A spot of varnish, a foil stamp, and a die cut

People will pick up your project and say, “Gee whiz, what good looking print job!”


You need to make an impression with this printed piece. So let's through caution to the wind, pull out the stops, spare no expense...

Give this job three special operations: a spot varnish, a foil stamp, and a die cut. These are the most tactile effects you employ! And, we can practice the production skills for them in one exercise.

Spot varnish

Varnish is a clear coating that can be printed on the printing press; its an image, just like any ink.

Why pay for a press run to apply ink you can barely see? Varnishes can provide protection against smudging and scuffing,extending the life of documents such as reference booklets, catalogs, or menus.

In our job, the varnish will be printed to "spots" to add emphasis to portions of the page. Varnish can add a dull sheen, a velvet effect, or a gloss finish. A popular technique is to add a varnish to areas that need to stand out; products, people, typography...it adds a subtle hierarchy, an almost subliminal effect; a mysteriously subtle image trick.

If you need maximum protection, go beyond varnish and ask your printer about options for flood coating with thick UV or aqueous liquid goop, or laminating with a plastic film.

Foil stamp

Foil stamping uses heat and pressure to stick thin foil onto the paper. It uses a heated metal photo-engraved die in a letterpress machine. The die presses the foil onto your paper and a hot-glue coating sticks it there. Foils can be brilliant metallic, rich colors, or fabulous patterns.

The pressure and heat of the stamping wlll flatten and smooth the fibers in the paper. This is a powerful tactile event; even without the foil coating. Foiling onto uncoated, heavily textured stock provides the most impact, but it works on coated stock also.

Foil stamping is a close relative of embossing, which uses a shaped die to add a sculpted shape to the paper.

Die cut

Die cutting is done in the letterpress. The die is a sharpened metal strip bent into the desired shape, and fitted into a piece of heavy plywood. Die cuts can give the piece a sculpted outer profile, or cut out shapes within the form. The cut out shapes can perform a function, such as hanging onto a doorknob or holding a business card; or they may cleverly reveal images on an underlying sheet.

The artwork

These processes all need a layer of artwork from you, the designer.

The printer will need an image for the varnish, foil, or die-cut shapes. You create a spot color ink in your computer file; name it for the process, i.e. "spot varnish", "foil", or "die-cut". Assign the spot color an on-screen color that is definitely not part of the printed image, such as bright pink or lime green. Place it as the top layer in your file so it can be turned on and off, and show its location on the design.

The varnish will create a printing plate, just like the standard inks, the foil and die-cut will be output as a film or paper sheet and used by the die makers.


The exercise:

Watch the Lynda.com series from Claudia McCue, Print Production Essential: Embossing, Foil Stamping, and Die Cutting; the episodes on die cutting.

What is the topic?

Make this a card of some sort; an announcement, invitation, business card, or brand-building curio. It would probably be mailed in a protective envelope or hand-delivered.

You may use one of your previous project clients, or create a fresh concept. You might announce a fund-raising event, describe a new cafe or coffehouse, invite people to a show or conference.

Develop your design concept to include the varnish, foil, and die-cut; then create the layout in InDesign or Illustrator. (Three tricks on one job may be excessive. That's OK, it's only an exercise.)

Create the spot colors for your varnish, foil, and die-cut. Give them descriptive names.

Create the varnish image on its own named layer. Give it a bright indicator color for viewing, and give it an overprint attribute. Overprinting prevents the special effect from knocking out the base images.

Create the foil image on its own layer; it is also given a bright indicator color and set to overprint.

Create your die-line on its own layer with a red spot color on the stroke, set to overprint. You may refer to this article on die cut projects.

Assemble your document as a CMYK plus the spot colors, save a PDF X1a file.

Turn this in to the appropriate folder in AVA Classes>GRDSN142>Dropoff.

What could go wrong? Check this checklist.