Metal prints are a variation of traditional printing styles that imbue color into metal materials (usually aluminum) to create a durable display. The most common printing technology used to print metal prints is dye sublimation, which helps ensure the final result is as accurate as possible.
Metal print sizes come in sizes limited by what equipment can handle, but most companies offer up to 47″ x 95″ at most. Metal print prices range from $25 to $2500.
Metal prints are not the same thing as 3D metal printing. Search engines often confuse the two, so if you’re looking for information on graphical prints, you may need to add words like “image” to your search to help clarify your intent.
What Materials Are Metal Prints Made Of?
Metal photo prints almost always use aluminum as the base material. This metal has several advantages, including being durable, lightweight, affordable, and more suitable for printing than many other options. However, there are a few forms of aluminum you can choose from.
One popular choice for metal print material is brushed aluminum, where the whitest areas of an image will show the silver color of the aluminum instead. This material creates a more grayscale and artistic appearance that’s popular in wall art.
Alternatively, satin metal helps maintain the purity of colors and doesn’t show as much silver in pale areas. Satin metal is a better choice for reproducing photographs as accurately as possible.
A traditional aluminum base for a metal print is about 1/16″ thick, or roughly 0.0625 inches. Some companies make plates down to about 0.045″, but any thinner than this, and the metal starts to lose some stiffness and durability that customers are looking for.
Some printers also use Dibond aluminum sheets, which have a front and a back of aluminum encasing a plastic core. These are about 1/8″ thick, or twice as much as regular bases. Although not as good as standard sheets, these come in many additional colors and finishes, which may be relevant to artists.
What Are the Metal Printing Processes and Technologies?
There are three types of metal printing processes and technologies that most companies use. These are inkjet, dye sublimation, and screen printing. Of these, dye sublimation offers the highest quality printing and outstanding longevity, making it the best option for most users. Dye sublimation is also the most common metal printing process because many printing companies only offer this choice.
Inkjet Metal Printing
Inkjet metal printing involves spraying a prepared metal surface with a special quick-drying ink. Traditional ink doesn’t work for metal printing because metal doesn’t absorb ink the way paper does, so you have to use metal-specific ink instead.
Inkjet printing is best for cases where you only need to print on a small part of a product’s surface. For example, some companies print onto soda cans, garbage and recycling containers, or aviation components. However, inkjet metal printing tends to be best when it’s the smallest possible amount.
Companies like AGFA sell large-format printers that can handle direct inkjet needs. Some small and handheld printers are also suitable for this purpose, but most companies rarely need this, so they can outsource it to a printing company or buy specialized equipment for their own needs.
Inkjet metal printing is not a good choice for printing photos. Its resolution simply isn’t as high as dye sublimation.
Dye Sublimation Metal Printing
Dye sublimation is the preferred method for many HD metal prints. In this process, the printer starts by using an inkjet system and printing the image onto transfer paper with special solid inks. Then, the image gets heat-transferred onto a prepared metal surface where the ink transforms straight into gas before bonding with the metal.
This process creates a chemical bond with the metal, ensuring clarity and durability. A higher-quality surface means a longer-lasting product. Dye sublimation is especially popular in fine art, thanks to the bold and vivid coloring, but it also sees uses in medical imaging, security, and even broadcasting.
Besides its other qualities, dye sublimation is a good option anytime people want to print instructions or safety information on metal and ensure it can’t vanish.
Smaller-format dye sublimation is available for homes and businesses with printers like the Epson SureColor F170, though larger prints require specialized equipment. You may need custom equipment to create metal art using dye sublimation on curved or unusual surfaces.
For more information, see our full guide on Dye Sublimation Printing.
What Is Dye Sublimation Ink Made Of?
A typical formula for dye sublimation ink will include an acetate copolymer, a polymeric amide, some types of acetate, a distillate of petroleum, color dyes, and propylene glycol. However, the ingredients for dye sublimation ink may vary slightly by company, and they often keep the exact recipe a secret, so no formula will perfectly match the list above.
Manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve their inks. For this process, the ink must perform correctly under high temperatures and pressure. In this environment, slight changes can throw the entire balance off. Don’t expect to make this ink at home unless you have special equipment.
Screen printing is an artistic process that pushes ink through a mesh with a stencil on it, creating a printed design. It’s ideal for printing images on clothing, but you can also use it to put ink on metal, wood, and many other solid surfaces.
Unlike dye sublimation, screen printing can work on other metal surfaces like stainless steel or powder-coated surfaces. With the correct setup, screen printing can work on round surfaces, not just flat ones. Typically, ink for metal screen printing will be enamel or two-part epoxy ink.
Screen printing works well for large and simple designs on metal, such as plain text and many logos. However, it can’t hold up to dye sublimation if you’re looking for photo-quality printing with fine detail. Dye sublimation is objectively better if you need an HD metal print.
Types of Metal Print Finishes
Most metal print finishes are available in four finishes: matte, semi-gloss, glossy, and metallic. Each of these has specific characteristics that make them suitable for different types of prints.
- Matte: No glare. Some also describe it as a satin finish.
- Semi-Gloss: Glossy finish with less glare.
- Glossy: Maximum shine and vibrance.
- Metallic: This option showcases the metal.
All of these finish types depend on the base metal you use to make them, rather than changing and polishing the artwork after printing. That means they’re all applied the same way, and it’s not harder to create one type over another.
Matte Metal Print Finish
Matte prints are less reflective than any of the other metal print variants. These are a good choice among companies who don’t want to have any glare from the image, making it as visible as possible. However, this process also mutes the colors slightly, so it’s a little dimmer and not as true-to-life as some of the other options.
Matte finishes are ideal for portraits, including wedding photos. Some companies call matte a satin finish, but they’re functionally the same thing.
Matte works may be more affordable than glossier prints since it takes more work to prepare aluminum for a shinier result. Even at its worst, though, matte metal printing is still an outstanding high-quality choice suitable for most people’s needs.
Semi-Gloss Metal Print Finish
Semi-gloss prints are a mid-point between the vibrancy of glossy prints and the more muted nature of a matte option for metal prints. In other words, they’re a little shinier and more reflective than matte. Many buyers choose this if they want some shine in the image but worry about reflections that a full glossy print might create.
Getting semi-gloss is more about where you want to hang the art than whatever you’re printing. It is more common to pick this for landscape images, especially those with a good amount of white.
The advantages of a semi-gloss print are the same as its disadvantages. Full glossy prints have more color than semi-gloss but also more shine. Matte doesn’t have the same impact factor, but it’s less reflective and unlikely to bother people.
Semi-gloss will work almost anywhere you might want a glossy or matte finish, so if in doubt, this is a good default.
Glossy Metal Print Finish
Glossy finishes are the highest-quality option available for metal prints. They use a white base that creates the most accurate color response, while the natural reflection of the metal beneath gives glossy images pop and a wow factor that paper can’t imitate. This style is excellent for high-definition photo printing, like complicated landscapes.
However, glossy prints are inherently reflective, which can be a problem under some lighting. If a light bounces off the metal, that can be annoying and make the art harder to see. Therefore, glossy prints work better in lighting-controlled environments and aren’t as good in any location with a lot of natural light.
Metallic Metal Print Finish
All three options above are also available in a metallic finish that removes the white layer that companies use to keep colors as realistic as possible on metal prints. This finish allows the silvery qualities of the metal to show through. This style provides a slightly artificial, almost futuristic touch to a print.
Although technically worse than the regular finish because it’s not as true to life, metallic prints offer a more artistic quality that some buyers may prefer. They also tend to look a little more subdued, making them appropriate in areas where a standard glossy print might stand out too much.
Advantages of Metal Prints
There are various advantages of metal prints. The main reasons you should consider metal prints above other printing options are:
- Ease of cleaning
- Flexible hanging options
- Heat resistance
- Low-glare options
- Scratch resistance
- Vibrant colors
Here’s an in-depth look at the different advantages of metal prints.
