The fascinating and visually compelling technology of embossing

Sheila Donnelly of Precise Continental.
Sheila Donnelly of Precise Continental.

Here, guest contributor Sheila Donnelly, head of Operations at Precise Continental, an award-winning specialty printer located in Harrison, NJ, explores the value-added technology of embossing.

“You can’t touch something without being touched yourself.” – Dr. David Eagleman

We often talk about what we see and what we hear, but what about the objects that we touch? With over 2,000 sensory receptors in our fingertips, touch has been shown to illicit more intense sensations than sight or sound alone! Dr. Eagleman studies the science and physiology of the sense of touch – the science of haptics. In The Neuroscience of Touch, he explores why touch is such a crucial part of the sensory experience and how it influences our decision-making. This is why we need to discuss embossing.

What is embossing? Embossing is the process of creating a raised image in paper (and other materials). The process alters the surface of the paper, creating a three-dimensional relief effect. When we add embossing to a printed piece, we add an extra dimension that draws viewers in and invites them to touch. From book covers to business cards, the options for printed items that can be enhanced by embossing are virtually unlimited.

How does it work? The process of embossing involves pressing an image into the paper using interlocking mirror images called a die and a counter. The die has a recessed image and the counter has a raised image. As pressure is applied, the paper is sandwiched between both, creating the relief. Debossing is the inverse process to embossing, with the impression being depressed into the paper instead of being raised. Embossing can be a process in and of itself (i.e. blind embossing), or it can be combined with other printing techniques to create added dimensionality. When elements pop off the surface of the paper, they entice the viewer to touch and interact with the piece in a way they wouldn’t have before.

Types of Embossing. There are four main types of embossing. The desired look and feel, the detail of your artwork, your paper selection and your budget will all affect which one is ideal for your specific project.

  • Single Level. The surface of the paper is changed at one level. This is ideal for type, simple shapes and lines, is the least expensive, and offers the quickest turnaround.
  • Multi-Level. The surface of the paper is changed at multiple levels. This is ideal for multi-dimensional shapes, landscapes or images that have unique details – such as leaves or feathers. It’s also more expensive, depending on size of the die and amount of detail, and represents a longer turnaround time.
  • Sculptured. The surface of the paper is changed at multiple levels and uses a combination of curves, bevels and lines. The die is a combination of being made by machine and being hand-tooled by an artist (i.e. the die maker). This is traditionally the most expensive, depending on size of the die and amount of detail, and represents the longest turnaround.
  • Combo. This process applies foil and embosses the image at the same time. The surface of the paper can be changed at single or multiple levels and can also be sculpted.

Elements that affect embossing. Embossing is both a science and an art. In addition to the overall design, there are many elements that affect what the final product will look like. Here are five main elements that affect the embossed impression.

  1. Die Depth/Profile. Dies can be etched to different depths and with different profiles. These will be determined by the desired detail of the image, look of the image, and the type of paper used.
  2. Artwork. The dimensionality of the embossing will make artwork look thinner when compared to the screen or a printed proof. For example, a 2-point rule will appear like a 1-point rule when blind embossed. Type that’s 8-point when printed is easy to read. But when blind-embossed, it will be barely legible! Your artwork will need to be adjusted to compensate for this.
  3. Pressure. This is the force that’s applied to create the image. More pressure equals more height. However, too much pressure can distort the image or cause cracking of the paper.
  4. Heat. Embossing can be done with or without heat. The amount of heat used will be determined by the detail that’s desired and the type of paper being used.
  5. Paper. Paper colour, thickness and texture will all influence the resulting image. Heavier and softer papers allow for greater relief, since there’s more for the die to press into. When using textured papers, embossing will smooth/flatten the texture. This can be used to create additional special effects.

Embossing indeed adds that extra dimension to a printed piece, inviting and often compelling the viewer to touch and interact on a more sensual level. There are many considerations to take into account when using embossing. Always talk to your printer at the beginning of the process. He or she will help steer you in the right direction to achieve your desired look.


Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.