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 and make an apples to apples comparison when looking at prices. It’s a guide to help you in forming questions for the company 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 different outcomes – direct printing onto the acrylic substrate and the face mounting method of printing onto the photographic paper, then mounting behind the acrylic.
We’ve been producing face mounted acrylic prints now for a while now so have seen a lot of changes in the industry over the years particularly in the way acrylic prints are produced and where. When we started it was just a handful of boutique print companies in the USA and Europe producing high quality face mounted prints. In recent years that has changed completely with a lot of companies now offering some variation of an acrylic print but there are wide differences in quality of components, craftsmanship, and certainly price.
Although we offer many styles of acrylic printing, this article is based on gallery quality art, fine art application photos were meant to be printed on paper and produced at the highest quality.
Where is the acrylic made? Is it outsourced?
In the last couple years or so we’ve seen a big increase in companies outsourcing direct to acrylic prints to China, India and Mexico. In fact, at least 3 out of the top 10 companies listed in Google for the term “acrylic prints” outsource the product outside the US. The result is dramatically lower pricing but at a cost in color accuracy, vibrancy and permanence (IE color fading over time). Some of the big photo labs are even outsourcing the face-mounted acrylic prints as well but that typically happens in the USA to better control the quality of a difficult process. Every single file we receive is manually reviewed for print quality, flaws, color suggestions, etc before going to print. From there, the acrylic print is produced free of defects and inspected before being packaged to ensure the highest quality. If there is a single bubble or noticeable spec of dust it gets redone.
Do you print to the acrylic directly or face mount by printing onto paper first then mounting?
We do offer a direct print to acrylic which allows a lower cost for some projects, it is true that you give up a little on 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.
Does the price include “gallery quality”?
This is only a question to ask if the acrylic print is face mounted. The machine made direct to acrylic prints won’t have this issue since the ink is added directly to the acrylic. 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 directly 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. 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.
What kind of backing material is used?
Unless 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. For prints above about 40″ or so, a full box subframe should really be used as well to provide further rigidity for the acrylic print.
Do you use stand-off bolts? We use stand-off bolts to secure direct print acrylic to walls, but we prefer the floating off the wall look where all the hardware is completely hidden when it comes to higher quality prints. 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, 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. However, the vast 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.
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 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 as well. We offer these blocks in large sizes such as 18×12 and 20×15 including some great panoramic sizes for those iPhone shots at 16×4 and 20×6. We also offer an elegant hanging option.
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 of 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.
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.
We hope this guide has helped you to navigate the complexity of acrylic prints and allows you to make a more informed decision about quality and price. The old cliche of you get what you pay for certainly applies to the printing industry. If you have any questions at all about this article or the acrylic prints process feel free to reach out to us via email or phone.