What is Varnish? How Varnish Is Used in Printing and Packaging


Varnish can make a huge difference to the appearance of your custom printed packaging.

When you need your packaging or printed material to stand out, consider using varnish to add a pop of depth to your colors or to add a subtle appearance that reflects your brand.

But what is varnish, exactly? What are the different types of varnish coating? What type of varnish will be the best to use?

We’re happy you asked.

What is Varnish in Printing and Packaging?

Varnish is a clear, transparent coating that is applied to a printed piece during or after printing. Varnish is often added to packaging to protect the printed material against fingerprints, smudges and scuffs, and to enhance the depth of the packaging’s colors and overall appearance for a distinctive style.

The 4 Most Common Types of Varnish for Printing 

In the printing world, there are many different types of varnish, and each type has specific effects that you’ll want to better understand in order to choose the right style for your custom packaging

Let’s start with the 4 most common types of varnish coating used in printing and packaging:

  • Gloss: Gloss is often applied over the full surface or in specific areas of your printed packaging. It creates and enhances the contrast between color while adding depth and detail to the color. Colors look like they “pop out” more to the naked eye. However, a high gloss finish under direct lighting can reflect a high degree of the lighting, which can make the text harder to read. 
  • Matte: Matte gives your packaging design a more subtle, soft appearance. Because matte varnish is a non-reflective service, packaging with a lot of text, or text that needs to be read from a distance is better served by using a matte varnish as opposed to gloss. However, it’s worth noting that the effect appears much softer than with gloss finish. If you need your packaging to stand out and be noticed, gloss is still a better option.
  • Strike-through Matte: Using this technique, matte varnish and gloss varnish are both applied to different areas of the printed piece. The matte varnish is applied to all of the areas except where a more impactful glossy effect is needed. In this way, the matte varnish strikes through the glossy effect and lets it shine while giving the rest of the packaging the more softer look. It’s a great way to create distinction between both types of the packaging. 
  • Satin:  A combination of matte and gloss to create a “best of both worlds” varnish that is soft, yet allows for greater resistance against fingerprints, smudges and scuffs. It looks as if no varnish has been applied, so you can still enjoy a subtle effect, while giving your packaging enhanced protection during shipping

The Advantages of Varnish in Packaging and Print

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Varnish adds (literally) a layer of quality to the box design or your printed product. 

Not only does it protect against scuffs, fingerprints and smudges, it also increases the perceived value of the product. Varnish can be applied via spot finishing or in different processes that span the whole sheet. 

Varnish is also flexible in terms of how it can be applied, which can create some unique and intense looks. 

For instance, with wet trapping, varnish is applied to wet ink during the printing process to truly ensure that the two meld together to create a distinctive style. With dry trapping, the ink is dried first and then the varnish is added by the press as well when the packaging passes through it a second time. 

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The Disadvantages of Varnish in Packaging and Print 

If there’s one major disadvantage to varnish, it’s that it doesn’t offer the level of protection that other types of coatings like UV coating or aqueous coating (AQ) do. 

Varnish is also not exactly eco-friendly and needs to be applied carefully in order to prevent toxic byproducts from being released into the air. 

Consider how your varnish choice will impact your decisions related to soft touch coating or lamination, matte or gloss lamination and embossing or debossing.

A Variety of Effects and Styles for Varnish Coating

effects styles varnish coating gloss raised UV

Varnish isn’t just divided by types, like satin and gloss, but also compromises different techniques as well.

For example, gloss UV coating is one of the most popular options, and is both protective and high-impact. If your custom boxes or packaging will be handled a lot, gloss UV coating adds a greater level of durability than other types of varnish. 

The UV in UV coating means that the liquid coating is applied and then cured with UV drying lamps. This makes the finished product very resistant to being rubbed or scratched. 

If you want to add an even greater level of sensory effect to your packaging, consider raised UV coating. This helps “volumize” the printed area or graphic by creating a raised area that not only sticks out more visually, but also in a tactile sense – you can feel the difference between the raised area and the non-raised area. Many DVD packages feature this type of printing where the characters or other noticeable area on the packaging is raised to invite touch. 

Another great way to add attention and focus to your packaging is through the use of a spot UV pattern. This means that only a certain area of the packaging, such as your logo, is glossy, and this is the part that reflects light and catches the eye.

Are Varnishes the Same as Laminates?

No, varnishes and laminates are not the same. 

That said, both laminates and varnishes are used to refer to the same process – where a protective layer is added to make a piece look more luxurious or softer. Both laminates and varnishes also protect your retail packaging from being damaged, but laminate protects more than varnish.

In many cases, especially if your product isn’t being handled a lot, varnish is a much more economical way to add a layer of basic protection to your product without investing in the higher cost of laminates. 

A Seemingly Endless Variety of Options and Techniques

With seemingly endless variations – from spot UV to high gloss coatings to a softer, more subtle matte that gives your product a more luxurious look, to velvet-like satin that adds a touch of softness and refinement – there’s a lot to consider. 

There’s a certain style that you want your packaging to project. Whether you want to convey the look of an elegant package that begs to be opened, or a high-impact, glossy, eye-catching piece that demands attention, every package has its audience and every audience has certain expectations in mind.

Adding to this, the fact that now, more than ever, packaging carries its own sense of brand loyalty-building through unboxings and streamings.

That means there’s no better time to entrust your packaging and printing to a leading custom packaging company that knows how to make your packaging deliver the best possible impression, no matter what you’re selling. 

From earthy, natural designs to sophisticated, classy looks, Refine Packaging has your needs covered with the very latest in proven printing techniques that truly bring your packaging to life.

Our guide to packaging definitions can help you get up to speed with industry terminology as you create your own custom boxes.

Make Jaw-Droppingly Good Packaging with Varnish

The best way to truly understand how the expert printers, packaging specialists and artists at Refine Packaging can help you is to give us a call or fill out our free, no obligation quote estimate form. Tell us more about your packaging, your product and your goals. We’ll take the time to carefully listen to your needs and formulate a plan of action to help you take the next steps with confidence.

In addition, even if you’re not sure of how you want your packaging to appear, or even if you don’t have a lot or design in mind, don’t worry! We have artists on staff that draw from a variety of styles and inspirations to create a look you’ll love. 

Using varnish as a way to finish your packaging is just one of the many processes we can employ to give your packaging an edge that helps make it more attractive among other products on the shelves. There are a variety of ways to add a touch of elegance, beauty, style and much more to the finished packaging to make it impactful and attention-getting.

Contact Refine Packaging today to learn more about the wide variety of options we can use to help make your product packaging look jaw-droppingly good and let our experts walk you through the process, as well as answer any questions you may have.

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