How to Embed Computer Printed Images in Plastic

How to paint plastic. How to put inkjet or laser printer images in plastic resin castings.

Game tokens
Game tokens made by embedding inkjet images in plastic resin

Anything you can print on a laser printer or inkjet printer can be embedded in the surface of plastic. The embedded image actually becomes part of the plastic. The image is much more permanent and durable than if you simply painted the image onto plastic.

There are many variables involved in this technique that can affect the results you get. Among them are the brand of printer and type of ink it uses, the type of paper you print on, and the type and brand of plastic resin that you use.

Black ink (either laser or inkjet) printed on good quality, smooth surface paper gives the most reliable results.

If you want color images and use exactly the equipment and materials we mention below, you should be able to duplicate our results. Just be aware that if you use different equipment or materials, you may need to do some experimenting to determine what works best. Some types of plastic don't pick up color very well. Some types of paper don't release the color image very well. Some papers have plastic coatings that stick to the plastic resin permanently. Some colors fade out, or only one component of the color is picked up by the plastic resin. (For instance, in a brown color that is actually made of tiny yellow and red dots, only the red gets picked up by the plastic).

We have not tested this technique with color laser prints, color copier prints, or dye-sublimation prints. If you have access to this equipment, test it out!

Here are the equipment and materials we used to make the game tokens:
Hewlett Packard 890C inkjet printer with HP color cartridge.
HP "Premium Inkjet Paper". (Note that this is NOT photo paper).
The "best quality" and "premium inkjet paper" settings in the printer setup dialog.
"Jam'n Jeff's 5 minute Quick Cure Epoxy" ("Devcon 30 minute epoxy" also works).

Other materials tested, and the results:
plain copy paper - works, but the image is not as good, harder to get the paper off the plastic.
Glossy Inkjet Photo Paper - Epoxy resin does not pick up the image well.
Overhead transparency film for inkjet printers - the image sticks to the film too strongly, the plastic resin does not pick up the image.

Here is how to do the technique:

  1. Put the image you want to use into a computer graphics format such as a bitmap image (.bmp, .tif, .gif, .jpg, etc.). The format you use depends on the computer graphics program you are going to use to manipulate the image. Most programs can accept images in the above formats.
    A scanner can take any hand drawn image or photograph and make a computer graphics file in one of the above formats. If you don't have a scanner, many copy shops and print shops can do this for you. Most current computer graphics programs are suitable for this project, including, "PhotoShop", "Corel Draw", "Illustrator", and so on. On Windows computers, you can use the free paint program that is included with Windows, called "Paint". A trialware program called "Paint Shop Pro" is available (do an online search for it) that can do most any kind of image manipulation that you need.

    Black and white graphic
    A graphic created in a computer illustration program

  2. Once you have your image in a graphics program, use the features of the program to adjust color, size, effects, and so on until it looks exactly like you want the embedded image to look.
    Color graphic
    Colors added to the image

  3. Use the graphics program to reverse the image, so that it looks "backwards". This function might be called "reverse", "reflect", "mirror", or "flip". At this point, you can also add a graphic that is the shape and size you want the plastic around your image to be. For instance, if you want your finished object to be in the shape of a heart, add a heart-shaped graphic around the image. You will use this graphic to build a clay wall in that shape, to contain the liquid plastic you pour over the image. Most graphics programs can add simple shapes such as circles and squares in the size you want. You can also use clipart designs or even fonts that have designs like hearts. Just import the clipart or use the font, and then resize the image so that it surrounds your main image.
    Reversed graphic
    The reversed image

  4. Print the image to an inkjet printer, using special smooth-surface inkjet paper such as the HP "Premium Inkjet Paper". (Note that this is NOT "inkjet photo paper"). If your image is just black and white, you can use either an inkjet or laser printer.
  5. At this point you are done with the computer. Next you need to prepare to cast the epoxy. Build a clay wall around the image on the paper in exactly the shape and size you want the finished casting to be. For instance, if you want the image to come out in the center of a heart-shaped piece of plastic, build your clay wall so it is in the shape of a heart and the image is in the center of the heart. If you printed out a shape to use as a guideline, just build your clay wall on top of the shape. You can also use many types of throwaway plastic containers to surround your image, as shown below.
  6. Mix your epoxy. White resin gives a good background for most images. You can make the epoxy resin white by adding a small amount of titanium dioxide or white "tints all". Pour the liquid epoxy over your image. The epoxy will absorb the image into the top layer of plastic as it sets.
    Measuring cup used as container for liquid plastic
    A throwaway plastic measuring cup was used to contain the liquid plastic resin. A hole was drilled in the bottom so the liquid plastic could be poured in. The edge is sealed to the paper with some clay.

  7. When the plastic is hard, remove it from the clay or the container. Peel off as much of the paper as you can, without digging or scraping your casting.
  8. Put the casting into some soapy water (5 drops of dish detergent to a cup of water) and let the casting soak for an hour. After the soak, you should be able to rub the paper with your fingers and get the paper to come off.

The image you use is not reusable. Each plastic casting will use up one image, but of course you can print as many images as you want on a single piece of paper.

If you will be making many castings in the same shape and size, you can make yourself a permanent rubber "wall" to contain the liquid plastic, instead of building a clay wall each time you make a new casting. Do this by making a rubber mold of a clay wall that is exactly the shape and size you want. Then use a release agent and make a rubber casting in the mold. The rubber casting will be a duplicate of the clay wall. The Castcraft Moldmaking and Casting Guides have more information on making molds and using moldmaking materials.

Special Procedure for Polyurethane Plastic

Polyurethane plastic will work for this technique, but it is very difficult to remove the paper from the plastic after the plastic cures. Here is how to get better results when using polyurethane plastic:

Follow all the steps given above until you have a color image printed on premium inkjet paper, but before pouring plastic resin over the image.

Take the printed image and soak it in MINERAL OIL until the paper is saturated. Then “blot” the excess mineral oil off the paper. Do not “wipe” the excess oil off, or you may smear the image.

Pour the polyurethane plastic resin over the image, then follow the rest of the steps given. The paper will come off the plastic easier after the plastic has cured, and the colors will be more vivid. No other type of oil we tested gives the same results as mineral oil - use mineral oil only. Mineral oil is available at any drugstore.

Download a PDF source list

Includes 26 suppliers of all mold making and casting materials mentioned in ALL the demonstrations on this web site, including silicone rubber, polyurethane rubber, latex rubber, polyurethane plastic, epoxy resin, polyester resin, molding clay, foam board, release agents, pottery plaster, Hydrocal, metal powders, other plastic resin fillers, and gelatin molding compound. With company names, addresses, phone numbers, and web sites. Downloads to your computer as a PDF file.

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