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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 ‘Printing’ Category

Custom Printing Type Forms on Vases, Furniture, and Bottles

Sunday, September 3rd, 2023

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

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

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

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

The Furniture

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

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

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

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

The Bottles and Ceramic Vases

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

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

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

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

The Printed Clock Face

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

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

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

How the Brain Processes Visual Information

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

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

The Takeaway

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

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

Custom Printing: What to Do When a Job Goes South, Chapter 2

Sunday, May 14th, 2023

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Some commercial printing jobs go south. It’s a fact of life. Here are some lessons you might want to consider based on issues I just had with two of my recent print jobs.

That said, it’s actually helpful to approach things in the following manner. Fixing a problem job for a client who is disgruntled, as well as learning something of value for future jobs, makes you a better print buyer than having all jobs run without a hitch.

The Husband-and-Wife Publishing Team

I recently reprinted a 6” x 9” perfect bound literary print book (i.e., with high production values needed to compete with digital books sold at a lower cost) for a husband-and-wife publishing team. I have worked with this client for over ten years. The two principals of the small publisher love the physical nature of the print book, and they share this love with their literary clientele.

Unfortunately, in this case there were three problems.

The first had to do with folds that were slightly off on the French flaps (3.5” extensions to the front and back cover, folded over the front and back inside covers to give the impression that the book has a dust jacket). These also provide room for additional promotional information. Unfortunately, some of these were not absolutely square (or true).

In addition, the color on some of the book covers was not as saturated or intense as on the original printing of this book.

Finally, in spite of my client’s explicit delivery instructions, all copies of the print book came to her and her husband’s house. They should have received 50 samples. Instead, they received 750 books, 700 of which needed to be at the print book distributor’s warehouse halfway across the country.

Needless to say, I asked my clients to check multiple copies of the books from multiple cartons to determine the extent of the color problem and folding problem, but I addressed the shipping problem immediately because their unsold books needed to be at the book distributor yesterday if not sooner.

Fortunately I had the exact email in which my client had set forth her delivery needs, as well as proof that she had sent this email directly to the printer. With this in hand it was easy to get the book printer to provide appropriate labels for the ten boxes of perfect-bound books to facilitate UPS’s picking them up and re-delivering them immediately.

My client was happy with the speedy service. Having the books picked up and rerouted went a long way.

Furthermore, the printer’s rep for this book offered my client a discount on the problematic books with folding issues and color intensity issues. She hadn’t been asked for this discount. She offered it on her own. My client was especially touched and felt well taken care of in spite of the custom printing issues. At the moment, while her books are being rerouted to the book distributor, my client is tallying up the number of less than perfect books, which already seems to be a smaller number than initially expected.

Moreover, I asked my client to compare the printed book covers to the contract proof she had received from the printer. (The printer had produced two copies: one for their use and one for hers, so my client still had a copy of the cover proof.) Apparently the proof, which my client had initially told me she had liked, did match the final books she had received.

So as the book printer’s speedy attention to making my client and her husband happy moved forward, the scope of the problems gradually decreased.

What We Can Learn

When things go wrong with shipping, which does happen, it always helps to have the email in which you specifically stated what printed copies had to go to which destination point. In fact, it may help to make sure this information is also noted on the printer’s proof sign-off sheet, or to confirm in some other way this information before the cartons ship out. If anything changes, then update the delivery spec sheet and send it to the book printer noting explicitly that it is an update to the original information.

Regarding my client’s color issues and folding issues, I had made an initial assumption that might not have been adequate. I had assumed the art files had been correct for the reprint. What I should have also done is ask my client to send a sample from the initial printing of the book for the printer to match. A physical copy when compared to the ink density and folding issues would have shown exactly what my client wanted. Sometimes the printer’s physical proof and the original art files are not enough (particularly when you’re trying to match a prior press run).

The Fashionista’s Color Chin Cards

I mentioned this job in several past issues of the PIE Blog. My client is producing a set of laminated chin cards. These cards (with a series of full-bleed solid ink hues showing what fabric colors and makeup will be complementary to one’s complexion when held under one’s chin) are 8.5” x 11”, laminated on both sides, and printed on card stock.

I had expressed concern that if produced on a laser printer these cards might have banding problems (uneven lay-down of toner showing streaks through the solid colors). After all, the colors were full bleed, on large cards, with heavy coverage of the colored toner particles. Foreseeing any problems with such banding was my goal in suggesting my client purchase an initial complete set as a proof. Unfortunately, I was right. (I’m usually much happier when I’m wrong.) There was banding. So my client gave the job to another printer.

Rather than lose a client entirely (since she also produces much smaller color swatch books based on the same color system), I thought ahead.

