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Commentary & Analysis

Beyond Paper: New Wide-Format Substrate Options

In last week’s feature, we spoke about flatbed wide-format printers, and remarked that one of their big selling points was that they could print on a bewildering variety of materials—increasing the number of applications that creative shops could develop, the more niches shops could carve out for themselves, and the better they could serve their clients.

By Richard Romano
Published: August 29, 2012

In last week’s feature, we spoke about flatbed wide-format printers, and remarked that one of their big selling points was that they could print on a bewildering variety of materials—increasing the number of applications that creative shops could develop, the more niches shops could carve out for themselves, and the better they could serve their clients.

So what are some of those substrates? And what are some of the issues involved in printing on them? This feature is a general overview of the options available; over the next several months, we will be providing additional features that look more closely at specific substrates and their applications.

Roll vs. Rigid

If you’re new to wide-format printing, it’s important to note the primary difference in media, which is rollfed vs. sheetfed. Anyone familiar with traditional printing—webfed vs. sheetfed offset, for example—knows this distinction intimately. In wide-format, it’s the same basic difference. Rollfed substrates have to be flexible, of course, and tend to comprise:

  • paper, in all its myriad varieties
  • flexible plastics
  • vinyls
  • canvas
  • textiles

Rollfed substrates have been around since the advent of wide-format printing, and may seem a tad passé, but still can serve many of the wide-format applications that shops may be called upon to produce. And, of course, print-then-mount still remains a viable alternative for shops that have invested in rollfed devices, but still would like to produce ultimately rigid products.

Still, much of the action today is in rigid substrates. These can include, but are no means limited to:

  • thick plastic
  • board
  • glass
  • wood
  • metal
  • three-dimensional objects (yes, even paper is a “three-dimensional object” but what I mean are found objects like balls, laptop computers, etc.)
  • ...and so on

As I remarked in last week’s feature, the ability for flatbed printers—and especially UV flatbed printers—to print on almost any surface has opened up a seemingly infinite variety of specialty printed applications.


One important caveat to bear in mind is that not every flatbed printer can print on every single substrate. All machines have their unique capabilities, and picking up a good flatbed and assuming you’ll be able to run anything you want through it is setting yourself up for grave disappointment. Some machines have a limit to the thickness they can handle, some inks may require that the substrate be pre- or post-treated in order to adhere properly, and/or there may be other limitations. Therefore, it’s important to o your due diligence and decide what you want to print before selecting a model. That way you can pick the machine that best handles what you need it to handle—and the best advice remains, test, test, test.

Some Unique Products

It is impossible for a single feature to include every possible type of substrate available, certainly not without the writer’s head exploding. Most of the options fall into broad categories, as outlined above. Here is a roundup of some unique (and a couple of not-so-unique) substrates and some applications for them. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and if you, gentle reader, are familiar with other substrates that lend themselves to unique applications, please feel free to mention them in the comments at the end of this article.

Here goes...

Aluminum—Horizons Inc. Imaging Systems Group offers its AlumaJet aluminum substrate that can be printed upon with using traditional inkjet inks with no pretreatment. It can come in a variety of thicknesses and can potentially be used in some rollfed devices. It is designed to be used for plaques and awards, diplomas, signage, labels, and more.

Aluminum composites—These are substrates that comprise two thin sheets of aluminum sandwiching a non-aluminum (usually plastic) core. 3A Composites has developed such a material with the trade name Dibond that is designed for use in interior and exterior signage, POP displays, and exhibit graphics. It is available in a variety of colors and finishes. Laminators Inc. also has a variety of aluminum composite materials.

Imitation metallics—If you don’t want to—or can’t—print on metal substrates, there are materials that will simulate metals. For example, Acrilex Inc’s Acriglas Metallic Acrylic simulates the look of natural metals, such as anodized aluminum. Unlike metals, they do not oxidize, crimp, or ding. These sheets can be cut to a variety of sizes and are available in a wealth of colors and textures. FiberBrite is another imitation aluminum substrate (comprising what the manufacturer refers to as Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic). FiberBrite may be familiar as it is used in traffic signage, being “the only plastic to meet the government traffic control sign specifications.” Ergo, it is well-suited for outdoor applications.

Foam-centered materials—Fome-Cor is one of the “classic” wide-format substrates, familiar to many shops that began in print-then-mount applications. Fome-Cor comprises a polystyrene board with clay-coated liners. It has been used for all manner of signage and POP displays, and can be finished in a wide variety of ways, such as cutting and embossing, although not as many as some other type of rigid substrates. Try also Elmers Foam Board (formerly Bienfang MightyCore). If you are looking for a biodegradable foamboard, try Duraplast or Insite by Gilman Brothers.

Magnetic materials—If you have a certain animal magnetism and want to print on magnetic substrates, Gilman Brothers offers InSite Reveal Magnetic-Receptive Foamboard. It’s your basic foamboard, but includes a thin ferrous (iron-based) film beneath the surface to you can stick magnetic materials to it. It is designed for courtroom graphics, games, schedule boards, interactive displays, and so forth.

Renewable material-based—One interesting substrate I came across was the Spartech Rejuven8 series of substrates, based on NatureWorks’ polymers made from renewable resources like corn. Spartech touts the applications for the Rejuven8 substrates as being food packaging, drinking cups, tableware applications, gift and phone cards, and plant tags.

Other sustainable options—Yes, as Mr. Going Green, it behooves me to call out this category. Non-paper substrate manufacturers such as 3M and Dupont highlight the recyclability and reusability of their materials. Paper- and paperboard substrates are, like most paper products, eminently recyclable. Falconboard or other types of posterboard are also paper-based and recyclable. As mentioned above, foamboards like Duraplast and Insite are biodegradable. One interesting substrate, TerraSkin, is recyclable and biodegradable. TerraSkin is, as the company says, “paper made from stone.” That is, it is “is a combination of mineral powder (>75%) and a small quantity (

Fabrics—We’ll be looking at textile printing in a future feature, but one substrate I came across whilst preparing this feature was Decoprint, by French company DHJ. It is a polyester fabric with an acrylic coating that allows for direct printing using solvent inks.

There is also a wide variety of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) based substrates, polycarbonates, and others.

I hope this has given you a general idea—with a few specific ideas—of the breadth of substrate options available. The most important thing to keep in mind is to ensure that any desired substrate is compatible with the hardware and the inks you are working with. However, it may not be unheard of to first pick what you want to print on (or what specific products you want to print) and let that decision drive the purchase of the actual hardware. And, as I said earlier, test, test, test.

Two important trade shows are coming up in October: Graph Expo and SGIA. Both, but especially the latter, will provide excellent opportunities to examine printing equipment up close, and understand how they differ with respect to the substrates they handle. 

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.


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Wide Format Editor

Richard Romano

Richard Romano, Section Editor/Senior Analyst
Richard has written about communication, graphics hardware and software trends for the past 15 years.

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