Tricks of the Trade Show: Fabricating Graphics For Portable Display Systems, Part I - The Online Magazine for the Sign Trade.
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Tricks of the Trade Show: Fabricating Graphics For Portable Display Systems, Part I

Although many folks probably think the subject of graphics finishing is boring, the fact is that it is extremely important in the total performance of most graphics. The process of lamination can involve far more than sticking a clear film to the surface of a graphic image.

By John Carver

It is not overstating to say that the selection of finishing materials and the way they are fabricated is at least as important as the printing process itself. Sometimes it's more important.

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  • These statements especially apply to the graphics category of trade show graphics.

    Along with outdoor signage and graphics, exhibit and display graphics are at the most challenging end of the fabrication spectrum, simply because they need to do a lot of things well. In addition to how they perform when actually "on the job", trade show graphics need to survive handling, installation, more handling, rolling-up and shipping. Sometimes the people undertaking these tasks are not totally committed to the preservation of the graphic.

    Of special interest today is the growing category of graphics for banner stands and other types of portable display hardware. We call this type of graphic "semi-supported" to distinguish it from fully supported graphics, which are attached on all four-sides to an exhibit system, or are inserted into a light box. A semi-supported graphic is typically suspended from the top of the display stand and weighted at the bottom, or pulled taut between upper and lower hardware components. We make this distinction because semi-supported graphics have to do things that supported graphics don't have to do, beginning with the simple fact that their edges are exposed for all the world to see.

    If you are going to sell graphics for these types of display systems, it makes sense to pay extra attention to the fabrication process.

    Fabricating Semi-Supported Graphics
    Before we discuss how to make semi-supported graphics, let's make a wish list of the characteristics we want it to have.

    Image quality: the colors of the image should be accurate and vivid. Viewing characteristics: the viewer should not see a glare from the surface, and should furthermore not be able to see exhibit hardware components behind the image or be distracted by light show-through. Thickness: total thickness of less than 10 mil to allow the graphic to be rolled up for shipping. Dimensional Strength: needs to be able to withstand the stress of pulling the graphic taut in the display hardware.

    Hangability: needs to be rigid enough to hang nicely when installed, but not too rigid to roll up for shipping. Durability: needs to withstand the rigors of the show floor, installation, handling and the stress of rolling and unrolling. This combination of characteristics includes resistance to delamination and surface scratches.

    Let's look at three approaches to fabricating a semi-supported graphic and see how close we can come to our ideal standard.

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    The easiest possible solution would be to print the display image on a scrim vinyl and not finish it at all. This approach is rather inadequate for several reasons. First of all, scrim vinyl doesn't hang very well, so the display loses some aesthetic credibility. In addition, the image has no protection from scratching or other physical damage. And because you are limited to the vinyl scrim surface, you don't have the option of changing the display gloss factor to match lighting conditions.

    You could simply print the image on a graphics media and overlaminate the face with a matte clear film. You may well produce a nice looking image, but there will be a number of drawbacks. Usually, quickie graphics of this nature don't hang flat, because they don't have a back laminate to counter the face laminate. The graphic will also be subject to damage to the edges and the back, and will lack opacity. Although many people overlook it, opacity is an important attribute for this type of display, as ambient light bleed and hardware show-through are distractions that detract from the visual impact of the display.

    If you decided to make such a graphic with only a single-sided laminate anyway, printing on a heavy plastic film and overlaminating with a pressure-sensitive or heat-assist matte film would best serve you. But this solution is far from ideal.

    Much better results can be achieved by moving up the food chain to an encapsulated graphic. Encapsulation means laminating the front and back of the graphic and sealing the edges. The result is a three-part graphic sandwich consisting of the printable media, the clear overlaminate and the backlaminate.

    If we are to get the proper thickness and rigidity, we need to consider the three components both separately and as a total finished graphic.

    For the printable media, select a vinyl or polyester film rather than paper. “Wait a minute” you say: “Why can't I use paper if the graphic is going to be encapsulated?”

    Simply because the layers of the paper itself may separate when the graphic is subjected to the stresses of rolling. This isn't exactly the same thing as delamination, but it looks just as bad.

    The choice of surface laminate depends to some degree on the specific requirements of the job, but in general you should look for a flexible vinyl with a non-glare surface. Remember that the combined gauges of the overlaminate, media and backlaminate will comprise the total thickness of the finished graphic, and it generally shouldn't exceed 10 mil.

    The backlaminate is probably the most ignored component of a three-part graphic, but it shouldn't be. Not only does the backlaminate contribute protection and rigidity to the graphic, but also a properly engineered film will make the overall graphic opaque.

    The best adhesive type for both overlaminate and backlaminate films is either pressure-sensitive or heat-assist. You can use higher temperature thermal adhesive films, but you are taking a chance. For one thing, when you are laminating a fairly thick three-part sandwich with thermal films, it can be difficult to generate enough heat to activate the adhesive on both laminate films. This is due to the fact that the additional material absorbs some of the roller heat that should be delivered to the adhesive. Another problem with thermal films is that they not very flexible when used in thicker gauges. If you are in a situation where you must use thermal films, use a thinner gauge. The final argument against thermal films is that they display a tendency to not adhere well to heavy coverage areas on inkjet prints.

    Using three components to fabricate a semi-supported graphic adds some expense, and makes it more difficult to keep the total thickness of graphic in the ideal range. In spite of these challenges, it can be a viable solution when done right.

    John Carver is a Regional Sales Manager of Drytac Canada, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario. For comments and suggestions, he can be contacted by email at You can visit Drytac's web site at

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