For this tutorial, we’re going to show how to take a sticker design and prepare it for press. For demonstration purposes, we are going to create a clothing hang tag sticker. A hang tag is typically attached to a garment, branded with a company logo and sizing information. In this case, it also doubles as a sticker.
Step 1. Create Artwork
Let’s start with our Awesome Sticker Robot mascot. Originally we created 6 different designs, all of which will eventually be produced as stickers and passed out at conventions. For the sticker clothing hang tags, we’re going to select our favorite robot and work from there.
Our source image is in an Adobe Photoshop file, and our goal is to both brand our company and make a utilizable hang tag for T-Shirts. The front will be a sticker and on the paper backing, we will add our logo, our URL and some garment sizing information.
Step 2. File Resolution
For our Sticker Robot hang tag, the sticker artwork was prepared at our minimum required resolution of 300 pixels/inch. (1-bit images should be prepared at a minimum of 600 dpi, 1200 dpi recommended.) If your source file was created below 300 dpi (such as for the Internet), you cannot simply improve the quality of the image by increasing the Resolution in Photoshop. The printed result will be a very blurry image.
3. Image Size
We want the final sticker to be 3″ X 4.625″. But because we will need to add proper bleed, (see step 8) we open a new Photoshop file and set the size to 3.25″ X 4.875″. These dimensions incorporate 1/8″ of bleed area on each side or 1/4″ in each dimension. The extra canvas size will help to ensure that text and graphics are not trimmed away from your artwork. Please keep in mind the file resolution guidelines above.
4. Color Mode
When designing your sticker artwork, make sure our the original file is created in CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) Color Mode. When printing, this allows us to reproduce the entire color palette with just these four inks. Setting up your artwork in RGB mode is not recommended, as color matching can be problematic. If your source file is RGB it is best to convert your artwork to CMYK and then make any necessary color adjustments yourself.
5. Blank Canvas
Now that we have a blank canvas, with proper file size, resolution and color mode, we start by simply adding a background color. In this case, our chosen CMYK background color is a pinkish/magenta or specifically C0 M40 Y15 K40. Fill the background with your color, using either the paint bucket in your tool palette or the “fill” option in the edit menu.
6. Place your Artwork
Our robot is ready to drop into the colored canvas. You can use the copy or copy merged function to copy and paste the selected artwork into the canvas or you can drag and drop your layers from the pre-existing file. Once copied over, the sticker artwork should now be centered in the colored background. Now merge the artwork layer with your background color and title this newly combined layer “Sticker Artwork.”
7. Safety Area
Now let’s get the safety area sorted out. For silkscreen printing, your artwork must have a live area (safety margin) that is 1/8″ inside the die-cut or sticker trim line on all sides. It’s very important to keep all important text (legal, etc.) and graphics within this safety area. That means if you want to end up with a 3″ x 4.625″ custom shaped sticker, then your primary art and graphics should reside within a 2.75″ x 4.375″ area.
8. Bleed Area
Your artwork must bleed 1/8″ beyond the die-cut or sticker trim line on all sides. In the case of our sticker design, we started our file with the bleed area in mind (in step 3). If you happen to start your file without considering bleed, you will need to adjust your canvas size in Photoshop to allow for the proper bleed area, and extend your artwork to fill the bleed area if necessary.
Quick Tip: Without the 1/8″ bleed and safety area, even a slight shift of 3/32″ in the cutting process can make your sticker appear to be crooked or off center.
9. Sticker Shape
Our hang tag artwork will require a custom shaped die-cut that contours the robot’s body. We will begin by using the Magic Wand set to Continuous and select the area outside of the robot’s body on the “Sticker Artwork” layer. Next we Inverse the selection so that just the robot’s body is selected. Then in the menu bar, click Select > Modify > Expand. Go ahead and expand by 38 pixels (which is equal to 1/8” @ 300 dpi). Now add a new layer named “Kiss Cut” and add a 3 pixel stroke that contrasts with your background color (in this case we used white).
