Relief printing techniques can add a whole new tactile element to a design without adding a lot of cost. Have you considered embossing? Here’s an introduction to the technique.

I had a hand in creating the embossed example below, an invitation for Seattle University donors to a private tour of a Dead Sea scrolls exhibit. Calligraphy taken from an image of an actual scroll fragment was blind embossed onto the invitation to add an air of ancient mystery. The invitations were printed in three ink colors, plus the blind emboss. The run of about 500 invitations was surprisingly inexpensive.


Design collaboration by David Balzer and Nani Paape. Printed by MC Lile. Embossed by Golden Pacific Embossing.

Embossing and Debossing Demystified

A relief die either makes an indentation in the paper, called a deboss, or a raised area, called an emboss. I remember the difference by saying, “Down for Deboss” or “Deboss inDents.” (I also say “Emboss is Up,” but that’s just me!)

Debossing is done on the front of the paper, while embossing is done on the back side. For this reason, a debossed image is generally more crisp. They are both created on a letterpress with a die made from your artwork. Dies can be single-level or multi-level, sculpted, flat-edged, bevel-edged or rounded. The depth  of “bite” can be specified. The design can either be registered to a printed part of the page, or “blind,” as in the example shown.

Relief dies for embossing and debossing are etched into either magnesium or brass from your digital file. Single-level magnesium dies have gotten a lot less expensive in recent years due to the automation advances of machine and laser engraving that eliminate most of the handwork traditional die making entailed.

Multi-level dies are made of brass and still require the expertise of a skilled die tooling craftsman. That’s what makes them expensive. While too pricey for your average event invitation, a brass die is a good investment for a corporate brand element that will be used repeatedly, such as an emboss for a pocket folder or business cards. If you choose the size of the image carefully, the same die can be used for a variety of applications.

Capitol Press in Olympia, WA offers this helpful article on embossing on their website, with lots of diagrams and recommendations for designers.

Paper Choice is Key

The right paper choice for relief printing can make or break the project. Embossing stretches the paper and applies heat, so the paper needs to have resilient fibers. Otherwise the entire piece will warp.

This is one instance where virgin fiber papers perform better than recycled. Papers with high recycled content are not recommended because they have short, less resilient fibers which are more likely to crack or break. They also tend to get shinier, for some reason.

Papers that have high bulk (think cushy, not hard) and a softer surface are good candidates for relief printing. Strathmore wove or Crane’s perform well. The Dead Sea scrolls invitation was printed on Neenah Classic Crest, which also embosses nicely. The cotton fiber papers that Crane’s offers make for exquisite relief printing because of their long, especially maleable fibers.

disaster avoidance tips

Select a printer who knows about relief printing and ask to see embossed examples to review. Most smaller printing companies hire a specialty vendor to do their relief printing, but some larger or specialty printers offer relief printing in-house. Many letterpress operators are true craftsmen who have been plying their craft for decades.

Before the die is ordered, it’s best to go over the samples and your design with the print rep so they can determine specifications for the die that will achieve the look you have in mind.

Before press day, ask to approve a test stamping of the die to be sure it’s right. I also like to attend the bindery check to review the job on press. Subtle adjustments there can achieve the just-right impression.

Relief printing is beautiful, and it really enhances a design. Careful, once you try it, you’ll be hooked!