Making Stuff Pt 1
Part 1 of How to Make Stuff deals with prints and printers, and has lots of juicy printing tips!
"You aren't telling those people how to make things like you do, are you?" my husband asked in near-horror when I told him I was putting together some articles on printing and making products. "You'll put yourself out of business!"

Not so! As with many things in the art world, learning to make products with your art is a process, not just a series of trade secrets. Most of the specifics I give you here will be obsolete in a year. The industry is in a constant state of change, and there are new products, new printers, new papers and new software released every week. Probably some of what I'll tell you here already is out of date! I change my personal printing habits every time I learn a better way to do things, and I recommend that you do the same. Keep abreast of the current technology and keep your ears open to active artists and printing or marketing communities for all the latest scoops on new products.

There is also a lot of work involved! Knowing how to do these things doesn't magically make your prints come out the right color the first time, or teach you how to press t-shirts without burning your fingers, or make all of your cuts magically straight, and it certainly doesn't make products create themselves. Most of these techniques will take a bit of experimentation to perfect with your own system and equipment, some practice to develop speed and accuracy, and a fair amount of work and investment under the best of conditions. Hopefully these tricks and tips will save you some amount of time and frustration, but if you're looking for instant product pixie dust, you'll be looking for a good long time.

Overview of Prints

Prints are probably the easiest and most straightforward products to make or have made. The art is put on paper, and that's it. They are the least labor-intensive, and just about everything you need to know about making prints will apply to printing every other kind of product.

Please note that there is a class of fine artists who resent the use of the word 'print' when applied to anything other than a piece of art created from a press and ink applied to a plate. They insist that what most people call a 'print' is actually an 'art reproduction' or a 'digital reproduction.' For most purposes, the word 'print' is used by laymen (ie: most customers) to cover the entire broad field of art reproduction. I will be using the term 'print' in that general sense.

Lithograph: You wouldn't want to shop for your own lithograph press, but for a service to provide you with lithograph prints. The process is most similar to traditional press printing, where a single color is laid on large metal plates and the paper is pressed down on top of them for imprinting. An offset lithograph is created using multiple plates to stack colors one on top of the other.

This process requires a substantial set-up and is only cost effective when producing a many copies of a single piece. The quality of the prints tends to be excellent, with rich, true colors and lasting results that are waterproof.

Laser: Laser prints are produced using a dry ink called toner in a heat process most similar to a copy machine. It used to be that laser prints were the best you could get for digital prints. They last as long as their paper holds up, are watersafe and don't fade. The output, however, is less than desirable. Color gradients are clunky and color matching is pretty near impossible. Color also tends to vary from print to print. The range of fine art papers available for laser printers is slim and the printers themselves are very expensive. They are preferable for cases where many copies need to be produced quickly and cheaply and color quality is a secondary consideration. Laser print services are widely available in local copyshops.

Photoprints: This is one of those terms that is tossed around to mean a lot of different things. Technically, this process is an imaging process using chemicals most like the process of photography. You might see it called 'lightjet' printing, and it offers great color-matching and modest claims of longevity (25-50 years). They are, however, expensive and require some setup. You will find that many people casually call glossy giclee prints 'photoprints' because they are printed on photographic inkjet paper.

Giclee: You've probably heard the term 'giclee' prints if you've looked into prints at all. Giclee is from the French word for spray, and it refers to the technology that sprays a very, very fine area of ink onto the paper. The printer brand Iris first introduced the term 'giclee,' but it has been since used to refer to nearly all kinds of inkjet print. Since inkjet technology is the affordable kind that doesn't take up half a garage and is likely to fit into a starving artist's budget, we'll take a closer looker at these printers. Note that though the set-up is cheaper than anything comparable, the ink and paper costs are quite high per print. They also print slowly, and are best suited for producing just a few prints at a time.


Back when prints were made only by plate (and those laboriously by hand), there was a limit to how many prints could be produced before the plates would wear out. To indicate the quality of the print (how fresh the plates were that made it), each one was numbered. The earlier the number, the more true the image and the more valuable the print. This concept has carried over to modern day, and many artists still number their prints, regardless of the fact that the entire run of prints is now essentially identical, and often printed as sold, not all at once.

Numbered prints are generally limited, and the artist is making an agreement to produce no more than the advertised edition size. Editions can be several million, one or anything in-between. The more limited the edition, the more valuable the prints tend to be. Open edition prints are those which are not limited (obviously!) and are generally sold more cheaply. Limited editions or open editions can be signed or unsigned; an artists signature also adds to the value of a print.

Inkjet Printers

Two major components of printer output should be looked at when making your inkjet printer choice: DPI (dots per inch) and number of colors. Traditional desktop printers use four colors for printing (cyan, yellow, magenta and black), but photo-quality printers now commonly use 6 color (with the addition of a light cyan and a light magenta) and some are even available with 7 colors (the addition of a light black). Some printers have 8 cartridges, with two kinds of black, one for glossy and one for matte applications. The additional colors mean that paler colors are easier to match and don't rely on spacing dots of dark color sparsely over a white background to achieve the correct tone.

