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First Surface vs. Second Surface Printing on Acrylic

Want to create striking photo displays or custom signage for your work space? You should consider printed acrylic! We use two methods that create completely different results: first surface and second surface. This blog article explains the difference between these options, provides some examples and shows what happens when we combine them.

Example of first and second surface printing on acrylic. 12-Point SignWorks - Franklin, TN

This is a great example of both methods. The waterfall image was printed second surface and the dark grey letters were printed first surface. Notice how the light dances across the top of the glossy acrylic!

Acrylic is a lightweight, plexiglass material that we commonly use in our shop to create custom signage and beautiful, high resolution photo displays. It comes in a variety of thicknesses and colors and can be cut to any shape desired. When printed directly on the surface, our customers most often select clear, matte or frosted acrylic.

We use our flatbed printer to print the artwork or graphics onto the surface of acrylic. One of the tricks of the trade in the sign industry is the ability to print on both the top and bottom surfaces. Here are more detailed descriptions of each method:

First Surface Printing

First surface printing is the most common and least expensive method. The ink is printed directly on the front or top surface of the acrylic. The ink creates a matte, non-glare finish when applied to clear acrylic. 

Example of first surface printing on acrylic. 12-Point SignWorks - Franklin, TN

The logo and photo in this image were printed first surface on 1/8″ thick acrylic.

Second Surface Printing

Second surface printing steps up the “wow” factor by adding a high-end, elegant look to custom acrylic signs and photo displays. The ink is applied to the back or rear facing surface of the acrylic. The viewer has to look through the acrylic to see the image. This creates a dimensional effect with a shiny, almost glass-like surface. Talk about beautiful results!

Example of second surface printing on acrylic. 12-Point SignWorks - Franklin, TN

This image was printed second surface on 1/4″ clear acrylic. As you can see, this print turned out gorgeous!

One of the main benefits of second surface printing is that framing isn’t necessary. The ink is protected behind the acrylic. The acrylic surface is also wipeable, so fingerprints and smudges can be easily cleaned.

Combining Both Methods

If you really want to hear people say “WOW,” we can also print on acrylic using both methods. This effect creates even more depth and dimension than second surface alone. To see examples, take a look at the images below.

In the first image, we digitally printed the states second surface on 1/4″ thick clear acrylic and the number of locations for each state in black using the first surface printing method. To learn more about this project, read our Project of the Week article: Custom Signage Honoring the Story of Hunt Brothers Pizza Nashville TN.

First and Second Surface Printing on Acrylic for Hunt Brothers Pizza. 12-Point SignWorks - Franklin, TN

We printed the map section of this display for Hunt Brothers Pizza using both second and first surface printing on 1/8″ acrylic. The contour cut acrylic was installed on the wall using standoffs.

The photo below shows another example of combined first and second surface printing on acrylic. This branded product panel was fabricated for Reliant Bank. The words “YOU DESERVE TO BE REWARDED” and the Reliant Bank logo at the bottom were printed in white ink second surface. The green stripes and words “Rewards Checking” were printed first surface. We also applied grey vinyl to the back of the acrylic panel so it would stand out from the brushed aluminum composite back panel. You can see the dimensional effects the combined methods created from the reflection of light in this image. To see more about this project, read this article: Acrylic Photo Displays Bring Hometown Feel to Reliant Bank.

Example of First and Second Surface Printing for Reliant Bank. 12-Point SignWorks - Franklin, TN

If you look closely at the reflection in the acrylic, you can see the difference in the ink that was printed first surface versus the ink that was printed second surface.

As you can see, printed acrylic is a great material for creating beautiful photo displays or custom signs for your office, restaurant or retail space. If you would like to learn more about printed acrylic or are ready to get your project started, give us a call at (615) 595-6564, click on the button below, or come visit our shop anytime Monday thru Friday, 8-5. Estimates and consultations are always free!

Contact Us to Discuss Your Custom Signage Needs

We also specialize in vehicle wraps, window graphics, wall murals, architectural displays, environmental branding, and custom projects. We’re located in Franklin, TN, however, we provide services to all of Middle Tennessee, including Nashville, Brentwood, Hendersonville, Murfreesboro, Lebanon, and even parts of Kentucky and Alabama. We look forward to working with you!