Laser Cut Business Card Concept: Dallas Designing Dreams Leather Goods

Aug 04, 2010

Business cards are a favorite subject of ours. There is so much creative potential in something so small, and if you get it right, it’s something people keep around.

After working with Arthur Porter and Dallas Designing Dreams for a while, we decided to re-imagine his. Since he’s a skilled leather worker, teacher and mentor, we were looking for something that represented the craft. Our local paper distributor pointed us to a couple papers with leather-like textures to them. The one shown here was clearly more appropriate than the other option. Unfortunately, the paper was one that remains the same color when etched by the laser.

Typically when we want to show an image on materials like that, we do what we call a “color fill.” That is commonly done by smearing acrylic paint into the groves and wiping off the excess. However, because the paper is textured, the paint got into the texture recesses and was difficult to remove. One way around that is to apply masking tape before etching, then leave it on when painting. This worked, but removing the tape from all the fine lettering without disturbing the dried paint is nearly impossible. The method we ended using is described on Universal Laser System’s website, using powder coating paint.

Powder coating is a process used to finish metal, it involves statically charging the metal piece and then applying an opposite charge to the powder as it’s expelled from an air gun. The powder is attracted to the metal in a perfectly uniform layer. Finally, the part is baked in an oven to melt the paint onto the surface. The paint is fine plastic particles, and on the website they are relying on the wood grain and natural oils in the wood to retain the powder without heat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way for me on wood, and definitely not paper. I even tried adding a bit of moisture or oil to the paper, but while this paper is unique in that it has a water resistant coating on it from the factory, the laser burns through that and exposes the paper inside which soaks up that liquid and causes swelling around the lettering. On top of that, it didn’t seem to stick any better! Ultimately, we got it to work by meticulously rubbing the powder into the grooves and then using a slightly damp paper towel to methodically wipe the powder off the textured surface. Finally, a piece of parchment paper is laid on top and a clothes iron is used to melt the powder in place. This was very tedious and time consuming because if any powder remained on the surface when ironing, it would become permanently bonded to the paper. Additionally, while the letters were bright after the first application of the powder, once it melted into place deep in the groves, often the letters were brown again. So it took 2-3 times through this process to get it right. By that time, we had unavoidably melted some onto the surface.

Obviously, this is not an effective method, so we’re currently pursuing other options. Our digital printing provider does use Indigo presses which is one of the only digital presses to support white ink. However, (a) the white ink is not opaque, and thus requires multiple layers to get it even “white-ish”, and (b) the paper is incompatible with the Indigo process so the ink doesn’t transfer properly. Screen printing works and lays down enough ink to be white, but hiring someone to do that for the few sheets a run of business cards requires is cost prohibitive. We are exploring potentially buying the equipment so we have the capability in-house though. Another option that appeals to Michael is to get a proofing letterpress. These are designed for very short run jobs, and the plates could be made from plastic using the laser. There is also renewed interest in the process so being able to offer the capability to our clients would be beneficial. But (a) these types of presses are no longer made, and the recent interest has made them very expensive to acquire (not to mention they’re heavy, so expensive to ship) and (b) I’m told by someone who restores them that the white inks available for letterpress aren’t opaque either! But if I get a press with registration I could lay down more than one layer, and I firmly believe that we could have ink formulated for this purpose, whether from Flexography inks which use a similar process, or from scratch. There appears to be no easy way to print light colors on dark papers in a short-run fashion, so it might be worth investing in a solution.

Not wanting to repeat the powder coating process for the buckles, we chose a foil coated paper which allowed us to laser through the foil and reveal white underneath with no additional work. So while it turned out brilliantly, until we find solutions to the technical challenges, it will not likely be added to our product list unfortunately.