Materials Affecting Digital Graphic Longevity

Amy Sawyer, Exhibit Design and Production Specialist for NC Historic Sites, generously shares her wisdom with our C2C audience in this post.

This banner, displaying the NC Department of Cultural Resources’ vision statement, is badly faded. The lettering and grayish photographs in the top border, for instance, used to match the blue background. It’s appearance led our C2C staff to ask questions about materials that affect the longevity of digital prints and recommendations for small museums that contract out for these services. Amy Sawyer supplied some really helpful answers. 

1. The first issue is water-based vs. solvent-based ink.

Water-based ink is cheaper and better for environmental and health reasons, but solvent-based lasts longer.

The water-based is coming along, but we don’t always have access to the best new inks and printers… so we have to use what we have available. I use an older Epson 9600 wide-format printer and Epson Ultrachrome inks – they are very colorfast and have a low-odor solvent base. these are now outdated by better technology, and if I am ever able to replace this printer with a new one I will look into archival quality water-based ink. The printing industry is getting into “eco-mode” finally, so by that time there will be plenty of choices – and data – available!

Most desktop printers use water-based ink and the prints will fade within days of sunlight exposure. As far as I know both digital and old-school offset printing can use either type of ink – so the method of printing should not affect lifespan.

2. The second issue is natural paper vs. synthetic print media.

I never use paper for museum printing. I use a “vinyl” made by Kodak called “waterproof, self-adhesive, poly poster matte.” It is a photo-quality material made from polypropylene – and has an adhesive on back… so peel and stick. I like “peel and stick” prints since the other options are applying sheet adhesives – expensive and not easy to use – or spray glues… yucky for people and artifacts because of fumes.

The Kodak media is formulated for the types of ink and printer I use – but I am not sure of compatibility between printers.

There are other printable vinyls on the market that are made from PVC… people should avoid PVC when at all possible due to health and environmental issues that can hasten artifact deterioration.

*I have had a print media vendor say that the materials I use are “overkill” for indoor use and I should use something cheaper… but I won’t, and I’ll never use that vendor. Don’t nickel and dime on quality when you need a print to last 20+ years in the varied environmental conditions you find in small museums… many of our small museums have issues with HVAC and lighting – so UV resistant and waterproof are not overkill! They may be considered exterior quality – but would not be good long-term exterior graphics because they will break down after about 5 years in full sun.

3. The third issue is laminate.

Yes, do laminate – but not necessarily for UV resistance.

I’ve tested Ultrachrome ink on my Kodak “vinyl” outdoors in hot, direct sunlight – and rain and snow- on the roof of our old offices. I laminated only one half of the print with a thick laminate, and left one half bare. After a couple of years there was very little difference in color between the sides – so the Ultrachrome ink does not need lamination to resist fading.

I would advise lamination more for protection – my coated paper scratches very easily… so the only time I don’t laminate has to do with budget restrictions, or the graphics can be installed with little effort and are protected from people – like inside a case. 

There are a variety of grades and types of laminating film – I use 3 mil, 5 mil, or even 9 mil thick depending on the location. I now use an over-laminate which does not contain PVC – it is polyester, but the most common “vinyl over-laminate” or laminating films contain PVC. I have to use higher quality or shop around for polyester, but it is getting more common. I also prefer satin or “textured” – matte can get marred easily and gloss creates glare problems with museum lighting.

Tips for small museums buying graphics from vendors:

  •  Go with a company that specializes in large format printing, banners, and signs. No Kinkos, Staples, or other fast copy shops.
  • If the print needs to last a long time ask the vendor whether it is guaranteed and for how long. Don’t use that company if they have no warranty period!
  • Use outdoor-quality printing for long-term indoor applications.
  • Always get prints laminated with at least 2 or 3 mil thick film – satin or textured polyester is best. (Glossy is not a good thing in museum labels or graphics.)
  • Ask for PVC-free everything – print, laminate, and substrates are available that do not contain PVC – there’s no excuse to use it… though some vendors may not be agreeable about that since PVC is cheaper and keeps costs lower. Again… shop around.

 So, that’s my advice about printing for indoor use – from experience. When you get into outdoor applications there is a whole other world of materials… so remember, none of this applies to exterior signage or outdoor panels!

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About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on March 13, 2012, in collections access, Exhibitions, guest bloggers, historic sites and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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