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Playing Card Manufacturer: Shuffled InkThe vast majority of custom decks of playing cards are produced by big printing companies like the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), European-based Cartamundi, and Taiwan-based Expert/Legends Playing Cards. But there are some lesser known playing card manufacturers, and there are some good reasons why you should know about these smaller players in the playing card industry. Buyers will want to know what they can expect in terms of quality and handling of a deck printed by a lesser known publisher. But this will especially be of interest to creators of custom decks, because you will want to know what options you have for producing your decks besides the usual candidates. These smaller companies will especially be of interest to designers wanting to print a small run of prototype decks, or a number of decks of your own design for family or friends.
Companies like USPCC or EPCC/LPCC typically require a minimum order of 600-1000 decks, which quickly becomes out of reach if you're just printing a prototype or making a custom deck for relatives or workmates. As a result many designers typically turn to MakePlayingCards.com (MPC) for smaller scale projects like this. MPC is a printing and production company based in Hong Kong with a factory in China, and their strength is that they take small sized orders. Even if it's just half a dozen decks that you want printed, they'll do it for you. MPC's playing cards don't match the quality of a Bicycle deck in terms of handling, but they do offer playing cards with an embossed air cushion finish, and the quality is superior to budget printers like Artscow. As a result they are the printer of choice for many designers looking to print a dozen or so decks, since for many creators they are the option they know about.
So what about if I told you about another printer that offers a similar service? That playing card manufacturer is called Shuffled Ink, and it's even based in the United States. So let's find out more about them, and see if they are a viable alternative for those who might otherwise use MPC for printing their decks.
The Shuffled Ink companyShuffled Ink was previously known as QPC Games (Quality Playing Cards & Games) ahead of a rebranding that happened in 2016. Based in Orlando, Florida, the majority of their playing card products are printed at their United States printing and manufacturing facility. This makes them of immediate interest to North American consumers, because it means that there's real potential for reduced costs in shipping and delivery time. Some of the other things they produce (e.g. board games) are outsourced to China and shipped to the US for assembly, but aside from extremely high volume orders, nearly all their playing cards are printed directly in the United States. They also boast that they create products that are environmentally safe, since their materials are all safety-certifiable - something that can't always be said of the competition.
They have been in the business of professional printing and manufacturing for many years, with Charles Levin beginning the company on his dining room table in 1999. From there it grew into his three car garage the following year. After initially outsourcing all production, eventually in 2013 the move was made into the 8,000 square ft manufacturing facility that it is today, with over 20 employees. Growth continues, and there are plans to open a 17,000 square ft facility in the middle of next year. It's a family run business, with Charles taking care of marketing and sales, and his son Matthew running all domestic operations. Their clients include big names like Barclays, Verizon, T-Mobile, Disney, Google, Walmart, and World Poker Tour, so we're not talking here about a backyard operation run out of someone's garden shed, but about an established and respected printer. They describe their strengths as including the following: "An emphasis on our customer service, communications and responsiveness are huge added values when combined with our quality, best prices and turn around times."
Reports that I came across about the game components that Shuffled Ink produced under their QPC Games label were very positive. Printing custom board games is something they've been doing for around 20 years now, so they have a lot of experience in this area, and they've fulfilled many projects funded via Kickstarter. It's not just the game itself that they can handle, because their services also include taking care of producing any accessories that a board game might need, including tokens, dice, chips, spinners, timers, instruction books, mats, and boxes. This even covers custom pieces, so clearly they have access to a very broad production range. They're also moving more and more into providing fulfilment for customers as well.
But besides customized board games, Shuffled Ink also print cards, and that's especially my area of interest. I should mention that their printing of cards this isn't limited to traditional playing cards, because they also produce custom card games, custom flash cards, and custom tarot cards. In other words: anything card related, and they'll print it. Not surprisingly, they've manufactured millions of custom card games for customers and Kickstarter campaigns, along with whatever accessories and customization these needed. I didn't know there was a big market for flash cards, but apparently I'm wrong - it turns out that flash cards are very popular for many educational purposes, and are used for things like training employees, teaching new languages, educating children, or study purposes.
