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An Introduction to Wide Format Printers: A Large Format Printer Buying Guide

For any print job that requires a printing medium between 18" and 100" in width, a wide format printer is the way to go. Sometimes referred to as large format printers, these machines allow you to print posters, banners, signage, and other graphics.

Like all printers, you find wide format printers in a variety of printing processes, styles, models, and capabilities. They also vary by width and print speed. Each factor influences cost and print quality. Your unique needs and budget dictate your choice.

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Who Uses Wide Format Printers?

Of course, the vast majority of entities purchasing a large format printer are commercial printing companies, such as print and copy shops. However, they are also popular equipment for graphic designers and organizations with onsite copy services. Some contractors use wide format printers to create printouts of CAD drawings. Typically, construction and architecture firms use plotters to print blueprints.

Though you can find wide format printers designed for personal use, most are designed for professional use. If nothing else, the cost typically prices these printers outside the realm of most home offices.

What Are Wide Format Printer Applications?

Depending on the printing process, possible applications for wide format printers are incredibly varied. Possibilities include:

  • Banners
  • CAD drawings
  • Electronic schematics
  • Image wraps for vehicles
  • Murals
  • Posters
  • Signage
  • Stage backdrops
  • Wallpaper

You also have a variety of mediums for your printed images, including:

  • Canvas
  • Ceramics
  • Foam board
  • Glass
  • Metal
  • Paper
  • Vinyl
  • Wood

What Kind of Ink Do Wide Format Printers Use?

Like a standard desktop printer, ink type categorizes most large format models and tells you about the unit's coloration and curing process.

Aqueous inks are water-based and use dyes or pigments (also known as UV) for coloration. Dye inks are vibrant with greater variety, but have lower UV resistance. Laminating aqueous prints helps protect them from fading, especially when placed outdoors. UV ink colors aren't as vibrant but resist fading, even without lamination.

Solvent inks have a non-water base, such as quick-dry petroleum or acetone, or slow-dry glycol ester or glycol ether ester (commonly referred to as eco-solvents). Prints are waterproof and the units allow direct printing to a variety of materials, including uncoated vinyl and foam board.

Dye sublimation creates photo-quality prints. A UV Piezo inkjet printer produces waterproof prints when UV light is used to cure the print. This is popular for prints on materials that typically do not "take" ink, such as wood, vinyl, ceramic, and glass.

Types of Large Format Printers

There are three main types of large format printers. The right one for you depends on your individual needs.

Roll-to-roll printers use a roll (as the name implies) of flexible printing material that feeds to an uptake reel. This style is especially popular with commercial printers. Applications include signage, posters, and banners.

True flatbed printers do exactly what they sound like: print onto flat items. The printing medium may be either rigid or flexible and models take a printing surface up to around 2" (5 cm) thick. Substrate materials include paper products, plastics, glass, metal, wood, and foam board.

Hybrid printers allow you to perform both roll-to-roll and flat printing. Changing between the two mediums is typically quick and easy, making them a cost-effective choice for organizations requiring both flat bed and roll-to-roll printing.

Printer Quality and Speed

Print quality is one of the most important factors in choosing a wide format printer. Factors influencing quality include:

  • Resolution: Indicates the number of dots per inch
  • Droplet size: Smaller droplet size indicates higher quality, as it requires more passes to ensure full coverage
  • Number of ink cartridges: Higher numbers equal higher quality images

Printer speed is another deciding factor. With toner printers, speed indicates how many D-size prints (24x36 inches) the unit creates each minute. Inkjet printer speed indicates the number of square feet the unit prints by either the hour or the minute.

High speed does not equal high quality. Higher quality prints typically take longer, so look first at the quality level you desire and then at speed.

How Much Do Wide Format Printers Cost?

With so many variables, costs vary widely. At the low end, you can find a 24" ink jet printer for around $1,500 or a 36" model for $2,500. On average, though, you'll pay between $4,000 and $5,000 for an inkjet in these sizes. Double those amounts, around $8,000 to $10,000, for toner-based models.

If you want a wide format printer that includes scanner capabilities, expect to pay at least $12,000 for a 36" model. Please note, though, that pricing varies widely.

  • An aqueous ink printer ranges from around $3,000 to $30,000
  • Thermal transfer printers have an even greater range, from $3,000 to $130,000
  • Eco-solvent printers average around $25,000
  • Solvent ink printers range from $30,000 all the way to $500,000

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