I thought about the HP Indigo color laser printer, which uses much smaller toner particles suspended in fuser oil (rather than the much larger dry color toner particles used in many other digital laser presses). I thought this might minimize banding. I realized this flaw occurs in many cases where the color is built up with multiple layers of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toner particles, and thought it would be more evident in a large space, like an 8.5” x 11” full-bleed chin card. But I thought the HP Indigo process might be more forgiving.

That said, I also thought back to the three times this job had been printed without incident, without banding. The printer I had used had actually brokered out this digital job himself. I happened to know the kind of press he had used (a Fujifilm J Press, a production inkjet press, rather than the HP Indigo, the color laser digital press I was considering).

I thought a bit further and spoke with a printer who has this digital press. Apparently, since it is an inkjet press, it builds color with minuscule dots (more or less of the cyan, magenta, yellow, or black ink just means more or fewer minuscule dots). This was the technology used for the prior three printings of the chin cards without any visible banding.

At this point, although I know that even inkjet print heads clog from time to time and yield poor quality printing work, I still thought this might be a future option to win back this job. Granted, it will require my client’s seeing samples from this J Press and probably also paying for a full-size, complete proof of all the color chin cards. Since this job is reprinted at least once a year, it doesn’t hurt to have a new printer in the wings who can potentially produce quality work, with consistent color and no banding, for each reprint.

What We Can Learn

Never give up. Actually, that’s the gist of the lecture I received from my fiancee.

My own suggestions have to do with research and being open to multiple technologies. My client’s job was too small (too short a press run, 50 sets of 72 pages, back and front, or 36 leaves) for offset lithography. The only option was digital. That said, there was traditional dry toner (the toner particles don’t always land as precisely as offset ink). There was HP Indigo’s minuscule toner particles suspended in fuser oil. And there was production inkjet, with colors built from process inks using minuscule stochastic spots rather than much larger halftone dots.

At least this is my current assessment, my hypothesis. But I do have to see this hypothesis confirmed with printer’s samples and a physical proof.

I urge you to take the same approach with the commercial printing jobs you buy.

Custom Printing: Choosing Engraving or Thermography

Sunday, March 12th, 2023

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I’m a great believer in marriage. Weddings give you an opportunity to use one of the most artistic printing techniques (as well as one of the oldest) in existence: engraving. In fact, since my fiancee and I teach art to autistic students, I could very well share this same information with our students, because there is a long history of engraving in the fine arts as well as the graphic arts.

Engraving is an art form that lends itself to special occasions, such as weddings. However, it is also quite appropriate for corporate materials such as invitations to special gala events, letterhead, and business cards.

The Engraving Technique

Engraving is the opposite of letterpress. In letterpress, raised image areas and text print content onto commercial printing paper. In engraving, lines of images and text are incised into either steel or copper printing plates. Thick ink is wiped onto the plate and then wiped off, leaving ink only in the incised image areas.

Keep in mind that the dimensions of the engraving work tend to be very small (such as the size of a business card or invitation). When the intense pressure of the engraving press is applied, it forces the custom printing paper into the incised type and image areas of the inked plate, and the paper absorbs the ink. At the same time, the image areas are raised slightly by the intense pressure. So when the final piece comes off the press, the back of the sheet is slightly indented behind the typescript letters, and on the front of the sheet these very same printed elements are raised.

To compare this to the most common current form of commercial printing other than digital printing (i.e., offset lithography), offset printing plates are flat (neither raised like letterpress nor lowered, or incised, like engraving). In offset printing, what keeps the ink confined to the image areas is a chemical property of oil and water (or oily ink and water). That is, oil and water do not mix, so it is possible to separate them on a flat commercial printing plate.

To compare all three custom printing techniques in this light, engraving is an “intaglio” (recessed-image) printing process, offset lithography is a “planographic” (flat-image) printing process, and letterpress is a “relief” (raised-image) printing process.

Beyond the aesthetics of a special business card or invitation, engraving provides the sharpest printed impressions of any custom printing technique. Therefore, it is used to print currency and stock certificates as well.

Engraving plates are either steel or copper. According to my go-to book on printing, Mark Beach and Eric Kenly’s Getting It Printed, steel plates will allow for much longer press runs than copper plates. (Copper plates are usually good for press runs up to 5,000 copies, and then they deteriorate.) However, engravers usually only offer a few typefaces on steel plates.

Engraving plates can be imaged in the following ways:

  1. The lines can be incised by hand using tools. (This is used for steel plates.)
  2. The type and imagery (very simple line drawings, for instance) can be chemically burned into the metal if you’re starting with a “mechanical” (hard copy, actual type and imagery pasted up on paper), which is pretty much an extinct option now. (This is used for copper plates.)
  3. The type and imagery can be burned into the commercial printing plate with a laser from digital art files (more common). (This is used for copper plates.)

When you’re designing for engraving, keep in mind that the inks are thick and opaque, which can make them a great choice for a darker paper stock. (They are more striking than transparent offset inks printed on darker commercial printing paper.) Also they come in gloss and dull formulations, which will give you options. For instance, the gloss inks may even appear a bit metallic.

