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Tips to Help Make Foil Stamping Embossing a Breeze
By:                   Jim Freisinger and Tim Carr, Diecrafters, Inc
Published In::    Binding, Finishing and Distribution, March 2003 issue


When an application calls for an eye-catching design, you have plenty of print and finishing options. On the print side, unique ink colors, high-end stocks and glossy coatings can be used to make a piece stand out. There are even more options on the finishing side, such as foldouts, index tabs, intricate die cuts and more.


When a project calls for a design that’s both eye-catching and elegant, look no further than foil stamping and embossing. Both processes are as versatile as they are attractive, with applications ranging from business cards and letterhead to pocket folders, invitations, book dust jackets, menus and more. We’ll cover the essentials of foil stamping and embossing, and provide helpful planning and design tips to be sure your foil stamping and embossing projects go smoothly.


Embossing refers to the process of raising the paper surface using heat and force. This is accomplished by pressing the paper between a heated, etched female die and matching male counter-die. The heat allows the paper fibers to stretch easier, while the force created between the dies “molds” the paper into the etched area. When this process is used to indent the paper rather than raise it, it’s referred to as debossing.


Foil stamping is the process of pressing colored and/or patterned foils onto the sheet to create a particular pattern or design. For an even more dramatic effect, foil stamping can be performed in conjunction with embossing by using a combination die. This results in registered embossing; that is, embossing that registers to the stamped area. When embossing is performed without foil stamping or not in register to any printing, it is referred to as blind embossing.


Design options

The intricacy of the embossed or stamped pattern is directly related to the level of detail etched onto the die. A simple single-level die can be created to render a flat image with a 30-degree beveled edge. For the finest detail, multi-level dies can be sculpted into a nearly limitless range of patterns and designs.


Ink, paper and color selection can all be used to create unique and exquisite foil stamped and embossed pieces. There are several additional treatments and techniques that can be used to alter the paper surface to give pieces a highly customized appearance:


Refractive engraving – This treatment creates a series of cross-hatched lines on a flat foil-stamped surface, resulting in added texture and dimension, especially when used with metallic foils on coated stocks.


Foil over foil – This process uses a second pass through the stamping process to create a wider range of color options and effects.


Gloss embossing – A method that combines a deep, clear foil with blind embossing to produce a high-gloss embossed image. Jim/Bob – I got this from the FSEA material – that’s their term for this technique.


Textured embossing – The use of patterned foils lends a unique quality to an embossed or foil stamped piece. Popular textures include woodgrain, leather and snakeskin. Contact your finisher for a complete range of textured foils.


The Die Making Process

Foil stamping and embossing dies can be formed from several different materials. The level of detail a die can contain – and the life span of the die itself – is dependent upon the die material and the process used to etch it.


Magnesium is a soft metal that does not conduct heat very well, which is why magnesium dies are used primarily for stamping applications with quantities of a few hundred and are not recommended for embossing. The softness of the metal also limits its life span. Magnesium dies are usually acid etched, which is a process that uses a chemical solution to create the desired patterns or images.


Copper dies have sufficient strength and heat conductivity for both foil stamping and embossing applications. Although copper dies are usually used for single-level embossing, they are able to be double-etched for multiple levels. Like dies made from magnesium, copper dies are usually manufactured with acid etching. With a correct make-ready, copper dies will yield many impressions, making them sufficient for high-volume projects that call for a few thousand impressions per month.


Brass dies are the best and most versatile foil stamping and embossing dies available. Although they can be acid etched, brass dies are typically machine milled, a process that grinds off unwanted metal. For projects that call for the most exquisite detail, brass dies can be hand sculpted. This involves a die maker carving the die to exacting detail. Hand sculpting is often necessary for intricate, multi-level dies. Brass dies conduct heat the best and last the longest. With a proper make-ready, these dies can be used regularly for many years.


Perhaps the only negative to a brass die is its cost. Although they last a very long time, they can be expensive to create. For that reason, you may want to have die duplicates created from brass masters. Duplicates are particularly useful for regularly repeating projects, or those that are printed multiple up.


