No more tedious splitting of cards. No more messing with glue or dry mount tissue. No wacky transfer images or other complicated printing methods that did not produce cards with the same look and feel to cards you buy in the store. (If you are interested in these traditional ways to make gaffed cards then read Craig Matsuoka's The Gaff Factory. It is the best publication on that subject.)
The problem with all known traditional methods is that they start with an already printed card. Either you have to split the card, cut it in pieces and then reassemble via some form of gluing, or you had to remove the overcoat (by sanding or with some kind of chemical solvent for example aceton) that would then allow you to print your own design on the card. These methods are messy, take a lot of time, and are quite limited in what kind of cards you can make.
When I started to tackle this problem it became quickly clear that the only way to really improve the DIY making of playing cards was to start with a blank uncoated card stock on which one can easily print with laser or inkjet printer. The only problem was that you can't buy playing card stock at Staples or your local office supply shop. So I went on a mission to find out if one could buy playing card cardboard. And in particular I wanted to find the same cardboard that USPCC used including their 'air-cushion finish' which is used for their line of Bicycle cards (see photo to the right). Bicycles are the most popular brand. If the intention is to print gaffed cards for magic purposes then it better be identical to the Bicycle dimpled surface and snaps and looks exactly like it.
To make a long story short, I found the source. The caveat is that you can't buy a few hundred sheets. You have to buy a 'truckload'. And I mean this literally not figuratively. I decided to buy ONE truckload, break it open, and sell small quantities to people who want to print their own playing cards or gaffed cards that look and feel just like the real ones.
And once I had the right cardboard I made breakthroughs both in coating cards and in cutting cards. The first breakthrough was on the cutting side. You can do cutting in many different ways but if you want to combine your self-made cards with store bought cards, or if you want to produce an entire deck or perhaps even many decks of cards, then the cutting has to be accurate. Otherwise your self-made card will not blend with regular cards and your deck will look and feel wrong if every card has a slightly different size.
My investigation and testing resulted in a perfect solution for the home maker of playing cards. You need two tools. A card cutter and a corner rounder. These two tools allow you to efficiently cut cards to perfect size with perfect corner rounding.
The remaining piece of the puzzle was the coating or varnish of a card. The coating protects the card as well as gives it the right slip to allow easy dealing, fanning and shuffling. And just as with the cardboard I went right to the source professional card manufacturers use. I found a supplier of playing card coating and I found a cheap and easy way to apply the coating.
Job done. Now we can print, coat and cut cards to perfection in a DIY process and produce perfectly looking high quality cards. When I do show my cards to friends and colleagues and tell them that I printed these cards myself their first reaction is disbelieve. They think I try to pull their leg. They check if it is not April 1st fools day. They simply can't believe it. But it is a reality now. You can print anything from a few cards to setting up an entire business printing cards for sale.
This is a photo of five cards I made myself. They have standard faces and Bicycle backs. The ace of spades has been modified - all text has been removed as proof that I am not taking a picture of store bought cards. The purpose of this photo is to show that they look exactly like regular cards. If you use the process I am outlining here you will be able to do the same.
This is a photo of a commemorative custom deck I made for my parents for their 70th birthday and 45th wedding anniversary. At the bottom left you see the custom back which is a modified Bicycle back. Next to it two self-printed Bicycle backs one in blue and one in red. The deck is not a full deck only from 9-10, J, Q, K, A, plus 3 special cards, one with a magic square.
Below you can see three cross-sections taken with a digital microscope at 180x magnification. The left most is from a Bicycle card. The middle one is our Lybrary.com cardstock and the right image is from a Piatnik card, the Austrian card manufacturer.
