other traditional, analogue printing methods, including rotogravure and flexography, would treat the ink separation (and plating) process the same. So talk with your print provider about how you need to set up the art files using InDesign to ensure that the gold, bronze, copper, or whatever other color you choose winds up on its own plate.

Finally, don’t assume that every printer knows how to do a good job printing metallics. It is a skill, an art. Request printed samples to make sure you’ll be happy with the printed result. Also, you may want to pay extra for an actual press proof if the job is very high profile. Expect this to be expensive. You’re essentially paying for a separate press run (albeit on a small press). But for the right project, it may be worth it.

So what can you use metallics for? They’re great for a logo (but do keep in mind that if you start off with metallics on a logo, you’ll need to print them—at a premium—each time). Again, this may be worth it for the “Wow” factor. On brochures, they can highlight text or line art. They can make stationery look sophisticated. And if you use a six- or eight-unit press, you can add an additional metallic for a special graphic treatment (CMYK plus two metallics, for instance).

Again, all of this is based on traditional offset lithography, which is only one of several options.

Foil Stamping Metallics

Let’s say you want to print a special invitation in silver ink on a black uncoated paper. If you used traditional offset lithography, the vehicle of the ink would seep into the paper. Most probably the metallic ink would wind up being uneven (not of the same consistency on all portions of the text or imagery). This could look like a serious mistake on the final (expensive) print run.

So what can you do? You can skip offset commercial printing and produce the invitation using foil stamping. Your print provider would first have a metal cutting die made for all text and line art. Then, using a foil stamping press (an impact printing press rather than an offset press), the printer will foil stamp the front and back of the black paper invitation using heat and pressure, providing an even layer of type and graphics impossible to achieve (in this case) only using ink on paper.

But you’ll have to pay extra for the stamping die, which will be subcontracted out by the printer and which will therefore add time to the custom printing process.

Foil stamping does, however, tend to look spectacular, and the text and graphics are far more likely to be of consistent density on even an uncoated paper. Plus the look of the type and graphics will be even more glossy than with metallic ink.

Also, you can have the printer laminate (maybe a soft-touch laminate) the job to add extra thickness, protection, and an interesting feel.

That said, it’s wise to get printed samples from your vendor, because this is skilled work that not all print providers can do well.

Digitally Printing Metallics

Gloriously, we now live in a digital age, and there’s no lack of metallic and foil simulations available if you are not ready for the expense of foil stamping and your design doesn’t lend itself to the less expensive option of offset lithography.

Here are some companies you may want to research:

Indigo: Hewlett Packard and Indigo Ink have been working on digital metallic options, including a metallic silver that can be used as a spot color (for separate text, line art, and such), and can also be printed under the CMYK toner for a multicolored, metallic appearance or a metallic sheen on any distinct CMYK color build.

Keep in mind that this is a toner-based print product (toner particles suspended in a liquid oil base). However, I have personally seen incredible results, a dramatic color gamut, and incredible resolution—plus the variable data printing capability of a digital-only workflow.

In addition, be mindful that the metallic look is more matte (less glossy) when compared to foil stamping. But you can include an unlimited number of metallic effects on the same press sheet. And you can use uncoated paper. Plus it’s cheaper than the other options, and it’s variable data commercial printing.

Scodix: According to my reading, Indigo Ink can print a coating under the CMYK toner particles to achieve their striking look, but (in contrast) Scodix Metallic can add a clear polymer coating over the CMYK inks to achieve spectacular color effects. Scodix also offers foiling capabilities as well as embossing capabilities, so you could conceivably include all of these plus multiple metallics in a single printed product. Plus, an additional Scodix SENSE coating can protect the underlying image from scratches and scuffs, something not possible with traditional foil stamping.

Keep in mind that all of this is digital. There is no metal die-making (as in foil stamping or traditional embossing), and you can vary the image from one print to the next. If you look closely, though, you will see that the process is an additive manufacturing one, with the polymer coatings built up on top of the press sheet (i.e., with no indentation on the back of the press sheet as with traditional embossing).

What you get from this technology, among other things, is the ability not only to vary printed products from one unit to the next but also to inexpensively produce single prototypes. You can make an accurate model of a high-end marketing piece (or even a special packaging initiative for cosmetics, for example). Then, if the client likes it, you can roll out the rest of the print run. Or you can make changes and then roll out the job. You definitely can’t do this with traditional analog processes without spending a lot of money and time.

Vivid3D: I received a sample from a binder and presentation box company recently showcasing multilevel sculpted embossing (with no indentations on the back of the sheet); transparent blue, silver, gold, and clear foil effects; and something called “splash,” which looks to me like reticulating varnish (a textural, patterned effect). All of this is on the same press sheet. None of it requires die-making. Wow.

So if you do nothing else, check out Scodix, Indigo, and Vivid3D. I’m sure there are more hot companies as well. You may also want to search for “digital enhancement.” I think that’s a good starting point. And you’ll have a world of options for all budgets, between these and the traditional analog processes of offset lithography and foil stamping. Good luck. Don’t look back.

Custom Printing: Characteristics of Printing Ink

Monday, May 10th, 2021

Given the complex balance of commercial printing ink and water (plus all the other variables in ink formulation), plus paper choices, it’s amazing that anything gets printed or looks good.

First of all, let’s step back a moment and discuss ink on paper, or more specifically offset ink on paper, since ink varies considerably from offset printing to gravure printing to flexography.

Offset printing is a planographic printing process. That means the custom printing plate is flat. Image areas are not raised (as in letterpress) or recessed below the surface of the plate (as in such intaglio processes as engraving).

Offset ink (which is greasy) and water don’t mix. Therefore, when a printing plate on a press cylinder rotates through the ink and water units (like troughs along the width of the press), the ink and water stay separate. Image areas on the printing plate that have had the plate surface removed (by selective exposure to a laser) attract the ink, while non-image areas (unexposed areas on the plate) attract the water and avoid the ink.

This general concept explains how the fine letter forms of type, plus halftone images, plus solids receive and hold the ink on the plate, and then release the ink onto the offset press blanket and from there onto the paper.

Keep in mind that all of this is usually happening for four process inks that are laid on top of each other, and the press is operating at 10,000 to 20,000 impressions per hour. So getting the ink just right is a major challenge.

Properties of Ink

Here are four properties of ink to consider: color, body, length, tack, and drying capability. Moreover, the printer has to understand how specific inks and papers work together, since mixing ink for offset printing depends heavily on the paper (or other commercial printing substrate) for how the ink behaves, dries, and appears when all is said and done.

Ink Color

Printing ink is composed of pigment (usually organic, but some non-organic) particles within a fluid mixture of solvent (which controls the body of the ink), vehicle (which gives the ink its fluidity), plus other additives such as drying agents.

The various hues of offset printing ink your printer uses have the aforementioned physical characteristics, but they also have optical properties. These range from their opacity to their transparency, and also their ability to create (when mixed) the greater portion of visible colors. Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks printed over one another only match most of the PMS colors. For other colors, your printer adds specific PMS hues (also referred to as match colors).