There are three main materials used to create duplicates: bakelite, fiberglass resin and nickel. Bakelite is a hard plastic material that’s inexpensive and easy to produce. However, the heating and cooling associated with embossing limit its life span. Fiberglass resin is slightly more expensive than bakelite, but will last longer. Nickel is a little more costly than bakelite and fiberglass resin, but is more durable and suitable for multi-level embossing or combination dies. Nickel duplicates are generally used for embossing and combination applications from brass master dies.


There are a few things to keep in mind to determine if a die is becoming worn. First, compare a piece from early in the run – or one from a previous run using the same die – to one from the end of the current production run. Reduced depth or clarity of the embossed or stamped image is a sign that the die is dull. Also, check the die itself for dull, rounded edges. Perform these checks after each production run if you plan to keep the die for a future run, and consider replacement at the first signs of wear.


Planning Tips

There are plenty of things to be aware of when planning a project to include foil stamping and embossing. Here are a few tips to help keep your projects on the right track:


Be aware of make-ready and scheduling realities:  When planning a foil stamping or embossing project, it’s important to understand that these are not “same-day” processes. Die creation can take up to several days for a hand-sculpted, finely-detailed brass die. Although some projects require dies with this level of intricacy, slight alterations in project design may drastically reduce make-ready times on foil stamping and embossing projects. Involve your finisher early in the project planning process to see if alterations can be made to reduce turnaround times for your application.


Stock selection is important:  The stock you select can make or break a foil stamping or embossing project. Weight, finish and coatings all play a role in the visual appeal and overall quality of the finished project.


In general, medium-weight (over 100 lb. text), uncoated stocks are the ideal choice for most embossing applications. Although this depends on the depth of the die, stocks thinner than 100lb. text weight may not exhibit all of the detail the die can produce on intricate multi-level embossing or combination projects. In addition, a textured stock may “iron out” when stretched during embossing, an effect the customer may or may not be looking for.


For foil stamping applications, stocks that are too porous may cause the foil to push too deeply into the sheet. The result may be color that appears washed out, or metallic foils with an uneven surface. Deep embossing onto a foil stock may cause the stock to split, although this depends on the size and depth of the image. In addition, heavily-coated stocks may crack on deep, multi-level embossing or debossing applications. Before a project is printed, let your finisher help select a stock that will yield the best stamping and embossing results.


One more thing to consider when selecting paper and inks is the heat of the die. During embossing production, metal dies are heated to temperatures of more than 250 degrees. This can cause heavily-coated stocks or thick inks to stick or even burn when the die is applied. If the project is already printed, Mylar may be placed between the paper and die. To avoid any surprises, however, check with your finisher if your project calls for heavy ink coverage or coatings.


Plan layouts carefully: When laying out projects for embossing or stamping, there are several factors that must be taken into account. For example, metal dies expand slightly when heated for production. Although the exact amount of expansion depends on the surface area of the die and the amount of heat applied, large dies can expand by as much as 1/16”. Closely-registered images should be planned to account for this amount of leeway. Whenever possible, position areas of tight registration as close as possible toward the gripper and side guide. This will help maintain consistency throughout the production process, especially on intricate multiple-up projects.


On the other hand, paper contracts when it’s stamped or embossed. The exact amount of shrinkage is based on the die shape and paper characteristics, and can noticeably alter the dimensions of a sheet and prevent sheets from lining up properly. An experienced finisher can help you account for these paper dimension changes on both registered and blind embossing applications.


Communication between printer and finisher is essential:  Involving the finisher during the project’s planning stage is perhaps more important for stamping and embossing applications than any other finishing process. The complexity and detail involved in die creation makes it a necessity to gather as much information as possible from the customer.


Stamping and embossing - especially when performed together on a combination project – can be difficult to visualize. It’s very expensive and time consuming to alter a design once a die has been created. Previous samples, line drawings and other visual aids allow the customer, printer and finisher to get on the same page.


Foil stamping and embossing are a great way to make any project more elegant and attractive. Although the processes are complex and detailed, plenty of communication between printer and finisher early in the project design phase will minimize problems and help keep production on schedule.


Jim Freisinger is Sales Manager and Tim Carr is Stamping and Embossing Supervisor at Diecrafters, Inc., a leading Midwestern finishing company.  Diecrafters offers complete post press planning and finishing services including: Die cutting, foil stamping, embossing, folding, gluing, binding, mounting, fulfillment and warehousing.  Jim can be reached at 708-656-3336 x116 or jfreisinger@diecrafters.com