When you chat with a designer, you might run into some odd words that you don’t hear in everyday conversation. While we could leave you in the dark to maintain a sense of pretentious secrecy about our processes, we don’t work that way. We’d rather make sure we’re on the same page, which is why we’re using this space to cover the basics of the wonderful world of paper.
We’ve set a few ground rules for ourselves:
- Keep it simple and accessible to the uninitiated.
- Cut the jargon.
- Insert some good-natured humor where possible.
With 25 years in the print industry, Luke Harper is our in-house paper connoisseur. We’ve given him the challenge of removing the mystery in paper terminology. Here’s what he has to say.
Luke, there’s a lot of confusion about paper weight and thickness. Can you clear that up?
Luke: There’s a lot of confusion because it is, well, confusing.
First, let’s talk about paper weight. Paper has a base size. You use this base size to calculate a paper’s basis weight. So, for example, we can find the basis weight of bond paper by weighing 500 sheets at its base size of 17 x 22. If it weighs 20 pounds, then that paper is 20# bond (said as “twenty pound bond” not “twenty hashtag bond”). Makes sense, right? Well, we’re not done yet.
The base size is not the same for all categories of paper, which causes some confusion. Here are the base sizes for each category:
- Bond: 17 x 22
- Cover: 20 x 26
- Text: 25 x 38
- Bristol: 22.5 x 28.5
- Index: 25.5 x 30.5
Since each category has a different base size, the weights are also very different. For example, you can have 80# text and 80# cover but the two are very different in weight. Doubting it could be this complicated? See Neenah Paper's Paper Basis Weights chart.
So, how do you calculate the basis weight of paper?
TLDR: Weigh 500 sheets of your paper at its base size. Remember, base size varies by paper category.
This is mind-boggling. Do people actually need to know this?
Luke: Well, you are asking a paper nerd, so my answer is that yes, it really does matter but everyone doesn’t need to understand it. That’s what we’re here for! We want to choose a paper that’s right for each individual project. Ink reacts to each type of paper differently, certain types of paper hold up over time than others, and so on.
To make it even more complicated, there are some papers that can qualify as bond or text. Go look at the ream wrap of the paper in your printer right now. It likely has the weight of the paper listed as 24/60#. That’s because this paper is 24# if you want to consider it bond but 60# if you want to consider it text. The paper manufacturer doesn’t care which you consider it – they just want you to buy it. Still making sense?
We determine paper thickness in relation to paper weight, but it is not a 1:1 proportion. The weight of the paper is critical and must be as exact as possible. However, the thickness is variable. So, one brand of 80# cover might be thicker than another even though they both weigh the same.
So you’re saying that paper weight and thickness are somehow both related and unrelated?
Luke: Exactly. This is especially true when you introduce paper coatings. The coating is heavier than the paper. 80# gloss cover is actually much thinner than 80# uncoated cover. Again, they both weigh the same but the gloss paper has less paper fiber to it because the coating weighs so much.
80# cover weighs much more than 80# text. 80# gloss cover and 80# uncoated cover weigh the same but are not the same thickness. Simple, right?
What elements affect paper thickness?
TLDR: We determine paper thickness based on paper weight. Coatings also affect paper thickness but not paper weight.
What are the different paper coatings a client might encounter? How do you choose one over the other?
Luke: The finishes on paper are similar to paint finishes. And there are a lot of finishes to choose from. The most common are gloss (for a photo-heavy magazine), dull/matte (for a casual catalog), and uncoated (for that non-profit event). There are other finishes, but these are the biggies.
Manufacturers apply a coating of clay or calcium carbonate to paper fiber to create a gloss finish. This creates a very smooth surface for printing with a shiny, glossy sheen.
Technically, dull and matte are two different finishes but they are very similar, so people tend to lump them together. As with gloss, manufacturers create these finishes by adding a coating to the sheet. Dull and matte finishes also provide a smooth printing surface but have a low sheen (matte has a lower sheen than dull).
Uncoated paper has no coating. This makes the surface a bit rougher, although it still feels smooth to the touch. Uncoated paper is best for writing materials since coated sheets tend to repel ink. As stated above, uncoated sheets are usually thicker than coated sheets.
If you want to get really wild, you can get a cover stock that’s coated on one side and uncoated on the other. This is a C1S (coated one side). For the most part, the choice of gloss, dull, or uncoated is completely up to you - but we’re here to help guide you if you’d like.
Sustainability is on people’s minds. What’s the most sustainable way to print?
Luke: There are several aspects to consider here: ink, paper, and finishing. Almost all commercial printers use soy-based ink, which is the most environmentally friendly kind, so this is rarely an area of concern. In terms of paper, you can select a paper that’s made from recycled content to avoid creating demand for new paper. Paper is also recyclable, which is another eco bonus.
Still, there are other considerations. Finishing techniques, like laminating or foil stamping, can add a lot of impact to your piece in terms of design. Unfortunately, these processes also make your piece non-recyclable.
If your organization does prioritize sustainability, you might consider getting your piece Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified. The FSC sets standards for responsible forest management. They certify vendors at every level of the printing process - forestry, paper manufacturing, and printing - for sustainable and environmentally friendly processes.
When you get a piece FSC certified, you order printing through an FSC-certified printer and use FSC-certified paper. We can even print the FSC logo on your final piece with a chain of custody number, which shows that your piece met the FSC standards throughout the entire production process. Any person, if they were so inclined, could verify an FSC-certified printer printed the piece by referencing that chain of custody number.
How can I print sustainably?
TLDR: The most sustainable way of printing involves using soy ink and avoiding finishing techniques that make paper non-recyclable. You can also get an FSC certification for your project, which ensures sustainability during all steps of the printing process.
What’s with those papers that look like woven fabric?
Luke: There are many types of paper that emulate the look of fabric. Linen stocks have a woven finish to mimic linen – like a nice tablecloth. Laid stocks have a vertical and horizontal pattern that is reminiscent of handmade papers. Felt finishes have a soft felt-like finish. Column stocks have large ribbed impressions that run vertically on the sheet. Leatherette finishes actually mimic a leather surface.
Want more? There’s also wove, vellum, eggshell, suede, woodgrain, techweave… the list goes on. We can nerd out about paper, print, and all things design any day, so we’re happy to chat if you’ve got questions. Reach out to us anytime.
Thanks for reading!
Want to learn more? Check out our other learning posts:
- What is brand architecture?
- A color Q&A for the layperson
- Typography lingo for the layperson
- Printing lingo for the layperson
- Logo lingo for the layperson
If you have questions about paper, printing, or design, we'd love to help you figure out what's next, even if that's not us. Please reach out anytime.