DPI is another one of those terms that means a lot of different things when used in different contexts. In this case, I'm referring to how many 'dots' of color the printer can lay down on the paper in each inch. Anything over 720 DPI is generally considered high resolution, however I do notice a difference in quality when moving up to 1440 dpi! 2880 is the cat's meow. When you see two DPIs listed, ie: 720 x 1440, they are indicating the DPI in two directions. A 1 inch square of paper would have a net of dots that, if you could count it, would have 720 dots in one direction and 1440 dots in the other direction, for a total of one million, thirty six thousand and eight hundred dots. In one square inch!

Another thing to consider is how large you want to print. For most artists, price is the deciding factor; a high-quality letter-sized printer can be purchased for $300-$400. A very nice mid-sized printer that will go up to 13" wide will run you about $500. Once you get larger than that, you are looking at much larger, roll-fed printers starting at 24" wide that are priced starting around $1200. These printers are commonly available up to 48" wide with an equally impressive price tag.

Inkjet inks come in two common varieties: dye sublimation and pigment inks. Most home printers and the most readily available cartridges for them contain pigment inks. Dye sublimation inks are mostly used for transferring images to tiles, mugs or mousepads. In my experience, the output of dye sublimation inks tends to be less true and more unpleasantly saturated than the pigment inks. It is difficult to get good blacks and smooth gradients. A dye sublimation printer would be an acceptable second printer for dedicated product purposes, but the real quality is being output by the pigment printers. Many printers will accept either dye sublimation inks, or pigment inks, but you cannot switch between the two kinds of ink at will - you have to dedicate them to one or the other at the outset.

Several brands of printers are now touting archival inks, and have claimed that they will last 200 years. Naturally, since they've barely been around a decade, this is speculation based on testing and should be taken with a grain of salt. These claims are also maintained only on very specific papers, too! The inks that don't make these claims will tend to fade and yellow over just a few years, or even a few days if left exposed to direct sunlight and air, so it is worth the extra investment even if their 'archival' claims may prove to be optimistic.

Many print customers expect prints which are labelled 'giclee' to use archival papers and inks, even if the term is wishy-washy enough to be applied to cheaper printers and supplies. As you advertise your products, make sure you are accurate in your representation.

Most inkjet printers can be outfitted with bulk inkwells. This is an attachment that sits on or beside your printer and feeds ink from a storage well into a dummy cartridge. Usually these printers have to be run with their covers off. It is important to remember that ink does not have anything resembling an indefinite shelf life, so it is only worth moving to bulk inks when you are using cartridges in very great quantities. They can be messy and do require a certain amount of mechanical comfort by the user. Not all printers can be outfitted with these units, and some of these units will invalidate your printer warranty. Buyer beware! Most new inks are not available in bulk for sometime after their introduction to the market and some printers have chips to prevent the use of bulk inks. Use caution when considering a setup like this.


As important as your choice of printer is, your choice of paper is even more crucial. All of the archival inks only maintain their claims for being long-lasting and waterproof on certain papers.

There are words to look for when you are browsing at your nearest office shop or favorite webpage for your print paper. First off, you want to use acid-free or ph-balanced paper. Paper that is not ph-balanced will tend to yellow and react poorly with inks over time. Select papers that tout: 'high-resolution,' 'quick-drying,' 'water-resistant,' 'archival' and/or 'premium.' These will be the better quality papers. A heavier-weight paper will feel more valuable and be easier to store and mail. Avoid brands like Avery and Acme. (No, I don't believe there is actually Acme brand paper, but most office supply stores do have their own line of generic papers.)

Do not underestimate the convenience of quick-drying papers. I have had prints smear stacking up in the output tray when trying cheaper papers. It's not worth the hassle to have to send prints one at a time, find drying space, handle work carefully and not be able to package an order for several hours or even overnight.

You will find two major choices in paper finish: matte or glossy. Glossy prints are sometimes (arguably incorrectly) called photoprints and are shiny in surface. Matte prints have a dull or slightly textured finish. I personally prefer matte finish on prints because there is no glare to worry about and the glossy look can be artificial in appearance and dramatically different than original media. Soft-gloss or satin-finish can be an excellent middle-ground.

There are a variety of other mediums you can also print on, including special textiles, coated canvases, coated watercolor papers, rag papers (using cotton rather than tree pulps), plastics, metallic foils, magnetic papers, stickers, labels, transparencies... this list is endless!

Take care of your paper! Store it in an air-tight fashion away from light and heat. I recommend opaque, plastic, sealed containers if you don't go through your paper quickly, or at the very least, a large, sealed bag. Whatever arcane chemicals they coat the stuff with, it is not impervious to humidity or air. Even ordinary inkjet paper by the ream can become brittle if it gets too dry or is exposed to light too long. Humidity can also cause papers to curl and discolor.

