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All About Paper: Choosing the Right Paper for Your Print Project

 

There’s more to paper than just your standard white printer paper–there’s a whole world of it out there. We’ll be talking about papers used for graphics, meaning ones used for printing made from wood pulp, cotton, or other natural materials. Because the paper industry is so closely linked to the printing industry, here is a guide on paper to help you plan your next print project.

 

A Short History of Paper and Paper-making

Paper was first invented in China around the 2nd century CE, and Europe started producing it in the 12th century. Paper is made from softwoods like pine and spruce trees to make it strong yet elastic. High-end papers are often made with some or all cotton fibers, in order to make them more tear-resistant.

To make paper, the first step is pulping, which processes the wood into small chips. From there, a manufacturer can chemically pulp the chips or mechanically pulp them, depending on if you want higher or lower quality pulp. Since most paper is white, the pulp also needs to be bleached before it is further refined.

It goes through a Fourdrinier machine next, creating the grain along which paper folds and tears smoothly. Next is calendaring, where it can be finished as low-quality paper like newspaper, or it can go through additional finishing processes to add characteristics like shine, color, etc. It is still on reels at this point. After processing, the paper is cut into large sheets to be stacked on pallets, ready for shipping.

 

Paper Characteristics to Consider

Paper Types (also known as Grades): Most papers used for graphics are either categorized as text or cover stocks. Text stocks have different finishes like offset, opaque, matte, etc., like what you would find inside of a book. Cover stocks on the other hand, are usually uncoated or coated papers that can be used for (soft) book covers.

Paper Thicknesses (Weights): Graphic papers are usually referred to by their weights. In the United States, paper weight is based off how much a stack of 500 sheets weighs at its basic size, known as the basis weight. This is why you’ll see paper categorized in pounds or using the # symbol.

Paper Brightness and Opacity: White is not always just white. What makes something look whiter is sometimes just brightness. Brightness is measured on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 as the brightest. So brighter papers with the right inks will be easier to read because of contrast and accurate colors. On the flip side, papers have different opacity, which is how transparent they are. Opaque will not show anything through from the other side, while 0% opaque is completely transparent–something to consider if you’re printing on both sides of the paper. Bottomline, readability is number one.

Paper Finishes: All paper is either uncoated or coated. Uncoated stock will be rougher and is better for writing since it absorbs ink better and does not smudge. Coated stock is usually very smooth and because it has a coating, is harder to write on and does not absorb ink (the ink will sit on top of the paper). Many people know matte and gloss as kinds of coated stocks which are shinier.

 

Picking the Best Paper Characteristics for Your Project

Stationary: Uncoated paper is the standard for stationary because it can be written on. Be aware that the paper grain must face the correct way for letterheads that will be printed on a desktop printer or copier, so let your account manager know. When it comes to business cards, it might look fancier to have a gloss, but at something like a networking event, you can’t write notes on glossy paper. It’s best to stick to uncoated cover weight paper, or a thicker cover stock if you want something more upscale.

Mailing: Both uncoated and coated stock work well for mailing, so the deciding factor is thickness. Cover stock, which is heavier than text stock, can affect your postage. Conversely, there are regulations about how thin your paper can be. Another option is adding a coating applied after printing like aqueous or UV coating, which protects the mail while it is traveling. The U.S. Postal Service website can help you with mailing options.

Books and Magazines: This category has many variables depending on the type of printing and how many pages it has. For instance, a very thick book needs thin paper that isn’t too bulky, but thick enough that the ink doesn’t show though each page. For full color magazines with a lot of photos, you might need glossy paper with sharp definition, but not so shiny that it is hard to read.

Envelopes: With hundreds of types of standard envelopes, the options seem endless. They vary by size, closure, flap, shape, etc. but they are mostly all printed on 24# white wove paper. If you’re looking for something more elaborate, you can use colored paper or stock made from finer paper. You can get creative by using texture, color, and paper types.

Finishing: You’ll need a cover weight stock if you’re choosing die cutting, foil stamping, or embossing for your project. You also need to consider paper thickness that can handle finishing.

Large Format Printing: This is when you’ll want to consider what your project is for–will it be for long- or short-term use? This will help decide characteristics like durability, or maybe even a thicker option than stock like corrugated cardboard.

Environmental Conservation: Do you have ESG goals that need environmentally friendly materials? Many of our papers, including house stocks, are FSC certified.

 

Now you know the best types of paper to use for different processes and end uses. Keep in mind most commercial printers have house stocks with options like weight, coated or uncoated, etc. These are great because they are usually cheaper in bulk, but your project may call for something special like a metallic paper or linen finish.

We can help you sort through all the options to find the right fit for your project, including catalogues or samples. Contact us and we’ll give you a hand.