One of the most important things to remember if you are buying engraving services is to choose an appropriate, high-quality paper that will showcase the aesthetics of engraving. Let your printer help you choose the paper stock.

Another thing to remember is to ask the printer to confirm the heat tolerance of your final printed product if you intend to print names and addresses on a laser printer. In some cases the high heat of a laser printer could damage the engraved product.

Engraving requires intense pressure, as noted earlier, so it lends itself to small presses printing small images. Getting It Printed notes that anything larger than a 4” x 8” area would require an additional pass through the press. (For instance, your printer may do one pass for the top of your letterhead and another pass for the bottom of your letterhead.)

An Option to Engraving

But what if you can’t afford the expense of engraving? Or maybe you want something for larger-format printed pieces. What are your options?

Thermography is a hybrid printing technique that actually starts with offset lithography. You may in fact have seen thermographically printed business cards and thought they were engraved, because the type and imagery are raised as in engraving. (One key give-away, however, is that the underside of the printing paper is not indented behind the type letterforms.)

Thermography starts with slow-drying offset printing inks that are dusted with thermographic resin powder after the offset printing step. This powder sticks to the offset ink and “takes on the color of the underlying ink, but may not match perfectly” (Getting It Printed, p. 138). Excess thermography powder (powder not covering type or other image areas) is then vacuumed away, and the printed piece is heated. Heat melts the thermography powder into the offset ink, but it also causes the powder to bubble up (hence the raised effect that simulates engraving).

In my experience, two things are important to remember with thermography. The first is to keep things simple. You can create an attractive, raised effect, but if you try to reproduce anything but the coarsest halftone screens, the screens may plug up and look uneven. (I personally did this once about thirty years ago, so I encourage you to learn from my mistake.)

Also, there is a chance of your receiving a printed piece in which the ink looks stippled (a pattern of tiny indentations, like the skin of an orange peel). So ask your printer for samples, and make sure he is skilled in thermography and can avoid this stippled effect. You want the powder to rise as it is heated, and you want a uniformly glossy appearance, so your printer must be able to control the offset ink application, heat, and thermography powder application.

That said, you don’t have to use thermography only for business cards or letterhead. Getting It Printed suggests applying thermographic printing to perfect-bound print book covers, for instance, perhaps highlighting the title of the book by making it colorful, raised, and textured.

If you choose thermography for a printed item, you have a choice of fine, medium, or coarse thermography powders, so you can use fine resign powder for fine lines and thicker granules for larger areas of type or color solids. However, too large an area of color thermography might result in a blistered appearance. Also, printing across a fold will result in cracking of the dried thermographic powder.

And finally, thermography does not have the highest rub resistance and can therefore be scratched. Also, thermographically printed ink does not tolerate the heat of a laser printer and can lose its “rise and luster” (Getting It Printed, p. 139) if heated.

Custom Printing: A Primer on Dot Gain in Printing

Monday, February 27th, 2023

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Thirty years ago I was promoted from designing print books to serving as the art director and production manager of a government education nonprofit organization. When our best designer got a new job, I took over all of her promotional design work and learned to use Quark XPress (page composition software). It was one of the more intensely educational periods of my professional life.

One of the promo items I produced was a 16-page catalog on 70# gloss text with a 100# gloss text cover. The tall and narrow format was approximately 6 1/8” x 10 7/8”. It was a saddle stitched, four-color product with a press run of between 40,000 and 60,000 copies. The nonprofit was flush at the time, and marketing was viewed as an investment. Also, it was before the wide use of the internet for marketing.

To get back to the size, we chose an odd format because it just fit the US Post Office’s definition of a letter. Anything larger (even 1/8”) would have been a “flat” and would have cost more to mail. But in addition, we chose the size because it fit exactly within the roll width and cut off of the heatset web press owned by one of our best commercial printing suppliers. (More specifically, eight pages of the catalog fit exactly on each side of a sheet cut from the web roll, allowing room for bleeds and printer’s marks.)

And for such a long run (the number of pages multiplied by the press run), producing the job on a heatset web was faster and cheaper than printing the job on a sheetfed press. Moreover, since it was produced on gloss stock, we needed a heatset web rather than a non-heatset web (because we needed the ovens to cure the ink through oxidation). So this was exactly the right custom printing press for the job.

Proofing and Dot Gain

When I started regularly checking proofs for this catalog (a repeat job produced every six months), the first thing that struck me was that the proofs were too light. The b/w halftones, the 4-color images, the area screens, everything. At first I was upset, and then the printer explained to me that heatset web presses have higher than usual dot gain, so the separations need to be “opened up” or burned to negatives, proofs, and plates with lower density, so the final printed product would look as I had intended it to look. (We still used negatives back then.)

So I went to school on the subject.