To read the color, printers use a spectrophotometer (a computer device) and agreed-upon standards like SWOP (Specifications for Web Offset Publications). Only if color can be communicated, and only with adherence to color standards (using closed-loop color reading instruments on press), does the printer have the ability to successfully print colors in a way that will match your expectations.

Ink Body

“Body” pertains to the stiffness or softness of the ink. Offset ink straight out of the can is thick and must be softened through the action of the multiple roller systems in each inking unit of a commercial printing press. In contrast, gravure and flexographic inks are much more fluid. (These are also usually water-based, unlike oil-based offset printing inks.) And screen printing inks have the consistency of thick paint, which is why the application of custom screen printing ink on a messenger bag or hat looks thick and opulent.

To put ink body in context, you would use a much less fluid ink for newsprint offset printing than for offset printing on high-quality coated stock.

Ink Length

“Length” pertains to the ability of an ink formulation to form filaments. (Picture an ink knife lifting ink from a blob on a printing plate.) The filament will be longer for a long ink and shorter for a short ink before it beaks apart. You don’t want the ink to be too long or too short. If an ink is too long it will spray (“fly” or “mist”) when the press is operating at 10,000 to 20,000 impressions per hour. If an ink is too short (like the consistency of butter, with a lesser ability to flow), it will pile up on the rollers and press blankets. (As with the characteristic of ink body noted above, an ink for offset printing newspapers will be longer than one for printing on a gloss coated press sheet.)

Ink Tack

This is one of the most important characteristics of ink specifically used for offset commercial printing. Tack is the stickiness of ink as an ink film is being pulled off the plate and applied to the blanket (i.e., as the ink film is split between two surfaces) and then transferred from the blanket to the printing paper. The first ink laid down must have a higher tack than the second, third, and fourth (CMYK), or the extra PMS inks on press.

If an ink is not tacky enough, one layer of ink will not adhere to the prior layer (known as “trapping to the color”). If it’s too tacky, the stickiness of the ink will peel off pieces of the press sheet (known as “picking”). So, clearly, the nature of the printing paper plus the ink tack and the order of color ink application must be taken into consideration during the custom printing process. Otherwise you will create a mess. During this process, the printer must often make compromises, since preferred ink tack (measured with a tackoscope or inkometer) is different for text, halftone screens, and solids. (That is, tacky ink does not print smooth solid areas of color.)

Ink Dryers

Ink will dry in a number of ways, including absorption, oxidation, evaporation, and polymerization, just to name a few.

Absorption pertains to the ink’s going into the fibers of the paper and leaving the pigment on the top of the paper. You might use this for newsprint or other non-heatset (or cold set) web press work.

Oxidation involves the outside air being absorbed into the ink. The chemical reaction between the outside air and the ink causes the ink to harden on top of the paper surface.

Evaporation involves the use of heat to cause the vehicle and solvents in an ink to turn into a gas and be released into the atmosphere, thus hardening the ink film. You might find this kind of drying technology on a heatset web press (using ovens just past the inking units) or a drying unit at the delivery end of a sheetfed offset press.

Polymerization refers to the process of exposing printed UV ink to UV lamps as the press sheets travel thtrough the press. UV light will instantly turn the UV inks into a solid, sitting up nicely on the surface of the paper (called good “holdout”). UV inks treated with UV or LED UV lights will allow you to use less ink, print crisper type and brighter halftones, and either use the printed product as soon as it exits the press (or the finishing equipment) or immediately print the opposite side of the press sheets without needing to wait for the ink to dry.

What You Can Learn from This Technical Information

Even though there’s an abundance of educational material out there on properties and characteristics of paper, it behooves you to learn about commercial printing inks as well. Offset printing, or any other kind of printing, depends on the successful pairing (like pairing wine with a specific kind of fish) of the right paper with the right ink.

The aforementioned information will be well known to your printer. However, it always helps you to understand the fundamentals of your craft as well. And as a designer or print buyer, your knowledge of ink and paper will also help you clearly see any printing problems and identify their causes if something goes awry in the commercial printing process. It will also make you appreciate the Herculean task of getting just the right mix of ink, water, printing plates, and paper to create a gorgeous publication.

Custom Printing: Choosing Sustainable Inks and Papers

Monday, February 15th, 2021

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A PIE Blog reader recently asked about using recyclable UV inks on recyclable media such as polypropylene. Since this is somewhat outside my knowledge base, I went to school on the subject online, and here is what I found, along with my own personal experience with such inks and papers.

Qualities of Inks (and of UV Inks in Particular)

Let’s start with what UV ink is. Many contemporary ink formulations can be cured using UV light. The alternative “drying options” using more traditional inks are oxidation (evaporation of the vehicle, the liquid part of the ink, into the surrounding atmosphere) and absorption (in which the ink vehicle is taken into the fibers of the paper substrate).

In these cases the pigment is left on the surface of the paper (or other custom printing substrate) once the vehicle is gone.

Unfortunately, some of the gases given off as the vehicle disperses are harmful to the environment. Because of this, in recent decades there has been a concerted effort to minimize the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) given off during the drying of ink.

To get back to the reader’s question, when specially formulated UV ink is used on a commercial printing press, exposure to UV light “cures” the ink (similar to drying). The ink becomes a solid. Moreover, it sits up on the surface of the coated or uncoated paper or other substrate.

This yields three benefits:

  1. Since UV ink cures instantly when exposed to UV light (in contrast to the other drying methods noted above), and since it therefore sits up on the surface of the paper, the colors maintain their intensity or saturation. Less ink is needed to create brilliant coloration because it doesn’t seep deeply into the paper fibers.
  2. UV inks can be used not only on coated and uncoated paper but also on completely non-porous surfaces like plastic (to reference the PIE Blog reader’s question about polyprophylene substrates) and even glass and wood.
  3. This makes UV inks ideal for use on banners (i.e., jobs printed on large-format inkjet equipment, as well as jobs printed on offset lithographic commercial printing presses). Moreover, since UV inks are bright, vibrant, have great adhesion properties, and are stable, flexible, chip resistant, light- and weather-fast, fade-resistant, and low-migration (i.e., good for food packaging since they don’t travel from the substrate to the contents of a food package), they are an increasingly viable choice for a huge range of both flexible and rigid printed products.

But Are They Environmentally Friendly?

In my research, I learned that UV inks have the following environmental benefits:

  1. Those UV inks that are specifically LED UV are cured with light emitting diodes (LED) rather than mercury vapor lights, as was done in the past.
  2. These LED UV lights consume far less energy, and generate far less heat, than mercury vapor lamps. They also require lower voltage and have a longer life.
  3. This means printers don’t need a high-powered cooling unit. The process also emits no infrared radiation, heavy metals, or ozone.
  4. Because of the reduced energy footprint (lower energy requirements and lower heat emission), LED UV inks are great for heat-sensitive substrates (i.e., certain flexible plastics, for instance).

