Not all acrylic prints are created equally, so we thought it was important to write up a little guide to help those looking for acrylic printing services. It’s a guide to help you in forming questions for the lab you may use, although we hope you’ll give us strong consideration! First and foremost, it’s important to know that there are two very distinct processes in creating an acrylic print with two very different outcomes – direct printing onto the acrylic substrate and the face mounting method of printing onto the photographic paper, then mounting behind the acrylic.
For gallery quality art, which is what we currently focus on, we would never consider the direct print method as it leads to inferior results in terms of color accuracy and vibrancy. We believe photos were meant to be printed on paper! .. not to mention the unique display properties are best achieved with the print behind the acrylic. You can see more on our acrylic photo mounting process here.
So, Question #1? Do you print onto the acrylic directly or do you face mount by printing onto paper first then mounting? You’ll find that companies who print directly onto the acrylic are able to offer it at a cheaper price, so if you don’t mind giving up some color accuracy, vibrancy, and permanence this may be a good option particularly for outdoor spaces and signage where it’s not as critical. The face mount process is more labor-intensive and there aren’t many companies doing it well on a consistent basis. It isn’t an easy process, but the end result is well worth it.
Question #2? Does the price include “gallery quality”? First of all, what is typically considered gallery quality? While the quality of the components are certainly critical and we’ll get into that in a bit, in this regard we’re referring to the acceptable level of imperfection that can arise during the acrylic face mounting process. In particular, dust specs and bubbles that can get trapped between the acrylic and the print itself. This is a common problem which is why most companies won’t take it on and just print direct to the acrylic. Having to redo an acrylic face mount is expensive especially if it has to be redone a few times! Most photo labs offering acrylic face mounting get around this in one of two ways – by offering “gallery quality” as a high-priced upgrade option or using a disclaimer that says the price being offered may include visible imperfections. At Bumblejax, our pricing always includes gallery quality and yes that means that sometimes we redo prints (sometimes more than once). We just aren’t comfortable offering anything less.
Question #3? What kind of backing material is used? Unless the company doing your acrylic print is printing directly on the acrylic and using stand-off bolts, there is a good chance that a backing material will be used to attach hanging hardware as well as stabilize the acrylic. This is important. This will generally consist of two materials – sintra, dibond or possibly another sheet of acrylic. Sintra is high-density plastic and cheaper than dibond, but provides less stability for the acrylic. This may lead to some bowing of large acrylic pieces over time. Dibond, on the other hand, is more rigid, providing much greater rigidity of your print, but is more expensive. Dibond is basically a polyethylene core sandwiched by two pieces of thin aluminum and it’s the material we prefer for stabilizing your print. For smaller pieces, sintra is probably OK, but if you’re ordering larger pieces be sure that dibond is used. Another sheet of acrylic is another backing option and provides a really nice high-end look. We’ve done these types of jobs before, but similar to sintra, it should really only be used on small to medium-sized acrylic prints.
Question #4? Do you use stand-off bolts? Using stand-off bolts to secure an acrylic print to the wall is common, but we prefer the floating off the wall look where all the hardware is completely hidden. This is the configuration you’d typically see in a gallery setting. While acrylic prints can be offered much cheaper using stand-off bolts since a backer material isn’t needed (see question #3 above), we believe these are a distraction to the image. That said, we do have customers that prefer it for various reasons (ie to match existing prints they have or for better security), so can provide this option as a custom order, but the far majority of our acrylic prints are produced with hidden floating and hanging hardware. If security is a concern for you we have a french cleat solution with locking security hardware.
[Images left to right – the first two show hanging with stand-off bolts, the third is the floating look sans bolts]
Question #5 How thick should I go with the acrylic? Many companies will offer an acrylic print in thicknesses of either 1/8”, 1/4” or both. The 1/4″ thickness would be considered a typical gallery configuration while the 1/8″ acrylic still offers a great vibrant look at a more affordable price. The thicker 1/4″ acrylic will have more of a 3D edge particularly if it’s polished (we offer both polished and routed and recommend polish on the 1/4″). Far less common is 1/2″ acrylic, but you’ll find it as an option here at Bumblejax up to 40×30″. Finally, an increasingly popular option are the acrylic photo blocks which at 1″ thickness make for a great standalone art piece. When we started offering these several years ago there were just a couple companies in the US offering them, but now you’ll see them everywhere. Unique to Bumblejax, we offer these blocks at large sizes such as 18×12 and 20×15 including some great pano sizes for those iPhone shots at 16×4 and 20×6. We also offer an elegant hanging option.
Question #6 What kind of paper and ink should I use? An entire article could be dedicated to which paper and ink is best and there are still arguments on both sides as to which is best. When doing your research on acrylic prints using the face mounting technique you’ll come across C prints or inkjet prints. C prints use more traditional chemicals and emulate a darkroom process using LED’s or lasers while inkjet uses dye or pigment based ink with inkjet printers. Inkjet technology has rapidly improved over the past decade or so and many believe it has surpassed the quality of the C print. We do not offer C prints and prefer pigment based inkjet prints for better color accuracy and permanence. The C print process also can be significantly toxic. As for papers, you’ll typically see two options popular with acrylic prints – some kind satin/lustre paper and a metallic paper. The metallic paper is very popular and can provide even more depth and pop to your acrylic print.
Question #7 What type of acrylic is offered? There are many different brands of acrylic out there with varying degrees of quality. Acrylic suitable for face mounting should typically be cast acrylic 100% free of impurities. Our regular acrylic is a high-grade acrylic that meets our guidelines for gallery quality. There are two other types of acrylic you’ll see out there when looking around – a 100% non-glare acrylic and an anti-reflective acrylic that diminishes it. We have tested many varieties and everything in between over the years and aren’t a big fan of 100% non-glare acrylic since it diminishes the vibrancy. However, we can do it custom for you. A best of both world’s alternative is the TruLife acrylic which by our estimates reduces glare around 25% while providing additional benefits such as more UV protection, better scratch resistance and anti-static properties to minimize dust. While we do offer it as an option in our online ordering page and it’s a nice option for some of our customers, it does add considerably to cost and is only available in the 1/8″ thickness.