If you’re looking for a unique and head-turning way to display your photos or artwork, metal printing is one of the best options available. Metal prints are a relatively new printing method, and it offers plenty of advantages over traditional printing.
This method allows you to display your metal photos or art with incredible clarity, contrast, and color. Plus, this printing style eliminates one of the more costly aspects of displaying pictures or art, which is framing. Metal prints are ready for display as soon as they’re off the press, with no additional hardware or frame necessary.
Today, we’re going to cover everything you’ll need to know about this innovative new style, so you can learn how to print on metal.
What Printer You’ll Need
Metal photos can be created in two different ways. The original method involves printing directly onto a metal panel, and the latest, and most popular way, involves dye sublimation.
For traditional metal photo prints, AGFA printers are used to print directly onto the metal panel. These large format printers are most commonly used for printing large format media, such as billboards and large banners.
This printing method isn’t quite as vivid or durable as the sublimation method that we’ll discuss in greater detail below.
For sublimated prints, a large format inkjet printer that’s capable of Giclee printing is used. These printers are designed to produce incredibly vivid museum-quality prints quickly and affordably.
For metal printing, special sublimation inks are used, and the artwork is printed onto paper that will later be used to transfer the artwork from the paper to the metal substrate.
Best Paper Option
For metal printing, the printer isn’t printing to metal; instead, sublimation paper is used to transfer the printed artwork onto its metal canvas for display.
Sublimation paper is a highly specialized material used exclusively for sublimation designs onto materials that are difficult or impossible to print on otherwise, such as metal or ceramic.
Sublimation paper is available in various weights and ink capacities, and depending on your environment and the type of printing, you’ll find that certain papers work better than others.
As a rule of thumb, a heavyweight paper in the 110gsm range with a high ink capacity is well suited to various styles of photography and artwork, and this paper lends itself well to most printing applications.
Once the proper paper is selected, a technician loads it into the printer, where sublimation inks are used to print the artwork and prepare it for transfer to the metal canvas.
What Type of Metal
The metal that will become your art print is a treated aluminum sheet available in every popular print size. You’ll also find bulk sheets that can be cut to custom sizes for printing on metal.
The metal is typically available in two thicknesses, either .30 inches or .45 inches thick. A variety of finishes and coatings are available that can help you achieve a different look with your final print. We’ll discuss those aspects of how to print on metal in a moment.
You’ll Need a Heat Press
The heat press is the largest and most interesting part of the metal printing process. Industrial presses have a vast working surface of around 96×60 inches with additional space on each side of the press to fit its inner workings.
A heat press features a table or deck which holds your metal substrate and sublimation paper and a heat place, which is heated to a high temperature and pressed against the sublimation paper so the transfer process can begin.
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Metal prints are available in two different finishes. Depending on your personal preference and the look you’re shooting for, you’ll find that one or the other is better suited for you.
Prints are available with a white finish or a clear finish, and they dramatically alter the look of your finished print. Regardless of the style you choose, the finish serves the same purpose as paper. This finish layer is what absorbs the ink and displays the artwork.
The white finish is most popular, and it offers a traditional look that’s reminiscent of a regular print, albeit with enhanced contrast and vibrant colors. The white finish is preferable if you’d like your final product to appear exactly as it does on the sublimation paper.
The clear finish provides an incredibly unique look that you can’t achieve with any other printing style. With this finish, the brushed aluminum’s look shows through, and it becomes the white point in the image. Since the aluminum’s silver color is the lightest point in your image, the final product will appear darker, and the contrast won’t be as strong.
What the image may lack in contrast, it makes up for by providing a glimmer and sheen that only metal can achieve. It’s a unique look that catches the eye and makes a great conversation piece.
Beyond the metal substrate’s finish, a final coating is applied over the finished print to provide a durable protective layer to the artwork beneath it. The coating is available in glossy, satin, and matte finishes, and each lends a distinct look to the final piece.
