label bases & printing effects

1. Types of Substrates

There are three basic types of base materials for labels: transparent, opaque, and metallic. By choosing the best substrate for your project, you can design the label to give your packaging a certain feel or achieve a special effect.

A: transparent • B: opaque • C: metallic


2. Basic Color Printing

Color inks (also known as “CMYK,” standing for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK) are translucent, not opaque. When they overlay each other, they combine to form other colors, sort of like watercolor painting. If you apply them to a transparent base, you will get a “stained glass window” effect. If you apply them to a white opaque base, the effect will be standard color printing. If you apply them to a silver metallic base, the effect will be colored metallic. In the third example, this is a budget method of creating one or more metallic colors without paying the printer for a foil die (more on that later).

A: transparent base + color inks (stained glass window effect) • B: white opaque base + color inks • C: silver metallic base + color inks (colored metallic effect)

Transparent + color
Opaque + color
Metallic + color

3. Custom Shapes

If a printer doesn’t have the exact label shape you need, you will have to pay a one-time “plating fee” which can be anywhere from $150-$500 for a customized “die cut.” One method of eliminating that cost is to use a transparent base and print a layer of opaque white ink (also called “two hits white”). The cost to add the opaque white ink is much lower than a custom die, plus a die cut has limitations on how detailed the shape can get; it is limited by the ability to physically cut the label.

A: transparent base + two hits white opaque ink + color ink (lowest cost) • B: die cut + white opaque base + color inks • C: die cut + silver metallic base + color inks

Transparent + white + color
Opaque white base + die cut + color
Metallic silver base + die cut + color

4. Metallic Effects

A metallic effect can make your label stand out among competition and increase the perception of quality if used well. When using transparent or opaque base materials, printers will charge a one-time “foil stamp” fee to make the shape of the metallic area. The hot stamp also has limitations for how detailed it can be. A trick to avoid the foil stamp fee is to start with a metallic base and leave the areas showing and/or use color ink where you want a metallic effect, and a use white opaque ink to cover areas where you don’t. The downside to using a metallic base is that you’ll have to get a custom die if you want any label shape you printer does not already have plates for. Compare your printer’s pricing for getting a foil stamp vs. a die cut. Sometimes the appeal of a clear label base outweighs the cost of the foil stamp.

A: transparent base + foil stamp • B: white opaque base + foil stamp • C: silver metallic base + two hits white opaque ink + color inks

Transparent + red foil stamp
Opaque + copper foil stamp
Metallic + white + color

5. Finishing Effects

Two basic finishing textures are matte or glossy. Matte finish is non-reflective but makes colors appear less vibrant while glossy is reflective and makes colors appear more vibrant. Some base materials like “BOPP” opaque or transparent plastic are initially glossy, while bases like paper are initially matte. You can use a “spot gloss” or “spot matte” finish to create a dual finish effect, which is great for highlighting more important areas or creating a more textured effect.

A: Glossy finish • B: Matte finish • C: Spot matte and spot gloss finishes

Glossy finish
Matte finish
Spot matte finish

Other Considerations

  • See if your label printer uses lithographic printing or digital printing. Digital printing is slowly replacing lithographic, but results are the same quality with no plating fees.
  • A clear base for the label is a budget-conscious way to achieve the “printed-on” or “no-label” look. Some printers are able to print directly on your bottles but it’s usually more expensive, and risky; if you need to change some information on the label, the entire bottle becomes worthless.
  • There are additional printing techniques like holofoil and embossing that can make your product stand out. Check what’s right for your brand and budget and then find a printer who can produce those techniques.
  • Shrink sleeves are an option for packaging with irregular shapes. The process to apply them involves running the product through a heating tunnel to shrink the label to the package.
  • Screening opaque white ink is a way to create a transitional (gradient) translucent effect. Many printers are not able to implement this technique, so ask before designing.
Holofoil base material
Direct printing
Shrink sleeve
Die cut appearance using clear base + opaque white
Opaque white screens (translucent gradient effect)