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Why Do Some of My Mailed Postcards Have Smudges or Scuff Marks?

October 24, 2013

Postcard Smudges

These smudges and rub or scuff marks have been referred to as “postcard (or mail) survivability.” Meaning, how well does the postcard survive while traveling through the high-speed rollers and sorting systems of the United States Postal Service (USPS)?

Rubbing/Scuffing Contact Marks

When the postcards hit the USPS mail system, a machine orients the postcard (or other piece of mail) and cancels the stamp or postage indicia. At the same time, a digital camera captures the address and ZIP code from the postcard and assigns a fluorescent inkjet barcode and identification number. 

Next, the postcard is passed through a Delivery Bar Code Sorter (DBCS) system. Depending on how far the mail piece has to travel, it may be processed by four to six different DBCS machines along the way to its final destination (local post office). These sorting machines are made up of a series of belts and rollers that sort the mail based on outgoing ZIP codes. The black rubber belts and rollers are typically the culprits and are usually the reason why you might see color smudges or scuffing on your postcards. The rollers physically grip and contact the postcard as it pushes it through to the correct ZIP code bin. If the roller applies too much pressure as it grips the mail, it may penetrate the color toner on the surface of the postcard, leaving scuff marks. Occasionally, the equipment may even rip the cards. Usually these marks occur about halfway to three-quarters of the way down on either side of the card where the high-speed belts make contact.

Postcards sent via first class that are deemed as undeliverable by the USPS (meaning that they cannot be delivered to the addressee) are especially vulnerable to scuffing and marking. The USPS takes extra steps to attempt to deliver this class of mail. These postcards are intentionally sent through the DBCS sorters several additional times to ensure that they are in fact “undeliverable” before they are deemed to be dead. Next time you get your first class undeliverable postcards returned to you- take note as to how scuffed they look.

Local Post Office Equipment Maintenance Is the Key

If your local USPS post office sorting machines are not calibrated correctly they can penetrate the postcard’s paper and color toner leaving black smudges, burn marks, scuffing, rub marks, tears, and/or even rips. Some people may think that these marks are because the ink wasn’t dry when it left the printer. This is not the case. In fact, digital printers like us don’t even use ink. We use color toner crystals that are instantly fused to the paper and dried—before the postcard comes off the printing press.

Since every USPS mail facility contains sorting equipment, it is left up to each location to decide how rigorous the schedule is for regular maintenance. Ideally, this type of equipment needs to be calibrated and maintained frequently. Regular routine maintenance has a profound impact on how well your postcards survive through the mailing process. Simply stated, it boils down to how your local post office appropriates its resources and keeps up with routine maintenance. Given USPS cutbacks and budget constraints, however, machine maintenance is one of the first items cut by local postmasters.

Protective Coatings Can Help

Using a high-quality coated paper cover stock (versus uncoated stock) and applying a protective UV coating to both the front and back of your postcards are two good options to help reduce the occurrence of these scuff marks. Thicker coated paper adds paper integrity and a UV coating adds a slick, protective layer that helps glide the postcard through the sorting process a bit easier.

For a couple of extra pennies per card, these options are worth adding. They may not totally eliminate marks made by the machines, but they can provide better quality, more consistent-looking delivered postcards.

Want to learn more about paper types and paper coatings? Check out this post: Paper Types: What are the Differences and How Do I Choose?