We study the axisymmetric spreading of drops deposited on a pre-existing horizontal layer of the same viscous fluid. Using a combination of experiments, numerical modelling based on the axisymmetric free-surface Navier–Stokes equations and scaling analyses, we explore the drops’ behaviour in a regime where the flow is driven by gravitational and/or capillary forces while inertial effects are small. We find that during the early stages of the drops’ evolution there are three distinct spreading behaviours depending on the thickness of the liquid layer. For thin layers the fluid ahead of a clearly defined spreading front is at rest and the overall behaviour resembles that of a drop spreading on a dry substrate. For thicker films, the spreading is characterised by an advancing wedge which is sustained by fluid flow from the drop into the layer. Finally, for thick layers the drop sinks into the layer, accompanied by significant flow within the layer. As the drop keeps spreading, the evolution of its shape becomes self-similar, with a power-law behaviour for its radius and its excess height above the undisturbed fluid layer. We employ lubrication theory to analyse the drop’s ultimate long-term behaviour and show that all drops ultimately enter an asymptotic regime which is reached when their excess height falls below the thickness of the undisturbed layer.
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