Metal prints are easy to clean. All you need is a streak-free cleaner and a non-abrasive cloth, and you can wipe the metal down with a few quick strokes. As long as you don’t use anything that can damage the aluminum, you can clean it much faster and easier than most other materials.
Good options for cleaning most metal prints include glass cleaner, rubbing alcohol, and specialty cleaners like Windex. Microfiber cloths are the best option, but paper towels and tissues can do in a pinch. Do not use steel wool for cleaning metal prints.
Flexible Hanging Options
You can frame and mount metal prints in many ways. They’re durable across their entire surface, so frames are optional, and you can mount them directly on a wall from behind. Alternatively, you can put them in wood frames and match them to other framed artwork in your home.
Ultimately, this means that metal prints can work with more decor options than traditional prints and photographs. Whether designing an industrial home or working with a more suburban style, metal prints can work practically anywhere that you want a flat image.
It’s worth noting that a wooden frame will add to a metal print’s weight, but this is only likely to be a concern if you have an exceptionally large print.
Most metal prints are durable and hold up well in the heat. Aluminum melts at 1221 degrees, and this metal holds up relatively well until that point. It may survive some fires – certainly better than paper – and you can expect it to last just fine under typical indoor temperatures.
Similarly, aluminum holds up well in the cold, remaining durable until about -49 degrees.
Aluminum is lightweight, so you can easily hang large metal prints without worrying about damaging your walls. Exact weights will vary slightly depending on the thickness of your print, but a 20″ x 30″ piece usually weighs around 5 pounds.
For context, regular drywall can hold about 20 pounds with a nail or upwards of 50 pounds with specialty options like flat-mounted hooks. Realistically, if you’re buying an aluminum print large enough to come close to this weight limit, you’ll probably use several anchors to distribute the weight.
For all practical purposes, aluminum prints are light enough that you can hang them in any size from practically any structurally-sound wall.
Metal prints can be extraordinarily long-lasting. For example, ChromaLuxe, a major provider of high-quality panels for metal prints, reports that their products were tested and should maintain their quality for at least sixty years. That is significantly better than silver-halide images and, indeed, most other imaging options.
Notably, the ratings here do not mean that the image is gone after sixty years. Instead, they suggest it takes sixty years to get the first noticeable fading and color changes. Realistically, a good metal print will maintain a high level of quality for over a century and probably even longer in a home or a museum area.
Matte metal prints, in particular, are a low-glare option that makes them better in well-lit areas. Regular photos often have a glass layer that increases glare and makes them harder to look at.
As a side-effect of this, metal prints don’t need a protective layer out front that can reduce the color and clarity of the image.
Aluminum metal prints, by definition, have no iron in them, so they won’t rust the same way some other metal materials will. They can change slowly over time, but in a proper environment, aluminum has incredible corrosion resistance.
Realistically, corrosion and rusting are not an issue in most household environments, including those in hot and humid areas like Florida and parts of Texas.
Metal prints go directly onto aluminum, which means they benefit from its natural toughness. You can’t peel off the ink because it’s part of the base material.
Aluminum is not a perfect material, and you can still damage these prints if you try to. For example, running a sharp knife along the surface will still cut it. However, metal prints are easily capable of withstanding threats like human nails or clothing, and they’re more scratch resistant than practically any other image printing technique.
Metal prints have extraordinarily vibrant colors. The trick to their color is how aluminum provides a 3D-type of effect on practically any image, so every part of the photo pops and stands out.
Metal prints also offer a single large, solid surface for the graphic, so it’s possible to maintain this quality throughout. The functional result is a near-lifelike image, especially if you use a regular base instead of a metallic one.
Metal prints can withstand splashes, spills, and other encounters with most liquids. Acidic spills may be an issue if you don’t clean them up immediately, but metal prints can stand up to ordinary splashing with water without flinching.
Disadvantages of Metal Prints
The main disadvantages you can expect from metal prints are the following:
- Not suitable for outdoors
- You can’t DIY them
- Safety hazards
- Some photos won’t work on metal
Many people invest in metal prints for all the advantages they have. However, here’s why metal prints might not be the best choice.
