"Entering the Third Dimension: Embossing and Foil Stamping"
[Column #4, 4/95]

How can you help your customers produce printed materials that capture attention in a world where people are distracted and have very little time to absorb information?One answer is to add an extra dimension to the printed piece with embossing and foil stamping. Both add emphasis and snap. They catch the busy reader's eye, making him or her stop and look. In addition, embossing adds a third, tactile dimension to the usually two-dimensional printed piece.

Embossing and Debossing. These give printing depth and make images pop, engaging the attention in a fresh way. Embossing creates a raised image, debossing a sunken one.

With either method, the image is created when the paper stock is pressed with a magnesium, copper or brass die. Single-level dies create one raised or depressed area on the page. To create a multi-level image, you need a multi-head die that's been engraved for a layered effect. Another option for achieving three-dimensionality is a combined emboss/deboss process that creates an image with raised and depressed areas.

The depth of a die ranges from 0.006" to 0.025." Very deep dies (0.020 to 0.025) must have beveled edges so that they don't cut through the paper. Bevel refers to the way the edge of the die is angled. The wider the angle, the more three-dimensional the resulting image. You can specify a bevel from 30 to 60 degrees and even as high as 80 degrees.

The material a die is crafted from is a function of how it's used. For jobs that will be reprinted many times, the die should be made from copper or brass, which are very durable. Magnesium (or mag) dies, while inexpensive, tend to smash out and break down fairly quickly. Copper and brass dies should also be used if the design has a lot of detail, or if you're embossing heavy, textured stock.

Blind embossing refers to impressions that are not made over a previously printed image. Obviously, if you're embossing over a printed letter or graphic element, registration becomes an issue, since embossing a printed image is like adding another color. Misregistered embossing results in a product that can't be used.

There are a few guidelines regarding preparation of artwork for the die-maker. In contrast to the increasingly digitized world of lithography, die-makers still work from paper or film. For a single-level die, prepare film or crisp, black-and-white mechanicals. The artwork for a multi-level die should have a tissue overlay for each level. In general, designs should be slightly oversized and the lines heavier than if they were going to be printed. Rules should be at least two points wide or the paper may not press into the lines in the die. Extra space should be allowed between letters in a word, and tiny or highly intricate designs should be avoided. The designer must indicate whether the die should have a rounded or beveled edge (only copper and brass dies can be tooled to have beveled edges). Advise your customers that beveled edges play an optical trick by making images appear smaller.

Paper stock is an important consideration. Soft papers are easier to emboss than laid bond and other hard stocks. Coated stock holds detail best, but the coating sometimes cracks if the die is deep. Uncoated sheets, therefore, are best for deep embossing. Embossing and debossing involve heat and pressure, which smoothes out textured stock. The contrast between the smooth, embossed image and the rest of the page is a striking and often desired effect, but let your customers know in advance that it will happen.

If you're unsure about choice of stock, take my oft-repeated advice: consult ahead of time with your finishing house. A brief meeting of the customer, designer, printer and finisher saves everybody a lot of time, money and aggravation.

Foil Stamping. Few printed pieces say "Look at me!" as powerfully as one with foil-stamping. Foil irresistibly draws the eye and commands the attention. A foil-stamped image adds punch to a promotional mailer, a festive air to a brochure or invitation and a dazzling touch to wrapping paper, stationery, packaging, menus and presentation folders. Customers can choose from gold, silver and brass metallics, patterns (wood grain, marble), and more than 200 pastel and matte colors. There are also funky foils, like rainbow, prismatic and holographic. Transparent foils that tint the sheet are also available. Ink can be printed over foil to increase the array of color choices. This requires a foil specifically made for overprinting.

In foil stamping, hot dies press a micro-thin plastic film containing metals or pigment against a sheet of paper. A foil stamp can either be flat, or combined with embossing or debossing. Anything that can withstand heat or pressure can be foil stamped or foil embossed. The applications, therefore, are virtually endless, limited only by creativity, and substrates, inks, varnishes and laminates.

Coated paper allows metallic foils to really shine, whereas an uncoated sheet will absorb some of the foil's brightness. But an uncoated, heavily-textured sheet works for metallic foil embossing because the embossing smoothes the surface of the paper where the foil is applied.

When applied over inks and varnishes that contain waxes or silicon, foil tends to blister or bubble because of gases released by the heat of the stamping process. Blistering also occurs when the image area to be foil stamped is too large. Additionally, foil stamping over UV coatings, lacquers and specific film laminations is virtually impossible. For successful stamping, the foil should be applied before these processes.

The end use of the product is another important consideration when foil stamping. For example, foil-stamped letterhead meets a terrible fate in laser printers, because the printer's intense heat causes the foil to discolor, pit and even lift off the page. Luckily, some foil manufacturers are developing heat-resistant foils that can survive a laser printer.

Prevent calamities with advance planning and pre-testing of the foils and the stocks. I can't say it too often: bring your finisher into the picture as early as possible.

Think of the finisher as an extension of your shop. Teaming up to offer value-added services like embossing and foil stamping enables you to attract new customers and help current ones add another dimension to their printed products.