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Protecting your print

It’s a scary world for an inkjet print, full of ultraviolet radiation,  condensation, oxidation… not to mention the sticky fingers of 6-year-olds. And though locking your prints away in a dark, vacuum sealed chamber might be tempting, there are  methods to protect your beloved prints that don’t involve hiding them from the world.

But, can you both protect and display your work without compromising its unique look and feel?

The answer is yes… if you take care to choose a method that enhances (or at least doesn’t detract from) the characteristics of the print.

Don’t make a solution into a problem

For example, do you use a matte or glossy paper?  That’s important, as most strategies for protecting a print are going to affect its reflective characteristics.  So you’ll need to be sure to use the right coating for the job. While the added shininess of a glossy coating may not be noticeable on a high-gloss paper, it can make a major difference in the appearance of a matte or semi-matte one.  And vice versa–a matte fixative can dull the shine right off of a glossy print.

Change in reflectivity is just one of many potential downfalls you may run into when adding a layer of protection to your output.  Texture may be reduced or eliminated by the addition of a sealant.  And other unique characteristics, like the ultra-contrast of metallic papers or the silver gelatin look of some fiber papers may take a hit as well.

In almost all cases there will be some impact on the perceived color vibrancy and density of the print due to the above mentioned change in reflectivity or because of a tint inherent in the coating. You may find you like the change–many do.  Blacks can look blacker, contrasts more deep, colors more vibrant–but its important that you are aware that these “enhancements” will occur.

But wait, there’s more! Some liquid sealants may dampen the paper enough to cause it to visibly warp. And  it’s not unheard of for coatings to yellow or crack over time.  In fact, while many coatings claim to extend the longevity of the print, keep in mind that often these are just claims with not much in the way of empirical data to back them up.

Oh, and some sealants stink.  Literally.  Its important to apply them in a well ventilated room and give the print plenty of time to air out.  Even then, some people have complained about a chemical smell permanently infusing their prints after coating.

Last but not least–a seemingly dry print must be given at least several days or even weeks before sealing or framing to “out gas”.  Sealing or framing the print prematurely is a sure way to do the opposite of protecting it as trapped moisture and harmful gases cause it to fade, yellow or warp.

With all of these factors to consider you may well decide not to take additional steps to protect your prints.  After all–today’s pigment inks (such as those used by Epson Stylus printers) are water resistant and fade resistant–in a “normal” indoors environment they can be expected to last without extensive fading for 80 years or more–at least that’s what the simulations tell us (No inkjet prints are that old yet).   And that may be true.  However, if your prints will be outdoors (or close enough to a door or window to receive weather effects), in direct sunlight or exposed to physical handling then the advantages of some form of coating may outweigh the pitfalls. With a little research, depending on the method of protection, you can make your print significantly more waterproof, UV proof…even 6 year old finger proof.

Evening it out

Even if protection or extending the life of your print into the next century isn’t a concern for you, there is one more thing to consider:  Pretty much any coating will reduce or eliminate gloss differential and bronzing. Gloss differential is what happens when there’s a clear difference between the “inked” area of a print and the areas that received no ink.  Viewed at an angle, you’ll see the inked areas have a different  reflective quality while the non-inked areas of a print show a different glossiness.  Bronzing is a  phenomenon in which the light reflective characteristics of the inks cause a golden “oil on water” sheen to the print when looked at an angle.  Both these phenomenon are tamed with virtually any kind of protective coating as they will even out the reflective characteristics of the print.

Choose your armor

So, now that we’ve discussed the pros and cons…just what are the methods of protection out there?  Well–there’s a lot of them, running the gamut from expensive lamination systems to hairspray.  While this is by no means a comprehensive list, here’s the main categories of options you’ll find:

Glass/Plastic Framing

It might seem overly obvious, but framing a print behind glass (or clear plastic) is a simple and effective method of offering protection to your prints. Framing protects from sunlight (if you use UV filtering glass) and, though not airtight, it does offer some measure of protection from environmental dangers like moisture and oxidation.  Viewed strictly for its protective characteristics alone, though,  it is usually the most expensive option, and though a nice frame will often enhance the print when displayed it will also add greatly to the storage requirements when it isn’t hanging on a wall.

Liquid coatings

There’s a dizzying range of methods and terms used in this category (fixative, shellac, lacquer, varnish, clear coat, acrylic coat, sealant, UV spray and “liquid laminates” to name a few) but all share the basic idea of a liquid applied to the surface of the print via brush, roller, aerosol spray can or spray gun that will dry to some kind of protective barrier.  While there are lots of liquid coatings specially formulated for inkjet output, many have also reported good results with more traditional products like those typically used for arts and crafts or woodworking applications. In fact, if you’ve ever read internet forums devoted to inkjet printing you know that experimentation is quite common when it comes to finding the perfect coating—pretty much any thing that can be sprayed on to a print has been… though not always with the intended results.