In addition, UV inks and UV curable paper coatings are recyclable. According to my research, UV printed papers can be deinked (using cleaning, flotation, and dispersion processes to separate the ink from the paper), and then the waste paper can be repulped or reincorporated into the paper mill’s standard “furnish” (their liquid paper blend from which new, dry, fully formed paper can be created).

One thing to consider, however, is that recycled paper is usually of a lower quality than virgin paper. More specifically, the paper fibers are shorter after being made into new paper, and the ink particles may not be 100 percent removable. (Also, the paper won’t be as bright, since brightness is usually achieved through bleaching.)

But this doesn’t have to be a problem. Why? Because repulped paper is usually turned into lower quality board grades (as opposed to bright-white, #1 uncoated commercial printing sheets). Or this paper can be used for tissue, paper towels, toilet paper, or any number of other paper products. Moreover, much of the paper that has been recycled does not include a full 100 percent content of post-consumer waste.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of paper in use is still virgin paper. It’s just that having the option to cut virgin wood for paper or to recycle and then extend the life of the paper fibers through cleaning and repulping makes for a far more thorough and sustainable use of forest resources (even if the trees are being constantly replanted).

Recycling paper in this way also reduces waste being diverted to the landfill.

Ensuring Sustainability

You might want to research the following organizations, which are active in keeping track of the actual sustainability of the process of turning trees into commercial printing paper. These two organizations are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI). You may see these acronyms on printer estimates or as logos on boxes of custom printing paper.

These organizations track and certify the chain of custody (various steps in the process of planting, growing, and harvesting lumber and making paper), ensuring responsible management of forest resources and the incorporation of post-consumer waste (PCW) into the papermaking process.

So look for these certification logos (FSC and SFI) or ask your printers about their compliance with these certifications.

One thing to keep in mind is that the best (or most sustainable) papers are “FSC Certified Recycled.” This wording ensures the genuinely recycled nature of paper products, more so than any other labeling.

How About Polypropylene Printing Substrates?

I once saw a fish tank at a restaurant with a printed paper ad, or menu (I can’t remember), in the water, tied to the rocks at the bottom of the tank. It was intriguing.

Later on, I learned about such synthetic paper as Yupo. I thought back to the paper in the fish tank, and then realized that for printed products used outside in wet weather, those used for menus, and those used for labels, plastic-based paper was ideal. (Keep in mind that two of the other alternatives are wood-fiber-based paper and cotton-based paper such as stationery bond.)

When you add to these more traditional paper options the newer synthetic stocks (which presumably are not porous) and the particular curability of UV inks (plus their superior adhesion qualities even to non-porous substrates), you have an ideal match.

That said, when all is said and done you still have plastic to recycle. And given the PIE Blog reader’s question about printing UV inks on polypropylene substrates, I did some more research.

This is what I found:

  1. Polypropylene is rugged and resistant to solvents. Therefore it is useful for durable printed products (such as printed plastic bottles).
  2. Plastic can now be purified with intense heat at a molecular level to produce clear, odorless, nontoxic plastic pellets from which 100 percent recycled plastic can be made.
  3. In spite of it’s huge popularity, polypropylene is also one of the least recycled materials.
  4. This is problematic, because polypropylene degrades slowly in landfills. It also includes toxic additives such as lead and cadmium. In addition, burning thermoplastics discharges dioxins and vinyl chloride into the atmosphere.

Since these plastics can be cleaned of contaminants with adequate heat, and then blended with virgin polypropylene to make recycled plastic, this is a win/win proposition, eliminating the danger of improper and dangerous disposal of these plastics.

The Takeaway

So what can you do?

  1. First of all, read everything you can get your hands on regarding environmentally friendly commercial printing products, and then ask your printing suppliers about their participation in recycling programs. This includes inks and papers.
  2. Ask how your printers recycle paper waste. Probably they have vacuum hoods and hoses snaking throughout the pressroom that collect the paper scraps and fibers and deposit them in balers (to make bales of paper, like bales of hay) for shipping back to recycling plants.
  3. Ask about UV inks. But be aware they they may cost more than conventional inks.
  4. Study the environmental impact of the various commercial printing technologies, including offset lithography, digital printing, gravure, flexography, screen printing, etc.

Custom Printing: Scratch-off Inks for Printing Posters

Monday, December 7th, 2020

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I’m sure all of you have seen scratch-off tickets, many of which are for lotteries. They have a rubbery, usually silver, material covering a portion of the card. You use a coin or your fingernail to scrape off the silver ink to reveal what’s beneath.

Well this isn’t all you can do with scratch-off coating. I learned this almost accidentally this year as two of my commercial printing clients came to me with large posters they wanted printed and then coated in numerous places with scratch-off ink. One wanted silver coating, and one wanted black coating. One was contacting me from Utah, and the other had recently moved from Italy to Toronto, Canada, and was moving her poster business to her new home.

Since I knew nothing about scratch-off coating material at the time, I did some research. Printers who do this kind of work (at least the ones I approached) would first print the posters (4-color process in both cases). They would then coat the posters with an aqueous (water-based) flood-coating material to protect the printed artwork. Finally they would apply the thick scratch-off coating using a custom screen printing process.

My research online confirmed this as the preferred method as well.

This made sense to me due to the thickness of the rubber-based scratch-off coating, which appears to be similar to the viscous ink used for custom screen printing on hats, shirts, and messenger bags.

Initial Thoughts, and Non-Disclosure Agreements

As with any new project, I asked the clients for PDF samples of the final printed posters, particularly showing the items on the base printed sheet that would be obscured by the scratch-off ink as well as the contours of the scratch-off ink itself (i.e., not only where the silver or black coating would be applied, but also whether the applications would have square edges or an irregular shape). I thought the commercial printing vendors I approached would find this useful in preparing an estimate.

The first client would agree to send the art for the estimate only if the printer would sign a non-disclosure agreement. I understood the client’s request, since he planned to sell the poster, which was unique. He didn’t want anyone to steal the concept. I did mention that copyrighting the poster would probably achieve the same goal without putting the printers on the defensive. Unfortunately, he refused to do so, and both printers (mind you, not everyone prints scratch-off posters; it’s specialized work) backed off completely and no-bid the job.

The second client, the one in Canada, agreed immediately and sent me a PDF of the poster. Both of the printers (the same two printers) jumped at the chance to provide bids.

So, I guess from this we learn that while non-disclosure agreements may be understandable, printers (like most people), prefer to be approached in the spirit of trust, and NDA’s, like prenuptial contracts, may backfire.

Paper Weight

Like real estate, printing can often be “all about location.” I am on the East Coast. One client was in Utah; the other is in Canada. In both cases, since completed print jobs are often heavy when cartoned, the cost of shipping may not be insignificant. Fortunately, in the case of the first client, the final press run would be 1,000 copies. This is not a lot of weight. And for a US destination it is also not a lot of postage. However, with the new client in Canada, shipping may be a lot more expensive. Fortunately, she only needs a short run initially: 500 vs. 1,000 posters. This will keep shipping costs down.

