Cool large-format printing sign of the times

It stood above Times Square in New York City. At 30 by 50 feet, it was the largest picture ever.

Printed on Kodak’s Duratrans, this pre-digital backlit display was made by optically projecting an image onto multiple sheets of light-sensitive silver halide material, processing through wet chemicals, then gluing the panels together to make the full-size picture.

In 1985, that was pretty cool.

Today’s digital printers print on rolls of material, some up to 16 feet wide and hundreds of feet long. Huge displays cover entire buildings and hang from bridges and stadiums. Size no longer is the standard for cool in large-format printing.

Obviously, you still need an eye catching image. But on what material will you print it? How will you show it off?

Two things define cool in printing today: Materials and displays. Inkjet printing has improved to the point where image quality can be near or better than photographic quality. As for print longevity, you can get 100 percent recycled materials designed to last as short as one event, or fine-art papers designed to last hundreds of years.

Cloth is huge for trade-show booths and backdrops. Shiny foils are popular for decorative applications and wall murals. Perforated vinyl on windows shows a graphic visible from one side and is see-through clear from the other. Thick, highly textured foils are being printed and stuck to floors, parking lots and even streets; look for them at this year’s Pro Cycle Challenge. And if it rolls, it’s prime for vehicle graphics — car wraps, bus wraps, even train wraps.

For fine art, digital prints can exceed the sharpness and color range of traditional photographic prints. You can choose from a vast array of fine-art papers and canvas, then print with inks that last 100 years. Although a few other high-end service bureaus still affix images to true photographic materials, today it is done with RGB lasers, achieving fidelity never obtainable from traditional optical printing. The latest presentation in beautiful gallery prints is to bond true photographic prints to clear acrylic, referred to as Flex-on-Plex or second-surface mounting.

The most exciting recent innovation has been the development of UV ink curing combined with stationary flat-bed printing and the addition of white ink. UV curing uses high-intensity light to instantly dry and set the inks. With stationary flat-bed printing, the material does not move. Instead, the inkjet heads travel over the material. Adding spot and flood white ink allows printing onto clear materials as well as materials that are not white — plywood, for example. Think doors, shelving, table tops, signs, etc. You can see examples of plywood printing at Sunflower Markets, New Belgium Brewery and Oskar Blues.

Clear acrylic can be see-through in some areas while having sufficient density in others for good reflectiveness or for backlighting. Printing to a stationary material means one can add density or multiple CMYK layers. Printing to polished metal, one can have some areas where the metal shows through the ink and others where it does not. The possibilities go on and on. For those just wanting to get it fast or save money, flat-bed printing direct to rigid substrates eliminates the need to mount; just print straight to the foam board, gator board or plastic sheets. Whether you are an artist or a “sign guy,” the UV flat-bed printer probably is the coolest technology today in large-format printing.

On the environmental front, most all sign shops and print-service bureaus offer materials that are made from some percentage of post-consumer material. Some are 100 percent recycled. Even some of the more exotic materials are made to be easily recycled. While most environmentally friendly materials cost a little more, the price gap is shrinking. A couple of things to remember are that not all friendly materials have developed equally from a quality standpoint. Some print materials made from recycled material will not hold the inks as well and may not look as good as a less-friendly alternative. Also, biodegradable materials will biodegrade, possibly sooner than you would like. If you are looking for more environmentally friendly inks, ask for UV printing which sets inks instantly, resulting in no outgassing of VOCs, or for latex printing which uses nonsolvent inks.

Roy McCutchen is chief executive of Photo Craft Imaging and the GrafXGroup in Boulder. McCutchen has been involved with large-format printing for more than 40 years. He can be reached at 303-633-5410 or email

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