If you want to add a touch of luxury to your designs, you’re going to want to know a bit about foiling. Often used on premium print media, like invitations, business cards, reports and letterheads, this is a process whereby metallic foil is applied to the surface of the paper using either a manually-operated or pneumatic (air-powered) machine. The result? A truly stunning effect that pulls out details of the design in a metallic or colored sheen.
Let’s take a look at the historical background to foiling and some contemporary examples to whet your appetite. Skip to the end of the article to find out how to set up your digital artwork for foil stamping.
How Did Foiling Come About?
Some of the very first manuscripts ever produced used real gold leaf to decorate intricate calligraphy. The process of applying raw gold leaf to paper was related to the craft of gilding, in which wafer-thin layers of gold were brushed onto items like bullae (amulets), picture frames, statues, and furniture.
After printing presses became more widely used in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, books became the focus of metallic foiling. The most beautiful and expensive books were bound in leather cases which were often embellished with gold leaf. This process was combined with embossing or bevelling, which left a relieved or raised impression on the surface of the cover.
Nowadays, the foiling process doesn’t use real gold leaf (save in exceptional, and very expensive, circumstances). Metallic foils are now made of aluminium or tin, and are combined with a color layer to produce the desired effect. For designers, this is a much-loved development, giving you a wider choice of colors without the risk of blowing your budget!
Although many printers will have a standard range of foil colors that they provide at a lower price point, which typically include gold, silver and copper, you can also request custom foil colors from an almost endless range of options. Want a metallic rainbow effect on your wedding invites? There’s probably a foil color out there to do just that.
Even though foiling is an added expense to a standard print job, due to the extra hours and resources that go into stamping the foil after printing, it is still a relatively economical method for producing an impressive effect that really ups the luxury factor of a product.
You’ll notice that designers use foiling across all sorts of things, from packaging to stationery. It’s a sure-fire way of making your design feel more expensive and aspirational, without the hefty price tag.
How Does Foiling Work?
Foiling can be done either manually, using a manual hot foil stamping machine, or pneumatically, using an air-powered machine. Manual machines are used for low-volume jobs (e.g. for foiling a limited-edition book cover, or a small volume of invitations), while pneumatic machines are used for higher-volume jobs. Small print shops might have a manual machine in-store or send off your item to a specialist, while larger commercial printers might have a pneumatic machine in-house.
For either machine, the foiling process is roughly the same. The design to be rendered in foil is etched onto a metal die. The die is heated up, and the foil is placed between the die and the surface of the paper or other material to be stamped. When the die is applied to the surface, the foil bonds to the surface, producing the metallic effect.
Commercial foiling machines fall into three main categories: clamshell presses, straight stamp presses, and roll presses. Clamshell presses are suited for medium runs, and the name comes from the movement of the machine, which closes like a clam, pushing the dye, foil and print surface together. Straight stamp and roll presses are designed to deal with larger item quantities, so these tend to be used by commercial printers for things like packaging.
Dies range in price depending on their size and the material they are made of. The cheapest dies are made from magnesium, which is a softer metal and, as a result, can only be used for a certain number of impressions. More expensive dies are made from copper, which is pretty tough, or brass, which is even stronger.
Once your die has been made using acid etching (where your die is placed in an acid bath after being exposed to UV light), it can be used for a number of print runs, which will vary depending on the material. If you’re producing a short print run, it’s possible that your die can be stored and used for another run later down the line. Your printer can store this for you, or you can request to take it away when the run’s finished.
Foils themselves come in a huge range of textures and colors, which can be split into four categories. Choosing your foil is probably the most exciting part of the foiling process, and if you’re willing to pay a little extra, your options are almost unlimited.
Metallic foils replicate the look of precious metals, such as gold, silver, or copper. These are considered standard by most printers, so they’ll probably carry this limited range in-house. But you can also request orders for other metallic foils, like rose gold or metallic colors like red and blue.
Pigment foils don’t have a metallic look, but instead come in a range of matte or gloss colors. These are great for pulling out text or logos in an eye-catching color and texture.
Pearl foils add a pearlescent, ethereal sheen to otherwise mostly transparent or translucent color. They are used to give more tactile shine rather than color to a design, and are a pretty, subtle choice for elegant stationery like invitations and business cards.
