One question that pops up on occasion and seems to be more common during the colder months is how to get prints to flatten out. Recently a new customer came to us simply because a batch of prints she received arrived shipped flat but the prints still had a tendency to curl. This posed a problem since she had to present these to her buyers right away and it hurt her presentation when having to deal with the prints wanting to curl up. What struck her as odd was that she frequently ordered similar prints and had not had this happen before. Right away I suspected her prints were not losing their roll memory which needed to be done, and done quickly. Roll memory is the paper’s desire to curl in on itself. But why was this and how could she fix this?
For some background information, just about any type of paper you see will have at one point been on some sort of roll. We are talking about copier paper to papers used for magazines and newspapers. Papers like you see with copier paper will of course be cut and stacked. Because it is such a lightweight paper and has had time to sit there it won’t have any problem with wanting to curl up, therefore the curling or roll memory is almost nonexistent.
Papers used for fine art giclee printing and your typical photo lab for photo prints will now days usually come in rolls therefore not be cut until after the printing is done. You will find some exceptions but generally that seems to be the case. Some, but not all the papers we use are available in large sheets but they are difficult to feed into a printer and result in a lot of wastage not to mention more costly.
These rolls of fine art papers are loaded onto spools and fed through the printer at which point images will be printed and then cut from the printer. In our case, the production department has the immense pleasure of cutting these prints out. I say this jokingly since it is tedious and not very fun at times with some of the thicker papers since they will still want to curl up. Getting the paper to cooperate while being cut is nerve racking to say the least. Not only do we have to position the paper carefully but so fresh off the printer, the inks have not had a lot of time to cure. Prints are especially difficult to manage if the part of the paper the print was made on was closer to the rolls core. And it is not just cutting. Packaging is also a challenge since those prints don’t want to cooperate very well.
You will find plenty of online discussions on this topic if you do a simple Google search with variations of the words “fine art photo print curling” so it is obviously nothing new. Photographers especially lament this issue since so many photo labs ship their prints, regardless of the size, rolled in a tube.
What can be frustrating with some of these papers is it simply take time to lose their roll memory. Hopefully the prints will have had a chance to lose that memory in short order but how quick can be influenced by a couple things.
The size of a print plays a big roll. Smaller prints are lighter but it makes it more difficult for it to flatten out under it’s own weight if on a thicker and denser paper. For instance an 8×10 may need to have something smooth and heavy placed on it. If you plan on shelving your prints as inventory for a later show or other reasons, rest assured that the prints should flatten out over some time even if you don’t place anything on them. You will want to keep them in a warm dry area to maximize this. How long it takes depends on the paper itself.
Temperature and humidity levels will also have an effect on paper. During the cooler times of the year, flattening is much harder. But in general I have always found fine art papers are very susceptible to the environment and becomes less pliable when exposed to cold temperatures. This means the ability to soften up and for it to flatten out may take longer. The easiest solution is to get it in a warm environment as soon as you can and then let them flatten out like mentioned above.
Paper type also plays a role, even with premium fine art brands like Moab which we widely use. If you experiment with the different papers you will find some flatten out with more ease than others. Thicker cotton based papers like to curl more in my opinion and in combination with cooler temperatures as mentioned above, you may have to wait a little longer if your prints have always tended to curl for some time after you received them.
So back to the initial question on how to prevent this. I know some people will recommend using something like a D-Roller which is a device to curl a print in reverse. A D-Roller is a cylinder device with a flat that allows you to roll the print on itself.
Here is a great example of someone with a homemade version of the D-Roller. You could probably do the same with a window shade on it’s roller.
While the D-Roller might be used by professional framers, you can also achieve the same results with a roll of wrapping paper. The idea is the same. Place the print face down, roll it up and keep it rolled for a while. I would probably check it after a few minutes. Just don’t leave a print in too long or you may have the paper wanting to curl up on itself in reverse. Then you will have to reverse the process. I know this has worked just fine for some of our customers who have recommended this or a similar method. Just make sure the print is not cold when you do this. You don’t want the primers under the ink to crack. Here is a link which has an interesting discussion on the D-Roller with different opinions on it’s usage:
One of my favorite methods is simply to take a hot iron without any steam (you don’t want the steam to damage the print). Please the print between two sheets of plain kraft paper or other clean paper without any printing on it. Experiment with a lower temperature at first and be careful to not burn your print by keeping the iron on it too long. Keep the printed part face down so the inks are not directly exposed to the heat. The idea is to warm up the print in the process but not to cook it. I have heard of a lot of artists and photographers using this method so I tried it once myself. It worked out great. It also works well on unmounted canvas prints which have been creased during handling.
The bottom line is print curling can be fixed. They will eventually flatten out on their own since they are no longer under the pressure of being rolled. Usually by the time they arrive to you they will have flattened out but during the colder months you may need to give them a little help. Feel free to share your ideas by commenting on this post. Perhaps you have found a better method then those mentioned above or a method that might work better for someone else.