10. Hole Punch
Now we want to add a standard-sized hole punch in order to make our sticker into a clothing hang tag. Hold down the Shift key while using the Elliptical Marquee Tool in order to create a perfect circle that is 1/8″ diameter. Create a new layer and named “Hole Punch” and add a 3 pixel stroke to your selection (we used white again). Then we need to add some guides to our file. We want to center the hole punch above our artwork and make sure that it is 1/4” above the “Kiss Cut” layer (so there is enough room between the blades). Use the Move Tool to position your hole punch in the proper place.
11. Custom Die-Cut
Add more guides that are 1/4” beyond each side of your hole punch. Add a temporary new layer to your file and use the Rounded Rectangle Tool and your guides in order to create the shape of a tab around your hole punch (extend the shape down below the “Kiss Cut” layer). Then use the Magic Wand set to Sample All Layers and select the area outside of your artwork. Inverse the selection, add a new layer named “Die-Cut” and add a 3 pixel stroke (this time we used Cyan). We will use this layer as a guide for trimming your sticker. And don’t forget to delete or turn off your temporary layer.
12. Kiss Cut
A “kiss cut” is a blade that cuts through the vinyl sticker, but not through the paper backing. This gives you the ability to create multi-sticker sheets, or in this case a clothing hang tag. It’s time to revisit the “Kiss Cut” layer that we created in step 9. Using the Lasso Tool, we can select and delete the areas of our kiss cut layer that overlap our die cut layer. We want to leave only the part of the kiss cut layer above the robot’s head that extends horizontally across the tab we created around the hole punch. This kiss cut will allow our final 3” x 4” sticker to peel off separately from the hole punch and tab. Your sticker file is now complete.
13. Back Printing
We can print in Grayscale on the paper backing that peels off of your sticker. We’ll start by creating a copy of our sticker artwork file to use as a template for the back print. Then convert the new file to Grayscale, and delete the “Sticker Artwork” and “Kiss Cut” layers. Since our die-cut shape is asymmetric, we need to select Image > Image Rotation > Flip Canvas Horizontal to ensure that our back print artwork lines up properly with our custom shaped sticker. Create a new layer named “Back Print Artwork” and add whatever text and graphics you like. At this point you are done working on your files. Starting on the next page we’ll describe our process to prepare and print your stickers.
Quote: A “kiss cut” is a blade that cuts through the vinyl sticker, but not through the paper backing. This gives you the ability to create multi-sticker sheets, or in this case a clothing hang tag.
14. Color Adjustments
With silkscreen printing, ink is essentially pushed through a screen of fine mesh with a squeegee. We have to adjust the artwork’s overall color balance in order to optimize your file for our press. For instance, grays that include a percentage of all 4 CMYK values typically reproduce better than ones that are only comprised of a percentage of K (Black). In the case of our sticker, we simply use the eyedropper tool to select each color and double check that the CMYK colors fall within our safe color range.
15: Photoshop to InDesign
It’s at this point that we take the press-ready CMYK artwork and Grayscale back print files, plus any die-lines, kiss cuts, and hole punches – and layout the gang-run sheet using Adobe InDesign. We can typically fit between 50-75 stickers on a sheet. Colors, kiss cuts, and file grouping all have to be taken into special consideration when laying out the sheets. For instance, stickers with gradients reproduce better in certain areas than others. After all these years of printing stickers, we have it down to a science.
Extra: Now we’re going to switch over to the production side of things. We will show how we take the digital file and turn it into actual stickers.
16. Output Film
Next we output AGFA™ film positives using an image setter. One piece of film is needed for each of the four CMYK colors. The first is cyan, followed by magenta, yellow and black. It’s with these individual films that we will be creating our screens. The film itself is very delicate. Once scratch on the surface of the film means we have to start from scratch, so we’re always careful to handle the film with care.