Best When Indoors
Metal prints are usually at their best when you keep them indoors, preferably in a climate-controlled environment. Aluminum’s longevity is at its best indoors and in the shade. It will fade quicker if you put it outdoors or anywhere with regular exposure to direct sunlight.
As a rule, metal prints are much more expensive than traditional printing. This cost comes from three areas. First, metal printing requires special machines of large sizes, and those machines are expensive. A commercial printer capable of working with large sizes can run $20,000 or more.
Second, there’s the metal itself. Aluminum isn’t gold, and getting a solid piece in the size you want is not insanely expensive. However, it’s still many times more expensive than paper, and that’s not counting the work needed to prepare an aluminum sheet for printing.
Finally, most high-quality metal printing happens in specialty shops that know how to get the best result on each print. However, they don’t have as much volume as a traditional photo printer, so they must adjust their prices to compensate.
All these cost factors assume you’re going for genuine brand-name materials, including ink and metal. Reputable brands like ChromaLuxe and Epson offer more reliable results. Anything too cheap is probably using inferior materials, so you won’t get the same longevity or quality you’re expecting.
While metal prints are among the most expensive printing options, they still tend to be cheaper than ordering custom paintings or other non-printed artwork.
Difficult To DIY
While some home printers can do small metal prints, it’s nearly impossible to create anything larger yourself without a significant investment. It means that metal printing is essentially the domain of specialty print shops.
So, you’re likely doing enough metal printing to justify investing in buying equipment, or you’re having someone else print it for you. There’s no in-between for metal printing.
Safety Hazards (If Manufactured Wrong)
Metal prints can have sharp edges that make them dangerous to hang or move without proper care. These concerns aren’t much of a problem if you’re ordering from a pro shop because they tend to round the edges a little and ensure the final piece is safe, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Make sure to ask your print shop whether they round the edges. Some don’t, so it’s always better to check and be sure.
Shipping Can Be Expensive
Shipping isn’t a big deal for anything that can fit in a small, flat-rate envelope, but you can expect prices to go up if you’re ordering a large-size metal print work. Big pieces also tend to require extra framing for shipping to ensure they don’t get bent in transit, which further increases shipping costs.
This consideration isn’t unique to metal printing because large items always have more expensive shipping, but it’s worth keeping in mind when you’re ordering. Large prints are significantly more troublesome to ship through the USPS, so your printing shop may need to use an alternate like UPS or FedEx.
If a company offers free shipping on oversized prints, what they mean is that they’re baking the shipping cost into their fees instead of charging you separately. It costs far too much to ship such a large item, even in a thin package, for them to eat the cost.
Some Photos Don’t Work With Metal
The best pictures for aluminum metal printing are extremely high-resolution, with bright colors and clear contrast between them. This point may sound strange for such a high-quality printing medium, but it’s true. If your image isn’t good, then a metal print’s inherent quality will just highlight the imperfections.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re trying to do some visual commentary in art. Still, for average home buyers and businesses, it may be better to stick with a medium that can hide the flaws in lower-quality images.
If you’re uncertain whether an image is good enough, consider talking to a professional print shop and asking for their opinion. They can give you advice tailored to your exact image. Some print locations can also help modify and adjust an image to make it better for printing onto metal.
That’s not always an option, however.
Fundamentally, the best types of images for printing on metal are high-resolution photos of nature. Waterfalls, beach-and-ocean shots, forests, and the like can produce truly stunning results when you print them on metal.
Humans and animals are a little trickier, especially if you’re going for a glossy print instead of a matte one. Shine and 3D effects can make living creatures look subtly wrong, so you’d have to test this on a case-by-case basis.
Black-and-white images also tend to look good on metal, and you may get some results if you convert an otherwise-poor image into grayscale.
Outside of these areas, however, metal is much trickier for printing. Images that rely heavily on softness and blur to work can lose those qualities in metal. It’s almost like trying to play a 144p video on a modern 4k television screen. The TV is excellent, but its source material isn’t.