Therefore, if you use a laser printer, make sure to select in the print driver 'heavy cardboard' or some similar setting for the paper quality. In my laser printer the options that work well are 'Thicker Paper' and 'Postcard'. Otherwise the toner will not completely fuse to the cardboard. This is crucial. The prints will be unusable otherwise. My Brother HL-4070CDW works but it is used outside its manufacturers specs. And therefore sometimes if the printer is not warmed up properly the fusing is not complete. Upgrading from a consumer class printer for $200-$400 to a business class printer for around $1000 will improve the situation because these printers are built to handle thicker cardboard.
How do you check if toner has not been completely fused? If you run your finger over a printed area you will feel the loose toner. It feels rougher than a properly fused area. And you will get some toner on your fingers. You will also see faint ghost images in areas that should be white. With some experience you can tell by simply looking at the print.
There is one important thing I found out. Do not print directly from Inkscape. For whatever reason Inkscape does not pass on the paper settings to the printer. This means that your 'Thicker Paper' setting will not take effect and your toner will not fuse completely leaving you with an unusable print. There is an easy fix to this. Save your design to PDF, then open the PDF in Adobe or AdobeReader and print from there. Problem solved. The tell tale signs for this printing issue to happen are that the paper emerges from the printer faster than it should. And that the 'preferences' window does not properly close after you selected the 'Thicker Paper' setting.
For inkjet printers you typically have to wait until the ink is dry. Some inks don't bond well with the cardboard. In general pigmented inks work well, and dye based inks are to be avoided. I had good success with a cheap HP 6122 (except paper handling is a mess with most HP printers) and a cheap Epson Stylus NX415 printer, but complete failure with an expensive Epson Stylus Pro 3800. The reason is that the expensive 6 cartridges or more Epson printers use dye based inks. Two customers reported very good results with a HP Photosmart C5540. Recently I had very good success with a Canon iP100 mobile inkjet printer. It prints very nicely and particularly the alignment of the print is great. The best settings I found out so far are:
A colleague reported that the Xerox solid ink printers (he used a Xerox Phaser 8560/DN) do work very well and the ink bonds to the cardboard perfectly. The duplexer does not work with the thick cardboard and you will have to print front and back separately. This printer costs ~$700 new.
Probably the best and lowest cost solution to get started is to use the services of a print shop. I had Kinkos print 10 sheets front and back on a color copier and the result was wonderful - beautiful colors. I think these color copiers use a chemical to fuse the toner, not heat, which makes the print quality very good. I paid $1.18 for each printed side.
Other printer alternatives. I have no direct experience with them but searching online, reading reviews and articles I found these interesting candidates. One of the main issues with laser printers is being able to handle heavy cardboard.
One note before you dive into color matching. Have the deck you want to color match in front of you. USPCC is known to have a weak color quality control. You can find decks with very different colors. In some cases the red is already more a pink and the yellow can be a deep orange, blue can exhibit various degrees of darkness, etc. That means there is no universal 'USPCC red' or 'USPCC blue'.
Brute force method
The least sophisticated method is simply to try as many shades and variations until you get close enough. The best is to do this systematically and print out sheets of slightly different colored squares and compare to the color on the card you want to match.
The pros use sophisticated measurement equipment to define colors and measure color profiles of printers. There are services that do that for you at reasonable prices (take a look at www.cathysprofiles.com who is measuring profiles at $35 a piece). Another alternative is to buy a Colormunki (www.colormunki.com). The Colormunki is a spectrophotometer that helps a great deal in matching colors. It costs about $350 and is therefore not something everybody will immediately buy. The pros who need to repeatedly color match will want to get one. For the rest we can provide some help - read on.
Frank Lehmann was so kind to measure four Bicycle decks from different print runs with his Colormunki. The results are tabulated below.
|sRGB Values using Colormonki Photo|
|Bicycle blue back #1||226, 226, 224||193, 38, 48||198, 145, 1||0, 82, 143|
|Bicycle blue back #2||226, 227, 224||193, 38, 48||211, 156, 0||0, 77, 127|
|Bicycle red back #1||224, 225, 223||190, 30, 42||205, 167, 94||34, 115, 167|
|Bicycle red back #2||227, 227, 224||191, 27, 38||191, 141, 0||0, 98, 158|
|Lybrary cardboard||227, 229, 229|
Please note that the yellow and blue measurements are probably somewhat off because there is not a large enough area of blue or yellow on a playing card which allows a clean measurement. Nevertheless, I think the numbers should be reasonably close.
