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Paper Coatings

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Thanks to Creative Coatings in San Diego for contributing to this post.


Get Creative With Paper Coatings.

One of the distinct advantages that print has over digital communication is its ability to appeal to the senses. A printed piece can stimulate touch, sight and even smell in ways digital can’t. We are driven by tactile feel and texture, depth and dimensionality, all of which are conveyed much more strikingly in print with the help of coatings. A printed piece reproduced on an iPad or computer screen just doesn’t have the same impact. In fact, how many times have you heard said, or said yourself, “I still prefer the feel of an old fashioned book in my hand?” Or a catalog? Or a magazine?

How often should you blog?

This is where coatings and laminations really shine (pun intended). They’re not only great for making your print pieces much more durable, but also for adding visual and tactile punch to your marketing pieces. This blog post gives you a brief introduction to coating options and highlights a few examples of unique applications that can make your print creations jump off the page.


Add Durability.

A primary purpose of coatings is to protect your marketing pieces. This is particularly true of any pieces you will send through the mail. Postal handling really beats up mail pieces. Adding a coating like varnish, aqueous or UV adds thickness and stiffness to your pieces and also protects them from scuffing. The type of coating you choose will depend on several factors, including:

  • Scratch and scuff resistance
  • Price
  • Desired visual effect
  • Dry time
  • Ability to write on it (most coatings do not allow you to write on them)


Primary Coating Types: Varnish, Aqueous and UV

A varnish is essentially a clear ink. It be can be applied to a print piece on the press along with other color inks, or added afterward. Like the other coating types, varnish can be applied in a flood, covering the entire side of a piece, or as a spot, covering only specified “spots” of the piece to visually emphasize those areas.


  • Comes in several finishes, including: gloss, matte, satin, and opaque.
  • Can be very precisely applied to a spot, just like any other ink.
  • Is generally the most affordable coating option.


  • Can yellow over time depending on what it is covering.
  • Requires spray powder on press to keep sheets from sticking to each other before the varnish cures. Leftover powder can adversely affect the look of the piece.
  • Can scratch more easily and is a little less durable than the other coating types.
  • Must be handled carefully to avoid the release of harmful contaminants while still on press (it is completely harmless immediately afterward).

Aqueous coatings are water-based and applied by presses with a dedicated aqueous press unit.


  • Being water-based, aqueous is more environmentally friendly than varnish.
  • Provides superior protection from fingerprints and other blemishes.
  • It dries almost immediately, eliminating drying time and allowing fast packing and delivery of finished pieces.
  • Comes in several finishes, including: gloss, matte, satin, and SoftTouch, which simulates the feel of suede.
  • Won’t yellow like varnish.
  • Seals ink from air, protecting metallic inks from tarnishing.
  • Some formulations can be written on with a pencil or overprinted with a laser printer for mass mailings.


  • Is typically more expensive than varnish.
  • A small percentage of the time, aqueous can cause certain spot colors to change. This can happen immediately or months or even years later.
  • Requires at least 80# text weight paper to avoid the paper curling or wrinkling as it soaks this water-based coating.
  • It is harder to apply precisely to a spot than varnish.

UV: Ultraviolet
UV coatings are liquid coatings that are applied either during the initial print run or afterward. The liquid is exposed to ultraviolet light which instantly polymerizes and hardens (i.e. “cures”) the coating.


  • Provides the shiniest, most lustrous effect.
  • Is very thick, durable and scratch resistant.
  • Comes in several finishes, including: gloss, matte, pearlescent (includes tiny metal flecks to create this effect) and reticulating (such as with an orange peel) for a slightly raised, interesting tactile feel.
  • With today’s technology, papers treated with UV coatings are just as recyclable as other papers.


  • Is the most expensive coating option.
  • A small percentage of the time, UV, like aqueous, can cause certain spot colors to change. This can happen immediately or months or even years later.
  • Must be handled carefully in press and bindery or it can crack (particularly with folding).
  • More likely to show fingerprints.
  • Can’t register to quite as fine a definition as varnish in intricate applications.


Appeal to the senses.

Again, this is where coatings really shine. By artfully applying coatings to specific parts of a piece, you can create dazzling effects that make those parts literally seem to jump off the page. You can simulate the gloss and sheen of wet fruit, nail polish, or the richly painted metal of a car. Colors under coatings will pop with heightened luster and saturation. What’s more, as you run your fingers across the piece, you can feel the contrasts in texture between parts that are coated and those that aren’t, or, between those parts that feature different types of coatings and application techniques.

With coatings, you can simulate practically anything, including plastic, leather, metal, concrete, paint, acrylic, reptilian scaly skin, orange peel, grass — you name it.

But that’s not all. Here are some even more creative uses of coatings.

We’ve all heard of “scratch and sniff.” It is possible to feature many types of scents in your printed pieces through the use of liquid-based and some UV coatings, which, when rubbed or scratched, can release a specific scent. Depending on usage and wear, these scents can last for months. Some scents can be quite tricky to simulate though. Talk with your coatings provider to explore what may be possible to help bring your concept to life.

Color Shifting: Photochromic Coatings
These coatings can add very interesting effects to your printed pieces. When they are exposed to UV rays, such as those contained in everyday sunlight, these coatings can change from clear to a color or the other way around. One example of where this came in handy is the window tint company that wanted to demonstrate the ability of its films to block sunlight. The company’s promotional piece contained two dots of photochromic ink, with one covered by the company’s film. Customers could lift the film, expose the covered dot, and see the effects of the window tint right in their hands as the dot changed color.

Disappearing Act: Thermochromic Coatings
Have you ever worn a color-shifting mood ring, or drank coffee from a mug with artwork that disappears when the coffee is hot? Then you’ve experienced thermachromic coatings. As the name suggests, these coatings change from color or clear over a certain temperature range. Perhaps you’d like to create an illustrated story book where the main characters either disappear as you hold them, or magically become visible as the coating over the artwork turns clear. Thermochromic coatings can help you achieve these effects.

Fraud Protection: Security Coating
While you may never need this yourself, this is too interesting not to mention. Certain types of UV coating can be applied to create artwork that is invisible except when revealed with an infrared light scanner. This can be used on product packaging to differentiate authentic products from those that are counterfeit.


A great coating resource

Our friends at Creative Coatings in San Diego are some of the best in the business at creating dazzling effects in print with coatings. They’re often called on by big brand-name companies to innovate new applications of coatings to achieve desired visual and tactile effects in print. In fact, this blog post was much enhanced thanks to their expertise. We toured their plant and perused their samples book to gain a host of ideas to jazz up your marketing pieces. Here are just a few of the effects they’ve been able to create with coatings:

  • The leather of a football
  • Carpeting, grass and artificial turf
  • Beaded condensation on a beer glass
  • Metallic holograms
  • Skateboard grip tape
  • Posters with parts that change color (with thermachromic coatings)

Another fantastic source of ideas and information is a publication from Sappi Fine Paper North America, called “The Standard: Varnish & Coatings.” This is a must-read.



The next time you plan a brochure, direct mail piece, catalog or other promotional piece, talk to your printer and your creative team about how you can take that piece to the next level with coatings. The stand-out impact and memorability you achieve could be well worth the incremental cost.


Here’s to the Marketing Champion in all of us. See you in the next post.



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