Thursday, May 29, 2014

How I Make My Nail Polish Swatch Sticks + Nail Polish Storage + Untrieds

This is one of the most-asked questions I get and since I'm super anal about my swatch sticks I thought I'd share my method. There are a million different ways to do them and I am not claiming to have the "best" or anything. This is just how I do mine and how I like them to look. I'll explain why as I go along.

I will also touch on how I store my swatch sticks and my nail polish.

As a warning, this is a very heavy-picture post but there's no other way to do it unless I make a video and I'm not up for that so photos it is!

I started making these through trial and error and trying to find out what works best for ME. This might be all wrong for you and that's ok. :)

What I use:
* clear swatch sticks with a hole in the end
* multicoloured binder rings
* Brother P-Touch D200 label maker
* Batteries or adaptor for label maker
* 12mm black text on clear tape (label tape)
* craft scissors
* nail polish
* piece of paper/cardboard
* inexpensive clear topcoat

Step 1: Getting supplies.
I try to purchase everything in advance and keep it altogether in a small box. I order my swatch sticks from eBay (in China) and they take *forever* to get here. Experience has taught me it's better to have a lot on hand instead of waiting forever for your swatch sticks to come in. Always order more than you think you need, you will be glad for this later.
Also, keep your swatching supplies together so you're not running around looking for stuff once you start. I like to do my swatches in batches (like 10 at a time).
One more thing, the label maker takes 6 AA batteries! I bought rechargeable ones to make life easier, keep your batteries charged! This model has an adaptor you can buy but I bought the batteries with the label maker so no point in getting it now.

Label makers: take the time to read reviews on different models and read the specifications. It's not about getting the cheapest model or the one with the cheapest tape. If you don't like it later or it only has a few settings (some only have one setting!) you won't use it and you'll end up buying something else anyway. I really like this one in particular because it has a lot of fonts, borders, etc. I use it for my swatch sticks and for labelling other things around the house (yes, I am a nerd!). Label makers go on sale frequently. I got mine on sale at Staples for around $23.

Label tape: It's expensive for what it is. It's about $23 a package at the Staples near me. I can get about 80 swatch sticks done per package. I have seen it on Amazon and other places for much lower (around $15 per package). Shop around!
I buy the clear tape instead of white because I think it looks cleaner and more elegant. I think the white stands out too much and it would bug the crap out of me. Some people say it's hard to read on clear tape but I've never had any problem -- just hold it against your hand or up to the light or a white wall or piece of paper! It's actually way easier than you think.

Binder rings: I bought these at Staples for around $4. You can get them multicoloured metallic or straight silver. They come in various sizes but I'm weird and need them to be all the same size. You can also buy plain silver ones and paint them whatever colour(s) you want! Also, don't get them too big, you want the swatch sticks to be able to slide onto the rings and if the rings are too thick, it won't work or will be so stiff they will make you crazy.

Swatch sticks: As I mentioned, I buy mine on eBay or Amazon. Generally they come from China but you can get them from sellers in the USA. I have bought them from overseas and the USA and, in my experience, they both take forever to arrive. Prices range from $2-5 for 50 or 100 sticks depending on who you order from and if shipping is included or not. Shop around!

Sticks vs Wheels: I MUCH prefer sticks to wheels. You can move them around, rearrange them, add/remove colours, etc. You can't do that with wheels. It's also easier to find things (see the section below on storage) when using sticks.

I buy clear ones (instead of white or "natural"). I feel this is important for a few reasons. First, you can hold it over your fingertip and it will look as close to real as possible. Your fingertip is not white so why paint over white plastic? Similarly, you can hold a swatched glitter topper over another polish swatch to see what they would look like layered. You can't do that with white swatch sticks.

They generally come in packs of 50, loose in a baggie with a screw/nut. You CAN screw them onto the enclosed screw but… it's pretty stiff and you'd have to take them all off to rearrange them/add a new one/etc. I personally prefer the binder rings over the screw/nut, but it's totally a personal preference. Like I said before, there's no "right" way to do this!

This is what they look like out of the bag.

I prefer the aesthetic of the rounded end. I also like the type of "spoon" at the end. I've seen different sticks that have a more oval/almond shaped end "spoon" and a flat end near the hole. I personally don't like those. I also buy my sticks so they all look exactly the same. A weird OCD thing but whatever.

Another weird thing, I use the same piece of paper to do my swatches on. It has all these cool splotches of colour on it. :) Is that weird??

OK, onto making the swatches!!
After getting all your supplies, get cozy and have everything within reach (makes life easier).

Step 2: Line up your polishes/sticks and get painting!
I usually line up about 10 polishes along the top of the paper and start painting my swatch sticks. For this post I'm just doing one (unfortunately I don't have a bunch of polishes that need swatching at the moment!). I'm using Julep's Roz as an example. :)

I DO NOT do any prep to these sticks and I've not had any problems whatsoever with polishes chipping or popping off. You don't need to file them or buff them or wipe them with alcohol or do anything to them, the polish will stick. As a warning, polish remover (acetone or not) does not play nice with this plastic. These are permanent once you get them painted. If you screw up, just toss it. I tried using non-acetone polish remover on one once and it was a big sticky/gummy white mess. Totally mangled it and cracked the plastic.

I start with one coat then go onto the next stick and do one coat and so on.

