Playing the Cards You're Dealt

Don't send funny greeting cards on birthdays or at Christmas. Save them for funerals, when their cheery effect is needed.
    P. J. O'Rourke

Except for Christmas cards, I've avoided falling into the trap of producing greeting cards. Despite repeated requests from galleries and gift shops, I've not made cards for sale. Unless one can sell hundreds of cards, offering them makes little sense to me. Making them myself involves purchasing card stock and envelopes and a lot of labor. Having them made is naturally much easier, but has higher costs. Either way the photograph, and any copy for the inside or outside of the card, must be created, sized, positioned within a template, etc. I described my workflow for both processes in my December, 2015 article, “Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree”. We've continued that “tradition” every year since 2004, although the photo for our 2016 card came, for the first time, from a place other than Glacier National Park.

Our 2016 Christmas card

Our 2016 Christmas card: a snowy day camping in Yellowstone.

Making a Christmas card every year for family and friends is fun, and I'll likely continue doing that. Making cards for general sale is a very different animal. One would have to be crazy to make large quantities of cards, at least using a process similar to what I described in the article linked above. It's obviously far easier to have them made. For each unique card one prepares the front image file, and then the copy, or additional picture files, for the inside and back of the card. Assuming the photos are already on hand, this isn't an onerous task, even if one wants to have a dozen or two unique cards in inventory. The files are then submitted to the printing house, using whatever means they require. The resulting cards can be marketed in various ways; some printing houses offer services to help with that. However, cost becomes a factor, possibly a significant one.

Each year I buy only fifty Christmas cards to send, perhaps indicating we don't have a lot of friends. The cards are press printed by White House Custom Colour. These are not crappy, copier bond cards. The printing is excellent on heavy semigloss stock, nicely scored for folding, with good color accuracy, envelopes included. While buying large quantities can significantly reduce the per-card cost, I paid over USD $1.60 each for the fifty 2016 cards. I think the problem here is obvious. In a gallery or gift shop setting, how much can one charge for a card? $4.00? $5.00? Probably less in boxed sets of six or ten. Subtract the commission charged by the shop, and at best one gets between one and two dollars per card, give or take a little. How many cards can you sell? You're not Hallmark or American Greetings. You're not going to sell millions of cards you can produce and market for pennies each. If you sell thousands, perhaps it's worth the effort. If a few hundred, probably not, and if a couple of dozens, forget about it. Sure, there are intangibles: maybe you really enjoy doing it, there might be name recognition or advertising value. But when's the last time you paid attention to, or cared about, who made the card you've just read and then tossed in the trash?

The Problem

I make prints with an Epson Stylus Pro 7900, a 24-inch-wide printer I've had since late 2011. In November of that year I wrote about choosing that machine as a replacement for a failed Canon printer. The 7900 produces outstanding prints. In 2016 Epson replaced it with a new model using a different ink set, but I'll continue to use mine until a permanent failure ends its life. That failure is likely to be clogged nozzles in the printhead, or some other failure in the complex chain of components that deliver ink to the head. This series of printers from Epson, including the 7900's 17-inch and 44-inch brothers, is well known (infamous?) for head clogs. To clear those one runs a cleaning routine, typically from the printer's control panel. The cleaning process uses expensive ink as a solvent, pumping it through the head to dissolve and flush out any clogs. Often multiple cleanings are required. The “Auto Nozzle Check” function, which is supposed to check for clogs and clean as needed, never worked well for most users. I disabled that function on day one.

These are production printers, built for print shops that run them continuously, every day. This sort of work schedule runs ink through the heads regularly, which seems to keep them (mostly) clog-free. In other words, they perform best when used a lot. I produce a few prints per month of my own work. I also print for clients; this is sporadic work, with no consistent schedule. It tends to come in batches, such that I'll print every day for a week or more, and then print nothing for a couple of weeks. I have few problems with clogs during busy periods, but after an extended period of non-use, I can expect to spend some time and ink (and therefore, money) doing cleaning cycles before the printer is ready for use.

A (Partial) Solution…

An uncut card showing the cut marks.

An uncut card showing the cut marks. The card will be scored and folded across the top of the photo. In this picture the card is turned 180°, which is how it's printed.

If you've read this far, you're wondering what this has to do with greeting cards. Several weeks ago we were late sending someone a card, but had none on hand. We had to go into town to mail things, so we picked up a card, addressed it, and dropped it into the mailbox. That's what we usually do in such cases, but it'd be handy to have a few cards available for times like that, so I made up a template with Photoshop, tweaked it with some trial (and error) prints, picked a favorite image from Glacier, and printed a couple of cards. The print is 7 x 10 inches. The printed side includes the front photo, and a title or description and my copyright at the opposite end of the sheet. When cut from the sheet, scored, and folded, the result is a 5 x 7 inch card with the photo on the front and the copy on the back. This inside (back of the printed sheet) is blank, so we can write whatever greeting or message is appropriate.

Centering a print with such narrow margins on the sheet can be a challenge with the Epson. When feeding sheet paper (as opposed to roll stock), the 7900 requires a fairly large top margin for the feed rollers to grip as the printing reaches the end of the sheet. This makes it impossible to center a 7 x 10 inch print on the letter-size sheet. To work around this I made a custom paper size in the Photoshop/Epson print setup dialog box. This custom size has zero-inch margins, which the printer hardware can't accommodate on sheet paper, but allows for the smallest possible margins. I also feed the paper “sideways”, with the long-edge going into the carriage first. Finally, I enable both corner and center crop marks in the print dialog box. The finished print includes the complete card image and text, and partially clipped crop marks. Some of those marks are tiny, clipped short by the margins required by the printer's hardware, but they are visible, so I can accurately cut the card and score the sheet for folding.

Now once or twice a week during slow periods I print a card. This exercises the printer, pumping a little ink through the head, costs very little in terms of time and cash, and gives us a growing stack of blank-inside cards for any need that arises. It really does make a difference. I'm seeing fewer nozzle clogs whenever I set up to run a print job.

…But Not a Perfect One

It's not a perfect solution: As mentioned, I have to manually cut the cards from the larger sheet, and score for the fold. The cuts have to be nearly perfect, and getting the score deep enough but not too deep is tricky. This is the non-fun part of making these things by hand.

Another issue is the paper itself. I've not been able to find it, or a close equivalent, for sale in the U.S. Brilliant Supreme Luster is available in Europe and the UK, but I'm sure importing it would be pricey. Mat-surfaced papers are readily available; a few I've used are blank on the reverse side, or two-sided. However, I'd prefer a luster or pearl surface on which I can print with the Epson's “gloss black” ink rather than switching the machine over to mat black. I'll keep looking, and make a few calls to paper sellers. If all else fails, I will switch to a mat paper.

And while I don't see as many nozzle clogs when I set up to print, that's not the same as seeing zero. They still happen now and again, and must be cleared through cleanings. That's life with a 7900.

A few finished cards.

A few finished cards. I've made them with about a dozen different photos.

Clearly, this isn't a perfect solution. It's labor-intensive, paper sourcing is an unsolved issue, and of course, during slow periods in my printing business I could amass a lot of cards! But as a solution to the problem, it has so far worked fairly well. Finding images for the cards is sometimes fun; I can crop a chunk out of some larger images, resulting in the sort of simple, yet graphically interesting pictures that work well for cards.

An alternative to all of this is to print test patterns, sheets of color patches that use some of each ink color in the printer (there are ten). These can be printed on plain paper and then thrown away. Boring, but easy. When I've accumulated too many cards, that's probably what I'll do. Either that, or start selling cards (NO!).

February 2017

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