Many digital printing technologies can be used to output various types of photos, art, and decor prints. The type of finishing processes required depends on how the artwork is printed, what types of materials are used, where it will be displayed, and how long it must last.
For example, the finishing processes for outdoor-durable photo prints made with UV-curable ink on rigid acrylic or aluminum panels differ significantly from the finishing processes required for museum-quality prints output with aqueous pigment inks on canvas or fine art papers.
Why the Printing Method Affects Finishing
Wide-format,11-color aqueous-pigment inkjet printers were designed specifically to output the color gamut and details required for up-close viewing of fine-art photographs. In pigment-ink prints on gloss, satin, and metallic photo papers and smooth or textured matte art papers, subtle tonal differences in a big blue sky will blend seamlessly and small details will be visible in images of a shadowy forest or snow-covered meadow.
But pigment-ink photo prints must be coated or framed behind glass to keep them protected from scratches, humidity, and light-induced fading.
Ongoing improvements in the gamuts of digital toner presses and inkjet printers that use UV-curable, latex, eco-solvent, or dye-sublimation inks have made it possible to make a huge variety of high-quality photo prints, books, and gifts without the time, labor, and expense of finishing museum-quality fine art and photo prints.
For instance, using a flatbed inkjet printer to print a photograph directly on an acrylic panel eliminates the need to face-mount a paper photo print to the panel.
Or, UV flatbed printers can output art reproductions directly onto blank, pre-stretched art canvases and automatically add brush-stroke-like surface textures to selected areas of the image. In addition to skipping the coating step, print shops don’t need to have on-site canvas-stretching equipment or use paintbrushes to add textures to a canvas print.
Dye-sublimation inks and printers can print fine-art photographs and art on transfer papers made for hard substrates. When a heat press applies the right amount of heat and pressure for a specified time, the transfer paper permanently sublimates the ink beneath the polyester-coated surface of a mug, ornament, or ready-to-hang ChromaLuxe aluminum or wood panels. Framing glass or clearcoating isn’t required to make wall prints suitable for long-term indoor display.
Finishing Processes and Equipment
Below are some finishing processes and supplies associated with making different types of decorative and fine art prints.
Cutting and Trimming: The type of cutting equipment used depends on what type of photoproduct is being produced. X/Y Cutters, such as the Fotoba Digitrim, convert photos printed on wide rolls of photo paper into different sizes of square or rectangular photographs. Rotary Cutters, such as the Rota-Trim PowerTech, move a rotary cutting head along a straight-edge to make straight-line cuts in laminated prints or prints on flexible materials up to 157 mils thick.
Flatbed Die Cutting Systems, such as the Esko Kongsberg, can convert photos printed on rigid, corrugated, and adhesive materials into stand-up photo cut-out displays, ornaments, coasters, photo plaques luggage tags, and wall decals.
Varnishing: During this process, a protective clear coat is applied to an inkjet canvas with a spray gun, foam roller, or liquid laminator. The process provides the resistance to UV-light and abrasion needed to display the print in a public space without a frame and framing glass. Varnishing can also change the appearance of a print. A gloss or satin varnish applied to a print on a matte canvas makes the colors look brighter.
Some varnishes are applied to prints on photo and art papers to keep them from getting scratched during book-binding or handling. Varnished prints can also be mounted to bamboo or wood blocks and other display materials that don’t require frames.
Canvas Stretching. Ready-to-hang “gallery wrap” inkjet prints on canvas are created by folding the edges of the print canvas around the premade square or rectangular frames made from four wooden stretcher bars.
To keep the print image from sagging into the center of the frame, the printed canvas is stretched taut and stapled at multiple points around the edges of the stretcher frame. When the canvas is hung on the wall, the viewer only sees the front and edges of the wrapped canvas. The staples are hidden from view. When the digital file is set up for gallery wrap printing, the designer can specify whether the wrapped canvas will display portions of the image around the edges of the wrap or black or other specified edge colors.