“Separations” were the four sets of negatives and plates, one set for each of the process colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. “Opened up” meant that the halftone dots of any of the process colors would be reduced slightly in size. And “dot gain” meant that certain types of presses, certain printing processes, and certain types of paper will result to a greater or lesser extent in the enlarging of halftone dots on press. (This is also known as “tone value increase.”)

And the heatset web printer’s solution (opening the separations) was the correct approach to eliminate the dot gain problem.

How Does Dot Gain Present Itself?

In the case of my employer’s catalog of government education print books, the overall darkening of all colors that would have occurred had the printer not opened up the separations would have been the result of the dot gain.

But this is not all that can happen.

According to my go-to book on printing, Getting It Printed by Eric Kenly and Mark Beach, “Halftones and separations lose detail, colors shift in separations, screen tints print too dark, color builds don’t match swatches, chokes and spreads [trapping] don’t function properly, and fine lines drop out when printed as reverses” (Getting It Printed, page 65).

How Is Dot Gain Measured?

According to Getting It Printed, if you start with a 50 percent dot and you have 10 percent dot gain, the halftone dot would now be a 60 percent dot (50 plus 10, not 50 plus 10 percent, as I understand it). Unfortunately, dot gain can be different in different screen percentages of a printed product, since different sized halftone dots grow in different amounts (smaller dots grow more than larger ones, for instance).

Plus, if you think about it, the art file for a double-page spread of one of your commercial printing projects, let’s say a print book, may include multiple items that you have generated in different programs (such as InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) prior to placing them in the art file. This can result in different amounts of dot gain in different portions of a page spread.

What Increases or Decreases Dot Gain?

First of all, according to my research, dot gain will be reflected in the series of printer’s marks on your press sheet outside the live matter art. This notation, showing the growth of the dots, may be further broken down into highlights, quarter tones, halftones, etc. So your printer is already actively looking for this problem and seeking to remedy it.

That said, there are certain elements of commercial printing that will make this problem better or worse. According to Getting It Printed:

  1. Uncoated paper results in more dot gain than coated paper. This is because the ink seeps into the paper fibers and causes the dots to grow. In a similar vein, calendered paper (run between metal rollers during the paper-making process) experiences less dot gain than uncalendered paper. This is because the metal calender rollers create a harder paper surface, and a harder surface allows for less ink absorption into the paper fibers.
  2. Different printing technologies, such as offset, flexography, gravure, and screen printing, have different amounts of dot gain.
  3. Different screening algorithms yield different amounts of dot gain. For instance, FM or stochastic screening uses very tiny halftone dots, with more dots in a dark area and fewer dots in a light area. In contrast, AM or traditional screening uses a specified number of dots per square inch, and they are either larger or smaller depending on the percentage of the screen. So these different sized dots will have different amounts of dot gain.
  4. Higher halftone screen rulings (maybe up to 200 lines-per-inch for coated paper but only 85 lines-per-inch for newsprint) will produce more dot gain since smaller dots grow more than larger dots.
  5. Different kinds of offset presses cause different amounts of dot gain. For instance, a web offset press is likely to have more dot gain than a sheetfed offset press.
  6. Inks make a difference. For instance, soy inks produce less dot gain than petroleum-based inks.
  7. Chemistry makes a difference. Waterless offset printing, which uses silicone-coated plates and no water solution, minimizes dot gain when compared to traditional offset commercial printing.

What Does This Mean to You?

There are prepress applications that deal with dot gain, but since you may have problems in one area of a page and not in another, and since you are probably inserting other kinds of files into your page layout files, my personal recommendation is the following:

  1. Assume the printer is checking the dot gain charts on the press sheets (printers marks outside of the live-matter page) and adjusting for the dot gain (even if that means burning new printing plates).
  2. If the quality needs to be above “basic” or “good” (i.e., “showcase” or “premium”), consider attending a press inspection at your printer’s plant, where you can see the press sheets during the press run and make comments and request changes. Let your commercial printing supplier know your plans at the time of the request for quote, however, since a press inspection slows down the overall process (and ostensibly gets factored into a higher price).
  3. Make your concerns known to your custom printing vendor and ask for feedback if your job needs to be a premium or showcase printed product.

Personally, I’d avoid trying to compensate for dot gain yourself. There are too many variables, and this is the expertise you’re paying your pressmen to bring to your work.

Custom Printing: Comparing Sheetfed and Web Presses

Sunday, February 19th, 2023

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About two decades ago I was a custom printing consultant helping a client produce periodicals analyzing the actions of Congress in Washington, DC. It was a Friday night, and their flagship publication was on press at a local printer on a heatset web press. A tornado came in at that very moment and tore the roof off the commercial printing plant. When I called the sales rep, he said my client’s company was “on its own.” The job would not be printed and sent off to its paying customers that night.