As you can see the USPCC colors differ from deck to deck. But Frank's measurements do give you an idea where to start. This set of numbers is only half the story because your printer is not yet profiled or calibrated to really print out the colors you tell him to print out. Nevertheless, with these measurements we have at least defined one side of the problem and specified the colors we need to match.
Now you take the bottle of playing card coating, open the spout and dispense a line of coating across the entire top width of the cardboard. I actually put a tape across the top edge of the cardboard and dispense the coating on the tape. This prevents that too much liquid gets absorbed by the cardboard before it can be spread out causing the cardboard to get wavy. After the coating as been dispensed on the top I take the roller and with one medium pressure stroke roll the coating over the entire sheet. A kitchen towel is used to clean the roller for the next coating sequence. While I clean the roller the coating dries. Once the coating has been spread thin over the cardboard it dries very fast. I typically wait no more than a minute or two and then repeat the same process for the sheet's back side.
For those that don't mind a little project I suggest to build the following coating machine.
The nifty double sided coating machine
I figured out how to build for a few bucks a nifty manual coating machine that coats a sheet of cardboard on both sides. The photos shown are from my first prototype built from two 4" hard rubber hand rollers, and some hardware taken from the Vex robotics kit.
Above you can see the nifty coating machine. Two rollers are positioned next to each other. The long screws are there to adjust the pressure with which the two rollers are pressed together. Only a small amount of pressure is necessary. Essentially the rollers kiss each other. Below you can see how a piece of cardboard (here a 4.25" wide piece) is fed through the coating machine.
To coat the cardboard a small amount of coating liquid is put into the groove formed by the two kissing rollers. The liquid will stay in that groove and not run down, because the rollers touch each other. Then a sheet of cardboard is inserted from the top into the groove between the rollers which holds the coating liquid. First push the cardboard down and then pull the cardboard through the rollers from below. This will uniformly coat the cardboard on both sides. It works great. For easy cleaning the machine can be opened up as shown below.
My next step is to build this machine from two 8" rollers so that one can feed an entire A4 cardboard sheet through it. The cost of one 8" hand roller is typically $10. The hardware I am using is great for prototyping but is not necessary. Two wooden boards to which the rollers are mounted and a few screws should be sufficient.
You can also spray-on the coating. A cheap way to do this is with a so called 'Preval sprayer'. This is essentially an 'airbrush in a can'. It consists of a pressurized spray can that has a diptube sticking out from its bottom. A glass jar filled with coating is screwed to the bottom of the sprayer. This sprayer can be bought for $5 at Home Depot or for a little more via Amazon.com. Follow the instructions on the packaging. You will also have to remove the filter at the bottom of the diptube. Experiment with dilution ratios or use the coating as is.
Airbrushing the coating
A card maker colleague shared the following recipe for airbrushing the coating. He used 1 part water to 2 parts lybrary.com playing card coating to somewhat dilute the coating. Then he used an Iwata Eclipse HP-BS airbrush gravity top feeder a little more than 1/2 tsp to a side. With an airbrush you will achieve a much better and finer control of your coating.
Other methods that have failed
Until I found the right coating liquid and developed the method explained above I tried a number of other things. Nothing really worked well, but I know that there are alternative coating methods out there - I just don't know them. If you know of any other method to coat playing cards please let me know. I am curious. For completeness sake here are all the things I tried and didn't work:
A few more resources I stumbled on that you might find of interest if you want to do your own coating experiments:
To achieve this you could use a 9-up arrangement, or if that leaves too narrow margins around the cards for your printer and cutter setup you can use a 4-up configuration.