A glossy finish is the most popular choice, and it lends an incredibly polished look to the finished product. You’ll have to deal with some glare with a glossy finish, but a glossy finish also provides the most vibrant and lifelike color.
A matte finish is the opposite, and it doesn’t have any sheen to it at all. Colors are more muted and subdued, and there’s no glare to worry about. A satin finish is a best-of-both-worlds alternative, offering some of the brightness and vibrance of a gloss finish without as much glare. Satin finishes tend to look a little closer to matte than they do to gloss.
How Are They Made?
When it’s time to print, the metal substrate is placed on a sliding table that extends from the heat press. Next, a technician aligns the sublimation paper onto the metal substrate and tapes it in place to secure the print to the substrate. This step is critical, as any movement during the printing process will ruin the final product.
Finally, the prints are covered to eliminate any ink transferring to the heat plate during the transfer process, and the entire assembly is moved into a position to begin the transfer.
Inside the machine, pneumatic jacks lift the printing table to the heat plate, and the heat plate is preheated. Depending on ambient conditions, materials, and the heat press you’re using, the heat plate is typically in the realm of 390-410°F.
The transfer process itself is as much an art as a science, and it’s virtually impossible to produce a perfect quality print without an experienced technician at the helm. If the heat plate isn’t perfectly flat against the image, lines and color gradients will be seen throughout the finished print.
A single speck of dust is also enough to ruin an otherwise perfect print. Occasionally, even if everything else is perfect, you can still end up with a damaged image.
Another problematic aspect of metal printing is transfer rates. Different colors transfer at different speeds, with red and black transferring first and other colors transferring at a slower pace. Metal prints tend to be a bit on the warmer side, and the transfer rate is why.
Striking the right balance can be difficult, as colors like red and black, which transfer more quickly, can end up “burning” and turning brown if heat is applied for too long. The trick is to end the process when all the colors are fully transferred, but before the colors can start burning.
The process that occurs within the press is known as heat transfer sublimation. Sublimation occurs when a matter is transformed from a solid to a gas. As the sublimation paper is heated, the ink on the paper begins to turn to gas. The gas reforms as a solid on the surface of the metal, which is known as a deposition.
The final product you receive when printing on metal is quite unique and offers some visual properties you can’t achieve with other print methods.
One noticeable difference is that metal prints are usually warmer than with other print methods. Even images with heavy blues that would typically appear ‘cold’ tend to display beautifully. You’ll also notice that what’s different is the sublimation process imparts a textured look in areas of your photo or artwork that are especially smooth.
You can expect aspects such as a clear blue sky or a still lake to appear textured when using this medium, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your taste.
Quality – What to Look For
When it comes to the quality of a metal print, there are two factors: the quality of the metal substrate and the print technician’s experience.
Metal substrates can differ substantially, and many providers are offering the raw materials necessary for metal printing. Some are paper-thin, while others are thicker and more robust.
Cheaper substrates usually have inferior base coatings that translate to lower quality printing than more expensive options with specialized coatings. Chromalux is the brand of choice for discerning enthusiasts and professional print shops.
The next piece of the puzzle is in the hands of the print tech. An experienced and talented print technician will accurately manage colors and print processes to provide you with a perfect print that’s true to the original image.
Beyond the beauty of metal prints, there are a few other benefits that are often overlooked.
For one, metal prints are ready for display as soon as they come off the press. There’s no need to matte or frame the image. Simply add mounting hardware to the print, and display it as you wish. Quality mounting hardware will only add about $5 to the total cost of the print.
Archivability and durability are excellent with these prints as well. Compared to other print methods, your metal prints will be as rich and vibrant as the day you received them for decades to come. These prints are also waterproof, and they can be cleaned with a damp cloth in seconds.
Where to Get Metal Prints
You’ll find no shortage of retailers offering metal print services. However, you’ll want to be wary of providers who provide metal prints at low prices to the detriment of quality materials and talented print technicians.
Instead, opt for an experienced local print shop that offers the quality materials and expertise needed to produce beautiful and eye-catching metal prints that will last a lifetime.