The difference between reactive foil and hot foil stamping

We all love foil, but what goes on behind the scenes to create a beautifully foiled invitation?


There are two methods I’m going to discuss here: Reactive Foil vs Hot Foil Stamping.

Below is a table, summarising the pros and cons of each foil method, then I’ll go into the details of how each method works.

  Reactive Foil Traditional Hot Foil Stamping
Quick to produce results
Cheaper to produce
Possible to personalise text with guest names
Works on textured card
Can use thick cards of 350gsm +
Embossed finish
Perfect coverage
Can foil over other laser artwork underneath the foiled sections
Can print thin or hairline artwork

METHOD 1 – Reactive Foil

New-ish on the market is something called “Reactive Foil” or “Toner Foil” which is what most of us lay-people can do at home (with the right supplies).



How it works

  1. Print out text or an image using a LASER PRINTER. This is because the foil won’t stick to inkjet ink. When printing your text, make sure you use 100% on all CMYK values to get the maximum amount of toner onto the paper. You can also use reactive paint, transfer gel or a toner pen on cardstock if you don’t want to print.
  2. Have some reactive foil on hand. You can’t use any old foil, so make sure you purchase reactive foil, specifically for this purpose. Popular brands include Heidi Swapp & Thermoweb Deco Foil.
  3. Cut out your foil to the desired shape. Make sure it’s a little bigger than your artwork.
  4. Place the foil on top of your image
  5. Enclose the artwork and foil in a protective transfer sheet or baking paper
  6. Run the paper through a pressured heat source like a laminator. Heidi Swapp sells a “Minc Machine” with different heat settings.
  7. Wait for the sheet to cool down, and then peel the foil off your artwork! Hopefully it has all stuck down. Trial and error is involved the first time you try this.
    Lava-Stationery-Reactive-Foil-Process-4 Lava-Stationery-Reactive-Foil-Process-5



  • It’s way quicker to produce results, compared to traditional hot foil stamping
  • It’s much cheaper to produce too
  • It’s possible to personalise the invitations with guest names, as long as the text is thick enough


  • It only works with laser printers or specialised toner
  • It only works on smooth cards, so using textured cards won’t work
  • It only works on thinner cardstocks of 350gsm or less. This is because thicker cards won’t go through a digital press.
  • You won’t get an embossed finish with this method
  • The coverage isn’t perfect. The foil can skip some parts of the artwork and sometimes the foil sticks to other parts of the paper even when it looks like there’s no toner there! You need the perfect combination of toner placement, pressure and heat every time you use different cardstock and get low on toner. There’s lots of trial and error involved, so it’s reasonable to expect some wastage.
  • You can’t print other artwork underneath the foiled sections (unless you print the underlaying artwork with an inkjet printer first). This is because the foil sticks to any kind of laser toner, but it won’t stick to inkjet printer ink.
  • It doesn’t really work on thin or hairline artwork because the toner needs to be thick enough to adhere to the foil

METHOD 2 – Hot Foil Stamping

The traditional way of foil stamping, which requires a LOT of time and manual labour.

Pic taken for Lava by Jodie from Peterkin Premium Paper

Pic taken for Lava by Jodie from Peterkin Premium Paper

How it works

The following information of how a foil stamped job is created, is detailed by one of my fave paper suppliers, Jodie from Peterkin Premium Paper.

  1. A negative is created & acid-etched into a magnesium plate or block. For small runs like most invitations, the block is the most expensive part of the job. Other metals like brass can be used which can also be intricately engraved, but they’re even more expensive.
    Pic taken by Jodie at Peterkin Premium Paper

    Pic taken for Lava by Jodie at Peterkin Premium Paper

    Important note: This is why professionally foiled jobs cost a lot per unit if you are doing a small run. Magnesium plates can cost up to $300. We divide this magnesium plate cost by the number of cards being printed. The more cards you are printing, the cheaper it is per unit.

  2. The block is positioned & mounted onto a metal plate that’s locked up into a ‘chase’ (letterpress frame) that’s clipped into the press & heated to the right temperature (around 120 c).
  3. The foil grade is chosen according to the artwork (fine line work or solid – combinations are always trickier) and the stock.
  4. The foil goes between the heated plate/block and the paper. It adheres to the paper with a combination of pressure, heat & printer expertise. The impression needs to be even all over the plate or you’ll get missing foil areas for too little pressure or thick ‘fuzzy’ areas for too much pressure (or heat)!
    Pic taken by Jodie from Peterkin Premium Paper

    Pic taken by Jodie from Peterkin Premium Paper

  5. The person behind the printer patches areas with not enough pressure, slowly adding thin sheets of paper behind until the impression is even all over – each time pulling a test sheet through the press until they’re completely happy with the results before continuing to run the rest of the job through.

Obviously this can take a lot of what we call “set up” or “make ready” time. The above steps need to be done for EVERY single bit of new artwork or text. This is why the lead time for professional foil stamping can take up to a couple of weeks.




  • The quality of foil is unbelievable. The coverage is perfect.
  • You can achieve a lovely embossed look
  • You can use thicker cards of 400-700gsm
  • You can use any kind of textured cardstock
  • You can print thin and hairline artwork


  • The process takes much longer from start to finish. Usually there is a minimum of 10 days to have a finished product.
  • It’s much pricier, due to the complicated and labour-intensive set up
Harrison Green Pocket Wedding Invitation with Copper Foil. Wishing Well and RSVP Card.

Harrison Green Pocket Wedding Invitation with Copper Foil. Wishing Well and RSVP Card.

So if you are foiling a one off job, it’s best to go with Method 1, the reactive foil. However if you are creating more than 50 wedding invitations, then Method 2 (professional foil stamping) is the most impressive way to go.

What are your thoughts? Have you played with reactive foil before? What are your tips and tricks to get the perfect finish? What problems have you been having?

Thanks for reading!


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