If you don't mind how the paper fiber runs or if you deliberately want to have the fibers run across you can also use an 8-up configuration with the sheet in landscape.
For example, I printed out a block of 9 cards, 3 x 3, perfectly centered on the sheet. When I measure the margin on the left and right for the first top row I get precisely 10.5 mm on both sides. When I do the same measurement on the bottom for the last row I get 10 mm and 11 mm. So the printer drew in the sheet slightly tilted, causing the print to be slightly skewed on the page.
Top and bottom margin were also not symmetric. On the top I get 15 mm on the bottom 18 mm. As long as you feed the sheet for front- and backside print with the same leading edge into the printer, this is not an issue. To facilitate this I make a dot on the leading edge of the sheet - the edge that enters the printer first. This way I know how to insert it for the backside print.
Another test you can do is to print front and back and then use a needle to pierce through the cardboard and check how much off the front and backside prints are. With my printer the misalignment is not that big. In the worst case I can discard the last row of cards and use the top 6 cards which are aligned very well. And every now and then the print on the front and back is perfectly aligned.
After you have printed a sheet on the front and on the back and perhaps coated it with a clear coat you need to align the paper guides of your card cutter with your print. For this you will have to sacrifice one or two sheets. First print out two identical sheets. Put the first one into the cutter and observe where the cuts come out. Then adjust the paper guides for the cutter accordingly. Make sure to feed the paper always in the same orientation and with the same leading edge into the cutter. Here the mark on one of the edges mentioned above will be very helpful. If the print is not exactly centered, which in most cases it will be, you will see large changes in cutting position for inconsistently inserted sheets.
Ryan Thomas (04/20/2018)
Hi Chris, I was wondering if I could get a custom deck made and if so how much would you charge me per 52 cards? Kind Regards Ryan
Mike McMullan (11/19/2017)
Hi Chris I've always used Bicycle Bridge Cards but unfortunately due the popularity of Poker Sized Cards the supply of Magicians Gaffed/Special Cards are now hard to find. I do have a source for the printing of gaffed/special decks - can I create my own gaffed face designs and use standard bicycle bridge back images to do so as this is the only alternative I have.
Christopher Vega (10/10/2017)
Hey Chris I'd love to know if I could just print my cards out on the blank sheets and throw them into a card protector sleeve without needing to worry about coating them. I'm just looking to add a playing card feel to the cards of my game, but would rather it be as simple of a project (and budget) as possible since I need to create a 120 card deck for kitchen table play. I also own a HP Laserjet Pro 200 and would like to get your input on if I'd made a horrible investment or if it'd workout for this project? -Thank you and best regards
Franck Gastel (10/09/2016)
Hello Christoph. I want to make my cards but would need to insert a RFID tag inside. If I understand well, the paper you offer are already with the black glue in the middle. Do you have an idea of how I could get the paper without the black glue, and my nfc tag, and glue them myself ? Is there any way to get the Air-Cushion finish paper without the glue and therefor thinner ?
Christoph Wasshuber (01/14/2016)
The Bicycle backdesign is trademarked and therefore I can't provide it to you. Depending on how you intend to use it you may still be able to use it, but you will need to do it yourself.
Anton van Helden (01/14/2016)
Hi Chris, do you have a graphic for the back of a Bicycle card. I am trying to find one to use with a gaff I have designed...but I really need the back. Thanks to you I have the faces!! :)
Amit Mohnani (05/12/2015)
HelloThat's really amazing you printed your cards & definitely its not difficult creating playing cards at home as we think. Well you put nice efforts, thanks for sharing.
Danny Wensley (01/11/2014)
curious if a Brother MFC printer would still work for this printing process??? I'm assuming so but just making sure. thanks!
