How to Specify Spot Varnish in a Digital File

Add glossy highlights some elements of a printed piece with spot varnish

Specifying Spot Varnish in InDesign
A bright yellow spot color represents the varnish in this file. The yellow triangle would end up being varnish that lets the background colors show through creating a subtle image of a triangle. Palettes shown are from Adobe InDesign CS4. © J. Bear

A spot varnish is a special effect that puts varnish only on specific areas of a printed piece. Use spot varnish to make a photograph pop off the printed page, highlight drop caps, or to create texture or subtle images on the page. Spot varnish is clear and usually glossy, although it can be dull. Some print projects may include both gloss and matte spot varnishes for special effects. In page layout programs, you specify a spot varnish as a new spot color.

At the printing press, instead of inking up the spot color plate made from the digital file with a colored ink, the press operator uses it to apply the clear varnish.

Setting Up a Spot Varnish Plate in Page Layout Software

The same general steps apply to whichever page layout program you use:

  1. Create a new spot color.
    In your page layout application, open the digital file that contains the print job and create a new spot color. Name it "Varnish”" or “"Spot Varnish" or something similar.”
  2. Make the new spot color any color so you can see it in the file.
    Although the varnish is actually transparent, for display purposes in the file, you can make its spot color representation in your digital file just about any color. It must be a spot color, though, not a CMYK color.
  3. Don't duplicate an already-used spot color.
    Choose a color not used elsewhere in your publication. You might want to make it a bright, vivid color so it stands out clearly on screen.
  1. Overprint your spot varnish color.
    Set the new color to "overprint" to prevent the spot varnish from knocking out any text or other elements under the varnish.
  2. Place the spot varnish elements in the layout. If your software supports layers, put the spot color on a separate layer from the rest of your design.
    Create frames, boxes or other page elements and fill with the spot varnish color. Then place them where you want the varnish to appear on the final printed piece. If the page element already has color—such as a photo or a headline—and you want to apply varnish over it, create a duplicate of the element directly on top of the original. Apply the spot varnish color to the duplicate. Use this duplication method wherever close alignment of the varnish with an element under the varnish is important.
  1. Talk to your printer about spot varnish use.
    Make sure your printing company knows you are using a spot varnish in your publication before sending the file. The company may have special requirements or suggestions to improve how your project comes out.

Tips for Working With Spot Varnish in Digital Files

  1. Don't use a process color swatch for your spot varnish.
    Create a spot color, not a process color, for the spot varnish. In QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign or any other page layout software set the spot varnish plate as a “spot” color.
  2. Talk to your printer.
    Consult your printing company for any special requirements or suggestions as to how the company would like to receive your digital files that have spot varnish colors specified, as well as recommendations for the type of varnish to use for your publication.
  3. Spot varnish doesn't show on proofs.
    You may be working “in the dark” when using spot varnish. Since a proof is not going to show you how the finished effect will look, you won't know until it's all finished whether or not you got the effect you wanted.
  4. Adding a spot varnish increases the cost of a job.
    Use of a spot varnish adds an extra plate to the printing process, so a publication using 4-color process printing would require five plates, and a 4-color job with two spot varnishes needs a total of six plates.