Poker Basics: How Are Playing Cards Made?

Do you know how are playing cards made? Playing cards are instantly recognizable and are used for many card games of chance or skill.

Today’s pokers are made up of layered pasteboard, printed with the same image on the back and different images on the face. These cards are believed to have been developed during the twelfth century, based on divination practices, or as a game inspired by chess.

Nowadays, playing cards are produced with modern printing techniques: lithography or gravure. As technology progresses, it’s likely that the playing card manufacturing industry will adopt more digital methods, with the potential to significantly increase revenue.

History Of Playing Cards

The specific origin of playing cards is unknown, as they’ve existed for many centuries. The first written record of them comes from East Asia in the twelfth century.

They may have existed in China as early as the seventh century, and may have been known in India around the same time, as early European poker cards feature Indian motifs that are associated with Hinduism.

Playing cards could have been developed in India as a derivative of chess, or in Egypt as a tool for fortune telling and magic practices. They arrived in Europe, likely either Spain or Italy, from the Middle East in the thirteenth century, and then spread across the continent.

These early cards were quite similar to modern playing cards. Like our decks, they had 52 cards with four suits, though the suits were different: swords, coins, cups, and polo-sticks. Each suit had cards numbered 1 through 10, along with a king, deputy king, and second deputy king for the face cards.

Once people in Europe began making their own cards, designs became less consistent, with many variations on suits and face cards. Then, in the late fifteenth century, European poker card games became more standardized, with the suits we recognize today—spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs—appearing in the 1480s France.

Early decks of cards were hand-colored, making them very expensive to produce, and therefore they were predominantly owned by the wealthy. The cheaper versions that were produced likely would deteriorate quickly.

In fifteenth century Germany, cards were produced with a new printing method that used wooden blocks as templates, and these new decks spread quickly throughout Europe. Copper plate engraving replaced hand-colored wood block prints in the sixteenth century.

playing cards history

Playing cards came to the New World along with British, Dutch and French settlers, and these early decks had the medieval motifs of the spade, club, diamond, and heart that we recognize today.

In the early seventeenth century, the development of color lithography revolutionized playing card production. Playing card manufacturing will continue to progress along with new developments in digital printing technology.

How Are Playing Cards Made?

Playing card design

A standard deck of playing cards is made up of 52 rectangular cards, about 2.5 x 3.5 in (63 x 88 mm), with rounded corners (R3.5). Cards are made of what’s called pasteboard: layers of paper adhered together.

Card backs in a deck are identical, with a specific pattern that indicates the manufacturer. Red and blue patterns are the most common, and the patterns are typically symmetrical so that the cards look the same from the back in either orientation. They may have a white border or the pattern may extend all the way to the edges of the cards.

Card backs can be printed with any color or design, and it’s possible to order custom decks of cards with a specific image, such as a logo or other design, and these are popular as promotional items.

Card faces have two colors, typically red and black, and four suits: hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades. Each suit comprises 13 cards: three face cards, king, queen and jack, plus cards numbered from 1 (ace) to 10. Face cards are double ended, so they look the same in either orientation in a hand.

Most cards have their number and suit indicated in the upper left and bottom right corners, making them easy to read while held fanned out in a hand as they are commonly used in card games.

Most new decks of cards will also include two jokers, which are used in some games.

Classic parlor games like bridge, gin, and rummy may be the most common use of playing cards, but there are a huge variety of other games as well. Familiar gambling games like blackjack and poker use standard card decks, and there are lots of other games like spades, cribbage, and more.

Further, non-standard card decks are created for other card or board games. They may have suits and numbers like traditional cards, or they may have other information for the game, such as trivia, or specific symbols or text. Cards can also be used for teaching purposes.

Tarot cards are another traditional type of card deck. These are generally larger and heavier than standard playing cards, and they have 78 cards with different suits and images.

Magicians commonly use playing cards. Some magic tricks are done with unmodified cards, while others use trick cards. One style is marked cards, which have subtle markings on the back that let someone familiar with those marks identify the face cards. Other trick decks can have some cards that are slightly shortened or tapered, again to aid in identification.

There are also a variety of novelty card decks available that may have different shapes or sizes, or are made of different materials.

Playing card materials

Playing cards can be made of paper or plastic. Paper cards are made out of layers of paper glued together to create the desired thickness and durability. Plastic polymers can be used to make more durable, higher-quality cards.

Cellulose acetate is a semisynthetic polymer that can be made into thin, paper-like sheets. These film sheets can be laminated in a stack similarly to paper and made into long-lasting, durable cards.

Producing a deck of cards begins with printing the card faces and backs on the pasteboards, cutting the sheets into individual cards, and assembling and packaging the deck.

Printing the plates

Playing cards are typically printed with lithography. The first step is creating printing plates from the artwork that will be used for the cards, both front and back.

The images are divided into their individual colors, and a negative of each color is exposed on a flat light-sensitive plate. Once the plates are developed, the image portion is coated with an oily substance that attracts ink and repels water, while the non-image portion is coated with a substance that does the opposite.

The prepared plates are mounted onto the printing press cylinders. The plate passes under a roller that coats it with water, which only adheres to the non-image portions of the plate. The next roller applies ink, which only adheres to the image portions.

Next, a rubber roller picks up the ink from the printing plate and applies it to the pasteboard that will become a deck of playing cards. Repeat this process for each color.

Once the printing process is complete, a sheet will be printed front and back with the card images. At this point, it may be coated with a clear polymer that gives the cards a sheen and protects them from damage.

make playing cards

Cutting and stacking

Once the pasteboards have been printed, they’re ready to be cut. This is done with highly precise machines that are able to cut the cards identically. Then they’re organized into a stack as a complete deck.

The stack moves to the next phase of cutting, where the corners are rounded by going through two punching stations, one for each side of the deck.

Packaging

Finally, the stack of cards is ready for packaging. Boxes are created through a similar printing process and then folded into shape. The cards are put into the boxes on an assembly line, and then the boxes are closed and sealed, with a sticker to show that the box is new. The boxes are then individually shrink-wrapped, and then packaged and shipped to their next destination.

Quality control

Quality control is an important part of the process from the sourcing of the raw materials through the entire printing and packaging process.

Paper is evaluated to make sure that its appearance, size, consistency, and other characteristics meet the required standards and are consistent. Inks are tested for consistency in color, solubility and viscosity.

Test prints are made to ensure the plates will perform correctly before the actual printing, and random sheets are checked during production for any errors. Finally, before the cutting process, any defective sheets are removed.

Inspectors along the production line ensure that everything is running smoothly and that each deck meets quality standards.

The Future

The market for playing cards is mature and fairly stable. This encourages card creators and card manufacturers to come up with new designs for playing cards, whether that’s simply new artwork or entirely new materials or shapes for cards, in attempts to increase sales through novelty.

Furthermore, new printing methods that take advantage of computerization will help speed production and even allow for accurate printing directly from digital images, eliminating the need for printing plates. This will also make it easier and more affordable to create customized decks of cards.

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