Specialist printing header

A little about specialist print finishes

Sometimes ink just isn’t enough! But what are the options and what are the practical considerations?

Print technology has come a long way over the years and this post describes a few finishes which, in some cases, have been with us for a long time.  However, they have been refined and perfected and can be used to create some classic, interesting and eye-catching design.

Whilst there are more, the most commonly used are these:

  • Special inks
  • Foil blocking
  • Embossing / debossing
  • Thermography
  • Spot varnish
  • Die-cutting


Special inks

We’ll start with these because they’re really only a variation on normal CMYK or Pantone inks.  The ducts are simply loaded with the required ink as normal.

There are two common types of special inks: metallic and fluorescent.  Metallic inks are made with tiny flecks of various metals to produce an effect resembling gold, bronze, etc.  Fluorescent inks are special colours not produceable using combinations of the Pantone base inks but made individually.  They are very bright and eye-catching and very useful for brand recognition, though their effect will be lost in digital printing.


  • Metallic inks for cost-effective metal effect
  • Fluorescent inks for bright, eye-catching colour
  • Special inks’ effect lost in digital printing


Foil blocking

A step up from metallic ink is the foil block.  This uses actual metal foil to produce a high-end, impressive result, reflecting light as well as any metal surface.  The effect can be specified in matt, satin or gloss finishes.

Foil blocking example

A metal die-like block is produced and used to stamp the foil onto the paper.  This means it can be printed flat or combined with embossing, which we’ll come to next.  Due to the production of the block, foil blocking can be pricey, but not necessarily.  We’ll be happy to give you a competitive quote at FirstpointPrint.


  • Metal block stamps foil onto the design
  • Can be expensive, better for long print runs


Embossing / debossing

This is a well-known technique and can be both subtle and impressive (pun intended).  In a similar process to that of foil blocking, a metal die block is produced and stamped onto the paper, either from behind, pushing the paper UP (embossing) or from the front, pushing the design DOWN into the paper (debossing).  The design can simply be embossed onto the paper without any colour (blind embossing) or foil can be used at the same time to create a truly impressive result.

Embossing and debossing example

Embossing/debossing is made more desirable by the fact that one can FEEL the result as well as see it, creating a tactile design which one cannot help but reach out and touch.  It is often used on business cards or for crests at the top of high-end letterheads.

Obviously, whatever is embossed on one side will be debossed in reverse on the other side.  This can be a problem with double-sided materials where the reverse side is interfered with by the converse effect.  A way around this is to stick two sheets together, effectively blanking out the reverse.


  • Embossing is raised up, out of the sheet
  • Debossing is pushed down into the sheet
  • Whatever effect is used on the front will be reversed on the back
  • Production of the metal block can be pricey



This is a more cost-effective way of creating raised text or designs which one can feel.

The design is printed in sticky ink and the whole sheet is covered in thermographic powder, which sticks to the still-wet ink.  Excess powder is vacuumed up and stored.  The sheet then passed through an oven of around a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, which fuses the ink and powder and expands it upwards from the sheet.  The process can be made laser-safe by using special powder and treatment with UV light to harden the surface so it doesn’t re-melt in a laser printer.

The advantage of this over embossing is that it’s cheaper and only affects the intended side of the sheet, not both.  It is also possible to use any desired ink colour, rather than simply being ‘blind’ or using foil.


  • Raises the design up from the page without affecting the reverse
  • Cheaper than embossing
  • Coloured inks


Spot varnish

Also known as ‘spot UV’, this can be a very striking effect and has both a visual and tactile appeal.  It consists of a glossy varnish printed on top of the design, which reflects light when viewed from various angles.  It is most effective when used on top of a matt finish because of the greater contrast between the two surfaces.

Spot UV varnish example

The varnish is printed straight from a printing duct, the same as any other ink.  Some litho presses are five-colour, so they have a specific process section for special inks and varnish.



This involves using a ‘forme’ to cut precise shapes or edges in the stock.  It is often used for creating folders and slots for business cards, but can be used for more intricate designs as well.

Die-cutting example


Preparing the artwork

Specialist printing requires specialist artwork.  The printer needs to know which parts of the design are to be included in the required finish.

The easiest way to do this is to use a spot colour for the special finish.  The spot ‘plate’ can be any colour but it should be renamed (‘SPOT UV’, for example) accordingly.  The design of a magazine cover, for example, may have C, M, Y and K plus a ‘GOLD FOIL’ plate.

The other way which may be specified is that the specific parts of the design to be in special finish are supplied as a single black plate, i.e. a PDF by itself with just the text to be spot varnished displayed in solid black.  This black plate is then used as the template for the special finish.

Plate method example

As with anything, at FirstpointPrint we’ll talk you through any technical issues if they arise.


  • Use a renamed spot colour for the special finish or
  • Supply a separate black plate