How Playing Cards Are Made: Deck Manufacturing

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Ever wondered how playing cards are made? This highly automated process involves gluing together large sheets to create paste boards, which are then imprinted with art, coated, cut, and packaged.

Playing cards have been around for centuries, and they’re used for all types of popular card games. But if you’ve ever had to play with cheap decks, you know that quality matters. There’s a reason Bicycle cards are still the signature deck you’ll find at tables across the world. But how exactly does a playing card manufacturer produce high-quality cards?

In this article, you’ll learn how modern playing cards are made, a brief history of playing cards, and some frequently asked questions about manufacturing playing cards.

Ready to dive in? Let’s get started.

How Are Playing Cards Made?

In times past, cards were made by hand with woodcuts or by hand-painting designs onto paper. Nowadays, manufacturing is much more streamlined and automated. The process at the factory basically involves making the paper, printing the image, adding a finish, and cutting and packaging the cards.

For a brief overview of the process, check out this video that gives you a glimpse inside how Bicycle cards are made:

Gluing the Paper

The present-day manufacturing process begins with the card stock. Playing cards are sometimes called paste-boards since multiple sheets are glued together. Here’s how it works:

Manufacturers apply black-colored glue (a.k.a., “gick”) between two uncut sheets of paper, which are put through a special type of laminator to heat and seal them. The black adhesive glues the layers together and makes the card stock opaque. Some manufacturers, like the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), make their own card stock, while other companies, such as the Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC) import pre-made paper.

Card manufacturing company


The embossing refers to the textured surface of the playing card. Playing card manufacturers run the uncut sheets through a rubber roller that presses tiny bumps into the paper. These small dimples create pockets of air that improve the shuffle feel and prevent the cards from sticking together.

In the past, the texture was created by cloth rollers that applied a coating to the previously printed deck. Linen was commonly used. For that reason, this cross-hatching type of pattern is still referred to as a “linen finish.” It’s also referred to as an “air cushion finish.”

With high volume printing and the standardization of the manufacturing process, companies began stamping the embossed surface onto the paper before printing. This meant manufacturers no longer had to frequently replace cloth rollers as they wore out. A linen finish reduces the glossiness of a finish, as well, so it’s suited for cards.

Printing Playing Cards

Now that the giant roll of paper is prepared, it’s ready for the printing press. The typical playing card manufacturer will use a very fast web press that can handle a high volume of cards.

Metal printing plates are created using computer-controlled laser etching to match digital images received from a previously printed deck. The printing plates are then mounted on cylinders in the printing press.

Rollers put ink on the plates, and then a rubber roller passes over the printing plate and transfers the ink onto the paper as it passes under the rubber roller and moves through the sheet-fed press. The playing card has to go through another roller for each color.

Only one sheet of paper can go through the printing process at a time. That might sound like it would be time-consuming. It would be, except the sheet fed press can handle high-volume printing, and each uncut sheet consists of over 50 cards.


After the cards have completed the printing process, now it’s time for the finish. A coating is added to protect the cards and seal the clearly printed colors. The coating also helps the cards glide over one another smoothly when shuffling. The coating is also called the finish. The finish gives the playing card its glossiness. The three types of gloss are: matte, satin, and high gloss.

The best finish type mostly comes down to differences in appearance, although high gloss playing cards can stick and be more difficult to shuffle. Many peopel prefer a linen finish, and so it’s common for manufacturers to primarily use that finish. For instance, USPCC-produced decks typically have a linen finish.

Cutting Process

So now we have wonderful playing cards that have been designed, printed, and sealed. Now it’s time to turn this giant roll into a finished deck! Precision-cutting machines cut the pasteboards into uncut sheets (strips), which are then cut cross-wise. Some companies, like the United States Playing Card Company, use a punching machine to punch individual cards. Most playing cards have rounded corners


The last step in the production process is packaging the decks. After the cards are cut, they are run through a sorting machine that sorts them into individual decks. The completed deck is assembled a put into tuck boxes, which are then sealed and shrink wrapped.