The second client, in Canada, just moved there from Italy. And another client of mine who prints small color swatch books to help women choose fashion and make-up colors based on their complexions, is actually considering selling her printed products in Italy as well as the United States.

In the case of the color swatch book client, the initial prices I requested for shipping printed products to Italy were high. (Perhaps I will research Media Mail rates, since these are really print books.)

So, in both cases, where my clients will or will not print their posters or color swatch books will depend on the cost of both the custom printing and the shipping. (And if you are a printer, graphic designer, or print buyer, what I learned can be useful information for you as well.)

Paper Thickness for the Posters

Closely associated to the overall weight of the printed job (and its relationship to shipping costs) is the weight of the paper. This also pertains to packaging.

The first print client wanted to produce substantial, thick posters. He therefore chose an 80# cover stock. Because of this choice, all of these copies needed to be priced as shipping flat and wrapped in Kraft paper. His product was 18” x 24”. Since this is a heavy paper stock, I made it clear that the posters could probably not (but not definitely) be rolled for sale. This would depend on the poster’s size, of course, but for an 18” x 24” product it would be a bit like rolling a flat, open manilla folder into a cylinder and then shipping it in a tube.

The second client’s poster is actually larger (60 cm x 100 cm, since Canada and Italy are on the metric system, or 24” x 40”). Of course, it’s easier to roll a large poster without cracking the paper fibers, but it’s still a risk. Fortunately, the second client has opted for a 100# text stock (more of a regular poster thickness of paper). I noticed that her informational photo of her scratch-off poster included an image of the product packaging / shipping box, which made it clear that the product will be distributed rolled.

So from this we can learn that paper thickness is important to consider not only for shipping weight but also for product packaging (flat, folded, or in this case rolled).

Other Thoughts from a Commercial Printing Vendor

Today I found a relevant article on scratch-off inks on It is entitled, “6 Tips for a Successful Scratch-Off Ink Project.” (The article has no other by-line than an attribution to PrismTech Graphics.)

Here’s a list of things to consider, as noted in the article:

    1. Use coated stock. Matte or gloss coated press sheets allow release of the scratch-off ink better than rough, uncoated sheets (even accounting for the overprint varnish or, in my printers’ case, aqueous coating in between the printed poster design and the scratch-off ink).


    1. Use less anti-set-off powder when printing via offset lithography. And if printing on digital equipment, do a test first. The fuser oil used in digital printing may make printing the necessary varnish (which is what allows the scratch-off ink to be released from the substrate by rubbing) an impossible task.


    1. Screen back the message behind the scratch-off ink so it will not be (potentially) visible through the scratch-off ink.


    1. Leave plenty of drying time for the ink before doing any post-press operations that might mar the scratch-off ink. Scratch-off ink is not like UV ink.


    1. Mark the top press sheet with press gripper and guide information. This will help you ensure alignment (register) of the scratch-off ink and the image below that you want it to cover.


  1. If anything differs from press sheet to press sheet (let’s say versioning of the type or art that will be obscured by the scratch-off ink), make sure you note this outside the image area. Once you have applied scratch-off ink to the press sheet, anything it covers will no longer be visible.

The Takeaway

There are pitfalls in this kind of project, or at least issues to consider carefully. So discuss your goals early with your printer, and request printed samples to ensure that your printer can do this kind of work expertly.

The best starting point for a discussion with your printer is a PDF mock-up showing the design of the poster but also its physical requirements (i.e., scratch-off ink placement, size, shape, etc.).

Also, consider such incidentals as shipping costs and product packaging when you are choosing a stock for a scratch-off poster.

And, as I did, if this is something new to you, go to school on the subject. The internet is a blessing for learning new things about commercial printing. And YouTube allows you to actually see videos of most printing operations.

Commercial Printing: Printing Brilliant Ink Jet Color

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

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I may have mentioned this before in a prior PIE Blog article, but I always fill in the business reply card that accompanies the EPSON direct mail brochure that comes to my door every few months.

Each promotional box that comes to me in response to the business reply cards includes inkjet samples printed on EPSON equipment. These speak volumes.

A Sample Press Sheet

The most useful of these samples is a small press sheet that is just under 12” x 18”. It’s also a poster and an advertisement (in this case, for EPSON SureColor P-Series printers), but it clearly shows me a number of things about the technology, and over the past several years I have seen dramatic improvements in the output.

Like an offset press sheet, this 12” x 18” sample includes a series of printers’ bars. These show solids and shades of the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) ranging from a 20 percent screen to a 100 percent solid. Granted, this is a simulation using a spray of minuscule spots rather than traditional halftone dots.

(This is the nature of inkjet printing compared to offset lithography. You don’t use traditional halftone screening. You build up continuous tone images with a spray of minuscule inkjet spots.)

So if the sample doesn’t reflect traditional halftone screening, what good is it as a measure of EPSON’s quality? The answer is that these two large-format, pigmented inkjet presses can print color screens as good as, or better than, what you can produce via offset lithography.

This particular inkjet printed sample I’m looking at also includes brilliant, large-format imagery. Colors are much brighter and intense than you would find in offset commercial printing, particularly in the oranges, greens, and purples.

This is because of the ten-color EPSON inkset (compared to the four process colors). Using ten colors allows the inkjet press to match far more PMS hues than offset lithography, unless you are using many extra offset press units for additional colors. (You might want to research Hexachrome and “touch plates.”)

The imagery in EPSON’s sample includes both square-edge pictures and silhouettes, both photos and illustration. It also includes a gradation (it looks like a long piece of fabric) that transitions from yellow to purple to blue. What we can learn from this is that EPSON inkjet printers can produce smooth gradations without any of the banding or artifacts that sometimes appear in inkjet presswork.

This EPSON poster/press sheet also demonstrates EPSON SureColor P-Series’ capabilities in printing typography. It includes the following samples, which are most instructive.

  1. It includes small sans serif type (perhaps 10pt with extra leading) reversed to white out of a complex photo that shifts in color from yellow to purple. The type is imminently readable. But so is the even smaller type (perhaps 4pt) surprinted over a photo that transitions from yellow to orange. Both of the preceding samples are set in uppercase and lowercase type (which makes them more readable than paragraphs typeset in all capital letters).
  2. Another paragraph is set in all capital letters. The words are printed in a medium blue over a dark blue halftone. The type should be hard to read (it is also set “solid,” which means it has no extra leading, which would improve legibility). But you can still read the lines of type effortlessly.

As I’m describing this poster, you can imagine a hectic (if not busy) design, with intensely saturated colors vying for your attention and multiple complementary colors creating visually vibrating perceptions.

The entire poster should be jarring to the eye, yet it appears only as a coordinated, intense image that leads your eyes comfortably around the page. This in itself attests to the quality of EPSON’s SureColor P-Series printers, in ways the specification sheet by itself cannot do.

The Specification Sheet

That said, it really does help to review the specs, once you have seen the results with your own eyes.