Metal Print Prices
Metal print prices vary since several factors go into the cost of metal printing. These factors include the print’s size, the metal’s quality, and the need to pay specialists at most print shops. While you may occasionally see things at a discount, it’s rare to see less than $25 for the smallest option available.
Pictorem, a major seller and provider, starts around $74 for a small 10×12 print. Landscape photos start at 24×16 for $172, while a 24×12 panoramic image starts at $136. Pictorem frequently runs promotions and discounts, so the actual costs can be 40% (or more) of these list prices.
Prices go up relatively quickly from here, but most will be in the low hundreds at most for a regular household print. Only the largest print sizes will break into four digits, and it’s rare to see above $2500 for any single home or business print.
Metal Print Sizes
Metal print sizes vary by company. Pictorem doesn’t go less than 8×8 for $53, although some companies will gladly make standard photo sizes like 4×6.
Pictorem’s largest size is 96×54, which goes for about $2581 before any discounts they offer. This price is probably the highest you’ll find at almost any regular print shop, though special technologies may be able to print at even larger sizes with special equipment.
More realistically, it may be better to print several segments of a single image and arrange them together instead of trying to get a single ultra-large work.
Most companies can print images of practically any size between their minimum and maximum specifications. Still, you may need to ask about custom sizes for anything that isn’t already in the system.
What Is the Best Metal Prints Company?
According to our research, the best metal prints company is Pictorem, which is why we used them for our size and pricing samples.
Pictorem’s founders only planned to produce something for a single special project when they launched the company in Canada in 2014. However, the feedback was positive enough that they expanded into additional services, with metal printing joining the roster of services in 2016. Since then, they’ve helped tens of thousands of customers.
Pictorem now provides a wide variety of printing services, including canvas and acrylic. They also work with murals, wood, picture frames, and even puzzle prints to help meet the needs of each customer, and that’s on top of some art-selling services that provide ready-made designs for businesses.
For more information or to see some alternative metal print companies, see our Best Metal Prints Guide.
Metal Prints vs. Canvas Prints
Choosing between Metal prints vs. canvas prints comes down to the look you have in mind for your art. Metal prints offer bold, vibrant colors and sharp contrasts between their shades. They work particularly well with seascapes, landscapes, sunset photos, and many black-and-white works, but not as well for softer and subtle images where a slight blurriness is ideal.
Metal prints work particularly well in modern interiors, particularly alongside minimalistic decor. The photo-realistic qualities can give the impression of looking out a window instead of at another piece of art.
In contrast, canvas prints can work almost anywhere. They tend to have an inviting quality and can fit soft and bold prints. The most significant difference with canvas prints is that they’re not reflective and tend to have an obvious textured look.
Since canvas isn’t quite as realistic as metal, it works in designs where you’re not trying to fool anyone. Canvas is also more affordable than metal but won’t last nearly as long. In short, canvas is better for traditional prints where you want something to look like a painting, while metal is better for high-quality images and photographs.
For more information see our full guide on Metal Prints vs Canvas Prints.
Metal Prints vs. Acrylic Prints
Metal and acrylic prints are both on the expensive side, and in many ways, they’re more similar than different. However, metal printing is the better of the two.
For those unfamiliar with acrylic prints, you can put the ink directly on acrylic or use shiny or metallic paper pinned over an acrylic base. Slight amounts of transparency provide vibrancy to the final result.
Metal printing, in contrast, usually bonds the ink directly into the metal to color it permanently. This process goes deeper than a surface level, making the metal more resistant to damage.
Advantages of acrylic include:
- Impressive durability
- Solid UV protection (particularly if you have a face plate in front of the ink)
- Outstanding moisture protection with direct prints
The overall appearance of acrylic is sleek and modern, with a subtle 3D effect that enhances the overall look.
In short, acrylic is a slightly less durable version of metal. Acrylic prints have many of the same advantages as metal prints, but metal slightly exceeds acrylic’s performance in each area. The big difference between acrylic and metal is cost, where acrylic is still more affordable than metal prints.