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What is Handwork?

In the realm of digital and offset printing, most work is automated. There are even machines that insert components of a direct mail package into the outgoing envelope. That said, based on the complexity of the task and the shortness of a particular press run, it may be necessary to pay for “handwork” (or hand assembly).

When would this be appropriate?

I had a client a few years ago who created diecut “keys,” which were printed with 4-color ink, then assembled onto a key ring (similar to a ring used for a three-ring binder), and then slipped into the outgoing envelope with a marketing letter.

To the best of my knowledge, there's no equipment that can collate eight printed keys, plus two rectangular “VIP cards,” and then hook them onto a ring and close the ring. So handwork was necessary.

In another case for a current job, a different print brokering client of mine may need to affix litho labels to the four covers of an LCD video book. One of these will have a diecut window to reveal the LCD video screen imbedded in the book. Precise positioning of all labels will be essential, so, again, handwork will be necessary.

Handwork is really more about logistics and workflow than anything else: collecting a large group of people (to distribute the workload in assembly-line fashion), breaking the workflow down into efficient, repeatable steps, and then just doing it. Of course, negotiating the best rate for such work is essential as well. In many cases, printers will either call in additional personnel to do the handwork needed or subcontract the work, often to agencies that employ handicapped workers who may not otherwise have jobs.

When should you ask your printer about handwork? Here are some examples:

1. Projects that involve kitting (collecting component parts into a box).

2. Books that are “Tied,” (i.e., bound using natural fiber materials tied through holes punched near the spine). (Adding screw and post binding using the same punched holes would also require handwork.)

3. Magazines that have promotional “belly bands”: narrow, printed cover protection (sometimes even printed on brown kraft paper) wrapped around the “belly” of the publication, exposing part of the cover art above the wrap and part of the cover art below the wrap (as a reader enticement).

In all cases, consider the length of the press run. For a 2,000-copy job, handwork might be affordable and might yield a striking production effect that will make the printed job stand out. (However, if your press run is 5,000 copies or more, you might need to choose another printing or finishing effect that can be automated rather than hand done, in order to not blow your budget.)

When in doubt about what will be cost-effective, ask your printer. In fact, for something like this, it's wise to include your printer at the very start of the planning process.

Printing on Plastics

Printing on plastic yields a unique and striking product, in part because we expect to see printing ink on paper rather than plastic.

That said, if you're going to print on plastic (such as a synthetic paper substrate or even a clear plastic sheet), there are some things to keep in mind.

First of all, paper is porous, but plastic is not. Therefore, a wood fiber-based substrate will allow the printing ink to seep into the fibers as it dries, yielding a good bond between the ink pigments and the paper. In contrast, ink printed on plastic must dry exclusively by oxidation (a chemical reaction between oxygen and the ink). This can take significantly longer than drying by absorption into the paper fibers (i.e., several days or more). If you were to fold or trim the printed product too early, the wet inks will smear.

In recent years, there has been a solution to the drying problem. UV inks can be formulated that will cure (or polymerize, rather than dry) when exposed to UV light. This chemical process occurs instantly, and it allows you to print on non-porous materials such as plastic and various films. However, not all printers are set up to accommodate this kind of printing work.

Beyond the drying issue, printing on plastics usually requires that a base of opaque white ink be laid down under the 4-color process inks. Unlike white (or even colored) paper, clear film does not reflect light. And what makes offset printing visible to the viewer is the reflection of light through the ink film and off the white or colored substrate (somewhat like a mirror covered with transparent colored films). Therefore, to maintain the brilliance of the ink colors printed on the plastic substrate, it is important to print white ink on the plastic film behind all areas that will be covered with ink.

Two Kinds of Cardboard

Here's a quick definition that may make it easier for you to specify jobs going to press. Cardboard comes in two varieties: chipboard and corrugated board.

Corrugated board has a top sheet, a bottom sheet, and fluting in between. When you look at a sheet of corrugated board, on its edge you will see a honeycomb pattern. This fluting can be very small to very large, depending on the design of the sheet.

Some designers have even specified corrugated board for envelopes and packaging with exceptionally large fluting attached to only one base sheet (rather than sandwiched between two sheets). This can give product packaging a more earthy, organic feel.

The main benefit of corrugated board is its rigidity relative to its weight. For instance, you can create a corrugated box that will hold 40 pounds or more of books without coming apart.

The other option is chipboard, which has no fluting. It is not as strong as corrugated board of a similar thickness or weight, so you might use it for a cardboard shoebox instead of a carton for canned vegetables. In addition, you can bend (or bow) chipboard, so if you're creating a large format point-of-purchase display and you need to create a “bowing” effect within the design, this is the paper stock you need.

Some chipboard is much stronger because of its thickness. Picture the binding case of a case-bound book. The cardboard under the turned-edge fabric backing is chipboard, and since it is very thick (.098”, for instance), it is rigid. (However, it is much heavier relative to its size than corrugated board, so you wouldn't create a carton out of this material, although you might create a small, decorated box out of thick chipboard.)


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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