In this case, I’m only going to focus on those few specifications I think have the most immediate effect on the visual quality of the printed product. I would say these include the kind of inks used and the well-rounded ink colorset.

First of all, this is pigment ink. Pigment ink is different from the dye-based ink in a desktop inkjet printer. Pigment ink holds particles of the coloration material in a “suspension” between molecules of the liquid (the medium) in the ink.

In contrast, in dye-based ink the colorant is completely dissolved into a water-based vehicle.

At an earlier point in its development, dye-based ink was more vivid than pigment ink, but a single drop of water could destroy a print. It was also not as lightfast as pigment ink. In contrast, pigment ink was more lightfast and durable, but colors were not as vibrant as dye-based ink.

So it was a trade-off.

But now the technology has improved, and the two options are more similar (in terms of durability, lightfastness, and color intensity). But pigment ink is still considered slightly better for professional quality work, and that’s exactly what these EPSON SureColor P-Series printers use.

Now, the inkset. More than anything else, the selection of inks makes a huge difference. The UltraChrome PRO inkset includes the following:

  1. Process colors: Cyan (both Cyan and Light Cyan), Magenta (both Vivid Magenta and Vivid Light Magenta), and Yellow. So that’s five in total.
  2. The inkset also includes a number of black and gray inks: Photo Black, Matte Black, Gray, Dark Gray, and Light Gray. That’s another five, or ten total.

Let’s start with the black inks (Photo Black and Matte Black). Together these allow for more contrast in black and white prints (by themselves or anywhere else on the custom printing press sheet). They also allow for sharper images.

To put this in context, about 20 years ago as a graphic designer I had to sacrifice detail in a black and white imagery on a commercial printing press: in the highlights, midtones, or shadows.

If this wasn’t acceptable, I could add an additional color (to create a duotone) or I could print a four-color process black and white image (it looked like a black and white image, but it was created with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black halftone screens).

The latter cost a lot, but it captured detail in all levels of the image, from the highlights to the midtones to the shadows. It is my understanding that the EPSON inkjet equipment achieves essentially the same effect by including a number of different tones of both black and gray.

Now, for the color. Four color process inks have a smaller color gamut (universe of printable colors) than you can reproduce with additional PMS colors or than you can reproduce on a computer screen using RGB (red, green, blue) light instead of ink.

By adding extra colors to the original CMYK inkset, manufacturers of high-end inkjet equipment, such as EPSON, can dramatically expand the printable color gamut; provide fully saturated, intense color; and match most PMS colors.

All of this can be achieved without the extra press units (and their associated costs) that you would need to do the same thing with offset commercial printing technology.

What You Can Learn From This Promotional Piece

First of all, it never hurts to request information from vendors (not just from printers but from press manufacturers, finishing product manufacturers, or any other equipment manufacturers). Usually (depending on the format of the vendor’s promotional piece) you can not only learn about the technology involved, but you can also see in the advertising material exactly how the equipment will enhance your commercial printing work.

Custom Printing: Random Thoughts on Selecting Inks

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020

So, you’re ready to go to press. You’ve designed your print book, poster, or brochure, and chosen your paper stock. What about ink? Any ink will do. Right? Not by a long shot. You have more options than you could ever imagine.

Process Inks for Full-Color Images

Back in the ‘90s when I was an art director, I learned two profound things about process color printing just from attending press inspections.

(Back then, for color critical design work, it was helpful to be on press for the printing of the various press signatures, just to make sure everything was correct. Much better to catch serious errors on press than after delivery.)

What I learned was that commercial printing suppliers can adjust the process inks to make their own mix. That is, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are not necessarily absolute colors. One particular printer with whom I worked would add a certain amount of fluorescent ink to some of the process colors, and by so doing would make certain elements on the printed image “pop.” For instance, if the photo contained yellow flowers, a bit of fluorescent yellow would make the image even more dramatic. If you’re in a similar situation, discuss fluorescent inks with your printer.

The other thing I learned was that there could be more than four colors in a process color press run. Normally you would use transparent versions of only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. With these you could conceivably create all colors in a full-color image. However, back in the ‘90s I learned that you could add orange and green (presumably made transparent) to create what was called Hexachrome printing. Granted, instead of producing halftones with four screened plates (back then, negatives were produced first and then plates were produced from the negatives), you would separate the color images into six colors with six negatives to produce six plates. You would then print the job on a six-unit (rather than a four-unit) offset printing press.

A similar process involved “touch plates” or “kiss plates.” These were additional plates used to accentuate a color in an image. For instance, by adding a fifth press unit with a kiss plate of a purple PMS hue, you might increase the intensity of a photo of purple flowers.

It was an expensive proposition, but it yielded spectacular results. Interestingly enough, digital presses (inkjet printers in particular) can now achieve the same results just by adding more ink reservoirs to the equipment.

What all of this does, in essence, is expand the color gamut, the number of colors offset printing, or digital printing, can produce. If you’ve read my prior blog posts regarding the difference between color produced on the computer monitor and color produced on press, you will understand. Color produced on a computer monitor is created with red, green, and blue light. The universe of distinct colors reproducible in this way is much larger than the number of distinct colors reproducible with offset ink, inkjet ink, or toner.

Colors produced via digital or offset printing are created not with red, green, and blue light but rather with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink or toner. This method also has a color gamut. But when you compare the CMYK color gamut to the RGB color gamut, CMYK is much smaller. That is, you can create many colors visible on your computer monitor that will not reproduce accurately when printed. They will be “out of gamut.”

What adding colors to an ink set (whether offset or digital) does is expand the CMYK color gamut so it can more closely approximate the total gamut of visible hues. This is true whether you’re using touch plates or kiss plates, or whether you’re using some variant of Hexachrome (the branded but presumably discontinued process–also referred to as high-fidelity color), or even if you’re using a 10-unit inkjet printer with multiple variants of black, multiple variants of some process colors, and even orange, green, or purple.

Talk with your printer. See what he can do for you. For a high-profile print job, it may be worth it. Keep in mind that most printers will only have one or a few of these technologies at hand. But it’s definitely worth a discussion. Also make sure you discuss with your custom printing vendor how the paper you choose will affect color reproduction.

Metallic Inks

You can also add metallics to your inkset. But be careful. These are made with a mixture of metal dust and varnish (i.e., the pigment and the vehicle). The pigment is not real gold, silver, etc. It just looks like it. Unfortunately, metallic inks can tarnish, and they are not resistant to scuffing. That is, their colors can shift, and they are not durable. But they are rather dramatic, so if your job is flashy but not permanent (maybe a promotional brochure), this might be right for you.

If you choose metallics, coat the sheet with varnish for protection. Also, print the colors on a coated sheet, not an uncoated sheet. This will preserve the metallic sheen. Also consider a “double hit” of a metallic color, as these inks can be bright but somewhat transparent. Printing an image twice will increase the perceived opacity of the ink application.


