Printing on PVC may be surprisingly easy if you have the right type of sheets or cards and an inkjet printer. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a common plastic used for anything from store signs and bumper stickers to labels, ID cards and transparencies.
Of course, PVC has lots of other uses too, but if you want to print on drainage pipes or tarps, you will need to contact a commercial printer or invest in some specialized printing equipment. On the other hand, you can print on PVC sheets and cards using any inkjet printer that you might find in most homes or offices.
Printing on PVC With an Inkjet Printer
Printable vinyl comes in an assortment of sizes. If the PVC comes in letter-sized sheets measuring 8 1/2 by 11 inches, then it will work in an inkjet printer. To emphasize how easy it is to print on it, it's sometimes called PVC paper.
Other sizes may have issues with the quality of the print, particularly if the sheets are glossy because the ink may not always completely absorb into the plastic, resulting in smudges even after the ink is dry. You can eliminate the issue of smudging if you laminate the sheets when the ink is dry or spray the sheet with a transparent fixative, which you can find in any art supply store.
If the PVC sheets come with a paper backing, then they should be inserted plastic side up so the ink is applied to the plastic and not the protective backing. Similarly, if the PVC has a glossy side and a matte-finish side, then print on the side with the matte finish unless directed otherwise by the manufacturer.
Why You Shouldn't Use Laser Printers for PVC
Avoid putting PVC in a laser printer. You'll notice that when you take a printed paper out of a laser printer immediately after it is finished, the paper is hot. That's because laser printers use a heated element to apply the ink toner powder to the paper. This can melt PVC and ruin your printer.
The same applies to photocopiers. Unless the manufacturer specifically guarantees that you can use PVC in a photocopier or laser printer, you shouldn't try it. It would be far less expensive to purchase an inkjet printer, which is available for under $100, than to ruin your current printer.
PVC ID Card Printing Paper
PVC is a common material for identification cards, gift cards and membership cards. You can use an inkjet printer for these cards provided they have been designed for printing purposes. Check with the card manufacturer before buying cards to find out if they're compatible with inkjet printers.
If you already have the cards and they aren't suitable for an inkjet printer, you can buy card printers that will also encode magnetic stripes. You can purchase magnetic-stripe writers that will print text on the card as well as encode the magnetic stripe at the same time.
To feed these cards into an inkjet printer, you'll need a PVC-card tray that is compatible with your printer. Simply attach the tray to the printer as directed by the manufacturer's instructions.
Best Practices for PVC Printing
The ink that you currently use in your inkjet printer should work fine on PVC just as it does on paper. However, if you are using low-cost ink cartridges and you don't get the results you want, you should consider using ink cartridges that are recommended by the manufacturer.
For best results, there are three things you should keep in mind when printing on any plastic, including PVC:
- Always use the best print quality your inkjet printer offers when printing on PVC. This gives the ink a chance to soak into the vinyl. This is particularly important for images, otherwise lines could appear on your work.
- Allow at least 10 minutes before handling the PVC so that the ink has a chance to dry. Some ink may dry instantly.
- Wait at least 24 hours before exposing the printed PVC to water or placing it outside where it may be exposed to the elements.
- Do not hang or display finished prints in direct sunlight because the sun will cause colors to fade.
- Avoid touching the printed surface because the ink may smudge until it is thoroughly dry.
- Print a test sheet using your printer before attempting to print the final product. You can judge the color saturation and appearance before you commit to printing a picture.
- PVC sheets can be expensive, so make sure that your ink cartridges have sufficient ink to complete a print job.
- Do not bend or fold PVC sheets. Store them flat.
- Do not stack finished prints on top of each other. The surface can be damaged. If the print will not be framed immediately, place a protective sheet of paper between prints before storing them.
A published author, David Weedmark has advised businesses on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years and used to teach computer science at Algonquin College. He is currently the owner of Mad Hat Labs, a web design and media consultancy business. David has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites including American Express, Samsung, Re/Max and the New York Times' About.com.