Tarot cards are a large but niche market that is somewhat separate from regular playing cards, but in the interests of completeness I'll mention that Shuffled Ink also produces fully custom tarot decks, using your own artwork or photography, with a minimum order size of ten. They are a member of the American Tarot Association, which gives them access to official tarot resources and materials, to ensure a thoroughly professional job. The printing on some sample Tarot decks that I looked at was clean, crisp, and impressive.
Shuffled Ink decksCurrently board games account for about 10% of Shuffle Ink's business, card games for 20%, tarot cards and flash cards for 20%, and a custom playing cards for a whopping 50%. These custom decks of playing cards that they print and produce is of special interest to me and most of my readers, so let's find out more about that.
Just about every option you can think of is available, and that's because Shuffled Ink caters to a wide range of customers with different needs. It turns out that it's not just collectors, card players, cardists, and magicians that like playing cards. Custom decks are extremely popular, and while they are sometimes produced as personalized items for the gaming industry, they are also printed for a range of other purposes including promotional giveaways, corporate and charity events, trade shows, wedding and anniversary gifts, and for all kinds of special occasions that a custom deck might commemorate and celebrate. Unlike other printers which have the requirement of an order size of 500 or more decks, Shuffled Ink lets you print as few as 5 decks.
Given the diverse needs of their customers, it won't come as a surprise that Shuffled Ink offers lots of options for designing a deck. You can keep things very simple, by having standard faces, and using a single custom photo or graphic design of your own on the reverse of the cards. Or you can go fully custom, with individual personalized images on the front and back of each and every card. Using standard faces simplifies the process, because then it's just a matter of uploading your own design or photo for the card backs, which can be customized with additional text as needed.
If you want to do your own artwork from scratch, they provide a number of different templates for different sized cards, depending on whether you want to go with a poker-sized (2.5” x 3.5”) or bridge-sized (2.25” x 3.5”) deck. Templates are also provided for making the tuck box, which can also be a fully custom design of your own. If you need help, Shuffled Ink offers your first hour of graphic art support for free, and typically only charge for extensive work after that; for the most part their graphic support staff make themselves available to assist clients at no cost.
Several different options are available for the card stock, as well as two main options for the finish. As a magician, cardist, and collector, I'm mainly interested in paper cards, so I'll leave out the PVC and Plastic options that they offer, besides noting that these range from 28mm to 35mm in thickness, and have a 500 deck minimum. There's no such minimum for the two main paper stock options for playing cards, which are the 300gsm Premium Paper Stock (Smooth finish) or the 310gsm Casino Paper Stock (Linen finish). Most people with experience with playing cards will realize immediately that a smooth finish is the best for printing high resolution detailed artwork. A linen finish, on the other hand, is the one to opt for if you actually plan to use the cards for shuffling and games, because it has a textured and embossed surface that results in much better card handling, especially in spreads and fans.
You can get sample decks from Shuffled Ink to get an idea of what their playing cards look like, and the 310gsm stock is slightly denser and thicker. But both paper stocks have a black core to prevent you seeing through the cards when they are held up in the light. The 300gsm stock was more than adequate for a printed deck, but I'd definitely recommend going with the 310gsm stock if the deck is going to be shuffled and used extensively. The range of samples I had opportunity to check out included some cards with 330gsm stock. This is much thicker, and only suited to larger sized decks like Tarot cards and larger flash cards. Especially with the smooth finish, these certainly look great and feel snappy and durable, but for obvious reasons its not an option for a regular sized deck of playing cards.
The range of different specialty packaging choices was much bigger than I ever expected. All decks come standard with the cards wrapped in cellophane inside the box - something that will be familiar to anyone who has opened a Cartamundi deck. If you want to go with something plain, you can opt for an ordinary white windowed tuck box or for a clear hard-plastic case (classic or jewel) which showcases the cards inside. The sample decks in plastic cases that I checked out were all packaged in a cardboard sleeve for added protection. Another option is a semi-clear soft-plastic gel case. Custom options include a completely custom printed tuck box, consisting of one piece, or two parts, as well custom painted tins.
