GSM Blog - Read more about Print on Paper

Print Embellishments – Find out the Difference between Embossing, Debossing & Foiling

Print Embellishments

Colour is not the only option to drawing the reader’s attention.

Embossing, Debossing & Foiling are three of the more commonly used print embellishments used in conjunction with, or instead of, ink. GSM takes a look at them…

Embossing & Debossing.

Embossing & debossing are fundamentally the same process.  A die-block is stamped onto a sheet of paper/board to create either a raised (embossed) or recessed (debossed) impression. Typically, the height or depth of the impression is between 0.15—0.5 of a millimetre (15—50uM).

Die-blocks can be made in either stepped depths; single- or multi-level blocks, or as continuous 3-D forms. Stepped/multi-level blocks are made by machine from a variety of materials including metals and composites, 3-D blocks require handtooling and are usually made of brass.




Embossing – Single-level, Multi-level, 3D










Debossing – Single-level, Multi-level, 3D







It is important to note that emboss / deboss stamping is a separate process from printing. One exception to this is certain specialist label printing equipment which can do both at the same time.

There are three types of embossing and debossing; ‘blind’, ‘registered’ and ‘combination’.

  • Blind’ means the impression does not directly register to any printed or foiled elements. The desired effect is simply raised or recessed paper stock.
  • ‘Registered’; means the impression directly registers to a printed or foiled element.
  • ‘Combination’ is a process where an emboss or deboss—plus a foil—are done at the same time using the same blocks (see later in this article).

One thing to keep in mind, regardless of whether you use embossing or debossing, you will be left with a counter-impression on the reverse side of the sheet. This is important if you are planning to have content on both sides of the sheet. Images and text running through the middle of an embossed counter-impression can look a bit strange. Leaving the non-readers side blank, or printing a block colour often looks fine.


This is the process of transferring a ‘foil’ (an extremely thin material film) onto a sheet of paper/board. There are three Foiling methods; hot stamping, cold foiling or digital foiling.

Hot Stamp Foiling

This involves hitting a heated male metal block onto a foil material that is set against the paper/board. Heat and pressure fuses the foil to the paper surface. Similar to embossing but with no female counter block (as there is no depth impression). Hot stamping is generally for large runs (100-200+). It offers a wide range of colour options including metallics (different golds, silvers, bronzes—plus reds, pinks, purples, greens, blues, pearls), non-metallic coloured matt pigments, gloss black and white, clear foils, and even holographics.

Hot stamp foiling and embossing can be done at the same time. We call this combination foiling. As the two embellishments use the same blocks it is more cost-effective than doing them separately. The disadvantage of combination foiling, however, is that everything that is embossed is also foiled. If you wish to foil and emboss different elements in your design, you need to do it as two separate processes.

Take a look at the business card below:

  • This example shows a registered hot stamp embossing.
  • The embossing keys up to the gold foil in the logo, plus a separate silver foil for the address details.
  • There is no printed information.
  • Notice the negative impression left by the emboss stamping on the reverse side.
  • Look at the composite artwork created in Illustrator (below left) to see how they set up the file.
  • They used a gold separation to create both the corresponding gold foil block (top right), plus the embossing block (the blue block middle right).
  • and a silver separation to make the silver foil block (the large block, bottom right).
  • Note in the Swatches panel both the GOLD and SILVER  colours are Spot colours (indicated by the little dot in the colour box—circled in magenta).
  • With no printed information, they used foil to create crop marks. You can see them on the silver foil block.
Embossing Debossing & Foiling

Embossing & Foiling Blocks

Embossing, Debossing & Foiling

Registered Embossing & Foiling

Cold Foiling

Cold foiling is a completely different process. The foil is applied using adhesive transferred by a standard printing plate and done in-line as part of the offset print process. There is no need for blocks or stamping. Cold foiling is a fast and cost-effective way to create this embellishment for large print runs. However,  due to the sensitivity of the applied foil, you can not foil and emboss together. It is also important to note that you can only use certain papers as this process applies the foil ‘flat’ and not stamped under pressure. Also, the end result is generally not as vibrant as hot stamping.

Digital Foiling

Digital foiling is a recent development. Like cold foiling, it does not require blocks or stamping. The foil fuses to a special toner as part of the digital print process. The result looks very similar to hot stamp and cold foiling. Digital foiling is quick and easy, but is really only suitable for short to medium print runs (quantity 1-100). Consult with your digital printer as to the available foil colour range for their system (usually gold, silver, bronze, black, white). Just note that only some high-end digital print systems can do foiling.

Things to consider when Embossing, Debossing & Foiling.

In order to yield the best results it is important to have a basic understanding of the process and what can be achieved. It is also vital to know how to correctly provide the artwork. Here are some things to consider:


  • Contour drawings / separations – The size, shape and placement of the embellishments need to be defined within your artwork. Often, this is simply a matter of creating a special ‘spot’ colour and using this to draw a contour of the embellishment (as per the business card example above). For embossing, debossing & foiling, this drawing will be used to make the die blocks. Check with your die-maker how they would like this to be set-up and supplied. For cold or digital foiling, talk to your print supplier, they should be able to provide you with an artwork set-up guide explaining what you need to do.
  • Tolerances – Generally speaking, embossing, debossing and foiling have lower tolerances than printing. Small text, fine lines and detail can cause all sorts of issues.  Ask your printer or die maker what the minimum tolerances of the embellishment process are and design towards them.


  • Foil colour spec’ing – Regardless of which foiling process you use, you will need to specify the foil colour. If you are planning to use hot stamp or cold foiling contact your local BJ Ball rep and ask to see the current range of API Foils. The BJ Ball foil range consists of more than 60 available colours! For digital foiling, ask your digital printer—they will be able to tell you what is available on their specific system.
  • Paper stock – Certain papers are more suitable than others for embossing, debossing or foiling. Talk to your BJ Ball Paper Consultant early in the process as they often have printed samples to show you.


  • Cost your project – The larger the area,the greater the cost. If budgets are potentially an issue, cost any embellishment component early in the project, before you present your ideas to the client.
  • Reusing die-blocks – Producing die blocks can be expensive. To spread the cost, ensure the blocks are kept safely for future reprints of your job. Do note that die-blocks have a finite lifespan. This depends on what material they are made from and how many impressions they have made. Finally, to get the most value from your die-blocks, consider how they could be cross-used in other projects. For example; the same foil block can be used to lay down the same graphics, in two or more different foil colours, across multiple projects. Food for thought.

A Word on Foil vs Metallic Ink.

They create two very different looks! Foil creates an opaqueness, colour depth and sheen that metallic ink / toner can not replicate. With foils the colour is in the material itself. It appears like real polished metal. Where as Pantone colours are a printed effect. Gold, for example, is simply a gold-ish colour with a slight metallic fleck.

This article was originally published in GSM15. To read this and other great articles purchase this issue here.