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Paper 101 the basics

Oct 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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It was a foggy morning in Sydney, Australia, when I heard the news. The marketing department of a well-known, worldwide software company had chosen me to design all the materials for its first user conference in the Southern Hemisphere — the type of challenge we designers dream about! The company was committed to making a great first impression, so no expenses were to be spared: teaser postcards, invitations, conference brochures, handouts, folders, t-shirts, you name it.

Rather than procrastinating, I planned to make my paper choice early. I wanted to ensure all my paper choices — in sufficient quantities — were readily available when we went to press. Ideally, I wanted one or two coordinating stocks that would cover all of my needs, with some environmental friendliness (recycled content) added to the mix.

You might wonder how an Australian paper quest might compare to a paper search done in the U.S., but swatchbooks look pretty much the same the world over. They are loaded with waterfalls, stocking information listed in 4-pt. type and a plethora of mystical terms and acronyms. One difference: U.S. swatchbooks become outdated more quickly than their counterparts in the rest of the printing world because of the more dynamic American paper market.

Sorting through the jargon

Does this sound familiar? “The XYZ Paper mill has made significant improvements to A, B and C, its No. 2 products. A, launched with what is said to be enhanced smoothness and print uniformity, boasts a 90 brightness and clean blue-white shades in weights from 90-lb. text to 10-pt. cover.”

But wait, there's more: “Manufactured with a finishing process that provides a higher bulk-to-weight ratio than conventionally calendered gloss-coated papers, A is said to feel substantial but is ‘postage-friendly’ in terms of its weight.”

Are you still with me? Savvy printers can cut through this marketing fog — but it's a foreign language to many designers and print buyers. We've compiled this handy glossary to help our readers and their customers understand their paper options.


Acid-free [ Acid-free papers are the norm for machine-made papers these days. These papers are made without acid-forming components, which prevents internal chemical deterioration of the paper over time. ]

Basic size [ In the U.S., each paper category (writing, text, cover) has a specific basic sheet size associated with it. The basic size is used mainly to establish the paper's basis weight and does not necessarily indicate available sheet sizes. Outside of North America, the metric system is used to determine a paper's weight and size. ]

Basis weight [ The basis weight shows the weight of one ream (500 sheets) of basic size paper in pounds. The combination of the basic sheet size and basis weight determines whether a sheet is a 60-lb. text, 100-lb. cover, etc. ]

Brightness [ A paper's brightness is defined by the percentage of light it reflects. Papers with a higher brightness allow colors to stand out, while lower-brightness papers are easier on the eyes for reading or extended viewing.

Every white paper has its own brightness, which is measured on a brightmeter machine, known in the U.S. as the (TAPPI) GE scale. European, Asian and other countries use a brightness scale based on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

GE brightness and ISO brightness are different because they incorporate two different testing methods. Their measurements differ in the angle and the reflected source of light. The ISO brightness is usually about two units higher than the GE value, so 100 ISO brightness is equivalent to 98 brightness on the GE scale. ]

Dot gain [ Dot gain is the unintentional increase in the diameter of the halftone dot, printing larger on paper than it appears on negatives or plates. This will create darker tones or color imbalances. The more absorbent a paper, the more dot gain you can expect.

As a rule of thumb, coated papers are less absorbent, so they have much less dot gain than uncoated ones. In either case, preparing for the expected gain in prepress is essential for great results on press. ]

Caliper/point [ Papers are manufactured to either caliper or weight. Caliper refers to the thickness of a sheet of paper (in thousandths of an inch). In North America, it is frequently referred to in terms of points. If your job requires a high stiffness (for example, a business reply card that needs a 7-pt. caliper for postal usage), make sure the paper is “manufactured to caliper,” thus guaranteeing a specific thickness and stiffness.

A paper manufactured to weight has a slightly fluctuating caliper because the main concern during the production process is weight. If a paper's weight is called out in “point” or you see a footnote in your swatchbook that states that a specific weight is manufactured to caliper, you're fine. ]

EPA standards [ The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set standards for the minimum recycled contents in printing and writing papers. A paper “meets the executive order governing recycled content in printing/writing grades,” or is sometimes described simply as “meets EPA standards.”

The minimum post-consumer waste content required for uncoated papers is 30 percent; minimum for coated papers is 10 percent. Many mills have created papers with these minimum amounts of recycled material, while others continually are aiming to produce papers with higher recycled contents. ]

Finishes [ The term “finish” refers to the surface of the paper, starting out with two basic choices — uncoated or coated.

Uncoated sheets have finishes ranging from super smooth, vellum and lustre to specially embossed finishes like linen and laid. There is a definite trend toward printing on uncoated sheets. Today, large corporations like to portray a softer, more understated image, which can be achieved with these papers. When partnered with fluorescent inks and the right prepress technology, the natural surface of uncoated papers is an ideal background for four-color process printing.