Holographic foils appear to be silver before application, but in fact they reflect a variety of colors back at the viewer, giving the impression of a holograph or rainbow. These are fun and youthful when used in the right context, and are also popular for Christmas-themed designs.
When Should I Use Foiling on My Designs?
There’s probably nothing more satisfying than seeing your digital design come to life when printed and foiled. A simple business card can look instantly impressive with a dash of bronze foil, and a silver sheen has the magical ability to make somebody choose one product over another, based on the packaging design alone.
Almost all print media that is meant to be special in one way or another will probably benefit from foiling. Some items to consider adding foiling to are:
- Invitations—for New Year’s Eve celebrations, Christmas parties, gala events and weddings.
- Business stationery—make your business seem more upscale by adding foiling to business cards, letterheads, envelopes, and reports.
- Promotional materials—adding foiling to brochures, booklets and catalogs makes your offering seem instantly more aspirational and enticing.
- Packaging—up the luxe factor of boxes, labels and stickers. Wine labels look particularly luxurious with a touch of foil.
Fired up for foiling? Awesome! Let’s check out how to set up your digital artwork for foiling.
How to Set Up Your Artwork for Foil Stamping
Preparing your own artwork for foil stamping is pretty simple. Different printers have different preferences for how they like the artwork to be set up, but in general most will be happy with the elements to be foiled placed on a separate layer and set in a spot color.
Here, I’ve created a save the date card in Adobe InDesign, and I want to bring out all the typographic elements in a copper foil.
The process for setting up the file is roughly the same whether you’re working in a publishing program like InDesign or vector software like Adobe Illustrator. What is important to note is that you should always set up your foiling design in vector, not raster, format. This allows your dye to be produced to a high quality. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how I set up my card for stamping in InDesign.
I’ve created a US postcard layout (7 by 5 inches) with a dark blue color set on its own Background layer (Window > Layers).
I then created a New Layer and named this Typography, before using the Type Tool (T) to create the type design*.
I right-click on the Typography layer and select Duplicate Layer “Typography”, to create a copy.
Double-clicking the duplicate layer allows me to edit the name of the layer. Name your layer something easily recognizable, like HOT FOIL STAMPING or SPOT FOIL.
Next, we need to vectorize all the elements on the page that are to be stamped.
Select all the text elements on your layer and head up to Type > Create Outlines.
Go to the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches) and create a New Swatch. Name the swatch something instantly recognizable, such as FOIL SPOT COLOR. Set the Type to Spot and adjust the levels of either Cyan, Magenta or Yellow to 100%. Then click Add and Done.
Apply the Spot Color Swatch to the elements on your layer.
A final preparation step before exporting is to set the elements on your foil layer to overprint. This prevents the foil effect from knocking out other items on the page below.
Go to Object > Output > Attributes and check the Overprint boxes which are not greyed out.
Now you’re ready to Export your design as a print-ready PDF file.
Head up to File > Export, and choose Adobe PDF (Print) from the Format drop-down menu. Give the file a suitable name and hit Save.
In the Export window that opens select [PDFX1a 2001] from the Adobe PDF Preset menu at the top of the window.
Then click on Marks and Bleeds in the left-hand menu and check the All Printer’s Marks* and Use Document Bleed Settings boxes.
Then go ahead and click Export to create your PDF file.
* It may not be necessary to include all printer’s marks on your exported file. Check with your printer before you include this. It is, however, really important to always include a bleed on your exported print artwork.
You can now see how your design is split into different print plates from Adobe Acrobat. In Acrobat, go to View > Tools > Print Production. Then select Output Preview from the Print Production menu.
Keep in mind that the more separations or plates you have in your artwork the more time and resources will go into producing your final printed product, which will increase printing costs. You should always check with your printer ahead of preparing your artwork, and get a quote in advance.
Conclusion: Have Fun With Foiling!
Applying foil to your print designs really does add a very special touch. The process adds both visual and tactile appeal—people won't be able to resist touching your prints!
Whether you go for luxurious metals, dreamy pearl effects or pops of glossy color, foiling is a lovely finishing touch for any product and every designer should experience the joyful satisfaction of seeing and touching the results of their foiling.
If you're still not super confident with setting up foil artwork on your own, there are lots of foil print templates available on GraphicRiver and Envato Elements, which do the hard work for you. It's then easy-peasy to export your design and send it to the printers. They'll be really impressed with the professional result.