What are the differences between foil stamping and digital toner foiling?

A lot of enquiring minds pose this question to us. Many of our customers have approached a company for foiled business cards only to be dissatisfied with the result. They'll send us the card for reference, and it's evident to us that the supplier used digital toner foiling, but the customer does not know the difference. Digital foiling works by fusing foil with black toner. If poor quality materials are used, the machine speed and/or heat aren't quite right or if the paper/card stock isn't suitable for the process then, it will result in a poor finish. Digital toner foiling is great for short runs, large foil areas and even foil personalisation, however, it still cannot capture the level of detail or quality of finish that foil stamping achieves.

So, how exactly does toner foiling work?

Digital toner foiling involves printing your design with black toner. Then, the printed sheet is fed through a digital foiling machine which has a heated roller similar to a laminator. The heated roller heats up the carbon molecules in the black toner and the roll of special toner foil is fused to the black toner. If the temperature and speed aren’t quite right or if the card stock has a slight texture and isn’t completely smooth; then the foil will not bond correctly and will  result in black ink in random areas where the foil hasn’t fused properly. This is what contributes to people’s concerns about the quality of the foiling. When the fact remains, toner foiling has been used and wasn't specified, resulting in confusion. People are genuinely confused as to why there is black ink where there should be gold or silver foil.

Why is foil stamping different?

Foil stamping applies foil using heated metal dies. These blocks can be etched to hold excellent levels of detail. The die is then stamped into the card stock with machine pressure. The heated die activates the adhesive on the back of the foil and with the force of the stamping, the foil is pressed into the surface of the card creating a nice debossed indentation with the foil. Both the level of detail and the deboss are impossible to achieve using toner foiling, however, you will pay more for foil stamping. This indented/debossed impression is the most common question we get asked about on our Foil Stamped Business Card range, and it cannot be replicated with digital toner foiling.

Foil stamping requires metal dies/blocks/plates similar to the one above.

The dies/blocks required for foil stamping enable the highly desired deboss/indentation effect with the foiling which is similar to letterpress. They also allow for foil stamping on to a wide variety of card stocks including textured cards.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of digital toner foiling?

An ideal benefit of digital toner foiling is that it does not require metal dies, which makes it very affordable for short runs and large foil areas. It is often used for proofing purposes, because you can run a single SRA3 sheet very inexpensively, whereas, an etched die that size would be extremely expensive. In addition, very few foil stamping machines can cope with a die that size. Toner foiling is also ideal for variable data projects such as, printing names on invitations. This can be done for very little extra cost because the process is digital. You can also apply metallic foil effects on top of full colour printing by printing your design and then laminating it with a special printable laminate film. Once the sheet is laminated, the sheets are run back through a digital printer, and the foil design is printed in solid black on top of the laminate. Afterwards, the sheet is fed through the digital foiler, and the foil bonds only to the black ink and not the full colour design printed underneath, which is protected by the laminate film. This is great for short runs, but can be become quite labour intensive for larger runs. Printing a design, laminating, printing it again and then foiling requires a lot of manual work. Another drawback to digital toner foiling is that it only works with completely smooth card stocks. Ideally, the stock needs to be laminated. Any slightly textured stocks will not produce a good result. Technology is improving, and the introduction of pneumatic digital foilers has also contributed to improvement over time. Finally, there a limited number of foils colours available for digital foiling, so keep this in mind, when you evaluate which option to select

If the heat/speed of the foiler aren't quite right, or if the card stock isn't completely smooth, then the foil will not adhere correctly to the black toner and will result in a poor finish as shown above. Image source

Digital toner foiling can also be applied on top of lamination which often creates the best results due to it being completely smooth. Foiling on top of laminate also allows for foil effects on top of full colour printed designs. Image source

What are the benefits and drawbacks of foil stamping?

The biggest drawback with foil stamping is that it requires an investment in metal dies. These may be etched from magnesium, brass or copper, depending on the length of the foil run, whether embossing is also required in the same pass and the level of detail required. These dies can be stored by the foil company and used over and over, provided, the artwork does not change so it’s often a one-time cost. Companies that process high volume work may not store all foil dies by default, so you may need to request that it is stored for later use. Another drawback of foil stamping is the set-up cost. Hot foil platens are great for cost effective long runs, but short runs can be costly due to the die and setup costs. Foil stamping is beneficial because of the excellent level of detail achieved. Moreover, there is a colossal range of types of card stock you can apply foil effects to. Unlike digital toner foiling, the card stock does not need to be smooth, so all textured stocks are in play, as well as, cotton papers, laminated stocks, Kraft, Colorplan, recycled boards and other special finish papers. At AHC, we can foil on unique metallic boards, holographic card and neon papers that have a mica finish. Embossing is also available, as well as, double etching which allows for fine patterns to be etched onto the surface of the die, creating an eye-catching textured foil finish. The range of colours of hot stamping foils is enormous, from pearlescent and fluorescent foils to a vast range of metallic shades and gloss pigments. The special effects range is just as varied. Hand a designer a stamping foil swatch book, and he/she will be like a kid in a sweet shop!

In summary:

Generally, digital toner foiling is best if:

  • Your foil design is on a smooth card stock or a laminated card stock.
  • Your print run is short (long runs can be expensive as the process is time consuming).
  • Your design has a large foil area (no metal dies required).
  • Your design does not have a lot of fine detail.
  • You want to use variable data foiling (e.g. people’s names on invitations).
  • You only want a basic foil colour such as gold, silver, red, green, blue etc.

Foil stamping is generally best if:

  • You want to use a textured card, or any card stock that is not laminated or completely smooth.
  • Your print run is longer (short runs can be expensive due to die and setup costs).
  • Your design has a lot of fine detail which will come out better with an etched die.
  • You want to be able to use a much wider range of foil colours (more metallic shades, pearlescent, fluorescent, special effect etc.).
  • You do not want to use variable data foiling (e.g. people’s names on invitations).

These are just general guidelines, there may be instances where they do not always apply. We recommend you speak to a foil professional to find out which option is best for your project. Although we do not offer digital toner foiling here at AHC, we do offer foiling on top of spot UV, which creates a stylish raised finish and we are hot foil stamping specialists. If our production specialists believe your project is better suited to digital toner foiling, we will refer you to a company that will be able to do that for you. There might be instances where we can combine foil stamping with digital toner foiling as part of the same project to keep it within budget. For example, if we produced a wedding stationery order, we may foil stamp a range of invitations on a nice textured card stock, then utilise raised digital foiling to create place cards on a smooth stock with names on them. In scenarios like this, using a combination of the two processes creates the best result for the client and keeps everything affordable. Reach out to our friendly team if you would like guidance on what will be best for your project, we are always happy to provide guidance!