Coated paper has an outer coating applied to one or both sides of the sheet. These papers are available in a variety of finishes including gloss, dull and matte. They tend to have good ink holdout and minimal dot gain, which can be especially important for recreating sharp, bright printed images, black-and-white halftones and four-color process images. The smooth surface of coated papers also helps reflect light evenly. If color, crisp image or photographic reproduction is your concern, a coated gloss, matte or silk sheet is always a good choice. ]

Grade [ The original American Forest & Paper Assn. standards for paper grades were based primarily on the brightness of a paper. A No. 2 sheet should have a brightness of 83 to 84.9, a No. 3 sheet 79 to 82.9.

So why do we see No. 3 sheets with brightness levels of over 90 these days? A good quality, brighter sheet is usually more expensive to make. Fillers and chemicals, such as fluorescent dyes and optical brighteners, are needed to create the paper's brighter appearance. They help give the paper a blue-white shade but can also take a toll on the paper's stability and runnability on press. This is what splurging on a premium or No. 1 sheet will get you — great brightness and perfect runnability.

How do you know which grade is right for you? Once you consider a sheet, ask your supplier for a printed sample of the best sheet one grade below, and then compare the two. Mills often will upgrade the quality of a sheet. For example, even if a given sheet could pass for a No. 1, if the mill lacks an offering in a No. 2 grade, they might categorize it as a No. 2 in order to complete their palette. It's all about marketing. ]

Grain [ The grain direction is the direction in which most of the fibers lie in a sheet of paper. The paper fibers lie parallel to the direction in which the paper is made on the paper machine. You can determine the grain direction of a sheet of paper by comparing the flexing resistance of the sheet in the east-west direction versus the north-south direction. The direction that offers the least resistance is the grain direction. ]

GSM [ Instead of assigning different basic sizes and basic weights to their papers, the metric system treats every paper equally and measures its weight by grams per square meter (GSM). A number of mills list the GSM values alongside the writing and text weights. Look at the GSM and compare apples with apples, so to speak. You will see under the waterfall that a 60-lb. text sheet has the same weight as a 24-lb. writing sheet. The two are just marketed differently. ]

High bulk [ High bulk refers to a paper specifically manufactured to retain a thickness not found in papers of the same basis weight. Originally used in book paper to give thickness to a book with few pages, you will also find reply cards with a 7-pt. or 9-pt. caliper, indicating they have a lower weight for the same bulk (caliper). ]

Ink holdout [ An important quality to consider is a paper's ability to keep ink on top of its surface. An inked image printed on paper with a high degree of ink holdout will dry by oxidation rather than absorption. ]

M weight [ M weight is the actual weight in pounds of 1,000 sheets of paper, regardless of the basic size or paper grade. Should you care about the M weight? Don't let it affect your paper choice — it's listed primarily to guide the printer/paper buyer in his or her estimating, as paper still is sold by the pound. ]

Opacity [ Sometimes referred to as “show-through,” this term refers to the property of a sheet that prevents dark print areas from showing through the paper to the other side. If your project will be printed on both sides, and especially if heavy ink coverage is involved, the paper's opacity is crucial. Make sure the paper you choose has a high opacity and does not allow for any show-through. If in doubt, go one step heavier in the weight. ]

Recycled [ The recycling movement is stronger than ever. While government agencies and conservation groups continually advance the issue, some paper companies think the recycling movement is old news — most have offered papers with recycled content for many years. But others keep creating new recycled products.

There are still a few misconceptions among designers and print buyers that make them reluctant to choose a recycled paper. Some believe all papers are recycled anyway, and others worry about having limited paper choices. There also is a perception that recycled papers potentially will create technical problems during the printing process. All these fears are unfounded.

If you think looking for recycled papers will limit your choices and creativity, think again. Of the more than 3,500 papers we feature on, more than 60 percent have some recycled content and more than 1,000 meet current EPA requirements.

Today's recycled papers run as smoothly as any virgin sheet on press. They are known to score, fold and emboss better because recycled fibers are softer and yield easily to these processes. When selecting recycled paper, these terms are also helpful:

  • Post-consumer waste (PCW): This label indicates material collected from end-users and recycled. PCW is the preferred form of recycled material because it reduces pressure on our remaining forests, saves water and energy, and diverts solid waste from our landfills. If the recycled content of a paper is not specifically labeled as PCW, you are dealing with pre-consumer waste — excess material from the manufacturing process that never made it to the consumer and is recycled back through the mill. This is why you sometimes see 100 percent recycled paper with 30 percent PCW.