This acronym means “magnetic ink character recognition.” Bank checks are imprinted with this magnetic, toner-based material, and the bank numbers can then be read automatically with character recognition software. Regular toner will not work.

Invisible Ink

Actually, this is just clear ink, but you can print security information with it. For example, if you want to minimize the chance of fraud or counterfeiting, you can print information on a document that cannot be seen or that can only be seen under certain light (such as UV light). Some toner-based digital presses (such as the Kodak NexPress) have extra press units that can be used for security inks. If you’re in the business of producing passports, for instance, you might find this information useful. On passports, UV light can make printed elements of the document (rendered in special inks) either appear or disappear.

Security ink is also useful if you’re in the pharmaceutical field. When used in the packaging of pharmaceuticals, security ink can ensure the accuracy of the drug the package contains and avert sickness or death.

Security inks are a perfect match for digital printing technology, since they can take advantage of the “one-off” capability of digital custom printing. Whether you’re printing a passport or a blister-pack for a new medicine, chances are that you’ll want each product package to have a distinct serial number (which is the perfect task for a digital printing press).

Food-Safe Inks

If you’re producing packaging for food (let’s say a folding carton for fine chocolate or even a box for a frozen dinner), it’s important to know that your custom printing inks are “food safe.” That is, the US Food and Drug Administration must certify that there is no “migration” of printing inks into the food the package contains.

Part of the safety precautions involves the interior wrapping (such as the bag that contains the wheat crackers or cereal within the outer carton), but beyond this, the inks used to print the box of crackers, or the plastic bag the bread comes in, or the cardboard container for the frozen dinner—all of this ink and all of the cover coatings must be non-toxic.

What You Can Learn from This Discussion

Ink choice is not a given. You have a lot of options. However, some of these options may be expensive, and not all printers can work with all of these inks.

That said, given the development of digital commercial printing (both inkjet and toner-based) over the last 30 years, you now have a lot of choices for both static printing (with all images being the same) and variable data printing (with all images being different, such as the security numbers on pharmaceutical packaging). If you’re printing something out of the ordinary (even something like a scratch-and-sniff product, or a product with inks that smell like food or perfume, or lottery tickets with scratch-off inks), specialty inks might just be what you need.

Custom Printing: Printing Your Jobs with Less Ink

Thursday, September 17th, 2020

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They say that “less is more.” This is a truism.

But in commercial printing, it actually improves both the product and the process if you can print with less ink. It saves money, in some cases actually improves the final printed product, and uses less energy for the manufacturing of the printing ink. Reducing ink consumption also saves storage space in your printing plant.

In light of this, I recently found an article on, written by Kristin Adams and published on 08/04/2020, in accord with Kao Collins (The Ink Tank). It’s entitled “How to Use Less Ink When Printing,” and it offers a number of suggestions for printing with less ink and also addresses some of the benefits of doing this. Moreover, it also distinguishes among the various commercial printing technologies (such as offset and digital printing) when providing these suggestions. (To these thoughts and insights I have also added my own views.)

Printing Workflow Benefits

Kristin Adams’ article begins by describing the production workflow savings of using less ink, noting two benefits:

  1. Using less ink reduces drying time. If you’re using either a sheetfed press or a web press, less ink requires a shorter drying time, whether you are using LED lamps or heat ovens to cure the ink. Less drying time means shorter exposure times for the LED light or the drying ovens, and this reduces the overall energy expense. It also extends the life of the LED curing lamps and the drying ovens.
  2. Using less ink speeds up production. You can’t print the back of a press sheet until the printing on the front is dry. Although a web offset press does print both sides at once–so both sides do have to dry, and using less ink does improve the drying time–on a sheetfed press, once you have printed the first side of a sheet, you have to wait until the entire stack of press sheets has dried before you can “back up” the sheets (i.e., print the opposite sides). Using less ink speeds up overall print production because it reduces drying time. In addition, reducing overall printing time also reduces labor costs.

Adams’ article then moves on to issues of print quality:

  1. Using less ink improves the quality of the printed product. Using too much ink on a web press, particularly a newspaper press, causes such problems as ink show-through or bleed-through (from one side of the sheet to the other) or muddy halftones and 4-color images, or even damage to the commercial printing paper. (There’s only so much ink that either uncoated paper can absorb or coated paper can hold up on the surface coating before the paper decomposes.) This limit for the ideal amount of ink is called total ink coverage or total area coverage, and using less ink minimizes the potential problems of over-inking.
  2. Using less ink improves images. For halftones (black and white or 4-color), the halftone dots that comprise the image will spread to a certain degree when printed. (This is known as “dot gain.”) It is normal, but too much ink makes dot gain worse. It can not only make the images seem heavy or muddy, but it can also change the perceived color (or even add a color cast to a neutral color composed of all four process inks, for instance). Using less ink minimizes this problem.

Environmental Benefits

“How to Use Less Ink When Printing” then goes on to mention the benefits to the environment of using less ink in the commercial printing process.

Using less ink means less energy is required to produce the ink. It also means fewer natural resources are needed for ink manufacturing, less plastic will be used for inkjet and toner cartridges (for digital printing), and less metal or plastic can be used for offset ink storage containers.

And as noted before, using less ink can reduce the required ink storage space and the associated heating and cooling costs.

How to Reduce Ink Consumption

The goal is worthy, but how do you achieve it. Kristin Adams addresses this question next in “How to Use Less Ink When Printing.”

But to begin with, Adams notes that a savings of up to 20 to 30 percent is possible. So in terms of reduced production time, improved print quality, reduced labor costs, and environmental benefits, ink usage reduction is definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

According to Adams’ article, here are some things to consider:

  1. Choose the right resolution for images and line art. If you’re printing a barcode, it has to be crystal clear to be read accurately. So use a higher resolution. On the other hand, if you are printing line art (text) and halftones, you can use a lower resolution (discuss this first with your printer). This is true for inkjet as well as offset lithography. Use only the resolution the reader’s eye will perceive. Choosing a higher resolution uses more ink.
  2. Consider both UCR (undercolor removal) and GCR (grey component replacement) in preparing and printing 4-color images. In different ways (but for the most part in shadow areas and neutral tones containing a lot of cyan, magenta, and yellow), both UCR and GCR involve using computer algorithms to reduce cyan, magenta, and yellow ink and replace them with black ink. When these changes are reflected in the resulting printing plates, the overall amount of ink used on press is reduced. One of the additional benefits of GCR is that there is greater “edge definition” (perceived edges of objects in the halftones where different values, or tones, meet).
  3. Be mindful when choosing fonts. Some fonts are heavy in appearance and therefore use up a lot of ink when compared to thinner fonts. For instance, a heavy serif face, with the extra flourish of the serifs, will use up more ink than a thinner sans serif typeface. This may at first seem to be a minimal savings, but ink usage based on these minor changes can add up throughout the course of a long book, for instance, with a long press run or on a long press run for a transpromo product (a combination bill and marketing mailer). Adams’ article does note, however, that a prudent designer will weigh ink savings with readability in choosing fonts. (For example, serif faces are easier to read in a book or other long document, so keep the reader—and the reader’s age and eyesight—in mind when attempting to save ink.)

