Short Run CD Printing: Printing the Discs and Packaging

Printing the CDs for a Short Run CD Printing Project

There are 3 main methods that can be used to print a short run of CDs. If you’re doing them in-house then you will most likely be limited to the first option which is digital (inkjet) printing. A professional printing company will usually have screen printing and lithographic printing services on offer too. Each CD printing process has its strengths and weaknesses and we will go into more detail here:

Digitally printed CDs

A digital CD printing machine thermal paper roll uses a similar printing method to your standard desktop inkjet printer. In fact, many modern home printers come with a CD tray that allows you to load an inkjet printable CD into it and run it through the same printing heads that would normally print onto paper. A professional digital CD printer is more of a dedicated machine that is set up to print only onto CDs and has an automated loading and unloading system for the discs. This system means that the machine can print up to 200 CDs unattended and, as printing with these machines tends to be quite slow, they can be left to print whilst others aspects of the project are attended to.

This CD printing process is only really suitable for small amounts of CDs as it is by far the slowest of the 3 main methods. The process speed is not helped by the fact that after the printing is completed, there is still a need for the application of a clear lacquer coating to protect the printed surface from moisture when handled. There are inkjet printable CDs on the market that claim to have a water resistant finish when printed but they are still not as effective and don’t look as good as a lacquered disc. On the plus side, this process can be used to print very high resolution images and the finished item can look fantastic when done right. There are also no fixed set up costs with digital CD printing which is great if you only need 50 discs.

Screen printing

CD screen printing is a very popular, widely used process for printing CDs. The process is an adaptation of the screen printing process used for many years to print onto paper products and, indeed, it has been adapted to allow printing onto all manner of surfaces to produce branded items such as mugs, t-shirts and USB memory sticks. As the name suggests, the process involves the manufacture of printing screens whereby each is used to print a different colour onto the disc. A CD screen printer has 5 printing stations and by using a disc that has been previously printed with a base colour, it is possible to produce a print with 6 different colours involved. The machine is basically a rotating platen and as each colour is applied at each station, the disc passes under a UV light which cures the ink before the next colour is applied.

This process can only be used to print areas of solid colour and is not ideal for printing photographic images or subtle colour gradients. Where artwork has been specifically designed to use this printing technique, though, the results can be truly outstanding especially with the availability of fluorescent and metallic UV sensitive inks. The use of super fine mesh screens means that the print is sharp, crisp and has an amazing texture to it. When set, the ink is very robust and waterproof and is not easily damaged through rough handling of the disc.

When it comes to short run CD printing and using the screen printing technique, there are fixed costs involved, namely the screens and the films used to make the screens. Therefore, it is not the ideal process to use for less than 100 discs if cost is an issue with the project. However, the more discs that are screen printed, the lower the unit cost gets, plus there’s the added bonus that once the screens are made they can be reused for reprints.

Lithographic (Offset) printing –

This is another very popular method for short run CD printing projects. A lithographic printing machine doesn’t have a revolving platform like the screen printer; instead it has revolving cylinders. The cylinder that applies the ink to the CD has a rubber blanket wrapped around it which rolls over the CD and transfers the ink onto the disc surface. The lithographic printing method is perfect for printing complex photographic images onto a disc and also for printing images that have subtle colour gradients, but it is not ideal for printing images with large areas of solid colour as attempting to maintain a consistent solid colour over a large area can result in a patchy appearance on the finished print.

As with screen printing, there are fixed costs involved with lithographic printing as printing plates need to be made up for each set of artwork used. Jobs requiring less than 100 discs can work out to be more expensive per unit than if the digital printing process was used instead. But, once more, as the job number increases, so the unit cost will fall and if a re-print of the job is required then the printing plates can be kept and re-used.

Printing the Paper Parts

When it comes to printing the paper parts for a short run CD printing project, if you take your time and do it carefully, it is possible to produce some very professional looking prints. The print quality of a relatively cheap desktop inkjet printer is usually excellent.

Printing CD Jewel Case Paper Parts

You can buy correctly sized templates online for making paper parts to go into CD jewel cases, or you can simply buy some high quality A4 size semi-gloss photo paper or inkjet printable silk paper stock at about 150gsm. The advantage with buying templates for the rear tray card are that the spine edges will be scored to make them easier to fold but this is something that you can do yourself if you’re careful. The front booklet can be a folded sheet printed on both sides to make up 4 pages and any more pages can be added if required and stapled along the spine. As long as you take your time with the cutting (using a guillotine and not scissors) and are careful with the stapling then there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to come up with something very attractive.

There are a couple of things to be mindful of when printing paper parts for a CD jewel case, such as:


    • The front booklet can consist of 2 pages if you print on both sides of a single panel which is 120mm square, and 4 pages if you print on both sides of a double panel 240mm x 120mm which is then folded. After this, the booklet has to consist of multiples of 4 pages due to the way they are constructed. Take a look at a CD jewel case booklet from your CD collection where there are more than 4 pages and you will see why. One booklet sheet 240mm x 120mm folded in half, makes 4 pages, but to add another sheet where the spine is stapled, you must add another 4 pages. The content is generally designed with this requirement in mind.


  • The rear tray card can be printed on both sides but then you will need a clear CD holding tray in your case to be able to see the print on the inside. Also, the folded spine strips are very thin and it can be difficult to get a good quality folded edge without carefully scoring the inside first. Any text printed along the spine needs to be small enough to fit and centrally placed for the best quality appearance.


Printing CD Card Wallets

Once again, you can buy templates to make your own CD card wallets which can be printed and then “popped out” of the template as the edges are partially pre-cut for you. You can also print your own on 250 – 300 gsm silk or semi-gloss A4 size card. The tabs can be scored, folded and glued using a strong glue to produce perfectly good results.

This is all very well if you don’t have a tight deadline for the project, but printing, cutting out, folding and sticking can take a while and if you don’t have time to make a good job of it, get the professionals to do it instead. They will have automated processes for producing consistently high quality packaging, quickly.

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