Most of us will prefer a plain white tuck box if we're really looking to cut costs and just want to trial some cards. But for a more formal project, we'll likely opt for a custom tuck-box that incorporates our own design. Some of the sample boxes I looked at were very impressive, not just in terms of the custom printing, but I especially liked some of the solid two-piece cardboard boxes used for Tarot boxes.
My own experience in printing a deck with Shuffled InkThe ordering process
So how about giving a complete first-hand account of an actual printing experience with Shuffled Ink? I did a collaboration with BottledMagic, who is a passionate cardist who makes impossible bottles, and had come up with a design for his own cardistry deck. Featuring a combination of orange and purple colours, and a low-poly art style, the deck was entitled Amberthyst Playing Cards. The name is an obvious play on amber and amethyst, the two main colours of the deck. He did all the design work, and my contribution was mostly going along for the ride, because we were both keen to see this deck in print, and see how it looked.
The process for getting a deck printed went fairly smoothly. First of all we had to create the files in the right format. A minimum resolution size of 300DPI was required for image files like JPEGs, but art created in Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator can be sent in its native format. Since our artwork was all created in Adobe Illustrator, we could just send the original files.
It's important to realize that printing uses the CMYK four-color process, which is typical for commercial printing. The RGB color mode you see on most computer screens is a three-color process that has to be converted to CMYK for printing. Where exact colours are essential, Shuffled Ink encourages you to send a physical sample of the colors required, so that they can attempt to color match as best as they can.
After finalizing the graphics files, we sent them off via email. Using a file-sharing service like Google Drive or Dropbox is another option that can be used to share the files. Within a couple of days I received an acknowledgement that the files had been been received, along with the promise that their art department would be in touch with proofs the following week.
Sure enough, a few days later, an email arrived with a final press proof for our order. We had to check this carefully and approve it, before our order would move into production. Attached were several PDFs, one with a mock-up of the tuck box, and two with mock ups of the cards. Why two? It turned out that our artwork had strayed slightly outside the recommended safe area, so there was a risk that the die cutting process would interfere with the art. The company thus provided two proofs, one showing the art exactly as provided, and a second proof with our art resized to fit within their specs. It was our choice to go with either, and we were grateful that we didn't need to re-do all the artwork because they'd done this for us already, so we went with the adjusted version they recommended.
Once we gave our approval, we became fully responsible for the accuracy of our proof in every way, which is completely understandable. Within a day we'd received email confirmation that they would proceed with the adjusted art as we had indicated. Now we just had to wait for the deck to be printed and shipped.
That's when a minor hang-up happened, because there must have been some internal miscommunication or oversight, and the decks didn't get sent out. After some time elapsed without receiving any kind of shipping notice, I inquired to see what the delay was, and their records didn't clearly indicate whether or not the decks had been shipped. Thankfully they promptly (re)printed them, put them in the mail with a rushed delivery, and our package arrived soon after.
The printed deck
So how did the deck turn out? Quite fine, thank you very much! We ended up with about one and a half dozen of our Amberthyst decks. The tuck box was a straight forward cardboard one, but having our own custom design on it made for a far more impressive presentation than a plain white box, and made the result look immediately more professional. We were even able to have printing on all the flaps, including the two side flaps which we used for a card reveall.
There was even a thumb notch at the top of the box. There were also multiple fold lines enabling the main top flap to be folded backwards below the top of the box, making it much easier to get the cards out. This is standard for a high end playing card manufacturer, and playing card enthusiasts like me will be gratified to see this kind of attention to detail.
The cards themselves were fully wrapped in cellophane plastic inside the box - which is apparently standard practice for all decks produced by Shuffled Ink. Again, this makes for a more professional presentation, especially if you're giving a deck away as a gift.