So I contacted a local sheetfed printer I knew wanted the contract for this weekly magazine very, very badly. When I called the plant manager, who was at a bachelor party at the time, he agreed to be my client’s white knight. I sweetened the pot by noting that his successful completion of this job would probably create a vacuum that would suck all of my client’s jobs out of the web-press plant into his sheetfed custom printing plant.

He coordinated a new transfer of all digital data from my client’s office to his shop and produced the magazine via sheetfed lithography. Paying customers received a magazine that looked far better than prior issues. It came out on time as though nothing had happened. Within a year or so, the new printer was producing all of my client’s magazines.

Sheetfed vs. Web

The prior example might read like a fairy tale, but it’s actually true. That said, it was more expensive to print the magazine via sheetfed offset lithography than heatset-web offset lithography. Here are the differences and the reasons to choose one kind of press or the other for your own commercial printing work.

Both kinds of presses print via offset lithography, in which image areas on a flat custom printing plate are treated to receive ink, while non-image areas are treated to repel ink. When the press is running, ink is transferred from a printing plate to a rubber blanket and from the blanket to the paper (hence the term “offset”). So in this particular way, web presses and sheetfed presses are similar.

That said, paper is fed into a sheetfed press as individual sheets stacked in a pile at the front end of the press (even if they had initially come from a roll and had been cut into sheets). The sheets are pulled through all inking units, where they receive ink from the plates and blankets. Stacks of printed press sheets (printed on one side) exit the press and are stored for the ink to dry (via absorption into the paper and/or oxidation into the air, depending on the paper in use). Then the piles of press sheets are turned over and run through the press again to print the opposite side of the sheet (called “backing up the sheet”). Final printed sheets (printed both sides) are then brought into the finishing department for folding, trimming, and other post-press work.

In contrast, on a web offset press, paper comes from a roll. As the press runs, the ribbon of paper coming off the roll is held in tension as it enters the press. Like a sheetfed press, the web press uses plates and blankets on each inking unit to print the job.

If the paper is uncoated and the quality requirement is low (such as a newspaper or newspaper circular), the web press can be an open web (or non-heatset web). The ink dries through absorption only (ink seeps into the uncoated paper).

If, however, the paper is a coated press sheet (or roll, more accurately), the applied ink (usually four colors for this kind of work) has to be dried differently. So once the ribbon of printing paper from the web roll exits the printing units, it must enter the drying ovens, which flash off the solvent from the printed ink with intense heat (i.e., drying by oxidation rather than absorption), hardening the custom printing ink on the surface of the paper rather than letting it sink into the paper fibers. Then the ribbon of paper (the web) travels between the chill rollers, which bring the paper back to room temperature.

At this print, the web press can actually do some of the finishing work in line, getting the press signatures (in the case of my client’s magazines, for instance) ready for binding (some web presses do some kinds of binding in line as well).

Sheetfed presses can’t do this. (Finishing in this case is done in another department.)

Web presses are lightning fast. My random query on the internet notes that a sheetfed press can print 15,000 impressions per hour, while a web press can print 50,000 impressions per hour. (I don’t know how precise these numbers are, but the gist is that web presses are significantly faster than sheetfed presses.)

Moreover, a web press prints both sides of the roll of paper at one pass, unlike a sheetfed press. Either the ribbon of paper is turned over within the printing process using “turning bars” (with four of the inking units printing one side of the paper and then the other four inking units printing the opposite side), or press rollers, plates, and blankets above and below the web of printing paper print both sides simultaneously. This also speeds up the process dramatically.

But speed has its drawbacks. Even a heatset web press (as opposed to a non-heatset web press, which some people call a coldset web) cannot in most cases match the level of quality produced by highly skilled operators on a sheetfed offset press. (This is why my client’s customers who received the tornado edition of their magazine were knocked off their seats by its quality.)

In contrast, speed does yield cost savings. Sheetfed printing involves separate finishing operations in a different department, and overall it progresses more slowly, so the final bill is usually higher, depending on the total press run.

To illustrate, when I was an art director, my employer printed 60,000 copies of a 384-page (approximately) 6” x 9” perfect-bound print book (twelve 32-page signatures). The text was printed on a web press. I believe the 60,000 covers, since they were small, they could be ganged up on a single press plate, and they had to be of very high quality, were printed on a sheetfed press. I’m not good with math, but it seems to me that at 15,000 impressions per hour vs 50,000 impressions per hour, it would take much, much longer to print twelve 32-page press signatures (twelve separate press runs) on a sheetfed press than on a web offset press.

