PIAF machine: A

Creating Tactile Graphic Images Part 3: Tips for Embossing

Helpful tips for embossing using a tactile graphics machine.

Update on May 24, 2023; original post was published on August 5, 2021.

The first post in this series, Creating Digital Images for Tactile Graphics Machines Part 1, we learned how to create a simple digital image for a tactile graphics machine by tracing and/or marking up an image from a worksheet or app using the GoodNotes app. In the second post, Creating Digital Images Part 2: 3 Braille Tips, we looked at how to add braille to an image using sim braille. In Part 3, the focus will be on tips to make the embossing process as smooth as possible.

Note: Embossing using a tactile graphics machine is incredibly simple! Literally, all you do is plug the machine in, turn it on, set the desired temperature (typically low) and place the print copy of the image (printed on capsule paper) in the tray. The paper runs through the machine and the heat of the machine raises the black ink.

In the 11 second video below, the P Coloring Page is run through the PIAF machine. The PIAF beeps indicating when the next page can be placed on the tray to go through the machine. The page enters on the right side and comes out on the left. [Description of the P Coloring Page: A large braille cell is at the top of the page with solid dots 1, 2, 3, and 4 (“P” in braille) and outlined circles for dots 5 and 6. A simple outline drawing of a pig is in the center of the page. Below the pig is the normal size sim braille for the letter P. The coloring page is available on Paths to Technology website in the post, Braille Alphabet Coloring Pages and can also be found at the bottom of the Book Library.]


Embossing Tips

While running images through the tactile graphics machine is super easy, it is important to understand how things work and how to create images best suitable for a tactile graphics machine.

How Tactile Graphics Machines Work: Carbon Ink

“Capsule paper works on the principal that the color black absorbs more heat. Hence, when a black line or image or dot is on a piece of capsule paper, it gets hotter than the area around it. At a certain temperature, these little beads explode, and increase their volume rather dramatically, just like making popcorn.” – PIAF User Guide and Tactile Graphics Workbook. The black ink used on the capsule paper must be carbon based ink. The higher the carbon, the hotter it becomes, the higher the line raises.

It is important to check that the printer you use have carbon in their ink. Inkjets typically do, but be sure and check the ink of your specific model. TVIs are reporting that the school laser printers and copiers typically use toner that is all carbon which works better than personal or small printers.

Update: Several users have reported that the lines did not fully raise after running the capsule paper thru the PIAF machine. They recommended to turn up the heat and/or run the image thru the PIAF multiple times. (Several TSVIs shared that they were using brand new PIAF machines and some TSVIs stated that they were using personal jet printers. We do not have enough information to know if we are seeing a pattern of if this is coincidence. Please share your experiences with us: [email protected].)

Tips from users: One user suggested checking/changing the jet printer’s opacity of the black ink. If there is a large darker areas in the image, the capsule paper may ‘gunk up’. Changing the opacity will resolve this issue.

Make sure the PIAF warms up for a few minutes before running the paper through. Often the the second or third images are better than the first. Trying running a blank capsule paper through first (saving that blank page for the next time) before running through image to make sure that all parts are warmed up evenly. (Note: Sometimes the edges of the page do not raise as much as the center.)

One user said that she had capsule paper on the shelf for years – when she went to use it, the capsule paper did not activate. Capsule paper does have a shelf life and will ‘expire’.

The lines on the capsule paper must be BLACK. When using a printer to copy your image onto the capsule paper, the printer setting should be “black and white” – not “color”. When using the “color” setting, the ink might look like black, but it is actually made up of a mixture of colors. When this mixture of colors (from some printers) is run through the tactile graphics machine, the raised image may be bumpy and rough and feels like the ink has exploded!

[Image of Ladybug “L” coloring page with exploded tactile circles.]

Photo of Ladybug

Note: Black pens (permanent markers, gel pens, etc.) that have carbon ink will also work. These pens may come in varying thicknesses, which create lines that can easily be distinguished. Some pencils (such as #2 pencil) also contain carbon also work; although, TVIs have noted that the the markers tend to work best, possibly because the lines are thicker. There are pens created specifically for tactile graphics machines, including the PIAF Pens and the Swell Markers.


There are several sources for capsule paper – and honestly, I have not had the opportunity to try the different types of capsule paper in order to review them. A number of TVIs have reported that the older paper had a more yellow tint to it and the images had slightly more texture. The newer paper is white and the image texture is smoother. Some paper is slick on one side and more textured on the other. If you have experience with the different types of capsule paper or if you have thoughts about the kind you use, please share!

Important! The paper should be stored in a dry, cool location. The paper comes as a sealed package for a reason! The integrity of the chemical makeup of the capsule paper may change if the paper is stored in a damp or hot location.

Note: The tactile graphics machine should typically be set to low. Paper can be sent through more than one time which will create higher raised lines. Some types of capsule paper performs best in the lower heat settings than others, so again, initially practice to determine what works best for you. If the heat is too high, the paper will come out wavy!

Be sure to print on the correct side of the capsule paper. The challenge is to determine which side is correct! The tactile images – that I have – that were printed on the older capsule paper, the tactile image is on the textured side of the paper. However, the new capsule paper that I have requires that the image be printed on the slick side of the paper; with this newer paper, the sides are more similar and hard to differientiate. If you print your image on the wrong side adn run it through the tactile graphics machine, an inverted tactile image will appear – meaning that the raised lines will appear on the back side of the paper. Since the ink is on the front side, the raised lines on the back do not have the black color. Note: The image is also inverted, so in the case of the P Coloring Page, instead of the braille letter P, dots 1, 4, 5, and 6 are raised and the pig faces to the right, not left. The inverted raised lines are also not as high.

[Image of the tactile P Coloring page with black ink printed on the correct side of the capsule paper beside an inverted tactile P Coloring page with no black ink (white lines) with inverted images]

Photo of P Coloring page printed on the correct side of the capsule paper beside the same page printed on the wrong side of the capsule paper.

Smeared Ink

Is your ink smearing when you run it through the tactile graphics machine? First, be sure that the ink is fully dried between copy machine and running through the tactile graphics machine.  If your capsule paper is the slicker type of paper, be sure to change the printer setting to “transparency”. This will eliminate ink smearing.

Colored images

Remember, the colored ink does not raise! This means that if you want to create graphics with high contrast, you can add colors to the image! Only the black ink will raise. (Note: Remember the comment above about printer settings should be on black and white. . . color images work better with some printers than others.

Printed Text

Do you need print labels or a title of the image for teachers/parents with vision? If there is enough room on the page, you can include printed text. Cover the print with masking tape before running the image through the tactile graphics machine, so that the print does not raise. Or, change the printed text to a color (green, red, blue, etc.) that will not raise, if  color images printed on your printer work.

Summary: Trial and Error!

The first time that you print a tactile image and emboss it, plan on spending a few minutes trying different things with your printer and with your tactile graphics machine. Figure out what works best with your equipment! Different printers have varying amounts of carbon in the toner. Different types/brands of capsule papers require printing on different sides of the paper. Your tactile graphics machine has different heat settings, which can be adjusted according to the capsule paper you use and the amount of carbon in the ink. Take a few minutes to figure it out! Tactile graphic machines enable you to make quality tactile graphics quickly – they are a life saver for busy TVIs – especially if you receive classroom materials with graphics at the last minute that need to be transcribed at the last minute. Access to a plethora of tactile graphics will significantly improve your student’s understanding! Tactile graphics span the gamut from preschool activities to AP classes and beyond!

Do you have any tips? Please share with us!


By Diane Brauner

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