Applying Special Effects to Your Print Work

By LaurenMarie

I mentioned a few weeks ago on Twitter,

wow, learned so much in just 5 minutes talking w/ my printer about what works and what doesn’t w/ varnishes, uv, aqueous coating, etc. Cool!
4:55 PM Dec 5th

You always hear designers saying, “Talk to your printer!” How many actually do though? Aren’t we afraid of sounding silly or ignorant? Well, I am.

The truth is, your printer sees hundreds more jobs than you do. Experience turns one into an expert. Maybe in 20 years you’ll know as much as your printer knows now. But why wait? S/he can give you advice and tips on what stock (paper) and finishes would look best.

White iridescent foil on white matte paper

A Little Vocabulary

I just need to define a few things so we’re all on the same page.

A spot is a bit of ink or finish that it applied to only specific areas instead of over the whole printed piece (that would be called a flood coating).

A finish is an effect applied after printing. It can be a varnish, aqueous coating (AQ), ultra-violet (UV), foil or a number of others that we won’t talk about here like diecutting or embossing.

Varnish is basically a clear ink. As a spot, it can slightly distinguish an area of the printed design. Comes in dull, satin and gloss finishes.

Aqueous Coating (AQ) is water-based finish in-between the thickness of a varnish or UV. It is often applied overall to protect the print, but can also be used to add texture. Dull, satin and gloss finishes available.

Ultra-violet (UV) is the thickest finish option and provides a lot of protection for the print. Since it’s thicker, though, it may crack over folds! This is what is generally used for glossy spots. Dull and gloss options only.

Using a laminate is by far the most expensive option and usually not used in low unit runs. This one can’t be used as a spot. Gloss or matte finish only. Tell your printer early on if you plan to have a piece laminated.

What I Learned: The Basics

I had my printer (technically, he’s a print broker) stop by the office the other day so I could show him exactly the effect I was looking for on a brochure I was doing. What I wanted was a matte finish but glossy where the ink was. The paper was bright white. I learned many things!

It’s best not to use a varnish, AQ or UV finish on uncoated paper. It sinks in and can turn the ink dull and add a yellowish tone.

Many matte-textured printed items are actually finished with a matte coating (in other words, that’s not the original paper texture).

If you don’t want an ultra-glossy look but still need a coated paper, try a satin finish paper.

UV coating can be glossy or dull (not quite matte like uncoated paper because there is still some reflection from it). A dull UV on thick paper (like 120+ lb. double-thick cover) feels really nice, almost like a supple plastic.

Satin AQ with glossy spot UV (spot also has black printed underneath)

No matter what kind of glossy spot method you use, it will “pop” best if the background color or paper is dark.

Spot Glossy Look on “Matte” Stock

There are many ways to get a spot glossy look, and some are more expensive than others. I think usually the preferred method is a spot UV, which has a thicker feel and look than a varnish or AQ.

Dull UV (left) with glossy spot UV (right)

You can also try a glossy AQ spot, and often the printer will already have the AQ in the machine so it won’t be too much extra (provided you’re printing offset and not digital). AQ is usually used to protect the finished piece from dirt, water and smudges. It’s particularly good to coat postcards or other direct mail pieces with AQ so they arrive in better condition. AQ dries very quickly, so if you need a fast turn-around from printer to handling, collating or binding, ask the printer about an AQ coat.

Finally, the most expensive way to get a satin finish is to actually put a laminate on the stock. This is pricey and usually only used in large runs (think paperback novels or greeting cards), where the cost per unit is spread out over hundreds of thousands.

One Last Note: Clear Foil

There is one thing to note: if you really have your heart set on a matte stock, you can use a clear foil instead of the varnish, AQ or UV (remember those will sink into the uncoated paper).

Clear foil on dark background

If you have a passion for learning about printing techniques, I highly recommend heading over to and reading through the newsletter archive, which dates back to 2001. Be a little careful with the older information, though, and always talk with your printer about the latest technology. One thing I noticed, for example, is that issue 18 says AQ cannot be applied as a spot. That article is from January 2003, and this isn’t true anymore; AQ can be applied as a spot now, but you’ll have to check if your printer is capable of this.

So what have you learned about applying various finishes to your print work? Any tips to share? What have you found to be an outstanding combination of paper and finish?