Quality control is a big part of the whole process. Manufacturers test the printing inks for color, viscosity, and solubility. They also test the plates to make sure they will product a quality print. During the production process, the sheets are checked for printing errors or ink smears. All this quality control ensures that each pack of cards is a high-quality deck free of defects.

Now the cards are ready for shipping… and for playing!

The History of the Playing Card

The history of playing cards crosses continents, cultures, and time periods. The exact origins of playing cards are unknown, but they are widely believed to have been invented in the Tang Dynasty in China over 1,000 years ago.

In fact, the first written reference to playing cards is from a Chinese text that refers to a “leaf game.” However, there is some dispute on whether this game was actually connected to playing cards.

Playing cards spread throughout the East and made their way into Europe from Mamluk Egypt in the fourteenth century. Early playing cards were made of wood, but modern cards come in a variety of styles, shapes, colors, and thickness.

Early playing cards had suits with different symbols for each suit. A typical deck would consist of 52 cards, just like today. They had numbers on them, with some decks featuring three male face cards. The Queen was added later.

Four playing cards on the table

There are several types of suits available, but the most common type is the French-suited deck, which has 52 playing cards in four suits: spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds. The English pattern (used in the U.S.) is the most popular design, with the Belgian-Genoese design coming in second.

What Was the First Card Game?

It’s difficult to pinpoint which card game is the oldest, but there are several card games with a long history. The rules for many of these games have been lost, but we still have some of the cards they used.

As I mentioned before, the “leaf game” from the Chinese Tang Dynasty dates back to the ninth century. However, it isn’t certain that the leaf game involved cards. One game we know more about is madiao, or paper tiger. It was a gambling trick-taking game from the Ming Dynasty, and it dates to at least the fifteenth century. The game was played with 40 cards in four suits.

Karnoffel is another game that goes back to the 15th century. It’s still played today and is the oldest recognizable card game in Europe. It became popular in southern Germany. This trick-taking card game is still played today. The name means “to cudgel, thrash, or flog.” Sounds lovely.

The Cloisters deck isn’t a game, per se, but a centuries-old deck. Also known as the Flemish Hunting Deck, it’s a set of 52 playing cards dated to between 1475 and 1480. The cards are hand-drawn and painted on paste boards, with illuminated details (gold or silver foil). The set was most likely made in Flanders during the time the dukes of Burgundy ruled the Netherlands.

Of course, we can’t talk about old games without talking about Blackjack, or as it was originally referred to, “Vingt-un,” or “21.” The earliest written reference to the game was in a book by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, who was a gambler himself. The book refers to the game “Ventiuna,” and it was played with the Spanish baraja deck.

Since its inception, Blackjack has been one of the most popular casino banking games. It has simple rules and uses a standard 52-card deck. It’s also been the subject of mathematical study and game theory.

Are Playing Cards Plastic or Card Stock?

The average playing card is available in three main types of material.

The first is art paper, which is thicker and stiffer. It’s primarily designed for display only. The most common is card stock paper, which is sturdy and holds up to shuffling and use in games. It also has a core for flexibility and durability. More on that in a moment.

The last material is plastic, which has the highest durability. You can find other materials, but they aren’t as widespread.

For the standard card-stock paper playing card, it has a core of a plastic-type adhesive. The core helps prevent creasing, gives the playing card resiliency, and improves the shuffle.

Playing card manufacturers offer several core materials (i.e., glues): grey core, ivory core, blue core, and black core. Unsurprisingly, the names come from the color of the core materials. Different glues contribute to the quality of the playing card.

What Does GSM Stand For?

GSM refers to grams per square meter. It’s the universal weight measurement for card stock. The higher the GSM, the thicker and heavier the card stock will be. In general, high-quality playing cards will be around 300gsm. If the card stock is too thin, the cards won’t hold up well. If the playing card is too thick, it will feel stiff and won’t be flexible enough to shuffle.