Why Choose One Press Over Another

If you’re buying printing and deciding what kind of printer to approach for a bid, here are some thoughts:

  1. If you’re producing a textbook, for instance, as was part of my job as an art director, consider the number of pages multiplied by the number of copies. In my case of 60,000 copies multiplied by 384 pages, that would be 23,040,000 book pages. In my experience, that’s definitely a web-offset commercial printing job.
  2. If you’re printing 60,000 copies of a 8.5” x 11” flyer that will be laid out (imposed) eight-up on a press sheet (eight final copies per 25” x 38” press sheet), then your final print run is actually only a fraction of the total or 7,500 copies, because out of every press sheet you get eight copies. That would most probably be a sheetfed job.
  3. Quality. Maybe you wouldn’t print an annual report on even a heatset web press. I wouldn’t. Even if it can run coated paper and four-color process ink work, it probably won’t look quite as dynamic as a sheetfed-printed annual report. However, if you’re producing flyers, forms, brochures, newspapers, newspaper circulars–either a heatset web press (for coated printing paper) or a non-heatset web press (for uncoated printing paper) might be a good bet. The key here is the length of the press run.
  4. So back to press runs. If you’re unsure, ask your printer. But my random check on the internet suggests 10,000 to 15,000 copies as a starting point for web offset, for magazines and brochures. While I would definitely agree with their assessment as it pertains to magazines (multiple custom printing press signatures multiplied by 10,000 or 15,000 copies), I think for brochures or any other work that can be ganged up on a press sheet, your target totals for choosing web offset lithography over sheetfed lithography would be much higher.

But it never hurts to ask your printer.

Custom Printing: Update on PRINTING United Expo

Sunday, October 9th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

I was excited to notice recently (in one of the press releases and articles Google Aggregator feeds me every day) that PRINTING United Expo will occur later this month in Las Vegas.

I realize I’m a printing nerd, so I will endeavor to explain what this means for the industry in general and AGFA in particular, and more specifically what it means for graphic designers, production managers, and art directors.

PRINTING United Expo

First of all, after the Covid lockdown, I think it’s encouraging to have any general convention in any industry physically open to the public. It allows the free exchange of ideas again via a more personal, immediate venue than the Internet, particularly since you, or any other potential convention-goers, will be able to also physically see all of the new commercial printing equipment. (Personally, I think it’s great that you can view YouTube videos of any printing and finishing operation, but it does help, immeasurably, to actually see these in person and be able to ask questions.)

So, according to a PRINTING United Expo article entitled “PRINTING United Expo” (at, “PRINTING United Expo is the only all-segment expo in the Western Hemisphere in 2022.” Another PRINTING United Expo article entitled “PRINTING United Las Vegas” (at notes that “PRINTING United…presents new ideas, applications, and markets for specialty imagers—whether you’re interested in graphic(s) or garments, digital or screen. See the leading suppliers showcasing the broadest range of specialty printing and imaging technology.”

What this means is that experts in the field, general practitioners of the various print-related disciplines, and current and new equipment will all be in the same place at the same time. People will learn from each other, make connections, and presumably even buy equipment for their print shops.

More importantly, as the first article notes, this is an “all-segment expo.” What that means is that you won’t just learn about the separate, new pieces of equipment, but you will be able to see them operating together. This is unusual, since at other conventions you might see a particular press by itself but not see how it can be connected to appropriate finishing equipment to create an efficient workflow.

Agfa’s Participation in PRINTING United Expo

Agfa is a huge player in this market, and the third article in particular, “Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United” (found at, will give you a comprehensive listing of the innovations you’ll see if you attend the trade show.

First of all, Agfa is focusing on packaging and textile printing, which are especially active venues within the commercial printing field, growing exponentially year over year.

Here are some highlights noted in the article. They address new inkjet equipment, new dye sublimation equipment, robotics being used with the new equipment on the pressroom floor, web-to-print solutions, automated preflight solutions, workflow software (such as Apogee) that control all aspects of the production process on a “meta” level, developments that increase control over (and the accuracy of) tight ink register, and waste reduction.

So in terms of the benefits of Agfa’s new products for suppliers, the new offerings will improve overall print job planning and management, reduce paper and ink consumption, increase accuracy of color and register, and reduce make-ready times. All of this will boost quality and efficiency, allowing print vendors to do more in less time. And their customers will benefit from all of this.

The Specifics

Dye Sub

Based on its description in the article, “Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United,” the new product that interests me the most is the Agfa Avinci CX3200. This is a dye sublimation printer. That means you can print on polyester fabric, which is noteworthy for two reasons.

First, digital fabric printing is very hot at the moment. You can print on garments (or fabric that can be cut and sewn into garments). But you can also print on fabric that can be incorporated into interior design work. Everything from wall coverings to bedding. To date the rule of thumb, as I have understood it, has been to use direct inkjet printing for cotton fabric and dye sublimation for commercial printing on polyester (let’s say for a promotional flag). Until recently, the only way to do dye sublimation was to first print the ink on a transfer sheet and then, as a second step, to transfer the image from the transfer sheet to the fabric substrate using high heat and pressure.

In contrast to this approach, which required extra time and equipment (when compared to direct inkjet custom printing), the new breed of dye sublimation printers (such as Agfa’s Avinci CX3200) can print directly on the final polyester substrate. That said, this printer can also print on a transfer sheet, if you want to use the printed product for backlit applications with deep, rich black pigments, or if you need to keep stretch fabrics from moving during the custom printing process.

