Hobby Tips : Gloss Varnish vs. Matt Varnish – The logical myth explained

Gloss Varnish versus Matte Varnish
and the Logical Myth that Gloss protects your miniatures better

 The “gloss varnish protects better than matte because it is tougher” comment is a wargamers’ urban myth that crops up quite often on any number of hobby forums whenever someone asks “Gloss or Matte?  Which should I choose?”.  In this we are going to take a quick look at some of the false logic behind this myth.

For any given brand or type of varnish there is no noticeable difference in strength between the gloss and matt variants. They will both be based on the exact same basic solvent / resin mixture from the manufacturer, differing only in the presence of a matting agent, which is an incredibly minor ingredient (by weight) added to the mixture.

Why, then, are gloss varnishes proported to have near mythological levels of protection when compared to matte varnishes? This is essentially caused by some false comparisons and general misconceptions.  Some seem to believe that  “gloss varnish provides a shiny and hard covering” while “matte simply removes the shine from the gloss varnish”.  These myths are even perpetuated by the ever growing number of miniature hobby blogs created by those who have taken the advice given by others at face value.

  • There is a difference in strength between a spirit based varnish and a water based varnish. The resins will be significantly different due to the solvents involved (spirit vs water) with the spirit based resins generally being the toughest.
  • Usually, multiple thin layers of varnish are better than one single thick layer. If you apply two coats of spirit based varnish (a gloss then a matte) you should not be surprised to find that two layers of varnish provide a stronger, better lasting protection than one.  Generally speaking, most people will only use one thin layer of matte varnish compared to a gloss coat + matte coat (unless of course they know better), compounding the problem.

As a result, the common hobby method of gloss then matte will be a lot stronger than a single layer of matte alone for both reasons; spirit vs water and two coats vs one.

This confusion is compounded by the observation that matte varnished figures seem to become somewhat shiny after prolonged use.  This is often described as the “weak” matte varnish layer wearing off.  While this is entirely possible it is far more likely to be due to the transfer of sebum from the skin during use.  The wax in the sebum will produce a nice shine and it will look like the matt varnish has worn off when in fact it is still there in all its glory, right underneath the buildup you caused by handling it with your bare hands.

Behind this myth is some good news.  If you prime your figures properly and use a good spirit based matt varnish you can save time and money because you only need apply one coat of varnish!

So, which should you use?  Matte or Gloss?

If you want a glossy surface, the choice is obvious.  If you want a Matte surface, the choice of FINAL layer of varnish will of course be Matte (or all layers, if you wish).  There are more factors to consider however;

The main difference between gloss varnish and matte varnish is layer absorbency. What this means is that a gloss vanish is not absorbed by the media (eg: acrylic paints on the miniature) and creates a smooth surface coat when applied properly. Matte varnish, however, is surface absorbent and therefore sometimes the matte and polymer agents become separated – this is known as much complained about “milky” effect people experience after spraying Matte varnishes improperly. Using a gloss vanish first creates a non-absorbing surface (this is rather important when you do complex freehands) that will also provide flat support for the matte varnish.

Gloss varnish will also create a better, smoother surface if you are applying decals to your painted miniature.  In addition, a gloss surface, due to it’s non-absorbent nature, will have higher surface tension and allow ink washes to flow more readily and so a gloss layer before doing your ink washes will help in that regard.

Then of course, for newer modelers, the benefit of using a gloss coat and then a matte coat are that you will be able to see where you missed with the matte as it will still be shiny.

Conclusion

In the end there ARE still merits to using both; just for much more technical reasons than for the oft purported and (all other things being equal) false idea about the toughness of gloss varnish.