Last December fellow print geek @robbyt86 tweeted an astute observation about someone else’s printing plate rainbow when he noticed that the rainbow consisted of both regular and Chrome cards and that the Chrome cards were printed in reverse. The top two printing plate cards in the image are regular paper printed right-reading (as can be seen in the jersey logo and number). The bottom two are Chrome printed wrong-reading.
This got me thinking and I hypothesized that Chrome was printed in reverse on clear plastic and then fused to the foilboard. This would explain the difference in the printing plates as well as the mix of foil and non-foil finishes. Opaque white ink isn’t usually the best thing to print on top of but this technique would lay it down last, on top of the other inks, which is a perfect use for it.
The more I thought about this the more I realized that this was also probably how Finest was made in the mid-1990s* and that I wanted to do some digging to confirm whether or not this was indeed the case.
*and that there was a decent chance that the protective coating on Finest is still on the clear layer of these Chrome/Finest cards today only it’s getting peeled off after printing but before packing.
So I decided to soak one of my excess Chrome cards to see what I could find out. I selected a 2015 Topps Chrome Hunter Strickland for this since I had gotten tired of him after the 2018 broken hand debacle. 2015 is a good design for this since the colored border meant there was, presumably, some opaque white right there on the edge.
Soaking went well. Card came apart as expected except for the surprise Tide Pod marks inside the card stock. After cleaning everything up I was left with just the front of the card and a literal foil backing.
The next step for me was to start sanding each side to confirm what side the ink was on and see if I could find a way to remove just the foil. This didn’t work super well but I did confirm that the ink is indeed printed on the inside layer of the plastic. You can make out the scuff marks on Strickland’s face and how they stay on the surface of the card rather than removing any ink. Compare this to where I sanded on the back by the Giants logo. The foil and image both start to disappear—especially along the edge.
So I was stuck both because Chrome is impossible to scan and because I hadn’t really produced anything interesting. And then Artiezillante commented on my previous post where I dove into the patent archive. I’ll just reproduce it in full here as well.
So in addition to cards I have a fairly extensive collection of wrappers from the 1980s-today because you never know when you’re going to need to go to the wrapper to answer a question. On the 1997 Finest Series 1 and 2 wrappers they have the following language:
Topps Finest is a registered trademark of The Topps Company, Inc.
SGW US Patent #4933218, #5082703, #5106126, Chromium (R), Holochrome (R), #5223357, Skin Protector TM, ClearChrome (R), Pat. Pending
I don’t have a 1996 Finest wrapper, but I do have one from 1995 and none of that language is there. The 1998 Finest wrapper is nearly impossible to read (the wrapper is clear so the print on the back gets jumbled with the design on the front) but it also mentions US & Foreign patents for Chromium, Holochrome, Skin Protector, and ClearChrome, though there are no patent numbers. The earliest Topps Chrome wrapper I have is from 2002 and it has the same language as the 1998 Finest wrapper.
This was fantastic and turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Patents 5082703, 5106126, and 5223357 in particular describe exactly what’s going on with Finest and Chrome.
Patent 5082703 describes the clear layer,* how it’s printed on the back side, and how the thickness of the ink printed can be changed so as to create textural effects. The pictures in the patent show a generic image in Figure 1 with Figures 2, 3, 4, and 7 representing different cross sections with the clear layer always being labelled 12 and the different ink layers on the back being shown in profile.
*Patent 4933218 that Topps also mentions is an earlier version of 5082703.
Patent 5106126 meanwhile covers the opaque masking of portions of the printed image so that multiple finishes are available after a metallic layer is added to the piece. More specifically it builds on printing on a clear substrate (what the previous patent covers) by depositing an opaque layer behind select portions of the image before layering reflective/metallic material on the back of the entire piece. This results in some portions of the printed piece having a metallic sheen and other pieces being dull and paper-like.
One key point here is that metallic layer is laminated or sprayed on to the substrate. This is not how cards are produced so the key takeaway here is the custom opaque ink sections.*
The last patent, number 5223357, covers the assembly of the cards. The patent specifies holographic film but the key takeaway for me is that it discusses adhering together two distinct sheets—the clear layer (labelled 12) and the metallic/holographic layer (labelled 14)—rather than the single sheet that the other two patents discuss.
The cross-sectional drawings in this patent also distinctly show how the ink is located between the two layers and confirms that my hypothesis about how these cards are assembled is correct.
It also explains why the Chrome printing plates are wrong-reading since, once they’re printed on the the clear substrate, they become right-reading when viewed through the plastic.
When you look at a Chrome card you’re looking at the back of the printing through the clear plastic sheet that it’s been printed on. The non-shiny sections have opaque white ink printed on top of the colored inks (remember you’re looking at the back of the printing). The shiny sections are from a foil sheet that has been glued to the plastic sheet. The rest of the card is regular paper card stock* on which the card backs are printed just like traditional paper cards.
*The plastic/paper dual composition is why Chrome cards tend to curl so much. Paper responds to humidity much more than plastic and so depending on conditions in the Topps plant vs conditions in your home it will expand or contract a little and result in curling.