Printing on a budget

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No warranty, you can make a harm to yourself even by reading it only. Take all the information below as a fiction story from another multiverse.



  • Printing house is a place that you go and ask for things like business or wedding cards. It not always has to be huge (can be), a single room, single person, laser printer and some real experience plus uncommon gear will do the trick. Don't be feared by some pesky, filthy doors or sign. If they don't look aestheticly, they have productive approach, plus they care for the budget.
  • PoD or Print on demand service - is a printing house you don't need to see. Send them money, files and some specification of what you need, they'll send you back finished product. They will almost for sure take any thing you will send them.
  • Photo lab is a place that handles various jobs that demand accurate colour reproduction and high quality of the final product in a single copy, cheaply. "Bear in mind" you will probably have to take care of rounding corners when going there.
  • Offset printing is something you would not want to do. 50-100 copies is a minimum there, to let you taste the scale: setting up a machine will take about 300 to 500 sheets of paper.
  • pre-press or prepress is a preparation process that takes care of your PDF files, and does the trick of making it a file (or sheet of metal) ready for printing. Important thing here is "they" probably should take care of imposing your work.
  • Solvent or industry laser printers will give you very good results, accurate colour reproduction and such, cheaply. Most of the big-size "photos" they will offer you in photo lab are in fact made on solvent printer. When outside of photo lab, ask for some examples of their solvent printing machine with small letters and look at it close, carefully.

Increasing quality

  • Proof is a not-so-permanent printout on a fancy paper that will show you exactly how your work will look like after printing. If its cheap, you can ask for a single card and check if the colours are OK and contours are sharp (you can use the card later...), Take a card with some skin on it, breaking this colour will be most distracting
  • Trapping is a kind of thing that takes care of some problems in offset and flexography (check out the Wikipedia for how it works exactly). Usually you should not be asked about it. Flood or floods is a similar process.
  • Overprint means overprinting black paint over other colour stuff. In this case you probably want it, as much as possible.
  • Lacquer or varnish is a top coating that makes the surface even, colours - deeper, and whole card is less prone for scratching. Kinda "pro" coat that usually differs internal and external side of cover on a paperback and magazine. You can ask for it if its cheap. You can do it for your laser prints. Offset gives thin coat, silkscreened is thicker, silkscreen UV laquer gives the thickest coating used in the day-to-day work.
  • foiling like lacquer, but its an ironed-on thin plastic foil instead of a lacquer. Take it only if they will cut out all cards for you, double-check if the foil don't goes off (it likes when there is some excess paint on the surface.


  • Bleed. Beeing tired enough, I can point you a Wikipedia page. 3 mm of it is usually more than enough.
  • Crop marks is the only subset of printing marks you have to care about, really. Pair of crop marks shows where to cut, and what to trim off. This are thin lines that make accurate cutting of pieces much easier and failproof.
  • Separation is the process of dividing input composed of "something like CMYK" data into separate channels for C, M, Y and K. Usually needed for "many copies" industry, like offset printing, silkscreen and such.

Top quality

What they are giving you in commercially available card games is in fact way under top quality you can have for money. Take an ordinary colour magazine, kind of 5-10mm thick thing with colorful cover. It is probably printed in better quality, than your cards, has a thicker lacquer, more saturated colours, it just uses thinner paper, for a reason of course. Maybe if you have plastic cards, like top-shelf Piatnik's, they are made well. Have you asked yourself, how it is that they didn't put your cards in those foil sleeves themselves? Are "extortion" and "greed" the right words for what the industry makes?

Lets ask ourselves how should top-quality card (not highest, but best you can get without standing on your head) look like, and how it is made.

  • Substrate - non tearing "plastic paper". "Yupo" brand is just an example. Water, tear, fat resistant, you can literally wash it in washing machine without loosing much quality. It still feels more or less like a paper. It will stand harder beating than the paint they will use to print on it, thats for sure. Target is somewhere around 150 - 250 g/m2
  • Printing - solvent, laser, other fancy techniques they will invent... May be even good old offset, if you can afford 100-300 euros starting cost. We will take care that the files are made adequately (read it: best as possible when using FLOSS software) no matter where they will go.
  • Coating - thick matted UV or fancy hybrid varnish with some cool pattern will stand some serious beating.
  • Cutting - "pro" made rounded corners are made with using special kind of punch, usually a thick plywood with razor-sharp bended thin metal blade and some sponges mounted on it. Even for a single card such a punch will cost quite a few euros, starting from 300 up. But there is a way out... You may have luck and find a place where they have the right size tool ready, really!. Usually, when not having such a thing, they will use a standard guillotine plus a tool that only cuts one corner at once, its cheaper.
  • you can also apply a gold leaf (I'm not insane, this is really cheap stuff), gold powder, or varnish on the card side (yes, on edge), just to take care of dirt that would like to accumulate there. A must here is to have all cards in really same size.