Final Thoughts

“How to Use Less Ink When Printing” ends with some more technical information on saving ink:

  1. Make sure your printheads (for inkjet equipment) are clean. When ink dries in the printhead, it takes extra ink to clean out the clog. So the ink drying time is an important consideration, particularly with solvent inks used in large-format inkjet printing.
  2. New ink and toner cartridges are often more functional than remanufactured cartridges. If a cartridge fails, the ink still in the cartridge is wasted.
  3. Bulk ink and toner containers are apparently more efficient in using the last bit of ink and toner. (That is, if you leave a little bit of ink or toner in multiple small containers, this will add up to more waste than the little bit of ink or toner left in a single, much larger bulk container.)
  4. Choose the correct ink for the substrate on which you’re printing.
  5. Track your efforts at saving ink. You’ll see what does and doesn’t work within your own commercial printing workflow.

Custom Printing: Printing Ink, and Food

Monday, June 25th, 2018

You might assume that all commercial printing ink is the same. In fact, both the composition and use of printing ink involve a lot of nuances.

For now, let’s start with two general rules to keep in mind. Printing inks differ depending on the equipment in which they will be used and on the intended use of the printed product.

The technology with which ink will be applied might include offset printing and digital printing, for instance.

Offset lithography “works” because oil and water repel each other. (You can test this for yourself by pouring both water and olive oil into a glass.)

Offset printing ink is an oily substance that is chemically produced to seek the image areas of a printing plate while avoiding the non-image areas, which are coated with water. In an offset printing press, a delicate balance between ink and water allows this to happen.

Only because of this law of chemistry (i.e., the fact that ink and water repel each another) can a commercial printing supplier use printing plates on which the image area and non-image area are both on the same level. (That is, they are neither raised above the surface of the plate, as in relief printing processes such as letterpress, nor recessed below the surface of the plate, as in fine arts intaglio printing.) And only because of the oily nature of offset lithographic printing ink does this process work.

In contrast to the inks used in offset lithography (both in commercial printing and in fine arts printing), the ink in your desktop inkjet printer is water based. The process does not depend on flat (planographic) plates or an oil/water balance. You merely spray the ink onto the substrate through nozzles on your inkjet printer. The process is exactly the same if the inkjet printer in question is a large format inkjet press used to decorate corrugated board and folding cartons.

Food Inks and Toxicity

Inkjet printing is becoming the method of choice for a lot of custom printing these days, including corrugated cartons, flexible packaging, and folding cartons. You can Google these terms for precise descriptions, but for the sake of argument, these are the categories of packaging, and, as noted in prior blog entries, packaging is one of the hottest markets for commercial printing in general and digital printing in particular.

For makeup cartons, presumably, there is little concern about the toxicity of the inks, as long as the product is not ingested and as long as the makeup comes in glass or plastic tubes and bottles contained in the cartons. But for food products that will come into contact with product packaging, it is of vital importance that no toxic chemicals migrate (the technical term) from the printed container or packaging into the food.

There are numerous requirements and specifications for such custom printing inks, and organizations such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) publish these requirements for packaging companies and ink manufacturers. Other organizations, such as Intertek (in London), test the inks and certify them as conforming to the safety standards.

HP PageWide Inks

With the preceding information in mind, I received an article from a friend and colleague noting that HP’s T1100 and C500 PageWide presses (and particularly their ink configurations) had been passed by Intertek as being food safe for use in printing corrugated cartons. More specifically, according to the press release from HP, Intertek certified HP as the “first supplier to fulfill the Intertek Guidelines for the Safe Use of Printing Inks” (“Intertek Develops Guidelines for Safe Use of Printing Inks,” HP, 6/20/18).

This is relevant for a number of reasons:

  1. HP’s large format digital inkjet printing presses and their inksets have been blessed by a respected standards and testing organization as being food safe.
  2. Package printing is a growing sector of commercial printing, and HP is a major player in this arena.
  3. In terms of marketing, Intertek’s blessing highlights HP as a trusted vendor. This approval will aid greatly in HP’s potential dominance of package printing.
  4. As the first vendor to receive this approval from Intertek, HP has a head start towards becoming the supplier of choice for digital inkjet package printing equipment and also for printing inks (these are not the same thing).
  5. Intertek’s approval was based on printed samples provided by HP using its proprietary water-based digital printing inks. To quote from the press release, “Intertek conducted detailed laboratory tests on these prints to measure migration limits and ensure safety requirements in accordance with global regulatory and industry guidance, including Swiss Ordinance, Nestle Guidance, FDA, EU Framework, and others” (“Intertek Develops Guidelines for Safe Use of Printing Inks,” HP, 6/20/18).
  6. The specific approval granted by Intertek notes compliance for “printing primary and secondary corrugated packaging, which requires no additional barriers” (“Intertek Develops Guidelines for Safe Use of Printing Inks,” HP, 6/20/18). To put this in context, when you open a box of cereal, you reach in and take out a clear plastic bag containing the flakes or chips. The purpose of this bag is not only to keep all of the cereal from spilling out. It also keeps the food away from the ink (on the outside of the chipboard folding carton).
  7. Intertek and similar organizations also test for NIAS. This means “non-intentionally added substances.” What this implies is that when you’re making or printing ink, you don’t always know what other chemicals are produced, whether they are toxic, and whether they will migrate into the food. Therefore, this has to be tested and controlled.

What This Means to You

Mostly I think this is interesting rather than directly pertinent to a designer or print buyer. But it does mean that the closer you get to the supplier, the more important ink certifications will be. If you’re a printer, for instance, you want to make sure all of your inks are appropriate and acceptable, not only for the equipment you’re using but also for the end product, based on its use, and particularly if you’re producing packaging materials that will contain food.

Another thing to consider is that not all inks are the same. Not only are some more appropriate for certain printing technologies (for instance, offset lithography, flexography, thermography, gravure, digital inkjet printing, screen printing, letterpress…), but the final use of the printed materials makes a difference. If a printed product touches food, it has to be safe.

Custom Printing: Expanded Ink Sets for Offset Printing

Monday, November 14th, 2016

As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said, “The more things change the more they stay the same.”

In the case of custom printing this definitely holds true. I was amused to see (when I was reading “Key Themes at drupa 2016 Bring Industry 4.0 to the Forefront” by Cary Sherburne, 6/27/16, on that “fixed color palette printing” was one of the major trends in commercial printing.

The reason I found it amusing was that I had seen essentially the same (or perhaps similar) technology when I was an art director in the 1990s. Then I thought the concept was intriguing; now I’m pleased to see its return.

The Science Behind Color on Press

When you produce a job on an offset press you have a few options for adding color:

  1. You can add no additional color. That is, you can print the job in black ink only, or with additional screens of black (i.e., gray).
  2. You can print the job using the four process color inks (i.e., cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). By overlaying halftone screens of the four transparent process color inks, you can simulate a large range of hues.
  3. If you cannot quite match your chosen color with a process color build, you can add one or more PMS inks. These are special colors mixed by ink companies or in-house ink specialists. You print a PMS color using one of the inking units on press rather than simulate the color by overlapping transparent screens of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink.