For applying a liquid coating, rolling and brushing are typically the most cost effective–especially when working with larger prints. Achieving an even coat is easy with a little practice but care must always be taken to avoid brush marks and air bubbles.  Aerosol spraying may be a more convenient option for smaller prints but more product may be required to achieve the same coverage as brushing/rolling. And spraying requires more care in maintaining proper ventilation in your work area. An HVLP (high-volume, low pressure) spray gun is perhaps the best, but most expensive,  method for higher volume applications as it provides efficient, even coverage on large and small prints with very little waste.

Most liquid coatings will be water, solvent or oil based.  Water based coatings can cause smearing on non-water resistant inks and some solvents may react badly with some paper coatings, so be careful.  A test application is always recommended.

Lacquers and Varnishes are perhaps the two terms you’ll see most often in this category. Lacquers tend to be thinner and faster drying then varnishes, but are more flammable so proper precautions must be taken when applying.  Lacquers are solvent or water based, Varnishes are oil and resin.


In lamination a clear plastic sheet is fixed to the print with an adhesive. The normal lamination process uses heat to activate the adhesive and create the bond between a top and bottom laminate, with the print “pouched” between. But the high temperatures needed may in some cases harm the print.  That’s why “cold lamination” is often used for inkjet output.  In cold lamination, the print along with an adhesive backed plastic sheet are fed between two rollers which apply pressure to the two, sealing just the face of the print and the single laminate sheet together.  There are a variety of both hot and cold laminators (priced anywhere from the low hundreds to high thousands)  suitable for inkjet prints.  (Remember when pricing a laminator that the laminate material itself is a factor–some can, inch for inch, rival the cost of the paper).

Lamination has the advantage of ease of application and durability.  Laminating gives a more “plastic” feel to the print however, and may not be desirable for fine art prints.  Unlike liquid coatings, off-size prints will need to be trimmed of excess material once laminated.

Calibration and Soft Proofing

At this point it’s probably a good idea to put in  a quick word about printer profiles and paper coatings. Since paper profiles are in almost all cases NOT made on papers with protective coatings applied, if the protection you choose does change the tint or density of your prints in a significant manner it can be tricky to compensate for the change when creating or editing your images. One workaround is to simply create a soft proof of the coating’s effects in Photoshop via an adjustment layer.  The basics are:  First, make sure you are getting a good screen to print match without the coating applied (using your printer/paper profile via the normal View-Proof Setup methods within Photoshop). Now, coat the print, let it dry, and hold it next to the computer screen while Photoshop displays the same image as a soft proof.  Create an adjustment layer in Photoshop and use its controls to match the tint or density.  Now, when you are correcting images that you will be printing and coating, you can activate the adjustment layer to see how the coating will affect it.  Make sure not to save the adjustment layer with the image – the adjustment layer is just for seeing the change the coating will make so you can correct for it!


To close off, here’s a very brief and very far from comprehensive list of liquid coating products that you might see out there.  Remember–ColorByte is not in the business of print protection and we aren’t recommending any of these. We’re just listing some well known popular names of coating products you may want to put into Google as a jumping off point in your search for that perfect print protection.

  • Breathing Color Glamor and Timeless coatings
  • Lyson Print Guard
  • Clearstar ClearShield and ClearJet Products
  • Bulldog Ultra Coating
  • Krylon Crystal and UV Clear
  • Premier Art Print Shield
  • Superfrog Frog Juice

Know of something not mentioned here?  Let us know in comments!

Well, that’s it for this overview. Whether you decide to armor your inkjet output against the elements or let them meet the world au natural we hope this has been an informative look into the available options you have when it’s time to expose  your precious prints to the cold, hard world.

Categories: Printing Essentials
  1. March 26, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Finestra Art has Aqueous (water based) and Lacquer based products available. The water based products are best for canvas and are available in Matte, Glossy, Satin and have the benefit of increasing display life among other things and our products are the only shipping products to be Prop 65 compliant right now, plus only 2 coats instead of 3 and no yellowing.

    Our Lacquer based products are the optimum choice for everything but canvas wraps.

    Check out our Photographer’s Friend Coatings here:

  2. June 29, 2012 at 2:39 am

    Thanks to shared that how to Protecting our print.I will bookmark it for sharing with my friends.

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