The cards were very crisply printed, and the print registration was right on, with consistent and even borders all the way around, corresponding exactly to the original design. There are few things worse for a playing card enthusiast than opening a USPCC printed deck and finding misaligned borders, so it was pleasing to discover that there was no issue with that here. The colours were accurate, and the printing was very clean, with no signs of smudging or blurring.
The edges of the cards were cleanly cut, resulting in a smooth feel that matches what you'd expect from a deck printed by Taiwanese printers like LPCC/EPCC, and not the somewhat rough feel of a USPCC produced deck. Close examination showed that the edge of one of the cards was slightly more ragged, presumably from the cutting process, but this didn't really matter since it was the bottom card (a Joker), and it was only obvious when looking very carefully. This was only noticeable with some of the decks, and only seemed to affect the very bottom card in a minor way.
There are multiple printing options, and we had opted to print our deck using the 310gsm cardstock with Linen Finish. The main reason for this choice was because the 310gsm is the premium cardstock, and the 300gsm was a little too light for our personal requirements due to the cards being thinner, which is less than ideal for a deck used for card flourishing. I have seen some sample decks that used the 300gsm cardstock, but have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised, because the cards weren't as flimsy or thin as I was expecting. In fact those are probably fine for a novelty deck that you're mostly going to be looking at and not using intensively, but it's not ideal when you want decent handling and performance, especially for cardists.
We'd also had a few smooth finish decks printed as part of our order, so we could compare them. These smooth-finish playing cards are certainly fine for average use, but just won't spread or fan quite as nicely as the cards with the linen finish. But if looks are your most important criteria, and you're not too worried about fanning and spreading the cards, then the smooth finish produces the best visual results.
The cutting process must be different than what is used by the major playing card manufacturers, so don't expect to be able to do faro shuffles with a deck like this. But the cards have a pleasant thickness, and enough snap to be able to do a satisfying spring with no difficulty. The embossed linen finish was very pleasing, and is of a quality that matches that of MPC produced decks. Spreads and fans were fairly smooth, although I wouldn't be surprised to notice some clumping after extended use. Packet style card flourishes worked very smoothly, and riffle shuffles and overhand shuffles were more than comfortable. While this deck won't live up to the very highest and demanding standards required by an expert cardist, the performance and durability was more than acceptable for the needs of card games, and on par with a typical MPC printed deck.
The quality of our printed decks was certainly much higher than your typical souvenir deck. In fact the linen finish and 310gsm cardstock produced a quality that was above the components I've seen in many professionally produced board games and card games. It's certainly ideal for prototypes or for getting your own custom deck printed in cases where you're not in a position to mass produce a thousand or more decks with a big name playing card manufacturer.
Reports from others who have used Shuffled InkIn terms of what others think, I've seen some mixed reports of experiences with Shuffled Ink, so I contacted a few other creators of custom playing cards to see what their experiences were like. Bear in mind that since many of these creators demand the very highest standards, which are often well above what the average person might consider acceptable.
Jackson Robinson of Kings Wild Project has printed with Shuffled Ink a couple of times. In the case of two projects, some reprinting proved necessary since the initial results weren't as expected, but there were positive reports about the final product. He personally favours the easy-to-use design interface of MPC and their speedy turn-around time.
Another large creator that I'm in correspondence with used Shuffled Ink to print prototypes for a large Kickstarter project. The decks weren't all sealed as requested and there was some damage to the tuck cases in transit. Some effort was needed on his part to get a good outcome, and this resulted in a somewhat lukewarm experience overall for him.
A different designer who used Shuffled Ink for producing three sets of prototypes indicated real satisfaction with the quality, turn-around time, customer service, and pricing. He reported that the cost of $3500 for 1000 decks with tuck cases was ideal for getting some momentum for projects with a smaller funding goal, and he was very pleased with the end product and the process.
