by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
You're probably familiar with a popular nursery rhyme that goes something like this:
"What are little boys made of? Snips and snails, And puppy-dogs' tails, That's what little boys are made of."
"What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice, And everything nice, That's what little girls are made of."
Maybe you know what little boys and little girls are actually made of. But do you know what playing cards are made of? Most readers likely own playing cards made out of paper, and chances are you even know something about the process involved in making them - especially if you've read a previous article that appeared on this blog in July [link].
But did you know that decks of playing cards exist that been made out of many other materials besides paper? Let's check out some of the more common and less common materials that have been used to make playing cards.
By far the majority of playing cards today are made out of paper. Paper has been used for making paper playing cards for centuries, and some of the oldest decks in existence today are all made of paper. And it's still one of the most popular choices for making playing cards in our modern era.
Perhaps the most recognizable deck of playing cards today is the Bicycle rider-back deck, which is produced by United States Playing Card Company. Bicycle branded decks make up a large part of the playing cards that USPCC produces, and along with their other well-known brands like Bee and Tally-Ho they are almost always made out of paper. Two sheets of paper are stuck together with a black coloured glue between them, using the help of a special laminator, and this opaque card stock then goes through a printing press where plates apply quick drying ink. Uncut sheets of multiple cards are then cut by precision cutting machines to make the individual cards that comprise a deck. The exact process can vary somewhat, but other publishers like the European based Cartamundi and the Taiwan based Legends/Expert Playing Card Company all produce embossed paper playing cards by means of a similar method.
So what about plastic cards? Strictly speaking, many of these plastic decks are made out of a synthetic substrate like PVC or semi rigid plastic. With the popularization of Poker - televised games contributing significantly to its growth and success - these plastic playing cards have enjoyed a real boom in the last decade.
Unlike paper playing cards, plastic playing cards are much less likely to become marked or wear out, and they also won't crease, bend, or tear as easily. They are also often water-proof, whereas moisture is usually the big enemy of a paper deck. Card shuffling and flourishing is not as pleasant or smooth with a plastic deck, mind you, because plastic cards can clump together and make manipulation difficult. That is why cardists and magicians still prefer a traditional deck made out of paper in order to perform card sleights and fancy twirls and flourishes. But a deck made entirely out of plastic will often be the deck of choice for the serious poker player looking to get a lot of mileage out of a single deck. For a poker game, a paper deck might last a single game, and will likely already then start showing some signs of wear that give it the very real potential of becoming a marked deck, whereas a 100% plastic deck can go the distance for multiple poker games.
But plastic cards aren't just for getting serious, they also make great novelties, and there are some very fun all-plastic decks that have been designed to be played in a swimming pool or spa. Bring on those bubbles and soap suds!
While paper and plastic are easily the materials of choice for functional cards, when we venture into the area of novelty, we'll find a range of other products used, wood being an obvious choice, especially for the craftsman.
A fine example is the creative deck that Donald Corey has designed for Areaware, which is made out of plywood. This deck makes no secret about its novelty factor, and has been designed so that the cards can also be connected together by means of eight different slots that have been cut into edges of each playing card. These inter-locking grooves enable you to combine cards and assemble them into towers, and even build the castle of your dreams! For once, you can produce a house of cards that won't collapse at the first gust of wind, because there's no doubt that these unique cards will offer some real structural integrity. Priced at $36 over on Art of Play, it's not even something that will break the budget!
Now let's take our deck of cards to the next level, by upgrading from wood to metal! It's obvious that a deck made entirely out of metal is going to require some seriously specialized methods of production, and so it probably won't come as any surprise to learn that a decent metal deck is going to cost you upwards of $100. On the other hand, you will probably be the only person in your city with a deck remotely like this, so it will give you some serious credibility!
Several metal decks have been created, and the leading creator here is Home Run Games, which has produced a range of different metal decks from different metal materials, including stainless steel (Forever Stainless, Stainless Steel Bear, Stainless Steel Lion, Stainless Steel Gryphon, Stainless Steel Hippo, Stainless Steel Griffin), copper (Completely Copper, Copper Eagle, Copper Unicorn), brass (Brass Stag, Golden Dragon, Golden Goat), and even titanium (Titanium Stallion). These decks typically weigh over one and a half pounds each. Usually printed in a limited print run of only 500 copies each, and accompanied by a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity, they have proven very popular and successful.
Not only are these expensive, but they're are not very practical - you can expect the cards to slide all over the place if you actually try to stack them and use them for a game of cards. But they sure have a major coolness factor, and will be a fabulous addition for the collector! The Copper Unicorn is one of the few metal decks available from PlayingCardDecks.
Home Run Games is also responsible for the amazing Carbon Fiber Wolf deck, which is also available from PlayingCardDecks in a very limited quantity. Unlike the metal decks, which have little flex and can't really be shuffled, the carbon fiber cards have some handling properties in common with paper cards, and can bend and be shuffled. Being carbon fiber, they are also much lighter, coming in at around a quarter of a pound for the entire deck.
Made from 3k twill carbon fiber, the Carbon Wolf features printing that uses four colours on the card faces: white, blue, yellow, and red, while the back has a design inspired by heraldry in white. The cards faces look much like a standard Bicycle deck, but are printed on black, and with white where you'd normally expect black. I suspect that actual usage might cause the pain to chip and show signs of wear, but at least this is something you can do more with than just have it as a collector's item.
If you like novelty decks, you might also want to take a look at Kikkerland's Pixel Playing Cards and Space Invader Cards, as well as the X-Ray deck. The cards are described as having a "pixelated design that creates an optical illusion when moved. The pixels are separated by a transparent grid that produces the optical effect." They have a unique perforated print style with actual holes, creating a see through design that lets you look through the cards in both directions, but only you can see the value and suit.
But if you really want to impress while staying on a budget, it's hard to look past the $100 Bill Gold/Silver Foil decks that are surprisingly inexpensive. These are readily available, and are typically billed as being made out of gold foil. Many of them even come with an official sounding Certificate of Authenticity, which states "Laboratory Test Report - Gold Certificate 99.9% pure 24 Carat Gold". Does that sound too good to be true? Someone has given them a scientific analysis, and it appears that they have a plastic core, with a metallic foil layer on the surface, but there's no traces of actual gold (see this outstanding video by a chemical expert).
But they certainly are very classy looking and impressive, and even if it's not real gold, they are very unique and eye-catching. Do be aware that these are typically bridge sized rather than poker sized, and that they aren't intended for heavy use because the "gold" foil will start to wear with repeated shuffling.
So are you ready to take the next step in custom playing cards, and venturing out of your comfort zone with paper cards? Or perhaps you are looking for that ultimate gift for the collector? PlayingCardDecks has two of these very-hard-to-find decks, namely the Copper Unicorn deck and Carbon Wolf deck. On the other hand if it's bling on a budget that you're after, the $100 Bill Gold/Silver Foil decks will give you glamour at a low cost. Alternatively, you might want to check out their range of plastic cards, if you're looking for something suitable for your next bath or swimming pool event.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.