The information contained in this article is the result of being contacted by a seasoned commercial printer. His knowledge of the printing practices of trading cards from the 1950's-1980's has caused him concerns with regards to how cards are graded. As a result of this first hand experience with the printing and cutting process, it brings into question the methods and scale used by grading companies when establishing a trading card's final grade, particularly those from the aforementioned era. Below is a re-written version, for clarity, based on the several emails he sent me.
It's no secret that collectors, dealers, and auction houses spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and perhaps more, every year, on grading services. This practice has become an important part of the hobby because it has helped to eliminate the personal bias regarding condition that used to be so common between collectors and dealers. However, are the current grading scales fair? Do they take into account the technology in the actual printing and more importantly, cutting, of trading cards? With sometimes thousands of dollars riding on the difference between a card receiving an 8 grade compared to a 10, an understanding of printing technology would seem essential in determining a cards grade. So why aren't these factors incorporated into the grading scale? Here is a closer look at some individual characteristics of how trading cards are printed and cut and how grading companies erroneously miscalculate these factors into the grading equation.
The cards are first photographed for color separation and then plates are made for bulk sheets. Next the plates are laid out on the press for printing. Before the industry began using digital presses, older cards were printed using a process known as four color separation. Each sheet required four separate printing plates, one for each of the primary printing colors; Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. This is commonly known as the CMYK color model. The four sheets are individually printed, dried and printed again for each color separation. A component called sizing is added to the top surface of the sheet to protect the colors. After the actual printing process is completed, the sheets are brought to a pressure cutter.
Printing sheets are cut face or front side up. The front of the cards are obviously the most important part of a card. It contains the visual image and usually the the majority of the color so protection is important. When a sheet is cut, it is always cut from front to back. The backside corners often display exposed fibers or what some call “touches”. These occur as there is no color protection (sizing) on the back of the card. The sizing is what holds the corners and makes them sharp, an important aspect in the grading process. However, it is never the concern of the printer to eliminate or prevent these backside “touches”. As a naturally occurring part of the production process, is it fair that the presence of slightly soft backside corners be a determining factor in a cards grade? The front of any card is the element that needs to be judged very closely and the back, if it has normal defects like touches, should not be judged/graded so harshly. In doing so, grading companies can turn a card from a legitimate 10 into an 8 because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the production process.
So, should these “touches” be considered damage to the card or should the back corners be accepted “as printed” if the front side is sharp and the card is well centered? If all other criteria for a card to receive a 10 are met, shouldn't then the card be allowed the grade of 10 regardless of touches or fibers on the back corners? After all you can not have better than something that was intended to be printed in a specific way.Reason being is that if a card has any touching on a front corner it should not and can not be graded higher than the same card with touching on a back corner because cards are supposed to have sharp front corners. Many cards submitted for grading and that should theoretically be considered perfect “10” 's are overlooked and graded as “8” when in fact the cards are intended to be printed and cut that way. Is this indicative that graders have little or no understanding of the actual printing process for the very subject matter they are paid to grade?
It is a fact that a percentage of the cards on a sheet will never be perfectly centered despite the use of high tech pressure cutters. Why? All cards on outside edges of a printing sheet have little chance of being perfectly centered. When a sheet is cut, it is nearly impossible to find outside edges that completely match inside edges because printer sheets incorporate outside edge margins. A study of printing sheets will show that some cards are almost always perfectly centered while others are never perfectly centered. Why? Because from the pressman's point of view, many cards on the outside edges are allowed a percentage of error. However, the inside cards have the same spacing, so theoretically they can be cut perfectly if the cutter is aligned properly. It is these outside cards that have variance from left to right, right to left, top to bottom or bottom to top.
For example, let's take a look at a printing sheet that has 21 cards, lined up in a configuration of three cards in each row with seven rows of three cards each. Based on real-life practices used universally by commercial printers, this would mean that of the 21 total cards, 16 are likely to never have perfect margins. So depending on the number of cards on a sheet you can determine by their positioning, which cards will have the best chance of being perfect. As a result of the self-created rules of grading companies to determine card condition, cards aligned along the outside edge of any sheet will often not be eligible for a receiving a top grade. However, this does not mean that they are not perfect cards. It only means that the grading companies have rules that apply only to specific cards. Current grading methods are inadvertently giving preference to cards that are in a specific positioning on a sheet.
With all this being said, is it time that changes be made in grading criteria or the qualifications to be a card grader? Would it not make since for graders to have had some experience in printing and layout? Without that experience and knowledge, what makes them qualified in determining which cards are considered to be“perfect”? Is the process of card grading only as good as the understanding of the printing process and technology itself? While there may be currently more questions than answers, with the amount of money that is at stake, surely the questions need to be asked and open for discussion.