Printing Tips

Trick your margins! You'll find that on most printers, there is a trailing edge (the last edge out of the printer) that it cannot print to, usually about a half an inch. You often want your image to go as close to the edge as possible. The Epson 1280 does boast borderless printing, but you will find that the closer to the edge it prints, the more it smears and the poorer the print quality. So, if printing near the edge is crucial, design your piece in stages, and print it in two passes, one from each direction. This might require a break in the design, or an area that has an overlap in one color. Also, one advantage to the wider-format printers is that you can rotate letter-sized prints to any orientation to put your trailing edge at whatever side is convenient.

Feeding canvas. Canvas is a beautiful print medium; most customers cannot tell the difference between a canvas print and an original painting! However, the canvas is flexible and thick, and the printer will often reject it, pull it in crooked, or lose its grip on the stuff, leading to wasted time and materials. Make sure your paper feed is set at the maximum setting (usually there is a +/- lever somewhere near the input), and tape a piece of cardstock to the back. Sometimes, just an ordinary strip of tape on the backside of the leading edge (the first edge into the printer) is enough to stiffen the canvas and allow the printer to grab it.

Color-matching needs to be done for each kind of media that you use. Because each kind of paper uses a different chemical composition for their coatings, the ink will react differently on each and colors will appear different. There are software programs and pre-made profiles available (at some expense!) to take care of color-matching for you, or you can use your art program and save color-shifted versions of your art files to match each kind of print that you make. If you have a good sense of color, you can do this matching by eye. Most printer software also has some limited built-in color adjustment that you can save as a profile for the different kinds of media.

Taking care of your printer is very, very important. Cover it when it's not in use, to prevent dust from getting into it, clean it when it needs it, and use it frequently. Make sure you run some kind of print job through it at least every week or the cartridges can develop ugly clogs. Turn it off when it isn't in use, and always be sure to turn it off at the printer, not with a power strip. Many models go through a shut-down process that caps the cartridges, and bypassing this step or leaving your printer on indefinitely can greatly reduce your cartridge life. In the case of laserjet printers, keep your drums cleaned and perform the regular maintenance that the manufacturer recommends. Dirty inner components can wear on your printer, produce smeared prints and lead to excessive paper jams.

Trouble-shooting poor quality prints

Most of the quality problems you will run into will be selecting the correct printer settings. Make sure you have the correct media chosen! Always, always use only paper made for your type of printer. Laser printer paper will not work for inkjets and visa versa. Paper that claims to be laser and inkjet compatible means only 'uncoated,' and will look mediocre with either kind of printer. Make sure you are feeding it with the correct side up - only one side will accept ink the way that it should!

One problem that is very counter-intuitive to correcting is finding inconsistent puddly- or clumpy- looking bits on high-resolution papers. Try increasing the dpi of your output! It's not that your paper is refusing the amount of ink you are laying down in it; quite the opposite, it is absorbing too much of it some areas and needs more ink to produce a rich, even color everywhere.

The second most common quality problem is caused by clogged or mis-aligned cartridges. Nearly all printers have maintenance software that will allow you to check this. My Epson is particularly picky about clogged heads, and I will often find myself doing a head cleaning three, four, even up to eight or nine times in a row before the clog is cleared. It's a terrible 'waste' of ink, but microbanding (teensy lines missing one particular color) will be noticeable if one of the tiny heads is clogged.

You might find that you are getting black smears across your prints. This is usually caused by the cartridge head dragging excessive ink across your print. If you are lucky, thoroughly cleaning the inside of your printer, running your print head through a cleaning cycle will clear up the problem. The next try would be to change your cartridges completely, as a flawed cartridge can develop leaks, particularly near the end of its life. In the worst of circumstances, this can be caused by a cracked carriage head (the thingy that holds the cartridges), which is a replace-the-printer offense. Fortunately, this is covered by warranties, and if you haven't had your printer long, you should be able to get it replaced without trouble. (Of the seven Epsons I've owned, three of them have been warranty replacements.) Inkjet printers are rarely worth repairing.

The other thing you might notice on your prints is 'tracking,' or little teensy paths down the print where the ink has been lifted off by the wheels inside your printer that guide the paper. This is caused by the ink not drying fast enough on your media, and is most common on textured, thick material where the teeth bite into it deeply. The best solution is to buy faster-drying material, or to set your print speed on slow. In some varieties of printers, the worst offenders of these guide wheels (pizza wheels, so named for their similarity to the utensils) can be removed, but that does strongly affect the feeding properties of the printer and will almost always void your warranty.

If your prints start to look the wrong colors, the culprit is almost always the cartridge. First, try cleaning the heads, or run a printer head check. Sometimes, one clogged head can create a funky color shift, which can be corrected by cleaning. Next, try re-starting your computer and printer. Sometimes, driver errors can be cleared by re-starting. Next, try installing a new cartridge (and try to not to cry over the wasted ink and expense!) and see if the problem corrects. The next step would be to try re-installing your printer driver. Make sure you have the most current version! Printer drivers are almost all available on-line now.

A Few Recommended Sites on the Subject has a large archive of research on the stability of photographs and digital prints.

For more about small press lithographic printing, check here:

To compare that with a major commercial lithographic press, take the Anderson Lithograph plant tour here:

Coming in part two: The fun stuff! Cards, mousepads, t-shirts, mugs, magnets and more...

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