Are you completely lost when you hear terms like embossing or offset press? Are you confused about how you should be printing your invitations and what your options are? Can't understand why something as simple as ink and paper can cost so much? I'm going to give you some basic information that you need to know about what invitation printing methods are out there and why they cost what they do.
There was a time when corporation as well as the public put a lot of effort and money into quality printing and production. Beautiful finishes, custom-cut shapes, shiny varnishes and interesting textures were highly sought after. In the last couple of decades, with the rise of desktop printing which has now become the norm, people have come to expect cheap, easy printing at their fingerprints. This is awesome for everyday printing of letters, documents and photos, but you can never achieve nearly the quality of a professional printer this way. This is why most people will still seek a professional for those extra special events, such weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah or other major milestone parties.
Below are some of the most popular printing techniques used for invitations and stationery today:
Professional Digital Laser
This is the method that I use almost 100% of the time. It's by far the most economic printing method that produces a good quality print. While it works basically the same way as your desktop laser printer, the professional version of this machine is top-notch, producing much higher-resolution images, more vibrant colours and can feed in much heavier paper stock. You can also print as many colours as you'd like for the same price as one, though black and white costs a little less. Setup fees are minimal, but the more you print, the less each sheet costs. Be aware, however, that not all professional digital printers are the same either. Some popular inexpensive printing websites or large chains may not live up to the same quality as your local printing professional. In most cases, you DO get what you pay for.
This is the most common printing method for most commercial print pieces such as brochures or direct mail, and produces superior quality results. In very basic terms, the offset press works by creating a plate of the image, then the plate is inked, transferred to a rubber blanket and then transferred again to the printing surface (paper). This process repeats for each colour used. Since creating plates and setting up the ink is quite labour-intensive, this process has a high setup fee (usually couple hundred dollars) but then the cost of each print is very low. Because of this reason, offset printing is only economical for large printing quantities (around 500 or more). Also, the more different colours you use, the more expensive it is to print. Since most of my invitation clients don't print that many, this process tends to be too expensive for them. These presses (such as the one pictured below) are massive in size and usually take up an entire large room. So as you can image, these suckers are very expense for the printing company to purchase and upkeep.
Letterpress printing is a very old method of printing for which a plate must be engraved (usually from wood or metal, though some modern printers are creating plastic ones). The plate is then inked and paper is pressed down on top of it leaving an impression on the paper that is also slightly debossed which gives the piece a nice texture. You can also create a 'blind deboss' like in the photo below by not inking portions of the plate. This printing method has made a big comeback in the wedding stationery industry in recent years because of it's beautiful, vintage quality and subtle texture. It is pretty expensive though due to the creation of the plates and the very labour-intensive process, it also requires a particularly expensive thick but soft paper. It also costs more for multiple colours. (photo from www.cottonpaperie.com)
Thermography (raised ink)
This printing process in which the ink is mixed with a special powder and printed onto the paper. The printed piece is then passed under heat and the powdered ink rises to give it a raised effect. This method has become less popular in recent years and not a lot of printing facilities offer it anymore.
Embossing is when an image raises from the surface of the paper (as pictured below) and debossing is when it is recessed into the paper. Both involve creating a metal die of the shape and pressing the paper into it. Much like many of the printing processes, the setup fee is high due to having to create the die, (often $300-$500) and then actually embossing/debossing each sheet is inexpensive. So the more copies you make, the more economical it becomes.
This process also involves a metal die that is heated and stamped into the foil, making it adhere to the paper. The setup fees are much the same as embossing/debossing and the foil costs more than standard ink. The below image is actually foil stamped with a letterpress so there is a slight recession in the paper (image from www.cottonpaperie.com).
This is a great method for creating custom shapes out of paper to make your design more interesting. Traditionally, a metal die is cut (just like embossing/debossing and foil stamping) and is punched through the paper. However, recently some printers have begun offering laser cutting as a more economical solution for smaller quantities. Laser cutting uses digital technology which transfers an image from a computer straight to the cutting machine that cuts the paper with a small blade or laser. The process is slower and costs more per sheet than the traditional die-cutting, but does not have the high setup fee for creating the metal die. Therefore, it is more appropriate for smaller quantities. You can still expect it to add an additional $2-3 per invitation. (The below image from www.benwells.co.uk, uses both die-cutting and foil stamping processes).
As you can see, many of these printing processes are very labour-intensive and require the use of extremely expensive machinery. I hope this gives you a better understanding of why these processes cost what they do, and a new appreciation for the work that goes into that piece of paper you're holding in your hand. It truly is a work of art!
In today's digital age, I believe we're losing much of our appreciation for the tactile quality of a beautiful printed piece of paper. I hope that you'll consider investing a little more into a beautiful design for a once-in-a-lifetime event such as a wedding or Bar/Bat Mitzvah. After all, I'm sure you want to express the importance of this big day to your guests and give them something they'll be proud to display on their bulletin board or refrigerator for weeks or months leading up to the event.