Multi-Level Embossing Kicks It Up a Notch, Reaches New Depths

by Melissa Larson, contributing writer, PostPress

Embossing is a technique that is straightforward enough to be done at home by scrapbookers and other crafters with readily available tools, yet still sophisticated enough that specialized printers and print finishers advertise their abilities to accomplish multi-level designs and images.

An embossed image can be as simple as one level or as complex as several levels, commonly known as a multi-level emboss. Multi-level embossing takes the process of pressing an image into paper using a die and a counter, creating a raised image and kicking it up a notch by changing the surface of the paper at multiple levels. This makes the technique popular for multi-dimensional shapes, landscapes or images that have unique details such as leaves or feathers.

When compared with single-level embossing, this technique is more expensive and obviously requires a longer turnaround. Yet the finished results are well worth the extra time and expense, and multi-level embossing is increasingly used for high-end packaging for such products as golf balls, liquor, cosmetics, DVDs and video games, and gourmet confectionery, as well as for promotional posters, brochures and stationery.

Sheila Donnelly of specialty printer Precise Continental, Harrison, New Jersey, provides a concise assessment of the impact of embossing. “Embossing is a technique that adds dimensionality and a tactile quality to a printed piece that invites the viewer to touch,” she explained. “It works well on virtually any printed piece – from business cards to invitations to presentation covers to book covers. With over 2,000 sensory receptors in our fingertips, touch has been shown to elicit more intense sensations than sight or sound alone.”

Donnelly went on to explain that the detail, height and quality of an embossing is dependent on many elements, including the depth of the die, the thickness and density of the substrate, and the heat of the press to name a few.

Communication is key with multi-level dies

An important area to remember with multi-level embossing, and a good place to start, is to indicate the type of embossing effect the customer wants. The most common choices are either raised round (round lift), raised flat (beveled flat lift) or raised roof (raised faceted). These effects can be used together as well. On a multi-level image, a portion of the artwork might indicate to raise flat the first level and indicate a raised round effect on the second level.

Although with today’s technologies many multi-level embossing dies are created through the computer and CNC engraved, very detailed sculptured engravings are still created by hand by an experienced master engraver.

Communication with the designer or end user is key in these situations. Although a designer can have input and make suggestions, the individual must trust the creation to the expertise of the engraver.

Said Donnelly, “Communication with a client is very important when making sculptured embossing dies – to understand what look and feel they want from the final piece.”

Mike Pautz would agree with that assessment. As president of E.C. Schultz & Co., a Midwestern engraver of stamping and embossing dies, he understands the challenges of communicating what the finished product might look like, when the design doesn’t yet exist.

“Communicating visual information is challenging,” Pautz said. “Having a vocabulary with common definitions is critical. When communicating about embossing, the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is an exceptionally apt statement.”

“I keep a small library of digital examples that can be sent for reference when planning a project,” he continued. “Sending digital renderings as examples can greatly help to prevent misunderstandings in the process. With CAD/CAM capabilities in place, it is easy to send a representation of what the die will look like prior to actually making it. If a die is hand-sculpted, the project has to be completed before any specific review can take place.”

It is recommended that the designer take the artwork and the specific image that will be embossed and indicate what areas on the image should include intricate detail in the embossing die. If there is a printed image that is partially sculptured embossed, separating out a layer in the digital artwork that indicates the portion of the image to emboss is the best solution. Then, on a printout of the artwork, the embossing effects and amount of detail can be indicated.

With combination (foil and embossing) engravings, the same guidelines must be followed. If a combination die has both flat foil stamped areas and foil and embossed areas on one die (which is possible), this also needs to be marked in detail on the artwork.


Although there are new processes out there creating single level embossed images, and CNC technology that has come a long way to produce many of the embossing effects customers want, there is still nothing that can completely replace the look and feel of a beautiful, hand-sculptured embossing. However, it is becoming a lost art.

Finding and keeping master engravers is becoming more and more difficult. Pautz, who was an art major in college, learned his craft from older co-workers but says he recruits potential engravers from such backgrounds as graphic arts and digital design. Pautz’s Marketing Manager John Masciola, whose background was in printing and finishing, commented, “Employees who expect instant gratification need not apply for an engraving career – this work takes patience.”

The fact remains that embossing is still in high demand. It brings a certain look that many new – and even older – techniques simply can’t touch (pun intended). There is still a place for it in high-volume packaging down to individual pieces of art, and it is certainly not going away anytime soon.

Tips and Tricks for Achieving the Perfect Emboss

John Rushgrove, one of the few true “embossing artists” still operating today, has taken on many projects to expand the limits of embossing into paper. With decades of experience, and the winner of multiple FSEA Gold Leaf Awards, Rushgrove offers his expertise on achieving optimum embossing levels with the following tips and tricks:

  • A tradesman is only as good as his tooling. Find a diemaker you can communicate with, one who trusts that you can do what you say you can do and is willing to push the boundaries with you. You want a sculptured, multi-level die to get the very best result.
  • Each sculptured die is different. Most have minor imperfections, and these will need to be addressed as you are making ready; for example, irregular depths, or too steep a gradient on the die.
  • Always start the makeready after you have bottomed the die out. The aim is to get all of your detail out of your die as you work your way through your makeready.
  • As you go deeper in embossing, you will need thicker dies. Always remember that when your die thickness increases, you will need to use a thinner plate than usual or have no plate.
  • The deeper you go, the more likely you are to experience cracking and creasing. There is no one solution to this, and often it will be a combination of some, or all, of the techniques below.
    • If the job is cracking, do not decrease the pressure. This will result in loss of detail even if it does reduce the cracking. The best result is achieved by bottoming the die out with the counter die.
    • For cracking, place a thin piece of plastic/film over the die. Experiment with different films, but usually the thinner the better (the more you use, the more detail you lose).
    • Creasing can usually be eliminated by putting small feathers of paper on the counter die, where the creasing is occurring. Be careful not to bruise the paper on the embossed side. Using an appropriate stock will keep the issue of creasing to a minimum.
  • Not all stocks are suitable for embossing! It is important to test stocks with the die. This is my starting point. Once I have found a suitable stock (one with minimum cracking and creasing) I then inform the client, who is usually happy to go with my suggestion. If they require a specific stock, I re-evaluate the depth.
  • Do your makeready under the plate on the platen, if possible. Run two sheets through the press on impression. Use one of them as your positional sheet. Cut out the embossed image on the other sheet and stick it over the embossed area on positional sheet. This will make the embossed area thicker on the positional sheets, will bear the weight off around the edge, will prevent the edges of the die from marking the sheet and will give more impression on the emboss. The positional sheet is also used for building up the areas where you are not getting all the detail of the die. Tissue paper, newspaper and the like are used to build up on these areas.
  • Last but not least, have the right mindset. Be prepared for some trial and error. Even at this stage in my career I come across jobs that seem impossible, but with perseverance I achieve 100 percent depth and detail.