So now you have more options.

Flatbed Inkjet

The next Agfa product I want to highlight is Agfa’s Inca Oncet X3 inkjet printer. Agfa bought Inca Digital Printers, and it has improved this Inca product in the following ways:

  1. The Inca Onset X3 HS is faster. It can now print 15,600 square feet per hour (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”).
  2. The Inca Onset X3 is more reliable, with “a virtual lack of downtime” (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”) and the ability to run 24/7.
  3. The Inca Onset X3 can be prepped and ready to go faster. According to “Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United,” it takes only 30 seconds to set up a job.
  4. The flatbed Inca Onset X3 press incorporates robotics into the production process.
  5. The number of acceptable substrates have increased, including corrugated board (a good omen since packaging is such a high-growth venue in the commercial printing industry).

Again, all of this points to improved efficiency and quality and therefore increased revenue for suppliers.

Roll-to-Roll Printing

The third and final product I want to highlight is the Jeti Tauro H3300 UHS LED.

This is a roll-to-roll printer that can accept up to 1,500 lb. paper rolls for “unattended automated double-sided roll printing” (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”). The Jeti Tauro uses an “integrated camera system [that] reads QR codes, generated by the user interface of the printer, to identify the exact location of the image and adjust the print position at the start of every job, ensuring front-to-back accuracy of +/-3mm over 300 feet” (“Agfa to Demo Latest Inkjet Technology at PRINTING United”).

What this means is that the precision of the equipment has improved to the extent that ink placement can be controlled precisely (presumably coming very close to or matching the precision of offset printing), and this can be done without operator intervention. The Jeti Tauro camera system keeps everything right (this is presumably analogous to the closed-feedback-loop, electric-eye mechanisms that automatically ensure the precision of offset presses). And automation drives up throughput without sacrificing quality.

The Takeaway

If you are a designer, you may be asking yourself how this will affect you. This is my answer. If Agfa is developing and improving dye sublimation and inkjet printing to support the packaging and fabric commercial printing industries, these are the venues that will demand your design skills.

If you’re a production manager or art director, the same holds true for you.

And if you’re a printer, Agfa is helping you chart a course for the expansion of your business and an increase in your profits.

Custom Printing: How Is Paper Money Printed?

Sunday, September 18th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

While it’s still considered legal tender, open your wallet and look closely at some of the paper money, the bills, of various denominations. How are they printed, where are they printed, and by whom are they printed?

Where And By Whom?

The easiest answers are where and by whom. All paper bills are printed by the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which has one plant in Washington, DC, and one plant in Fort Worth, Texas. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing also designs all the various denominations and checks all the printed bills for accuracy before trimming and wrapping them.

But How Are They Printed?

Let’s start with the paper substrate. Currency paper is composed of 75 percent cotton fibers and 25 percent linen fibers. After all, bills have to tolerate heavy use over a long period of time, and this stock is very durable. It is also highly controlled and tracked (each and every sheet) to prevent theft by counterfeiters. In addition, the paper is laced with various colored threads, called “security threads” (some of which glow under UV light) to distinguish the stock from non-currency paper, again to minimize counterfeiting.

Now, the inks. For the graphics (text, numerals, and image on the back, and portrait, text, serial numbers, and such, on the front), custom printing inks include green for the back (primarily, although I see a little yellow as well on my $20), as well as black, green, metallic, and color-shifting ink (which changes color depending on the viewing angle) for the front of the bills. These are proprietary inks developed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

In addition to being used for the numerals, text, and portraits, the inks are used for various security features such as micro printing, and the paper contains watermarks of various kinds (portrait and numeric). There’s even a 3D strip woven into the new $100 bills to prevent counterfeiting.

Now for the commercial printing technology. I had initially expected the bills to have been printed via gravure technology (a direct-printing technology using etched custom printing cylinders with little wells to collect and transfer the ink). Why? Because it’s supremely economical for exceptionally long press runs.

So I was surprised to discover in my research that gravure is not used. Instead the bills of all denominations are printed via both offset lithography and dry intaglio custom printing.

The offset printing component is done first, with the background green color being applied to both the back and the front of the bills, with 72 hours’ of drying time in each case before the following step.

Each printed sheet contains 32 notes, side by side, before they are cut down into individual bills. But this was not always the case. Initially the bills were larger, and were printed eight-up (eight rather than 32 bills on a press sheet). Changing the ink formulation over the years (plus changing the chemistry to eliminate water from the mix) allowed for faster drying and the inclusion of more bills on each press sheet.

After the offset printing step (which prints from metal plates first onto rubber press blankets and from these press blankets onto the custom printing paper), the next step is the dry intaglio printing (the engraving).