17. Create Screens
We tape the film positives onto screens that have been coated with photosensitive emulsion. Then we place the screens with film into a vacuum exposure table that creates a sealed environment and holds the film completely flat to the screen. We expose the screens using a high output UV lamp which hardens the photosensitive emulsion that is not blocked by the film positive. Each color gets its own film positive and screen.
18. Clean Screens
We washout the unexposed emulsion with water using an industrial pressure washer. It’s important that the screens are cleaned really well. This leaves the screen open in the areas where we want the ink to pass through onto the vinyl sheets. In fact, silkscreen printing is essentially a stenciling technique, where a design is imposed on a screen of fine mesh and ink is forced through the mesh with a squeegee onto the printing surface, which in our case is an adhesive backed vinyl (or sticker paper.)
Quick Tip: With silkscreen printing, CMYK values below 10% typically don’t reproduce well. So in most cases we will either lower individual values to 0% or increase them to 10% for best results.
Boxout: Clear Vinyl
The sticker file that we created in Photoshop can easily be printed on clear vinyl as well. In our case we would follow the same steps but instead of adding a background color in step 5, we would have left the background transparent so that our sticker would print with a clear border. When printing on clear vinyl, we will automatically print white ink behind your artwork (so those areas remain opaque). Or if you prefer, you can indicate on a separate layer the areas that you want backed with white ink in order to create your own custom effect, In either case, just make sure to keep all of the areas that you want to be printed clear transparent In your Photoshop file.
Extra: “Without Photoshop’s powerful pre-press tools, we would still be in the dark ages when it comes to the actual silkscreen printing process.”
19. Mount Screens
The prepared screens are then placed into our Sakurai cylinder screen-printing press and we pour UV ink directly onto each screen. Then the screen is registered for printing the vinyl sheets, which happens for each color. We also use 3 coats of clear gloss ink to give the stickers extra protection outdoors and provide an ultra glossy finish. So with our process, each sheet ends up running through the press a minimum of 7 times.
20. CMYK Process Color
Our normal printing process is done using process color CMYK. We print one color at a time using UV inks (not solvent inks). Screen-printing allows us to put the thickest deposit of ink down, you can feel it. Silkscreen inks are typically 20-30 times thicker than digital ink. We only use high grade 3-5 year fade resistant inks in order to create the highest quality outdoor stickers. The ones you see outside on a street sign 5 years later and they still look the same.
21. Print Stickers
The ink is pressed through the open parts of the screen mesh using a squeegee. Our press uses a vacuum cylinder to grip and pull the vinyl sheets across the squeegee. Unlike most screen-printing presses, our squeegee stays in one place as the screen moves back and forth. This allows us to achieve highly accurate color registration.
22. Hand-Made Dies
All of our dies are made by hand, conforming to any custom size and shape. The dies are made by cutting the sticker shapes into a sheet of wood, and then die blades are shaped and pounded into place. For creating kiss cuts, shorter blades are used that only cut through the sticker itself and not the paper backing. The finished dies are very impressive, and look like giant cookie cutters.
23. Cut Sheets
The die sheet is mounted into a large die press and the printed sheets are cut one at a time. Prior to mounting we have to glue injection foam around each of the blades, which keeps the stickers from clogging the die by pushing the cut stickers back out after each cut is made. Cutting the sheets into individual stickers is the most labor intensive step in our production process.
24. Packing & Shipping
Our printed sticker face clothing hang tags look amazing. The finished stickers are stacked and shrink wrapped in packs of 250, and then boxed up. We seal the boxes with our custom Sticker Robot branded packaging tape and ship them off to your office or doorstep. We love to get happy emails from customers after they open their boxes of sticker goodness.
Quick Tip: Our screen-printed stickers last outdoors for years, unlike most digital stickers. Screen printing gives you the quality and options that you just can’t get with any other type of printing.