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Tips + Advice

Understanding Specialty Substrates

by Elizabeth Freeman on 11/02/2015 | 5 Minute Read

Opportunities for innovation can be created by becoming familiar with the multitude of paperboard or non­paperboard stocks available today, the team at JohnsByrne outlines a few. Deciphering the pros and cons of each substrate with the collaboration of your packaging manufacturer is critical to accurately guide your client. When researching new substrates, begin by asking these questions of your material suppliers and packaging manufacturers:

What are the cost implications of the substrate? Is there an alternative? Is the material sustainable, and in what way? Reusable, recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable?

What printing and finishing limitations of this material?

What are the available weights, thicknesses, and finishes of the material?

We’re going to discuss a few challenges typically found when working with these three popular substrates: clear plastics, metallized papers and leatherette.

What is the MOQ (minimum order quantity) for the material?

From functionality to sustainability, substrates have their advantages and disadvantages, below we’re going to look at a few classics; clear plastic, metallized foil, and leatherette.


Plastic substrates allow consumers to peer through the packaging and visually connect with the product when considering a purchase.

While print technology has advanced tremendously, and has made for precision and high- quality printing on plastic substrates possible, printing on plastics requires special considerations. Leading plastic substrates include PVC (Polyvinyl chloride), APET (Amorphous Polyethylene Terephthalate), PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), RPET(Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate), and PETG (Polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified).


• PVC and PET are the most cost effective of the clear plastics

• PETG is available in heavier gauges than APET

• PETG is clear and ultra­durable, yet scratches easier than PET

• APET, PET and PETG are FDA­approved for food packaging.

• Reverse printing­A benefit of printing on plastics is the option to print on the reverse surface (aka. Second surface). Printing on the surface that will be the interior of your package means the precious print is protected from the outside elements.

• RPET contains recycled content and is widely available as a greener alternative to other virgin PET substrates


• PETG requires a thin poly film cover to keep the material from scratching during print production and diecutting.

• UV lamps used to cure the inks, varnishes and coatings emit heat that must be monitored carefully to maintain the integrity and stability of the sheet. Measurable substrate heat distortion can make impossible to register inks and coatings.

• Foil stamping on any plastics requires vast experience, as the process is based on time, temperature, and pressure which can lead to warping or material crystallization.

• Multiple hits of opaque inks are required to achieve opacity for proper blocking or overprinting impacting costs.

• The material clarity of RPET may be noticeably less than that of virgin PET substrates


APET, PET, RPET,and PETG are recyclable. PVC is not recyclable due to its chlorine content. Additional processes applied to these materials like foils, silk screen inks, or laminates may render the final packaging un­recyclable.


Metallized Papers

Metallized paper is produced by laminating a very thin sheet of aluminum to an uncoated paper stock. It is a cost­effective option to foil stamping, and provides an excellent foundation to create dynamic special effects when used in conjunction with print graphics.

Using a film laminate or spot UV coating are recommended to minimize surface scratching.


• Can be a cost effective option to foil stamping, as an offline stamping process is not required

• Opaque and translucent inks are available to either block or tint the substrate’s reflective qualities. Using opaque and translucent inks together can add depth and dimension to your packaging.

• The reflective quality of the substrate can make a product stand out on a busy shelf.


• Metallized papers are not inexpensive.

• Unprotected inks are easily scratched

• The reflective quality of the substrate may render small copy difficult to read.


Metallized papers and foils are not readily accepted due to the difficulty in the separation process from the uncoated stock. A film laminate or spot UV coating on a metallized paper decreases the material’s acceptability at recycling centers even more. Check with your local centers to confirm acceptability of the substrate.



Leatherette is a patterned material with a finish that simulates the grain and texture of real leather. With many options readily available in a variety of colors, coatings, textures, and patterns, leatherette can create a unique visual effect. Stock leatherette textures widely available include; Lizard, Crocodile, Turtle, and Peacock.


• A cost effective option to real or faux leather wrapped packaging

• Adds a tactile accent to any packaging design

• Hot foil stamping is a great way to decorate leatherette as the process eliminates

many of the concerns encountered when printing.


• Print processes are dictated by the material characteristics of the stock’s textures and coatings.

• Close ‘tight’ patterns are easier to print and hold image integrity than large ‘open’ patterns.

• Large ‘open’ aggressive patterns make it difficult to achieve a good ink lay and impacts the integrity of the printed image.


Leatherette is not recyclable due to the substrate’s manufacturing process.

Consider your objectives, set parameters, and understand your client’s budgetary constraints. Make substrate decisions early in the design process, as it becomes the foundation upon which engagement and user experience can be built. Understand the advantages and disadvantages of all packaging substrates by asking questions, and including your packaging manufacturer early in your development phases.


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