Intaglio plates have recessed image areas. (This is in contrast to offset plates, on which image areas and non-image areas are on the same flat plate. This process works due to the inability of ink and water to mix. Image areas are treated to attract ink and repel water; non-image areas are treated to repel ink and attract water.)

The intaglio printing process is used specifically for the fine detail work on both sides of the currency. This includes the portraits, some of the numerals, scrollwork, etc. First the plates are inked up, allowing ink to seep into the recesses of the etched plates (artwork is designed separately and then etched into the plates with sharp tools and acids in a process called “siderography”). Then the ink is wiped off the surface of the plates (although ink that has seeped into the recesses of the plates stays in these etched image areas). Finally, the intense pressure of the intaglio rotary press actually forces the paper into the etched areas, making the paper absorb ink and also rise up slightly above the otherwise flat surface of the custom printing stock.

The dry intaglio process prints the backs of the press sheets first and then the fronts. Each side is allowed to dry for 72 hours. Again, the benefit of this process is that it yields very delicate lines with precise detail (i.e., more so than the initial offset printing work). The benefit of the “dry” part of the dry intaglio printing is that the custom printing paper does not expand and contract as it would when wet (or when drying), so there can be more precision in the positioning of the text and images (and more currency bills printed on each press sheet).

To quote from “How Paper Money Is Made,” by, “All US paper money features green ink on the backs, while the faces use black ink, color-shifting ink in the lower right corner of $10-$100 notes, and metallic ink for the freedom icons on $10, $20, and $50 bills. The ‘bell in the inkwell’ freedom icon on $100 notes uses color-shifting ink.”


Then after all printing (both sides) and adequate drying time comes inspection, using the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Upgraded Offline Currency Inspection System (UOCIS). This equipment “integrates computers, cameras, and sophisticated software to thoroughly analyze and evaluate untrimmed printed sheets” (“How Paper Money Is Made,” by In 3/10 of a second the software accepts or rejects the sheets based on ink density and color register. Then it trims the 32-up sheets into two 16-up sheets.

Additional Printing

“COPE-Pak adds the two serial numbers, black Federal Reserve seal, green Treasury seal, and Federal Reserve identification numbers” (“How Paper Money Is Made,” by During this process, the COPE Vision Inspection System (CVIS) checks the sheets for accuracy and either passes them or rejects them, replacing the rejected sheets “with a ‘star sheet.’ Serial numbers of notes on star sheets are identical to the notes they replaced, except that the star appears after the serial number in place of the suffix number” (“How Paper Money Is Made,” by

Trimming and Packaging

Finally the 16-note sheets are cut down into individual bills using guillotine cutters. These individual bills are shrink wrapped in stacks of 4,000 notes and then transferred to the Federal Reserve.

The Takeaway

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Printing money is an education in itself regarding the use of multiple commercial printing techniques on a single job, with the best technology used for each element of the overall process.
  2. Using color-shifting ink, special strips, watermarks, etc., the Bureau of Engraving and Printing minimizes the chance of counterfeiting. These are extraordinarily sophisticated devices. Keep in mind that printing paper money is actually an example of “functional” or “industrial” commercial printing, since the goal is utilitarian rather than informative or promotional. The overall design has to work. That is, it must carry financial value (intrinsically, in each note) while making it hard if not impossible for others to duplicate. To these ends, currency designers employ special inks and special papers (that have to be tightly tracked) with watermarks, security threads, and interwoven strips.
  3. Moreover, since it is an example of functional commercial printing, the process of printing paper money needs to ensure the durability of these notes as they change hands (i.e., accounting for bodily oils from the hands, folding the bills, and the bills’ rubbing against other items in wallets). So the length of time the bills can be used is a testament to the durability of the 75 percent cotton/25 percent linen mix of the currency paper fibers.

Choosing the Right Magazine Printer: 6 Tips for Success

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Do you have magazine printing queries on your mind? It’s good to have questions – after all it’s an innovative process. You might be having questions regarding the cost, benefits, and whether magazine printing services create value. (more…)

All that You Should Know About Printing

Friday, July 29th, 2022

Printing is the process of reproducing words and images on a material such as paper, card, fabric, plastic, etc. anything can be printed, from a priceless painting to hundreds of copies of a book. When printing technology was invented, it became possible for books to be reproduced in bulk instead of being copied out one at a time. Although all kinds of printed materials are found online, printing has not lost its importance. You can find printed items all around you, from your t-shirt to the posters on the wall. (more…)

Relevance of Newsletter Prints Today

Friday, July 29th, 2022

Newsletter printing is one of the major areas for printing companies. These newsletters are essential for content marketing, so only the most skilled print businesses should be entrusted with such printing newsletters. Each client has specific needs for newsletters that support diverse online marketing strategies. Even today, many customers like getting newsletters, which are frequently sent to a company’s internal staff. Online searches to identify such print businesses that publish newsletters are necessary for most B2B customers. (more…)


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