Now think what points you can omit, where you can go cheaper. And what dung do you usually get from gaming industry.

Someone else will print it... cheaper

PoD service, small or large printing house, photo lab. No matter if online or offline Some places usually have some things specified on their website, usually how to prepare and provide things for them. If something goes wrong, it usually goes wrong from this moment. However - we provide print-ready files (plus editable source files) that will most likely work in most cases. Plus make sure they will pay attention that the colours are correct and adequate to what is on the screen. Any reasonable service will make sure the cards will be looking good. Please note we are unable to provide what is called a "CMYK PDF file". There is a good reason for that - this kind of files are prepared separately for a specific workflow that is used for printing. But we will kindly provide hi-res RGB files, that most of the printing places will work with smoothly (they need to be warned), so as will your household pet. We will also provide Scribus files if you or "they" can't just transform the RGB PDF file into any CMYK they wish. And you can always read something that excuses us of making 1000 different CMYK PDFs.

Know what you need, show examples, ask for options, pricing, things you will have to prepare and thing they can take care of. Usually you will have to give some information, like:

  • What cards do you need to look like (what features will have to be crafted) :
    • Type of paper. It may be enough for ones to tell them its for printing cards, the others will have to hear you need "130-160 g/m2 double side coated white stock" (it has nothing to do with varnish, coated in this case means it has the even, nearly fiberless surface that makes you think its "better", like the outside of an etiquette vs. inside). Be sure you know what you want or let them show you something similar. The "modern" offset printing paper is really low on quality, it is made of clay and glue rather than fibers. Really. Good paper will be really stiff (check it!) and that is what you will need. As often you can read some more, why not.
    • this are custom playing cards, tell the rough quantity like "30 to 40 pieces"
    • do you want single or double sided print,
    • provide dimensions, tell about the rounded corners
    • if you need - ask for coating options and pricing
  • How your files look - what you can provide. They may need to do some additional machine-specific prepress preparations
  • How long you can wait

Some additional hints:

  • If you need a "single copy" of provided fileset its not a problem, but there will be cards you need in 2 or 3 copies - it is best to write it for them clearly, with big letters how many pieces you need for each card.
  • take a call before you take a ride when getting the cards. If its a smaller company - they will be aware of strange customer that pleased them with a set of cards to print and they will say at once if those are ready or not. Its often not.
  • When taking the cards... You can pay first, but... Take a seat in the corner, no hurry, review each card separately, make sure its all OK:
    • there is all you wanted, nothing less (you will usually get your paper with cards and quantities, if not - better pay attention to what you have been given)
    • printed well: no spots, fingerprints, dirt, grease, toast...
    • evenly coated (if you asked for this feature)
    • more or less evenly cropped: the print is not "shifted" more than 1 mm
    • they all have size and shape you wanted
  • if there are some cards you find not OK - there are some more or less obvious ways to go:
    • just don't care for the details
    • reject it all and wait until they will provide all you wanted, make them be aware of the fact you are in a hurry now, you can lie its for a friend's birthday
    • take it as it is (if it is a single card badly printed you can live with it)
    • if there is 5-10% of badly printed cards, show the person thet gave it to you which cards are not made well and what is wrong, say you can live with it, cause you love the rest, you will take the cards, but only under condition they will lower their price next time you will be their customer.

Smart ways

  • When ordering at photo lab, check out if making few cards on a single "photo" will not be cheaper. Like 2 cards on 9x15 cm paper or four on 13x18. Again - you have the cards, you have the software. There is no imposing FLOSS software I'm aware of, but Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus or software printer, all may do the trick for you.
  • Tell them it is a prototype, or a first batch.
  • Ask someone else how much they or him/her (like an advertising agency or unemployed friend) will charge, when given the files only. They can know the ways, cheap places, various details and such.
  • Ask for the cheapest acceptable option first and later, if you can afford, for a features you may want, but not necessarily have to have.
  • If you're not sure, ask. Twice. Printing is really complicated thing, it is better ask too much than pay for failure.
  • Share information, some places will make job better, faster, cheaper, even with shipping costs.

Not so smart, actually

  • Asking for a price per card and changing the quantity afterwards. Don't even think of asking for "price per card".
  • Asking for too many options at once (its you to know what you want).
  • Taking small batch to test quality. Ask for samples of similar product instead, not as a gift ;) (like a fancy business card, calendar, whatever).

I want to do it on my own

If it has to look good - you will pay more initially. Thats the price of DIY. You will also fail sometimes. Be patient, that helps. For "as cheap as possible" write all the things you need by hand, no further instructions on that.

Preparing files

Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus, OpenOffice or software printer, like PDFCreator may, or may not, do the trick for you. Think, test, if works well - share it. We could describe it, but its not an easy path, not a way you want to follow.