  • The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): This agency certifies sustainable forestry practices and encourages the use of FSC-certified paper.

  • Tree-free fiber: These fibers include crops such as kenaf and industrial hemp, grown specifically for their fiber content. These crops tend to grow faster than trees and offer higher efficiency per acre. Tree-free fibers are derived from agricultural by-products, such as sugar cane bagasse, and industrial by-products such as cotton scraps.]

Smoothness [ Smoothness is a surface characteristic relating to the flatness of a sheet, which affects its ink receptivity. Generally, the smoother the sheet, the sharper the image. The Sheffield smoothness test measures the amount of air that escapes when a Sheffield tester is pressed flat against the paper and air is blown out. The less air that escapes, the smoother the paper. Mills often classify the smoothness of uncoated papers as follows (from smoothest to roughest): super smooth, smooth, vellum, antique, eggshell, wove, satin and luster. ]

Whiteness [ White is white, let no one tell you differently. Yet papers are available in blue-white, balanced white, natural white, soft white, etc.

Don't confuse whiteness with brightness. While brightness refers to the percentage of light the paper reflects, whiteness refers to the shade of white or the color of the paper. Just compare two different white sheets that both have 90 brightness. The sheet with the bluer-white shade will appear brighter to your eye — an optical illusion, so to speak.

As you can imagine, different whites fit different purposes. Printing warmer tones, such as skin tones, on a blue-white sheet can give the subject a sickly gray pallor. For these images, a warmer white sheet will do the trick. ]

Writing, text and cover

[ These terms generally are applied to various weights of papers and their specific purposes. These are merely guidelines — don't let them limit your paper choices. A 24-lb. writing sheet has the same weight and thickness as a 60-lb. text, and often you will see 20/50 or 24/60 in the basis weight column under the swatchbook's waterfall.

In keeping with an overall trend for heavier weights in stocks, many designers specify 60-lb. to 70-lb. text for letterheads and use light cover stocks for complete brochures, inside and out. With an eye on tight budgets, these heavier papers can make up for a lower page count and still give a credible, dependable feel.]

Sabine Lenz is the founder of PaperSpecs, Inc., an online paper database and “all-in-one swatchbook.” Contact her at

10 considerations for choosing a substrate

  1. The process
    • Spec your paper early in the design process.
    • Be open to small size adjustments for a better sheet fit that could save money and reduce paper waste.
  2. Life span/personality
    • What life span will this piece have? Is it worth a premium sheet?
    • Consider the purpose and personality of the piece and choose paper that best fits the message (for example, recycled content for an environmental look and feel).
  3. Finish
    • For good color and crisp image reproduction, choose a coated sheet.
    • Uncoated papers have a softer look and, with fluorescent inks and the right prepress technology, allow for excellent color.
    • Textured and other specialty papers can enhance the design “feel” of your piece.
  4. Color
    • Choose the right white for your images: Blue-white works for greater contrast and sharp crisp image reproduction but can easily look gray when printed. Softer whites are best for printing warm colors and skin tones.
    • Colored paper can function well as a background color but can change type color.
  5. Weight
    • Opacity is often more crucial than the actual weight.
    • Heavier stock gives a credible, dependable feel.
    • Coated paper is heavier than a same-size uncoated sheet but has less bulk.
    • Remember U.S. Postal Service regulations and consider the added weight of ink.
    • For packaging and reply cards, spec a paper that is made to caliper.
  6. The “green” factor
    • Follow EPA guidelines — 30 percent post-consumer waste (PCW) for uncoated and 10 percent PCW for coated sheets.
    • Consider the paper's ECF, TCF or PCF labels, which specify whether chlorine-free paper-bleaching processes have been used.
    • Consider paper with fiber that is FSC-certified from plantations with sustainable forestry practices.
  7. Printing procedures
    • Check that your chosen paper is suitable for the printing process you specify and look at printed samples.
    • Offset papers are not suitable for digital presses and vice versa.
  8. End usage/distribution
    • Mailing: Check overall weight and, for business reply cards, check the caliper, which affects mailing costs.
    • Letterhead: Make sure the paper is suitable for laser or inkjet printing.
    • Reference material: Allow for a durable, sturdy sheet and a possible coating.
    • Handouts: A piece that will be written on should not be printed on gloss coated paper or have a varnish.
  9. Availability
    • Most papers are available within three business days.
    • A mill item — a paper that is not in stock for one merchant and must be ordered directly from the warehouse — might be in stock and readily available from another merchant.
    • Unusual colors or specialty items may need extra time — up to five days — for delivery.
  10. Price
    • Paper accounts for 30 percent of the total printing cost.
    • If the paper you want is out of your budget, look at the best sheet one grade below. For more tips, see “Top 10 Ways to Save on Paper” at