Print Business Glossary: Laminators and Laminating Films

Laminating equipment for printing and wide-format graphics applies a thin adhesive-backed film to a printed piece. Applying a laminating film protects the print from excessive handling or exposure to high levels of abrasion, moisture, dirt, or chemicals that could reduce its useful life. Lamination can also prevent wrinkles, creases, and smudges in the print, or add rigidity or different surface textures and finishes.

A laminated film can be applied to either the front or back of the print or both sides. Some printed materials are encapsulated by laminating both the front and back sides with a film wider than the print. The print is trimmed to leave a small border of the laminated film around all edges of the print. When the front-laminating film adhesives bond to the adhesives on the back laminating film, moisture, dirt, and chemicals can’t reach the edges or surface of the print.

Restaurant menus, bookmarks, safety warning labels, and equipment operating instructions are often encapsulated. Other laminated products include wallet cards, educational posters, maps, and adhesive-backed graphics that will be applied to walls, floors, or vehicles.

Types of Laminating Equipment

Different sizes and models of laminating equipment exist for use in homes, schools, offices, government agencies, printing firms, sign shops, and manufacturing plants.

Roll Laminators can apply rolls of different types and thicknesses laminating films to printed pieces. Desktop roll laminators range from 12 to 27 in. wide. Free-standing wide-format roll laminators can apply rolls of film up to 63 inches wide. Before outdoor-durable solvent, latex, and UV-curable inks were introduced, wide-format laminators were widely used in all shops that produced wide-format display graphics.

The most versatile wide-format roll laminators were designed to apply a wide range of “hot” and “cold” laminating films and mount adhesive-backed graphics to rigid substrates.

Pouch laminators are desktop devices that laminate standard-sized tags, wallet cards, and badges in pre-sized pouches made from laminating films. The pouch laminator operator simply inserts the printed document into the pouch and runs it through the laminator. The laminator applies the heat needed to bond the adhesives inside the pouch to the substrate.

Flatbed Laminators (Applicators) are multi-purpose print-shop working tables equipped with rollers mounted on a movable gantry. The gantry can be manually moved over the surface of the table to apply to laminate films or pre-masks to prints on rigid or flexible materials. Flatbed laminators are available from sign-equipment wholesalers in sizes up to 51 in. wide and 98 inches long. When the table isn’t being used to apply laminating film or mount adhesive-backed graphics to rigid substrates, the work surface can be equipped to serve as a light-table and/or cutting mat.

Vacuum Dry-Mount Presses are flatbed finishing systems that use a combination of vacuum pressure, controlled heating, and low-melt tissue adhesives to bond all types of canvas and fine art photo prints to foamboards or wood panels for framing. Dry-mount presses are also used to apply low-melt laminating films to inkjet photo prints and art canvas.

Industrial Laminators are different from the graphic laminators that apply clear films and mounting adhesives. Industrial laminating equipment combines multiple layers of materials to make composite materials to meet specific requirements in the building, decor, and packaging industries. Each laminated composite material is engineered to deliver the specific combination of strength, durability, and aesthetics the application requires.

For example, flexible packaging pouches are made from laminated materials that combine eye-catching graphics with barrier films and foils that keep air, moisture, and chemicals from penetrating the package and spoiling the food.

Industrial laminators for flooring combine a printed decor paper with manufactured wood panels and surface coatings to create flooring planks that achieve the specified combination of aesthetics, cleanability, and durability.

Graphic Laminating Films

Dozens of laminating films have been created to control the final look and performance of all types of printed materials. Each laminating film uses a different combination of film type, surface coating, adhesive type, and release liner. Choosing the right laminating film for a job depends on what types of inks and materials were used to print the job and how the finished print will be used.

For example, laminating films for floor graphics are manufactured to add the slip-resistance and cleanability the print will need to withstand grocery-store foot traffic. Different laminating films for wall graphics can protect the print from graffiti or convert the wall graphic into a dry-erase markable surface.  

For graphics printed with UV-curable inks, laminated films are formulated to protect the ink from scratches. Laminating films for vehicle graphics are thin enough to stick to the super-flexible cast vinyl used wrap the complex curves of a fine sports car or delivery truck. But vehicle-wrap laminating films must be tough enough to protect the printed graphic from road grime as well as car wash brushes, water, and soap.

Laminating films made with UV inhibitors can reduce the amount of color fading caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight and other sources of UV radiation.

Textured laminating films can add a canvas or linen-like texture to an ordinary photo print.

High gloss laminating films can change the look and brightness of colors printed on matte papers.

Pressure-Sensitive (Cold Roll) laminating films use adhesives that don’t require heat to develop a strong bond. The adhesives on these films have a protective backing material (release liner) that must be removed as the film is applied to the graphic.

A laminator built to apply “cold-roll” laminating films must have a take-up roller that peels the protective release liner away from the adhesive before the pressure is applied to activate it.  

Cold laminating films typically cost more than heat-activated films but are usually required for use with heat-sensitive materials (e.g. vinyls and backlit films) that can soften and become distorted at high temperatures.

Heat Activated laminating films use adhesives that don’t stick to anything until heat is applied to the surface of the film. Wide-format laminators use heated rollers to apply the controlled amounts of heat and pressure to bond a film to different types of substrates.

Heat-activated laminating films applied with the wrong combination of settings will show defects such as bubbles, wrinkles, and delamination around the edges.

The first generation of thermal laminates required temperatures as high as 240° or 270° to melt. Laminating films with low-melt or heat-assist adhesives bond at temperatures in the 185° to 220° range.

Mounting Adhesives are laminating films that have adhesives on both sides. First, the laminator applies the mounting adhesive to a display board, glass, acrylic, or metal. Then, the laminator can mount any graphic printed on a non-adhesive media to the rigid substrate.

Pre-Mask (Application Tape) is applied to the front of contour-cut vinyl letters and decals and multi-panel vinyl graphics. It helps keep the graphics from stretching or peeling until the graphics are ready to be installed to a vehicle, window, floor, or wall. The pre-mask is also used to help lift the cut graphics away from the liner that protects the pressure-sensitive adhesive. After the graphics have squeegeed onto the surface, the protective pre-mask is removed to reveal scratch-free graphics.

Advances in Laminating Continue

Although protective coatings and outdoor-durable inks and materials have eliminated the need to laminate many shorter-term graphics, laminating still plays a vital role in protecting graphics that must endure long-term exposure to a variety of harsh conditions.

Because you can never be totally sure what type of sign or graphic a customer might ask you to produce, it pays to keep up with advances in lamination.

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Ongoing changes in printing and finishing processes are affecting the way different types of printed materials are produced and estimated. This series of print-business glossaries can help you make sense of the changing competitive landscape for printing services. Follow Ordant on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter to learn when the next post in this glossary series is published.

Related Posts:

Print Business Glossary: Laminators and Laminating Films

Print Business Glossary: Automated Wide-Format Graphics Cutters

Print Business Glossary: Finishing Equipment for Offset Presses

Print Business Glossary: Emerging and Niche Print Processes

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