Use what you have. If you not have an available printer - you can't DIY. There is not a must to have a printer at home - printing at your workplace will work even better. There are some photo papers that will hold ink from inkjet printer and prints are nearly waterproof after this. Pricing like 3 euros for a dozen of a4 makes a perfect "el cheapo" substrate. Usually you will be printing on one side only.

Use the paper that suits you most. Paper is cheap, buy double quantity you need. Make sure you have enough toner. Make test print on a cheap paper. Try to cut first this one too.

You will need sleeves anyway.

For double-sided printing you will have to prepare your own setup and shift the contents in your software until you will fit into the right place. Cheap household printers will not take the paper in the same way every time, so be prepared to waste a lot of resources if you need to have both sides of the same sheet of paper.

If you have any doubts, choose to have crop marks. Kinda handy thing, makes you failproof when cutting.


Works with laser printers rather than inkjet. Increases print quality. Makes colours deeper and darker, more saturated (sometimes). Makes the card more durable.

Possible options are:

  • Not coating at all when you use sleeves. Easy enough to DIY in any circumstances.
  • Pay for coating. Look into commercial sector of this page. Every reliable printing house will make it. They will take a4 size paper, nothing smaller.
  • Use adhesive clear transparent foil (or semi-transparent, colored, or even solid colour for backs). Straightforward. Its not a sticky tape, but rather wide product, 50 cm to 150 cm wide (Oracal and Jac may be popular brand names). You will eventually find it in advertisement/artists supply stores. It is cheap as paper, but you will waste a card or two figuring out a working way of sticking it evenly to the paper. I'd cut a cards slightly bigger than needed, stick it onto the foil, press it with a spoon and finally trim the excess.
  • Use laminating technique. If you happened to have the right tool.
  • Coat using photo varnish. In spray.
  • Coat using industrial printing varnish - UV or normal. Getting your hands on it is harder than coating with it. If you're DIYer, you can silk-screen it onto the paper. Or use a roller, brush (wide, thin, flat, with short, even hair), airbrush, dillute and dip-in whole a4 sheets... Laser toner will often solve as well, you may have some luck with inkjet here too. For fixing UV things you can use tanning bed (face-size). Experiment.



  • surgeon/modelling scalpel or snap-off blade type knife (take that with metal bed for the blades, plastic will just break). The most important thing are the blades itself, take Olfa brand if in doubt.
  • Plastic (wood or glass also may work) cutting board bigger than the paper. there are cutting mats, that have excellent quality and durability, but for a price.
  • Metal ruler (take cheap small square angle tools from hardware shops, cut/break them apart if needed, ruler needs to stay flat in any case). Stainless, tempered steel is cheap and will work. If you choose bad - you will loose your fingertips and, more important, stain cards. You can glue a piece of rubber or paper tape to avoid shifting the paper under it.
  • Something to cut the corners. Need DIY? Figure it all out yourself.
  • Office guillotine - usually it not works and will ruin whole batch of cards. Your choice.
  • Scissors - won't cut straight line, but you can go fancy and buy scrapbooking scissors and cut your cards like an old photo.

Technique for knife or scalpel

Its the only thing that needs description Prepare your environment:

  • clean stable table or floor
  • lighting
  • tools by hand
  • something to collect the garbage
  • free, undisturbed time. Ask your cat to give you some spare time.
  • printout with crop marks.

Take one piece of paper at a time.

Put it on a cutting board.

Place a blade on a crop mark and slide a ruler to it. Make sure you placed your ruler evenly on the paper (card you're cutting should be under it) and aligned to the line you'll be cutting. Press the ruler with your finger and reply the thing with the other crop mark. Cut with 1 or 2 strokes of the knife.

Cut it as you would draw with the pencil. Keep a right angle between the blade and the paper.

Do not use too much force, just enough to cut the paper, not the board below it. The force is needed for the other hand, to hold the paper under ruler. If you will press the knife with too much force you will dull your knife, risk snapping the tip of the blade, cut the board beneath the paper and lower the quality of a cut (the paper will be pressed inside the cutting board and the cutting line will be uneven).

Pay attention, you can cut yourself. Its easier with force applied.

You should snap the blade like after 10-20 cards. If you have the blade dull or broken before that, you do something wrong.

With the above technique mastered you will be cutting flawlessly with 0,1 mm or higher precision. Just like a regular industry-grade tool.

Join together, seek a friend

Playing is not about being alone, really.

Its cheaper to make or to order large batches. Join forces, take two months of advertizing and seeking for companions, and you will gain twice as much the cards, or half the price. Plus a friend or two. Or make/buy and if its good enough, sell it afterwards.

Its cheaper when you know the subject in detail. If you have a friend or relative in advertising or printing, ask him about anything. Many times.