Step 3: Make your label.
Usually after I do one coat of polish on all my swatch sticks I make my labels while waiting for them to dry. This is what the label looks like when it comes out of the maker. I use the exact same settings/font/border for all my labels. I even set the same label length (80mm) so they're all the same length. You can make shorter labels to save on tape but that would drive me buggy. My OCD wants them all exactly the same so that's what I do. :)

What to write on your labels?? I just put the brand name and the colour name. I tried putting the year but that just clutters it up. Some people put the number of coats of polish used on the swatch stick -- but I honestly don't see the point. You'll figure it out when you use the polish! If you want tons of info on your polishes, create a spreadsheet or write them in a notebook. Less is more. Neat & clean is the name of the game!!!

I trim off the extra end (where the ":" is). Also, I use 12mm tape which is slightly too wide for the swatch sticks. I could use the 9mm tape but then the text would be smaller and I want it as big as possible. SO, I trim the edges of the label with scissors, using the border as a guide (I trim both top & bottom of the label).

 The final product!

Step 4: Finish painting your swatches and add a topcoat.
OK. This is where things can get weird. A lot of people like painting the underside of the "spoon" part to avoid needing to use a topcoat -- I hate this. Let me explain why. First, I want to see what the polish finish will be like when it dries (textured/shiny/matte/etc). For polish that has a certain finish (for example, matte), I won't use a topcoat. I don't want a false swatch. Second, it's not truly what the polish looks like when it's under a thick piece of plastic. Factor in the part where the plastic scratches easily and it's not really the best swatch sticks. For these reasons, I prefer to paint the TOP of the "spoons".

Topcoat. A lot of people don't put it on their sticks. That's fine. Do what works for you. Personally I want to know what this polish will look like finished on the nail. I never go without topcoat (except for matte finishes) so I use it on all my swatches. I don't use an expensive one, usually the Color Club one that comes in those sets. It also protects your swatch when it's bumping up against the other swatch sticks.

Step 5: Finish your swatch sticks.
Once your swatch sticks are done being polished/topcoated and are touch-dry, I peel the backing off the label and apply it to the stick. I ALWAYS put my labels on facing the same direction. I think because I'm right-handed and hold the swatch stick against the nails on my left hand, it makes sense to read it this way. Do what works for you and stick to it consistently.

Final product:

For a while I was adding a small coloured dot on the bottom near the hole to indicate whether it was a good stamping polish or not but I stopped doing that since I never referred to that anyway. :)

Step 6: Dry for at least 24 hours.
If you try to put your newly painted swatch sticks on the rings too soon they will get knicks/dents/other polish in them and stick together. I dry mine for at least 24 hours. Here's a pic of my drying area. :P

The Rings!!
Again, this is what works for me. Some people organize by brand or by colour or by finish. I prefer to organize by colour -- and glitters go on different rings. So all my blue polishes go on one, pinks on another, etc. I do glitters a bit differently -- one ring for full-coverage glitters, another for crelly glitters, another for chunky glitters, etc.

Why by colour? Because if I'm thinking, "Hmm… I wanna wear pink today!", I just grab the pink swatch ring and find the one I want. My bottles are organized in decorative boxes by brand (alphabetical order) so once I decide on a colour, I just go get the bottle and do my mani. :)

Since I have more than one "pink" ring, I just looped them together. I'm not sure I like this though, I will come up with a new plan. :)

My "pinks".

The next few pics are ALL my swatch sticks (several hundred, don't ask, I stopped counting but I'm guessing around 700-800?).

I don't like to display my swatch sticks or my polish bottles. I find it looks too cluttered and that bugs me. I prefer to keep them neat and tucked away. For the sticks, I keep them in a couple of extra large vegetable Zip-loc bags (the ones with vented holes in them, lets them "breathe").

I keep my polish bottles in decorative cardboard boxes I bought at HomeSense for around $10 each (depending on size). I think I'm up to 8 now. Here are some of them (the top one has all my manicure tools/supplies in it):

When collecting a lot of polish, it's easy to end up with a lot you simply haven't tried yet (aka "untrieds"). When feeling like you need a serious break from buying polish (aka a "no-buy"), it's good to use your untrieds. But how to decide? I made a bunch of cue cards with different themes (i.e. colour, indie brand, mainstream brand, texture, stamping, etc) and listed numbers 1-30. I then randomly assigned various theme-related terms next to those numbers. For example, today is the 29th of May so if I go to number 29 on any of the cards, I have an instant suggestion. The only rule is having to use a polish you've never used before. Some people use these as challenges -- a different mani a day. Others do this to deal with indecision.
Make cards with the brands/colours you have, try it out and see what happens!

Here are some of my cards. I need to redo them. They are messy. In my defence, I did them in haste!

That's it!! I'm done! Thanks for sticking with me through to the end. I hope you found it somewhat helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or if I missed something.

Oh, and I bought everything I discussed. :)

For an updated polish collection and storage video, click here!


  1. This is just what I was looking for! Thank you for taking the time to do this, it's perfect!

    1. Aww, thank you! So glad I could help! :)

  2. Wow - I love your tutorial! I've done about 95% of what you describe (oh I wish I'd gotten the fancy label maker like yours! No decorative borders for me, sadly.) What size binder rings do you use? Thank you!

    1. So sorry I didn't get back to you sooner! I didn't get the notification. *boo* As for the binder rings, I think they're 1" in diameter. I have since moved from looping together similar ones to putting similar rings on larger silver rings. Makes things easier.

  3. this is an amazing little walk-through on how to do swatches. I hope one day I have as many polishes as you do! Mine are mainly Gel polishes.

  4. I just ordered my swatch sticks. Thank you so much for explaining everything and making it so much easier.