How to swatch nail polish

By on October 18, 2015 in Advice , Swatches

I have been catching up with my nail polish swatching duties in the past week or so. I thought I might as well write a ‘How to swatch nail polish’ type of post. By ‘how to’ I mean maybe give you ideas how to arrange your own collection and explain what and why and how I am doing things.

What colour swatch sticks?

The fist decision a nail polish swatcher has to make is to decide what colour swatch sticks they want to use. The sticks usually come in clear and in cream/white colour.

I think on the white base the polish colour will pop better but that might also mean that they look better on the swatches than they actually will on the nail.

With clear sticks it is nice to swatch glitter. You can place the glitter stick over coloured one and see how the glitter polish would look over the colour.

Where to buy swatch sticks?

For my collection I am using clear swatch sticks. The easiest and cheapest way to purchase swatch sticks is via ebay. I have noticed that sellers often change the prices so instead of relying on one seller I just search for ’50 nail display sticks’ and go for the cheapest.

However, the downfall for this method is that the swatch sticks may be slightly different than the previous ones you have ordered. Mine sometimes come with a round back and other times with square. I don’t mind that as long as the ‘nail’ part looks the same.

The price of the sticks also depends on whether you are buying from a UK or international seller. I prefer UK sellers as the product arrives in up to three days compared to the three + weeks from Asia. The price difference is usually not more than £1 anyway.

How to use swatch sticks?

There are different ways to paint on the swatch sticks.

For me, the fastest and easiest way is to paint the bottom of the stick first. Then turn it around and paint the front. In that way, if the polish is a two coater, the swatch already has the desired colour opacity without me needing to wait for the layers to dry.

I then tend to use a layer of top coat over the top side as the sticks often dry into a ‘not glossy’ weird plasticky finish. I never bother top coating the bottom of the stick.

If the polish I have swatched is a textured/glitter polish I can feel the bottom of the stick to find out how textured it feels without a top coat when I am choosing my colours.

how-to-swatch-nail-polish (5)

Another way to paint the sticks is to polish the colour only on the bottom of the swatch sticks. In that way the sticks will always feel smooth and you don’t have to add a layer of top coat.

The third way is just to polish the top of the sticks. That’s how I used to do it before coming up with the first described way. If you are using the white sticks this is the only way to go.

How to label swatch sticks?

I handwrite the names of polish on my swatch sticks with a black CD/DVD marker. I found this the easiest way but I guess it doesn’t look as neat as some other ways.

how-to-swatch-nail-polish (3)

When I first swatched my whole collection, I typed up all the names and then printed them on a clear sticky paper and stuck the names on the sticks. This method is wayyy too time consuming and I found the names on the labels rubbed of quite easy.

Another way to go is to get a label maker. The names would look neat but I think it would also be pretty time consuming typing the polish names in the label maker. Also, label makers cost around £15 – £20.

How to store swatch sticks?

I used to keep my swatch sticks on 58mm binder rings. Well, I still do but not all of them.

how-to-swatch-nail-polish (1)

I think the largest binder rings you can get are 58mm ones. Again, the cheapest place to get them is ebay.

I keep my gel polish swatches on binder rings. I find this the best way to keep them as I don’t have a massive amount of gel polishes.

how-to-swatch-nail-polish (2)

I keep each brand on a separate binder ring. All the colours of one gel system are together and organised by colours that compliment each other. With gel polish you usually use one system at a time anyway, so it’s nice to see all colours at once.

My nail polishes are organised in a different way. Firstly, they are organised by colour. At first I kept them on binder rings as well but at one point there were just so many binder rings with sticks that it was difficult to choose/find the colours.

how-to-swatch-nail-polish (7)

I now keep them in little plastic cups and the cups are kept in a box to prevent them getting dusty. The cups are sold in any grocery shop for about £1. The box is from IKEA. It was only £0.90, you can find it here. It fits 12 plastic cups. I think I might buy a bigger box soon as some of the colours are kept in one cup, for example both black and white are in the same cup.

The only downfall with the cups is that they fall over quite easy as they are so light. When I see nice glass cups I might replace them as then they would be more steady.

how-to-swatch-nail-polish (6)

how-to-swatch-nail-polish (4)

I much prefer this way of keeping my swatch sticks as it’s so easy to take them out and match colours etc.

I used to have a Helmer drawer full of swatch sticks but now I have a neat box on top of the Helmer and a new empty draw for more polishes!

Thanks for reading! I would love to hear how do you swatch your polishes :)


October 18, 2015 @ 19:27


Your box with all the swatches looks like paradise <3

What an informational post, love it.


October 18, 2015 @ 20:54


Thank you, I was thinking no one would be interested but I am glad you enjoyed it!


