Embossing and debossing

Embossing & debossing

Friday 28 October 2016

On the left: embossing with gold ink. On the right: debossing with gold foil

Embossing and debossing are two related techniques which are often confused – even by designers. Embossing is the process of raising an area of the paper, while debossing is the process of lowering an area of the paper.

Both processes add tactile qualities to printed materials. This can help them to stand out from the competition while lending them a premium feel. For this reason you will often find one, the other, or both used on prestige items such as certificates, or on packaging for high-value food items.

Blind debossing

Either technique can be used in conjunction with standard printing, and they are very often seen in combination with coloured or metallic foil. They can also be used without ink or foil, a process which is known as ‘blind’ embossing or debossing, as shown here.

Both techniques are classed as ‘finishing’ techniques. This means they generally happen as part of the finishing process after project has been printed (there are exceptions to this, which I’ll explain later), but before it has is bound or trimmed.

So how does it work?

Embossing is achieved by using a die which is ‘stamped’ into the front of the paper under pressure. This compresses the fibres of the paper permanently, leaving a dent.

Debossing is slightly more complicated. This uses two dies – a male and female, which are closed around the paper to push the desired section of the paper upwards leaving a raised area. The need for two dies can make debossing a more costly process than embossing.

Embossing and debossing dies are made by specialist manufacturers and can be quite sophisticated. They can be shaped to produce either simple, single-level effects, or more complex multi-level, or even sculpted effects where the emboss or deboss is shaped to several varying levels.

Even simple, single-level dies can be costly addition to a print job. However, most finishers will keep a die at a client’s request this so that it can be used on subsequent occasions. This might be particularly useful if a job is reprinted multiple times, or if the same image (a logo, for example) might be used on multiple jobs.

Who provides these finishes?

Finishes such as these are generally applied by specialist finishers, although some larger printers will have the facilities on site to do it themselves.

In the case of letterpress printers debossing actually happens as part of the printing process, rather than as a separate process. This can make the end result more cost effective to achieve than if it had been printed separately before being debossed.

Some letterpress printers also run foiling units which mean that debossing can also be combined with foiling in one operation. This would normally be done as two separate processes, both of which can be expensive to do. This can have major cost advantages, particularly on smaller or shorter run jobs where the foiled area and the debossed areas coincide.

Debossing at the same time as printing or foiling has another major advantage in that the ink and the deboss will be in perfect registered (alignment). This is something which can be hard to achieve consistently when the two processes are carried out independently.

Things to consider:

When considering using either process one important factor to be aware of is the reverse of the sheet. With embossing there will always be a reversed image of the embossed area which will need to be factored in to the design layout. Depending upon the coverage it may cause the reverse of the page to be unusable.

With debossing the reverse of the paper may also be distorted. However, with careful paper selection and attention to the pressure exerted on the paper it is possible to create a good deboss without much more than a slight flattening (bruising) to the reverse of the sheet.

In summary:

Debossing – cheaper to do because of the need for just one die, possibility of retaining the use of the reverse of the sheet by careful paper selection, and the potential to be done simultaneously with the application of ink or foil ensuring perfect alignment.

Embossing – more expensive due to need for a pair of dies, definite distortion or the reverse of the sheet, and will need to done as a separate process, probably by a specialist finisher.

And as a final note – don’t forget that it is possible to deboss the background of an image, rather than the image itself!

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Photograph of Sarah Cowan

Hello! I’m Sarah, an independent typographic designer, helping businesses to communicate their unique selling points through printed marketing and communications.

I’ve been sharing my knowledge about design, typography, marketing, branding and printing since 2014. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.

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Sarah Cowan