Larger playing cards should have a higher GSM. For instance, tarot or oversized cards should be thicker than a standard deck of poker cards.

Who Makes Playing Cards?

The playing card industry today has no shortage of manufacturers, but perhaps the most widely-known company is the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC). It’s certainly the biggest playing card manufacturer in the U.S.

USPCC was established in 1867 as Russell, Morgan, & Company. It began printing playing cards in 1881, among other printing interests. Eventually, the playing card business required its own entity, and the USPCC was born. This company has more than a century of experience under its belt, with headquarters in Erlanger, Kentucky.

Over time, USPCC has acquired many smaller printing companies. These include the Arcco playing card company, Aviator, Bicycle, Bee, KEM, Maverick, Tally-Ho, and Hoyle. USPCC produces not only popular brands but is also a major player in the novelty and custom playing card industry.

What Are the Types of Playing Cards?

A standard, 52-card French suited deck measures 2.5 x 3.5 inches (6.35 x 9 cm). They’re rectangular and have rounded corners. The four suits are spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds. The deck consists of number cars from ace (one) to ten, and three face cards: Jack, Queen, and King. The cards are double-ended so players can hold the cards in either direction without there being an “upside down.” Most decks also include two jokers.

The French-suited deck is the most common, but many countries use other suit designs. For instance, Spanish-suited cards (naipes) use cups, coins, clubs and swords. German-suited cards use hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves. And the Swiss-suited cards feature roses, bells, acorns, and shields.

Non-standard decks and custom decks are also available for several uses. For magic tricks, there are trick cards that are marked. The back is designed to tell the dealer what the the face of the card is by looking at the back. Some trick decks have cards with tapered ends so the magician can find a certain card.

Many custom playing cards have specific images designed for the game or the buyer. While the average card company will produce plenty of standard decks, they also mass produce card sets for the board game industry. Many tabletop games have cards in them that are used for a variety of purposes.

Another type of non-standard deck is tarot cards. These are used by fortune tellers and diviners. Tarot cards are larger and thicker in design. Each deck has 78 cards, with 22 containing symbolic images.

Trading cards might have foil stamping, autographs, or other special details. Card collecting and trading is a popular pastime among people of varied interests (sports, Pokemon, comics, etc.).

How to Make Playing Cards at Home

If you’ve every wanted to create your own custom deck of cards, you can make one at home. All you need is some thick paper, imaging software (or a camera), a printer, and some scissors. Of course, you can also send your design to a playing card factory or board game manufacturer, like Panda Manufacturing. That option will (unsurprisingly) cost you a lot more, but you’ll get better quality.

  1. Make your design. A digital image will give the best result. You can use a photo-editing software like Adobe photoshop to create a design from scratch or upload an existing photo from your phone.
  2. Print the photos. Size your image to fit your playing cards. A standard deck measures 2.5 x 3.5 inches (6.35 x 9 cm).
  3. Paste. The easiest method is simply to paste the image on the back of an existing deck of cards. Of course, that means you have to print enough images to cover the entire deck, but it doesn’t require you to make your own cards. You’re just giving existing cards a face-lift.
  4. If you’d like to make custom playing cards, use a sturdy card stock to print on. Print the card image on the paper. You should be able to fit several images on each sheet.
  5. Measure the playing card dimensions and cut out the cards. For a cleaner look that more closely resembles manufactured decks, use a rounded punch to round off the corners.

How Playing Cards Are Made: Final Thoughts

Hopefully you have a better appreciation for playing cards and those quality Bicycle decks you play bridge (or gin or rummy) with. Whether you have an individual deck or use custom playing cards in tabletop games, you now know all the work that went into making them.

Looking for games to put those cards into use? Read about the best deck-building games for your next game night.