October 18, 2015 @ 19:47


I love this system, it’s making me want to organise my collection again! :D xxx


October 18, 2015 @ 20:55


Hehe it's a nice little activity for cozy weekend nights :D


October 18, 2015 @ 21:12


Loved reading the whole thing! You’re so clever with how you currently swatch your polishes on swatch sticks – I’d never have thought of painting bottom and top to save time in between layers ;)

Also like the box method – nice and clean, plus if you keep the glasses in the box you don’t much need to buy glass cups at all,right?

Very informative, thank you!


October 18, 2015 @ 21:52


Thank you! You are right, they are nice and snug in the box. The only time I need them to be steady is when I take them out to find sticks etc as I had few to fall when out as I left them on the table.


October 18, 2015 @ 23:13


Oh this is just wonderful, so helpful! And beautiful, all those colors!! Will save me lots of mis-steps. Wish I had read it before I bought my very first swatches but still I’m just getting started so this is great.

I bought a few white ones then realized how great it would be to be able to see how the glitter polishes looked over other polishes. I had only bought a few so it was okay. I bought a larger pack of clear ones (the right ones – yay) and now with all this information I’ll save so much time.

I would never have thought of painting the underside that way. I’ll have to experiment and see what I like best. Love that I will have the texture of the polish available on the underside.

I was looking at rings and chains and other ways of connecting the swatches. Nothing felt right because I know I want easy access to them! Your solution is perfect. So happy I found your blog when I did.


October 21, 2015 @ 13:01


Thank you for the lovely comment and fr giving me the idea to write this post :)


October 19, 2015 @ 07:41


It’s interesting to learn different techniques of doing this.

I paint my swatchicles on the top, this way I can paint half of the back with black polishes if the needs arises (sheer, glitters, duochromes, effects topcoats etc.).


October 21, 2015 @ 12:59


Ooh that is clever! Might have to borrow that idea sometime :)


October 19, 2015 @ 14:22


This was such a helpful post… so thank you! I have had a pile of clear swatch sticks sitting in a box for ages because I couldnt decide on how to organize or paint each stick. This post definitely helps in figuring that out! :)


October 21, 2015 @ 12:59


That is great, so glad to be of help lolx

Kathryn J

October 24, 2015 @ 14:55


I love the photos, this has to be nail polish lovers heaven! :) There is something about colours arranged like that which is just so appealing. :) I use the clear swatch sticks and binder rings also. I initially started with swatch wheels but you can’t rearrange the swatches as you can with the sticks. That’s an excellent idea to paint both sides of the nail shape. I hadn’t thought of that. And I like the cup/box storage method. I only have a small collection at the moment, but if I ever out-grow the binder rings I will follow your method. Thanks for the tips. :)


November 14, 2015 @ 18:12


Great post!
I use the clear sticks and only paint on the top side, but now I migth change that. When I swatch glitters I sometimes (if needed) paint one side of it white and one black to show how itt appears. Usually I leave the upper part of the swatch area without black and White so I also have the glitter on its own.


January 30, 2016 @ 16:34


Hi, I’m new to this and want to start creating swatches. Do I have to cure the gel under a LED lamp on swatches or do I let them dry naturally? How long does it take to dry naturally? So confused! Thank you :)


January 30, 2016 @ 16:35


Hi, I’m new to this and want to start creating swatches. Do I have to cure the gel under a LED lamp on swatches or do I let them dry naturally? How long does it take to dry naturally? So confused! Thank you :)


January 30, 2016 @ 19:43


Hi Kris :), I’m sure A.J. will answer you when she comes on the blog, but I thought I’d say hello and tell you what I do.

I do a gel swatch just like I would do my real nails: base coat – cure under LED light, 2 to 3 coats of color – each coat cured under LED light, and finally top coat – cure under LED light.

I’m pretty sure you would have to cure the gel under a LED lamp to make it dry. I wonder if everybody else does gel swatches the same as they do real nails? Could we maybe skip the base coat?

Good question Kris! You will love this blog. A.J. shares BEAUTIFUL nail art, and also demos new colors so we can see what they really look like applied before we buy them. Love her!

Nice to meet you Kris :),



February 7, 2016 @ 18:51


Hi Brenda, thank you for the comment and helping Kris out :) I don't usually use base coat for swatches as I take the gel polish off right away, just colour coats and then top coat.xx


February 7, 2016 @ 18:56


Okay super! That’s great to know :). Thank you. Glad you are back.


February 9, 2016 @ 18:54

Glad to be back :)


February 7, 2016 @ 18:49


H Kris, gel polish won't cure 'naturally' – you will need a UV or LED lamp to cure it. Hope it helps :)


October 31, 2017 @ 22:36


how do you put the gel nail varnish onto the swatch sticks. i have clear swatch sticks too and use ASP gel nail varnishes

thanks emily

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Hi, and welcome to my nail blog! Here you can enjoy lots of nail art, tutorials and swatches. Starting from popular high street brands to more unique indie polishes.

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