How And Why To Print On Mirrors – Mirror Substrates And Surfaces Explained

by Shannell Davies
on 24th October 2018

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The ways we advertise, design graphics, and create visual displays have all changed a lot over the years – and the world of large format digital printing has changed with them. The amount of materials, inks, and machinery available to printers and their clients has expanded dramatically, and we’re now able to create printed graphics on almost any kind of surfaces – including printing onto mirrored materials.

There are a number of different mirror finishes available that offer myriad opportunities for unique and exciting visual advertising and branding, benefiting everyone from merchandisers to graphic designers and brand managers.

The creative possibilities are almost endless — and while printing onto a reflective material requires a significant degree of technical expertise, it allows PressOn to offer our clients a wealth of unique advertising solutions. Here’s a look into how and why printing onto mirror surfaces works, and why it’s proven so popular:  

The challenge of printing on mirrors

It’s not always been easy to print onto reflective surfaces – in fact, for some time, it wasn’t really possible at all.

Many large format printing machines use a form of light (such as UV) during the printing process, to cure the ink as it is applied. This can cause all kinds of problems when attempting to print on a reflective surface, because the light can be reflected back onto the ‘print head’ (where the ink nozzles are). If this happens, the residual ink on the nozzles themselves can start to dry, clogging the machine and potentially damaging the printer in the process.

This is an expensive waste of time, money, and materials, and is one of the major hurdles that large format printers have had to overcome in order to successfully print on mirror surfaces. The most ‘crisp’ and clear reflective materials are usually the most desirable, but have historically presented the greatest technical challenges.

Fortunately, by combining the best modern machinery with years of industry expertise, PressOn have been able to develop the skills needed to print onto highly reflective surfaces and substrates – broadening the possibilities when it comes to graphic design.

Printing onto mirror substrates

There’s a distinct difference between printing onto an actual mirror and printing onto a mirror substrate. Put simply, a mirror substrate is a material that has a reflective surface – hence why they’re also referred to as ‘RSM’ substrates (reflective, shiny or mirrored).

The benefits of working with a mirrored substrate such as vinyl, as opposed to an actual mirror, lies in its flexibility. Vinyl can be installed on almost any surface, regardless of shape or size, expanding their application to all kinds of printed installations.

There are other substrates available too, including more rigid sheets such as mirror aluminium or ‘ACM’ (aluminium composite mirror), and ‘mirror styrene’, made from laminated high-impact polystyrene. The visual effect of each of these is different, and the number of different materials on offer means there’s plenty of versatility depending on what the product will be used for – and where it will be displayed.

Again, when printing onto an RSM substrate, the printer must take great care to avoid damaging the printing equipment.

How to print on mirror surfaces

There are, naturally, a few industry secrets that we’re not able to divulge. Broadly speaking though, there are a handful of techniques in particular that PressOn employs to ensure the printing process runs smoothly. Printing onto a reflective substrate must be approached with great care, thought, and planning, as even the slightest error can cause a litany of issues further down the line.

During printing, the material must be laid totally flat, which means that flexible substrates (including vinyl) must be attached to a flat surface to ensure an even and consistent finish. The substrate must also be angled or sloped precisely in such a way that the UV light is not reflected back onto the print head.

Some materials (particularly those which can refract light in different directions, such as those that emulate a diamond effect) also need to be masked off with pinpoint accuracy, to ensure only the surfaces to be printed on are visible.

Similarly, during the actual printing, regular and careful attention must be paid to the machine itself to ensure the nozzles and print head are operating correctly. This is a complex and potentially risky endeavour, and must be performed by an experienced and skilled print technician.  

Different types of finish

When it comes to the finishes of the substrate themselves, the experience and expertise of the print firm is paramount. Often, clients will request a particular type of finish – such as a gold surface – but they won’t necessarily know what impact this will have on their designs, or if another finish might be more suitable. In situations such as these, PressOn will be able to suggest a variety of different substrates, each with its own unique aesthetic finish.

There are a wide variety of available solutions, but a few include:

Brushed aluminium

brushed aluminium sign

The matte finish of brushed metal can result in a distinct and dynamic impression. Printing directly onto metal can be challenging, but the results are often spectacular.

Colours can take on a unique and vibrant palette when applied to brushed aluminium, and the contrast between the background of the material and the printed graphics can really highlight a design, making the graphics ‘pop’ in a striking way.

Gold vinyl

Mirror vinyl installation

Often selected for its luxurious and elegant visual quality, gold vinyl is a popular choice among high end retailers and brands. The deeper hue of a gold reflective substrate can alter the appearance of a printed graphic, providing a feeling of warmth that makes it particularly suited to certain colour palettes and designs.

Silver vinyl

Silver vinyl printing

A more traditional aesthetic, silver reflective vinyl is particularly notable for the way it emulates an actual mirror. This allows designers to experiment with the use of environmental reflection – an unusual effect that’s particularly well suited to media for retail environments, such as window displays.

Why print on mirror vinyl at all?

If there’s one key takeaway from all of the above, it’s that reflective surfaces offer some of the boldest and most visually impressive aesthetic styles in a large format printed installation. This type of printing can be difficult to achieve, and consulting with your print firm in detail will be a crucial part of the process – but the results can elevate an advertisement, making it truly memorable.

For luxury brands and retailers in particular, these kinds of materials truly stand out in graphic displays. The impact of printed mirror vinyl can’t be understated, and PressOn will ensure that it has a transformative impact on your designs.

For more information on how PressOn can help you create these kinds of installations for your own projects, don’t hesitate to contact us here.

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Written by
Shannell Davies Senior Project Manager