Print shops that specialize in higher volumes of wrapped canvases use mechanical stretching devices from companies such as Tensador, DaVinci, and Gallery Stretcher to reduce the time and labor involved in manually stretching canvases.
Stretcher bars are manufactured in different types of wood and in different thicknesses and sizes. Frame Destination offers 60 sizes of pre-made stretcher frames. Pre-notched stretcher bars and stretcher bar kits from suppliers such as Breathing Color make it easier for smaller shops to make a few popular sizes of canvas prints on demand.
Photo Book Binding. Specialized photo book-binding equipment exists to produce hardcover and soft-cover books that feature a collection of prints on thicker, coated papers instead of the thin, uncoated book papers used for text-only books. Some photo books are designed to lay flat when opened. Fastbind makes photo bookbinding equipment for short runs of photo books. Their hot-glue binding equipment can be used to make books with hard covers, soft covers, or a binding strip.
Mounting. Many high-resolution images are printed on bright-white photo papers for maximum color gamut, then mounted prints to a rigid board for framing. Other photo prints are designed to be mounted to rigid substrates such as acrylic or bamboo that can be displayed without a frame.
Photos can be mounted with dry-mount vacuum presses or wide-format laminators that can handle rigid materials. Laminating isn’t a popular option for photo finishing because it gives prints a plastic-like feel and can change how the colors look.
Face Mounting is a process that uses an optically clear adhesive to mount a photo print to the back of an acrylic sheet. The clear acrylic intensifies the colors in the print and protects the print from moisture and dirt. Plaque Mounting uses mounting tissues with adhesives on both sides to attach a photo print on paper to panel made of wood or MDF (medium-density fiberboard). Float Mounting is a technique in which a large print is mounted to backing board smaller than the print. This creates the illusion that the printed image is floating above the background surface (e.g. the wall or the mat within a frame).
Framing. This versatile, well-established craft uses different colors and types of wood, metal, or plastics to add a decorative edge finish to a photo or work of art that has been attached to a mount board. The mounted print is inserted into the frame behind a protective sheet of glass or acrylic and an optional mat board.
Framing protects the print from dust and moisture and enables flat, hole-free prints to be displayed on a wall or shelf. Different types of frames are available for the short-term display of everyday photos and long-life decorative prints in galleries, hotel rooms, and lobby areas.
Conservation Framing preserves the look and integrity of the print for decades to come. It uses archival mat boards, mounting boards, adhesives, and UV-filtering glass or acrylic to protect the artwork from degradation due to acids, light and pollution. The archival print should be printed with long-lasting inks on acid-free, lignin-free papers without optical brighteners (OBAs). Plus, the print should be attached to the mount board with archival hinge tape so the print can always be removed from the mount board without being torn or creased.
Diversifying Into Photo Products
Companies that use newer models of wide-format inkjet printers for sign and display graphics can easily expand into the decorative art or photo gift market simply by adding the right combination of finishing equipment.
Through online storefronts targeted at professional photographers or niche consumer markets, all types of printing companies can sell specific types and sizes of photo and art prints. Incoming online orders can automatically be routed to production workflows that combine the prepress, printing, finishing, and shipping processes required to deliver each photo product.
If your shop creates ready-to-display photo products that are original and distinctive, consumers won’t shop around for the lowest price. They will value the design and craftsmanship.
For example, some enterprising photographers have set up a website to sell LED-backlit photo frames for in-home use. In addition to purchasing the frames, customers can have their favorite photos output on backlit films. Other online storefronts help consumers buy photo prints on glass, brass and wood easels to hold desktop photo calendars or board books for babies that feature photos of family members. The possibilities for photo products are endless. But a lot depends on how the photo product will be finished or displayed.
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This series of print-business glossaries is designed to help you understand how different types of printing and finishing processes can be combined to produce similar types of prints at a range of price points. Follow Ordant on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter to learn when the next post in this series is published.