The experience of yet another creator was also positive. He has printed several prototypes with Shuffled Ink, and reported being very happy with the response time of their communication, and the speed of delivery. In his view the quality of the prototype deck they printed compared very favourable to MPC printed decks. According to him, Shuffled Ink might well prove to be a better choice for US-based creators.
So there you have several other personal experiences to compare with my own first-hand report. If you have experiences with Shuffled Ink that you're willing to share, by all means comment below, to help ensure that other prospective customers are well-informed about what to expect. Overall in my estimation Shuffled Ink compares quite favourably with MPC, including their pricing, and the absence of many extra fees.
Printing your own deck with Shuffled InkSo why might you want to consider printing a deck with Shuffled Ink? Firstly it should be mentioned that the quality of playing cards produced by Shuffled Ink won't match the high quality of decks produced in high volumes by industry leaders like the United States Playing Card Company, makers of the famous Bicycle brand. Magicians and cardists will notice that Shuffled Ink decks won't handle as smoothly, and you will notice this right away when shuffling, or attempting spreads and fans.
But the quality isn't terrible either, and it certainly is much better than what you'll get at your average printer. Unless you're planning to print 1000 or more decks, Shuffled Ink and MPC are your best bets for printing a decent quality product that won't look or feel cheap. Obviously it won't handle as smoothly as a top of the line cardistry deck printed in high volume by USPCC, and the cards won't slide quite as smoothly and cleanly. But it will handle much better than your typical souvenir deck, and last longer than your average grocery shop cheapie. What's more, you can expect the colours to look good, the print registration to be excellent, and the card stock to feel quite durable. It's a professional product in look and feel, and it's really only serious magicians and cardists who will demand the higher level of quality and handling possibly only with mass produced decks from the big playing card manufacturers.
Perhaps most important of all, with Shuffled Ink you can print a small number of decks, and for lower volume orders, these decks are about as good as you get anywhere. If you want to print a couple of dozen prototype decks, that quickly becomes an impossibility for most big publishers like USPCC and EPCC. At the very least getting them to trial a small number of copies will be an extremely costly business to the point that it's not worth bothering to do it. That's where printers like MPC and Shuffled Ink come to the rescue, because they'll let you print a few decks, while ensuring a reasonable turn-around.
Especially if you prefer to use a US based company, Shuffled Ink is ideal for the hobbyist creator. Perhaps you have a big project and want to scrutinize some prototypes before dropping large amounts of cash on a huge print run, or perhaps you just want to make a small number of decks for friends or family. Either way, Shuffled Ink is perfect for those situations. What they offer is a product that is of a quality that you won't find with your average printer, and yet that won't break the bank or only be possible with a minimum order of thousands of decks.
Final thoughtsOverall I'm impressed with the large range of options that Shuffled Ink has available, and despite a small glitch in the mailing process, my personal experience in printing a custom deck was positive, and the quality was good. It wouldn't be fair to expect the same level of quality and performance from a Shuffled Ink produced deck that I'm used to with a USPCC-produced deck. The main area where you can expect to notice the difference is in the handling. But if it's not a deck that's going to see intense use, this doesn't even really matter. Shuffled Ink would probably not be my printer of choice for decks geared for heavy usage or to meet the demanding needs of card flourishing or card magic. But they'd certainly be fine to use for card games, or for producing a novelty deck for collectors, or for a special event.
For those active in the playing card industry, the real strength of Shuffled Ink is their ability to produce small print runs and prototypes at a very low cost. That makes them a good alternative to MPC, which otherwise tends to be the printer of choice for people wanting to print their own playing cards in lower volume. The fact that they are based in the United States will also be a significant point of appeal for many people. With the help of printers like Shuffled Ink even you can become a playing card designer, and create your own decks to give away as gifts, or to add to your own collection as a one-of-a-kind piece!
NB: I do have a few extra copies of the Amberthyst deck available, so contact me privately if you are keen to have one for relatively cheap.
Where to learn more? Head to the Shuffled Ink website here, or check them out on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest).
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