A designer creates a piece of artwork - either digitally or by hand. Intaglio prints need to be composed of line art and color-separated graphics. If created by hand, tangible artwork can be scanned into a digital file for the next step - making the die.
That artwork gets etched into a copper plate (or die) using a process called Photoengraving.
Starting with a proper artwork file is key to making a successful die. Artwork files need to be high-res, sized correctly and in a solid spot color. Pre-press converts the graphic to black and white and outputs it to a film processor. This machine prints a film negative of the artwork, which is exactly like the old-fashioned negatives you used to get tucked in the front pouch of the pack of photos you had developed at the photo store (going back to at least the 90s here).
This film negative gets laid over a piece copper, and exposed with light. This exposure burns away a coating that is already on the surface of the metal. Next, the piece of copper is put into an etcher, where chemicals eat away exposed area of the die (the part that prints) so the copper is left etched in the shape of the artwork. The finished die or plate has a flat surface with the image recessed, or etched into the copper.
After coming out of the etcher, each die is inspected for depth, clarity and other factors that will determine how successful it will be on press.
Setting up the press includes having the die prepared, mixing ink, inking the press, cutting the counter, setting up the counter and die in the correct position, stamping the impression to adjust for pressure and inking, getting correct paper feed.
This is the most labor-intensive part of the operation, and where the expertise really comes in. The success of intaglio depends on the attention of the operator to the details such as the consistency of the ink, how it’s stamping, how precisely the counter fits to the die, how much pressure to use depending on the artwork, ink and paper.
The goal is to get the best impression for the combined factors of artwork, ink color(s) and paper. This is not a science but rather a skill that is honed after years of experience working with the press, inks, papers and various types of artwork.
Once the setup is done to the liking of the operator, the press run begins. On a hand-feed press, the operator deftly maneuvers each sheet of paper by hand into position, where the press stamps the die onto the sheet. After each stamp (or impression), the operator moves the sheet to a side table where it is set to dry. On a press with an automatic feeder, this entails the operator standing by and monitoring the press sheets for quality including color, impression, and position.
Like any press sheet, the final stage is finishing. The minimum finishing needed on a press sheet is likely to be trimming it to final size. The press will often use a press sheet that is larger than the finished size, so that there is a nice clean edge at the end. Depending on the piece, it may also need to have additional printing or finishing options added such as offset printing, thermography, foil stamping, or embossing.
Another popular finishing technique is edge tinting or spraying which adds color to the edge of a business card, note card, invite, or any flat card.
You can’t deny the end result of this process is going to be appreciated by anyone that comes in contact with it. Whether a diploma, wedding invitation, calling card, stationery or government seals, the item produced is artistically created by the hand of a master. The recipient will have a piece of paper that literally stands out and demands to be seen, and that will withstand the test of time.