Toner foil is a wonderful material, it enables you to introduce subtle glittering colour into your prints.
The metallic layer has a strange fugitive quality and seems to appear and disappear depending on the angle of the light. This magical effect is quite captivating, people hold the print and tip it (and their head) from side to side for ages as they watch the gold apparently sliding around over the surface of the print.
Here are some of my early experiments, including printing gilded text on top of a collagraph print, and adding a layer of fine gold lines over a simple lino print.
What is toner foil?
It is a thin plastic film, also known as laser foil, heat transfer foil, and, more properly, as Toner Reactive Foil.
The plastic sheets are specially formulated to stick to toner, so you can convert ordinary printouts from a laser printer or photocopier into wonderful gilded artworks.
In this post I am limiting myself to gold and silver, however toner foil comes in lots of metallic and holographic finishes as well as black and white. It is easy to find toner foil for sale on line, and it is a lot cheaper than traditional gold leaf.
Take care when buying the foil, as it can be confused with materials used for hot foil stamping; this is a commercial process using heated metal dies to emboss metallic images on high volume printing like book covers, cards etc.
Toner foil gilding uses basic office equipment that you, (or a friend) may already have at home or work.
You will need access to a laser copier or photocopier, it doesn’t need to print in colour, black works fine.
N.b. Inkjet prints don’t work with toner foil as the ink has a different composition.
The other essential piece of equipment is a pouch laminator. I bought a cheap one for less than £30 and it has proved useful for all sorts of things.
If you are keen to experiment with toner foil and don’t have a laminator it is possible to improvise with an iron, however it is hard to get enough pressure using this method so your results may be disappointing.
How does it work?
Laser copier or photocopier toner ink is made from carbon combined with a type of plastic, which becomes sticky when it gets hot.
Gilding with toner foil works because the special coating on the back of the foil reacts with the toner ink printed on the paper.
When you cover a laser printed image with toner foil and run it through a laminator, the metallic foil only sticks to the toner, it will not stick to plain paper.
This may sound simple but the results are quite magic. Rather like pulling your print from the plate on the press, it is exciting every time, keeping you coming back for more!
If you would like more information on the technical aspects of the process, I found colorfoils website explained it very clearly.
Here is a video to give you the idea.
Adding gilded text to a print
I have been investigating ways to incorporate text into prints for some time; this is the best method of adding gilded lettering to images that I have found so far.
First make your print and let the ink dry thoroughly.
I use linseed oil based inks and these don’t stick to the gilding foil. If you aren’t sure about your inks test out a sample piece to check that the foil won’t stick to everything on the paper and turn the whole print to gold!
The next stage is printing the text onto your image. This involves feeding your original print through the photocopier.
It is slightly nerve-wracking to see your print disappearing into the machine, but you get used to it!
In this example, I formatted the text in word, adjusting the margins to make it fit onto the print.
Lay a piece of toner foil over any areas printed with toner.
Run it through the laminator to fuse the foil to the printed text.
The exciting stage is next; peel off the foil to reveal the gilded lettering, which mysteriously disappears and reappears according to the angle of the light.
“Many a damp long backed ridgy field I travelled, toilsome and wide; I made my way through nine thickets and along beside ancient ruined walls…”
from ‘The Stars’ attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym C14th
Adding fine gilded details to a print
This print was planned to include a layer of toner foil gilding.
Starting with a lino cut image of the city skyline at night, I wanted to use the foil to add gold lights to the dark city, and a silver moon and stars to the sky area.
I traced over the lino print to position the lights and stars, and drew them in black on white paper.
It took a bit of shuffling around to get things lined up in the laser printer. Once everything was straight, the lino print fed in to the printer and emerged with the design of stars and lights printed in black toner.
With the gold and silver toner foil on top of the print, I ran it through the laminator. All the fine lines in the drawing picked up the foil giving a delicate effect. In the finished print the gold and silver flickers, and sometimes almost disappears as the light moves, rather like real city lights and stars in fact.
Toner foil gilding has some limitations; your paper must be suitable to run through a laser printer as well as a laminator so working on A4 paper that is not too thick makes sense. Also registering the image you print from the copier onto your print can be tricky – obviously it helps if your original print is square on the paper!
Another thing to watch out for is using prints with a textured surface. In the example I used the leaf print is a collagraph, printed as intaglio so the paper is embossed. Where there are indentations the gilding sometimes doesn’t reach the paper causing small gaps in the lettering. I don’t really mind this as the print and the gilding are all part of a whole, but very deep texture could cause gaps which makes text hard to read.
Every technique has its limitations, but I do love this one because the elusive shimmer it produces is so captivating and unusual.
Experimenting with toner foil has been great fun, and I have already discovered other things you can do with it; look out for future posts, and let me know if you have any toner foil gilding tips to add….
I am running a course on printmaking with metallics if you would like to find out more please have a look at the printmaking courses page.