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Say, I have a small business card that has solid, dark background and white text. Registration, ink amount and look & feel -wise I'd prefer the paper itself be dark and the text printed in one color: white.

However, printing white is impossible with CMYK alone, so I actually need an answer to both of the following questions:

  1. What should I look for when choosing a print house when printing white? Should I look for houses that can do five color printing? What else printing options would hint that they're capable of doing prints with white ink?
  2. How should I go about preparing my file for the printer? What technical requirements should it meet? I mean generally—but if there are shortcuts for this when using Adobe's Creative Suite, I'm all ears.
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Do you mean to print on dark (non-white) paper? – kontur Dec 7 '12 at 10:10
One thing that wasn't mentioned here yet is white toner, which can be used in common (xerox) photocopiers. – AAGD Nov 21 at 12:14

7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

To answer the first question: you want a printer who says they can do white. It's not a matter of 5-color printing, it's more whether that printer does that kind of thing.

As you can tell from a look at the Pantone swatch book, there is no white ink in conventional printing. The translucency of the few whites that are available makes them unsuitable for most projects and you'll not find many printers willing to go to the hassle without charging you handsomely for their trouble. (Contamination from traces of other inks becomes a major issue with white, because any defect is so visible. That means the press guys have to do surgical cleaning of blanket, rollers, etc. before loading white.) On dark stock you'll almost always need more than one pass to build up enough ink density.

For pure offset, you can use one of the neutral Pantone metallics to get at least a pale gray look. On colored stock, especially uncoated matte stock with some tooth, there is no metallic sheen. The metallics aren't terrifically opaque, so a white underprinting or multiple passes are often needed. The standard advice applies: talk to the printer and see what they advise with their equipment and the card stock you're planning on.

For real opaque white, your best bets are thermography or white foil stamping. In either case put the text or graphic on a layer that's specified as "White" in the same way you would specify a spot varnish. Foil stamping houses generally prefer a separate file with just the foil portion, but whoever is doing the printing can advise you. Stamping involves a custom die, just like embossing, so be prepared for that to cost quite a bit extra for your first run of cards.

For your specific job, one "color" on dark stock, almost all printers want your text and graphics in black. You specify "white" in the order, and you can name the layer "white" just to remind them, but the objects should be black in the file. Same goes for foil and embossing.

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To add to this excellent answer: If you wind up having to go with anything using raised lettering, on a business card, you're taking a risk that your type (your contact information, the point of the card) is going to wear off if the card is kept in someone's pocket or wallet. Honestly, I suggest making a different design choice. Use a very pale gray, a metallic, or change the color scheme altogether. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 22 '11 at 11:28
Excellent point, Lauren. I have to admit I avoid the raised lettering thing. They've some flat techniques now in thermography, though. Haven't had occasion to use them yet. – Alan Gilbertson Jul 22 '11 at 17:24

The most common way to do this is to use white paper to get the "white" ink effect, and have everything else printed in color. White is absence of ink.

That's how most commercial printer do it. It works well on digital (short runs) printing and it's the most economical way to do this. You won't have issues with registration if you use a quality printer, Pantones to replace rich colors and/or use an intelligent "rich black". You will rarely have issues with registration on digital printing.

Otherwise, on offset printing there's also some silver metallic inks that can give an effect of white ink but that's never pure white. Metallic inks a bit more opaque than standard inks and it can give a nice effect when used on a colored paper.

It's not true you need more than 1000+ prints on offset; you can get 100 cards if you want but the cost-per-card will simply be higher because you need to pay for the plates for the run. Logically, if you print more cards, the cost of the plates will be shared on the quantity...!

And if you really want to use white ink then refer to the other answers or the link below and make sure you have a budget ($) for this.

You can use other processes than standard offset to print in white but keep in mind that you also might lose some precision and won't be able to print certain thin/small designs either because some "inks" or "UVs" are thicker than offset inks.

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White ink... We need a brief explanation of some ink categories and print processes.

Process inks are semi transparent inks, they use the white (or whatever paper color you have) and start removing light reflected from it to produce different colors. AKA the CMYK subtractive model.

Spot color inks are a little more opaque, depending on what system are you using for printing.

In offset printing, as the ink thickness is very light, all inks will be transparent in some degree, so it is hard to find a white ink. Actually you do not make a light version of a color with white, but with transparent ink base.

But in silk printing (also known as screen printing) it is very common to have a white ink, for example printing on black T-shirts.

In this business card thing (I know the tread is old, but it is still useful) because of the short run (in offset you need to print like 1,000-40,000) the way to go is silk printing with spot color.

If you want to do digital business cards, simply put a white letter on a dark background.

Another usage of white inks are for example in flexography when you are printing on a transparent plastic bag. If you have a color selection here you need for sure a 5 ink print process. W+CMYK. (Well they are actually KYMC+W because it is printed in reverse order) :0)

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This is a really good point and odd that it took several years for someone to bring it up! Made a slight edit to point out that silk printing is often called 'screen printing' as well. – DA01 Aug 12 at 6:41
Thanks, you are always wellcome to edit my strange writing X0) – Rafael Aug 12 at 16:10

To answer your first question, look for a printer that says they can print white ink digitally so you get the best bang for your buck. offers white ink printing in their wedding section, but because it's a printing service, you can get a custom quote or make a wedding offering suit your needs. Here's a link to the wedding section:

And to answer your second question, offers file setup instructions for digital white ink printing here for both InDesign and Illustrator:

Good luck!

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Or, look for a printer that has an HP Indigo Press that is capable of printing white Ink. The results are amazing!

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I was skeptical, but, sure enough, the Indigo Press can print with white ink. Cool! – DA01 Apr 24 '13 at 23:05

why not just print the negative space in black on a pure white card?

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You might want to elaborate a bit more. Either the OP has a unclear understanding of offset printing or has something more complicated in mind. In any case more input would be good for any potential answer. – kontur Dec 7 '12 at 10:13
@kontur I think he is saying to get white stock and print lots of black to it. The OP was asking how to tell if a print house can print white; and what format does the white channel need to be sent in as. – Hawken Jul 1 '13 at 18:57

If the paper itself is dark and letters need to be white, then what you need is a printer that can print with a white spot color. That means you'll be printing one-color with white ink on the dark paper. Beyond that, you'll need to speak with them about how to prepare the layout, particularly can you just use black letters on a white background or vice versa. (Though I will venture to guess it will be the former.)

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