The problem is that you just can’t simulate all of the possible colors within the PMS color gamut using only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. If your corporate logo color (for instance) has to be an exact match, you often need to add a PMS color to your CMYK (process color) ink set to make the match. (You can also use an additional “touch plate” of a PMS match color–say a deep blue–to enhance an offset litho reproduction of a fine art piece, or an intensely colored fashion, food, or automotive poster.)

The reason adding additional colors is problematic is that you need a larger press with more inking units (perhaps five or eight units rather than four). And this will raise the commercial printing price of your job.

From the point of view of the printer, shifting a press ink configuration from four colors to 4CP plus additional PMS colors can be time and labor intensive as well, because he will need to wash up the ink units to change the ink configuration. This will take time, so he will lose money (or need to raise his price).

The Idea Behind “Fixed Color Palette Printing”

To remedy these problems, ink companies have been working on expanded color sets—for a long time.

Back in the 1990s when I was an art director, one company I worked with added orange and green to the four process colors and called the result “Hexachrome” (apparently this became a Pantone-trademarked process). Another company had a version of the process they called “high-fidelity color.” Back then, the goal was to create the widest possible color gamut and match the most PMS colors. Saving money on wash-ups seemed to be less of an issue.

Now, according to “Key Themes at drupa 2016 Bring Industry 4.0 to the Forefront” by Cary Sherburne, the technology is back, known as “fixed color palette printing” or “extended gamut printing.” To quote from Sherbourne’s article describing the fixed-color offerings shown at drupa, “Companies including X-Rite Pantone, Esko, Asahi Photoproducts, Kodak, Heidelberg and more shared thoughts and solutions about this process printing technique using up to seven colors (CMYK plus orange, violet and green or blue) that enables more than 90% of Pantone colors to be achieved.”

What This Means: The Implications for Customers and Printers

Here are some thoughts:

  1. First of all, it’s interesting to note that between my experience of Hexachrome or Hi-Fidelity Color in the ’90s and the present moment, we have had a huge improvement in digital custom printing. For many years I have seen inkjet presses with “extended color sets.” That is, in order to expand the number of colors a large-format inkjet press can produce, manufacturers have added light versions of cyan and magenta; different black inks; orange and green; or red, green, and blue inks to the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. In other words, by adding these colors (and creating a seven- or eight-color ink set), inkjet press manufacturers have dramatically enhanced color reproduction capabilities in large-format inkjet presses.
  2. The trend toward bringing this color management technique back to offset lithography and flexography tells me that the more traditional press manufacturers are trying to stay relevant by addressing the customer’s need for more accurate color.
  3. Moreover, a printer running presses with a fixed color palette can avoid extra wash ups and also gang together a number of jobs on press. In the past, with some jobs printing in process colors and other jobs printing in black plus one or more PMS colors, it was usually not possible to lay out a number of different customers’ jobs on the same press sheet. With fixed color palette printing, as long as all customers’ jobs are on the same paper stock (which is conceivable: say a 70# white gloss sheet), the only major determinants as to whether the jobs could be ganged up would be the dimensions of the jobs and the available room on the press sheet.
  4. Custom printing multiple jobs simultaneously and avoiding wash-ups by always using the same inksets will save the printers money and time. Quicker make-readies and ganged jobs will reduce the use of expensive materials, speed up the printing process, and therefore make offset printing more competitive with digital printing for shorter press runs. And for longer print jobs with no personalization, there will be a market demand for which offset lithography and flexography will still be the most cost-effective solutions.

Commercial Printing: Uses for White Ink and Toner

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

I just read an article in about white ink and toner. Although printing extends beyond the IT uses of laser printers, I think it is noteworthy that IT articles are now touting the benefits of white ink.

To borrow a fashion metaphor, “White is the new black.”

The article (“White Printing Is the Next Big Thing,” by Ray Shaw, 11/26/13) focuses on OKI printers’ new ability to laser print and inkjet print white ink or toner as well as clear ink or toner.

The specific equipment the article reviews is the OKI C941, “an A3 digital LED color printer aimed at the graphic arts and commercial printing needs.”

Before I hone in on the implications of white and clear ink printing, I want to highlight the fact that OKI is providing equipment specifically aimed at graphic arts production needs (in addition to their line of office laser printers), and this one in particular uses the newer LED imaging technology (in lieu of the older laser imaging technology). I think both of these developments bode well for graphic arts and custom printing in general.

The five-station OKI C941 printer images an A3 sheet (11.7” x 16.5”), with expanded paper capacity for up to 13” x 52” banners. It will laser print on transparent media, polyester, banners, cover printing stock, and magnets, to name a few substrates.

The Implications of a Fifth Unit on a Laser or Inkjet Printer

First of all, if you run a graphic arts shop, you can use a printer like the OKI C941 to prototype everything from a folding carton for a new line of perfume to a static cling for a window. Specifically, by using the fifth unit for white ink, you can lay down a “ground” on a colored paper stock so the color of the paper will not alter the hues of the inks or toners printed on the darker paper.

In addition, by using the clear ink, you can flood coat a project in house, or you can spot coat only the text, so the words seem to jump off the page.

If you’re printing on clear film without a white background, the colors won’t pop. That is because the light hitting the film will just keep on going through the transparent media. Nothing will reflect the light back to the person viewing the signage. In contrast, by first printing a white background and then imaging the CMYK components of the artwork on top, you give the art far more reflectivity, so the colors appear more vibrant to the viewer. (You give the light hitting the signage a white surface to bounce off, so the light will be redirected back to the viewer.)

With a small printer like the OKI C941, you could put this into practice with bottle labels, for instance. Starting with clear bottle label film, you would first print white, and then follow up with the 4-color label art.

Or you could print white text on a darker colored press sheet, perhaps a gray or black sheet. The text in white toner would stand out in stark contrast to the darker substrate.

Further Implications of White Custom Printing

If you’re producing static clings for windows, a white-printing inkjet printer would be ideal for blocking the images on either side of the cling (i.e., printing a white base between the two images). This way, you could affix a static cling to a window and have one image facing into the interior of the building and another image facing out. Without an opaque white block between the two images, they would conflict with one another whenever light passed through the plastic sheet. In contrast, the light stopping power of the opaque white ink would completely separate one image from the other.

Custom screen printing on dark t-shirts would be another use for white ink (in this case white custom screen printing ink rather than toner or inkjet ink). By first adding a white ground over a black cotton or polyester fabric, you would provide a bright base onto which you would then overlay the additional colors.

I have seen white used in this way, and the colors printed over the base really jump out. You could also use the white as an additional color in a case like this (by itself; not as a ground). The fifth color would be as brilliant as the accompanying cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks on the darker t-shirt fabric.


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