Paper Tips: Going Against the Grain

This story courtesy of

“It feels like my car is hopping all over the freeway,” I said. The mechanic looked at me with wide eyes.

My hands bobbed up and down to describe the movement as I added, “Really, depending on the surface of the road, it just feels like it doesn’t drive smoothly anymore and it is, well, hopping.”

You’ll get no bonus points for guessing I got the “typical-woman-who-has-no-clue about-cars” look. It didn’t make one iota of difference that I can fix nearly every computer. In this instance, I was out of my depth. And I knew it.

Granted, you don’t have to be a trained mechanic to be a good driver, but it helps to know some of the terminology to avoid this belittling look.

Similarly, you don’t have to be familiar with every detail about papermaking and printing to be a good designer, but it’s definitely advantageous to know some of the technical challenges to understand why a folder you have designed has a tendency to reopen, or the fold in your piece is more ragged and bumpy than you imagined in your wildest dreams. And that ink cracking along the fold…

What is Grain Direction?
Just visualize hundreds of tree stumps as they float down a river. Magically, they all flow lengthwise with the current. This resembles what happens after the tree has been turned into pulp and the pulp is manufactured into paper.

I don’t need to get too technical about the papermaking process, so just imagine that the wood fibers that make the pulp are shaped like a tree stump or, for size purposes, a rice grain, small and oblong. During the pulp’s transition into paper, the “rice grains” are moved over a long wire, to drains the water out of the pulp. As with the tree stumps, the fibers follow the stream in the direction of the flow.

With all the fibers running lengthwise, the paper doesn’t have any stability at all. So, in order to create a web of fibers, the pulp on the wire is shaken from side to side, forcing some of the fibers into a horizontal position and thus creating a crisscross or web.

The majority of the fibers still run with the flow, giving you the grain direction of the end product, your paper.

How to Find the Grain Direction
Take a closer look at a the mills’ swatchbooks and you’ll see that the sheet sizes in which the paper is available are listed as “8.5 x 11” or “8.5 x {u}11{/u}.” The bold or underlined number indicates the grain direction of the paper.

Take the letterhead size in our example. If you look at the finished letterhead, the tall, long side — 11″ — indicates the side that runs with the grain, also called grain long. If the paper is listed as “11 x 8.5,” the grain runs with the short side of the sheet, also called grain short.

Test for the Grain Direction
There are a number of very easy tests that tell you the grain direction of your paper, and they also demonstrate why grain direction is so important. My favorite two:

Tear Test. Take a piece of paper and tear it vertically, then horizontally. The tear with the grain will be relatively straight, while the tear against the grain will have endured a little more resistance, resulting in a more jagged edge.

Fold Test. Take a cover stock (the results are more visible in a cover sheet), and fold it vertically and then horizontally. The fold with the grain is straighter and smoother, while the fold against the grain is more ragged and bumpy.

Folding and Scoring
As mentioned before, folding is probably the most important reason why you need to know your grain direction. As our little demonstration shows, folding with the grain is smoother, even in heavier sheets, and you only need to consider scoring when using heavier cover weights.

When folding against the grain, though, you always need to score. Scoring prepares the paper for folding and greatly reduces cracking on the fold.

You might have noticed that some folded sheets or brochures have a tendency to reopen. This is caused by a certain resilience in the paper. The opening is least noticeable when the paper is folded with the grain, also referred to as parallel to the grain, and most noticeable when the piece is folded against the grain.

As you can conclude from our folding experience, what is true for folding also holds true for cracking. There is less cracking when folding with the grain, more cracking when folding against the grain.

When folding through areas with heavy ink coverage, cracking is always a problem. This is particularly true for sheets printed digitally on dry-toner presses. Scoring helps, but the simplest way to avoid the problem when designing a piece is to keep printing along the fold to a minimum.

As we have seen in our Tear Test, the grain direction not only influences the paper’s folding abilities, but also its strength.

Granted, folding and scoring with the grain will provide you with a smoother fold, but paper folded against the grain enjoys increased durability and resists tearing. Remember this when designing your next pocket folder or saddle-stitched document.

With your end product in mind, take your pick of whether the smoothness of the fold or the durability of the piece is more important and make sure to let your printer know your preference.


Posted on: June 16, 2006

2 Comments on Paper Tips: Going Against the Grain

  1. I am very grateful for this easy to understand, informative article.
    Thank you, Sabine!

  2. In my country the print provider usually helps sort out the paper grain issue and buy papers accordingly to the need

    Thanks for the article although im 5 years late 😛

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