Tom Bone (11/03/2013)
I ran across this site if you wanted to get boxes for your custom cards:
.com/ promotional/ card-cases-boxes.html
haven't gotten anything from there yet so "caveat emptor!"
dennis erickson (07/19/2013)
Hi I was wondering how thick the card-stock you sell is? I am looking to make a few homemade copies of some magic the gathering cards i have. I think the thickness of regular bicycles might be a bit too thin. Do you have any thicker card stock or know of a place i could get some?
Freddie Duran (01/09/2013)
Hello, I'm in the process of developing my own card game. Something similar to the card game known as "Magic". Its kind of a nerds card game because it consist of orcs and monster creatures and wizards and such. I just wanted to know if buying the playable card paper was available and I came across you and this website. My first question is: How much will all the supplies you offer to make cards cost me ??? Second Question is: I noticed some of the things needed to make a custom deck is unavailable for purchase, so is it still unavailable to purchase from you ??? Third question is: Can you give me a direct source to where I can purchase the unavailable items you have listed unavailable ??? I may have further questions upon reply but thank you reading this messege. contact info: email@example.com
Steven Gerrits (07/07/2012)
Hey Chris, What a great article this is! The card designer is great, however if I want to export normal pip-cards (for further editing in Gimp for example) the export fails. Face-cards are all great. but just 2-10 gives me a fail every time. no matter what suit. I've tried on PC, I've tried on MAC, same: no luck. Is this a knows issue? At the bottom of the article you write you want to improve the free gaff-design tool. maybe there are others out there that can help too? any suggestions?
Marty Ransford (05/01/2011)
I've wanted to make my own gaffs and specially designed cards for magic routines for about 20 years. I've hand made a lot of gaffs, but no more. Thanks!
Douglas Gourlay (03/03/2011)
Hi there, Thanks for taking the time to offer concise and useful information on this topic. I'm in the process of lookingat using CNC (computer numeric control) to cut specialty cards. I've purchased a Cricut Expression cutter system that is typically used in the crafting industry. I'm not completely confident in the accuracy of the machine (despite the unit being a computer controlled cutting blade). The new systems are now combined printer/cutters. For that reason, the 24" Expression Units are being sold off at much discounted prices. Costco has pretty impressive packages on sale. Another system, CraftROBO has the ability to self align based on registration marks printed on the sheets. The trade off is a very sparse x-y computer cutter. Any thoughts on this approach would be appreciated. Thanks Doug
Heather Barnes (01/24/2011)
Hello, I am in the process of creating a new custom card business and it would be great to talk to you if your time allows. Is there a good time to reach you? I could provide my contact information if you would like. It would help to talk a bit more about Die Cutter recommendations, and the card coating process. I could also share a different way to use customized cards. Thanks, Heather
Wilhelm Eberhard (11/04/2010)
You may want to create the cards described in Karl Fulves' book "Ellis Stanyon's Best Card Tricks". Check chapter 9: Card Tricks Using Special Printed Cards and chapter 10: Mechanical and Other Prepared Cards. There is no need to print you own double face and double back cards. You may peel cards, to create these ones. You may find instructions to do it in Expert Card Technique, by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braué. Just check Part 5, Miscellany, Peeling Cards. Note: use spray adhesive instead of rubber cement. It is much better, but it was not available when the book was published and, therefore, it is not mentioned in the book.
Chris, Do you still recomend the Brother 4070, or is there another model you'd recomend these days? Thanks!
Chris Wasshuber (05/20/2010)
Yes, Keith, I could offer a very similar cardboard that has a smooth surface. Actually I was thinking about that for a while and at some point I am quite sure I will be able to supply it. But at the moment I am concentrating my resources on other parts of the card making process, namely the design phase where I want to offer a free online design tool for gaffed cards.
Chris Wasshuber (04/28/2010)
Best is to go to ebay and search for 'die cutter'. You will find some choices. Or Google it. There are several who supply these die cutters. However, be careful about the exact size of these cutters. They are typically not exactly poker size.
Ben Reynolds (04/28/2010)
Hi i was wondering where i can find a die cutter to cut the size of the playing cards
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