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

In Part I, we covered the conventional approach to fabricating a semi-supported graphic. In Part II we will discuss the two remaining approaches, Second Surface Graphics and Printable Backlaminate.

By John Carver

Second surface graphics: Another approach to fabricating semi-supported graphics is a two-part solution consisting of a reverse-printable (second surface) clear film and a protective backing film. The second surface film is a polycarbonate (usually 10 mil) with the inkjet-receptive coating on the back. The printed image is viewed through the "front" of the film, so that the image could be described as "self-laminating". The image is protected with a backlaminate, generally a pressure-sensitive opaque film especially developed for this purpose.

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  • There are some good arguments for this type of solution, high among them being that two-part graphics are inherently more resistant to delamination than three-part components. In fact, they are generally more stable because they are less responsive to dimensional change due to ambient temperature and humidity. In addition, the polycarbonate films used for this purpose are very durable and scratch resistant. Finally, if everything goes right, they are easier to fabricate.

    There are also a couple of potential drawbacks to this solution. The first is that some operators have trouble printing a good image on many second surface films, especially with pigment inks. This isn't to say we haven't seen some great results on polycarbonate films, but many shops have found that there is a learning curve. On some printers, it is difficult to get the machine to recognize the film at all.

    The second problem we have encountered is that the ink-receptive coating has sometimes been prone to separating on graphics that are rolled and unrolled. This doesn't happen all the time and the variables (either brand or process related) haven't been sufficiently identified to provide any type of scientific discussion. But it's a bad thing when it happens.

    Another downside of reverse printable films is that they are expensive, so fabrication errors are costly. Also, the selection of thicknesses and finishes is limited. What it comes down to is that reverse-print polycarbonates are ideal for fully supported graphics, but were not particularly developed for the more flexible requirements of banner stands.

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    Printable Backlaminate:
    The most recent strategy for fabricating semi-supported display graphics was developed specifically for this application. This method calls for printing directly on the backlaminate and protecting the image face with an overlaminating film. You might say the printable backlam solution is the opposite of second surface printing because it in essence combines the functions of the back laminate and printable media.

    The tangible result of pursuing this strategy was Printable Eclipse, a white printable backlam that is 100% opaque. The substrate is actually engineered with an embedded blackout layer that prevents light or display hardware from showing through. Of the two thicknesses, the 5.0 mil version is for semi-supported graphics, because it provides opacity and flexibility without adding too much thickness to the total. The 10.0 mil version is more suitable for fully supported graphics.

    Printable Eclipse is also sold in a "both-sides-printable version." It's compatible with both dye and pigment inkjet formulations.

    The "printable backlam" fabrication method gives you some of the advantages of the second surface solution, but without the potential downsides. Done correctly, it creates a durable graphic that stands up to handling, rolling and shipping and hangs flat and straight. In other words, it satisfies all the items on the wish list.

    A final advantage that isn't immediately obvious is this: with the backlaminate and image "layers" taken care of, the graphics producer has much more freedom to choose an over-laminate with specific properties, such as texturing or a UV-resistant film. The second surface approach limits the viewing substrate to the particular polyester or polycarbonate you printed on.

    The printable backlaminate approach allows you to keep the total thickness under 10 mil for the retractable units, while keeping the flexibility and rollablity necessary for semi-supported graphics (Fully supported to 20 mil).

    The popularity of banner stands and portable displays looks as if it will continue to grow. As a result, the ability to make high-performance graphics for this specialty market should provide a profitable niche for print for pay sign companies, in part because not everyone is capable of handling the job.

    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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