Production changes

Yup. I’m overdue for my next post about print screens.* This time it’s 2019 Topps Flagship which caught my eye. When I got my first sample of Flagship this year, one of the first things I noticed was that they used a Traditional line screen instead of a Stochastic FM screen. This is the first time in a long time that Topps has printed Flagship this way so I figured I should go through my binders to see when exactly when it changed.

*Previous posts are a rundown of 2017’s different cards and a look at 2018 Heritage.

It turns out that it’s been just over a decade. The last time Topps printed Flagship traditionally was in 2008. This feels about right since the mid 2000s were when computer-to-plate technology took over the printing world. There were too many variables in the printing process to really do Stochastic screens before then but with computers both generating the plates directly and monitoring ink densities on press, the whole world changed.

I’ve gone ahead and scanned a half-inch swatch from the past dozen years of Flagship just to demonstrate. You can see the rosette pattern that Traditional screening creates in both the 2008 design and the 2019 design. The rest show how Stochastic screening results in a much smoother image.

Does this make a big difference to the card quality? Not really. Topps has been just fine using traditional screens in Stadium Club and that’s as quality a product as it comes in terms of printing.

Rather, this change interests me because it indicates that Topps has changed its production methods.* Either a new printer or something about the print run—scale, price point, etc.—means that the traditional screen is back.

*I’m also intrigued that Topps is printing Black at 15° and Magenta at 45° but the post about print angles is going to wait for another day.

That the mini Flagship cards over the years were printed traditionally points at differing distributions being perhaps a factor. That 2010 Update was printed traditionally despite Flagship being stochastic suggests I’m just reading too much into it. Anyway I found the change interesting.

While I was going through the decades I noticed that Heritage has been back and forth a lot more with this. It switched to Stochastic in 2008—a year before Flagship—went back to Traditional in 2010, then Stochastic in 2011, Traditional from 2012–2014, Stochastic from 2015–2018, and back to Traditional this year. Cropped samples starting from 2006 follow.

Looking at each year of Heritage is an interesting experience. As someone who’s used to looking at old cards, Heritage’s approach to reproducing the designs shows how different the printing world is now. Where the old designs had pure solid inks,* Heritage is frequently screened. Heritage is also consistently trying to fake the artifacts of old printing—really fat fake traps,** misregistered inks, large halftone rosettes.

*The reds, yellows, greens, blues, and purples are all supposed to be solid. Yes I will eventually have a post about the seven standard easy-to-print colors Topps used for decades.

**Trapping is the small overlap between design elements of differing ink compositions which prevents unsightly gaps from showing up in case of misregistration between the inks when printing.

It’s the treating the halftone as a pattern/texture that annoys me the most. I commented on it last year and was pleased to see that it was gone in Heritage High Numbers. Much to my surprise, Heritage High was printed Traditionally and had disposed of the fake rosette pattern*

*Well except for the Deckle Edge cards that featured a fake halftone pattern while also being printed Traditionally.

This year’s Heritage is printed with a Traditional screen but more excitingly, it’s printed with a spot color. Instead of printing the borders in a 50% black screen, Topps opted to use a solid spot grey ink (I noticed they also did the with the burlap pattern in the 1968 design). This is the kind of change I like to see Topps do with Heritage. Instead of mimicking the look of 50-year-old printing technology, taking a design and printing it as nicely as possible allows us to see how strong the design itself is.

Comparing a crop of 2019 Heritage vs 1970 Topps allows us to see the difference in quality. Heritage, in addition to using a spot grey ink, is also using a much much finer linescreen. It still gives some of that vintage rosette pattern and feeling but it’s also a massive improvement in quality.

This comparison also points out how Topps cut corners in much of the 1970 set by printing the skies as cyan-only. Heritage is much more comfortable with other colored inks giving the sky more depth.

Flipping the cards over on the back though shows one instance where I’m glad that Heritage chose to mimic old printing technology. One of the things I love about the 1970 design is how the trapping and overprinting* on the back feels like it was intended to create a third color beyond the yellow and blue.

*Overprinting is when one ink is printed completely on top of another.

The trap around the card numbers is massive and produces almost a black border. Topps faked this with a slightly-off-center trap that, if it weren’t identical card-to-card, would’ve been perfect. The statistics section of the card is blue text overprinting the yellow and also ends up being darker as a result.

Unfortunately, Heritage chose not to mimic the trapping in the cartoon—part of the 1970 design I loved most. The silver lining to this is that it shows how good Topps’s printer’s tolerances are. I can see the trap and it’s miniscule. In 1970, it feels like Topps chose to have the inks overlap so much that key portions of the cartoon turned black. It’s arguably a bit sloppy but I feel like Topps turned it into a design feature.

Anyway, I didn’t want to turn this into a deep dive into Heritage (though I do have to note that Topps didn’t do the double Latino surnames) and just wanted to highlight a few changes in Topps’s production this year and do a brief history of how they’ve printed cards in previous years.

Author: njwv

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

5 thoughts on “Production changes”

  1. You wrote this with enough clarity that I almost understand all the printing terminology. You have an exceptionally well trained eye. Love these because it is a perspective few of us think about. Plus, we get a history of printing.

    Liked by 1 person

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