Paper Tips: How to Choose the Right Paper

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Choosing paper is more complex than just picking the most expensive sheet and keeping your fingers crossed.

In fact, you shouldn’t think about choosing paper based on the highest quality available, or even the highest quality you can afford. Rather, you should figure out the most appropriate quality paper for your needs because most appropriate equals best.

The point is—no one sheet fits every project. Paper is complicated. It is three-dimensional and, in addition, no two print jobs are ever alike. The ink coverage, batch of paper, and moisture in the air—all will affect the production of a printed piece.

We’ve compiled our top ten tips to help you find the right paper for your projects below:

1. Consider Paper Early On

As soon as the preliminary design is done, spec your paper and get quotes from printers. Tell your printer you are open to suggestions, not substitutes, but suggestions.

Depending on the sheet size your printer plans to use, small changes like 1/16th of an inch in the width of your piece can sometimes make a big difference to allow the job to fit better on the sheet. At this stage, you can still make small adjustments to the design, but not when the client has signed-off on the final proof.

Getting your quotes early will also make you aware of any turn-around times you should consider in your deadline. Make adjustments if the paper you have specked is readily available from your local merchant (1 day) or has to be shipped from the mill’s warehouse (2-5 days).

A lot of mills also offer custom sheet sizes to minimize your paper waste and help you save on your overall paper cost. But you need to know early, which paper you want to print on, as these orders can take anywhere from 5-14 days.

I know paper availability is a big concern for many of you, so we will have an extra Paper Tip about this in a week or two.

2. Personality

Consider the life span of your printed piece. Is it a direct marketing piece, that on a good day, 5% of the recipients will look at? Or does your piece have a longer life span like an annual report, a marketing brochure or catalogue?

The personality of your piece, its life span, texture, color and coating determine the price range and quality of your paper, in addition to your budget.

Ask yourself what impression the piece should make. A non-profit organization asking for financial support sends a mixed message when its mailer is printed on a premium stock. Premium paper suggests luxury and the recipient may think, “why bother, they seem to have enough money anyway.”

If you are printing a job that reflects environmental issues, choose papers with recycled content, visible fibers or a mixed composition with a lower brightness and a texture that conveys the environmental feel.
For projects that suggest luxury, metallics, iridescents, suede, leather and other specialty papers create a stunning first impression.

3. Finish

When designing a piece, we designers have a very clear idea of what kind of finish will enhance our design. Some designs ask for gloss, some need a matte finish—don’t mess with us, we know what we want.

If color and crisp image or photographic reproduction is your concern, a coated gloss, matte or silk sheet is always a great and safe choice. But, there is definitely a trend toward uncoated sheets. Large corporations are aiming to portrait a softer, more understated image. With fluorescent inks and knowledgeable prepress technology, the natural surface of uncoated papers is an ideal background for four-color process printing.

The paper is not only there to give the ink a foundation, but to enhance the design of the image you want to portray. A great example is the Eddie Bauer piece that fits the company’s personality to a “T.” The texture and feel of the uncoated Neenah stock gives the impression of a sketchbook or diary kept while on a relaxing trip through the great outdoors.

Create a special interest even with a one-color print job. Don’t shy away from trying something new, like unusually textured or specialty papers that already are a trend in Europe and are gaining more and more popularity here. The new generation of production techniques make it easier to convert, print and finish these sheets.

Don’t be stuck with the same 6 papers over and over again. At PaperSpecs our online paper database features more than 3,500 papers—why would you want to limit yourself?

4. Color and Brightness

There is white, white and white. And let no one tell you anything different. Papers are available in blue-white, balanced white, natural white, soft white—you name it.

Blue-whites, which are very popular at the moment, have a higher-brightness and allow colors to stand out, while warmer whites, which have a lower-brightness, are more comfortable on the eyes for reading or extended viewing.

As you can imagine, not every white fits every purpose. Don’t print warmer tones, such as skin tones, on a blue white sheet. It can easily make healthy-looking people look grey. This is what warmer white papers are made for.


Yes, there is a definite hype going on when it comes to brightness. Don’t get hung up on finding the brightest paper because even when two sheets are placed next to each other, you won’t see a two-point difference in brightness.

Originally, AF&PA standards for paper grades determined that a No. 2 sheet had a brightness of 83-84 and a No. 3 sheet’s brightness was 80-83.

So, why do we see No. 3 sheets with brightness levels of over 90 these days? Let’s just say, brightness is not the only paper mill concern anymore and a sheet is whatever a manufacturer chooses to call it. In the end, the grade is determined by marketing.

A good quality, bright sheet is usually a more expensive sheet to make. Fillers and chemicals, such as fluorescent dyes and optical brighteners, are needed to create the paper’s bright appearance. While they help give the paper a blue-white shade, they also take a toll on the paper’s stability and runnability on press.

When it comes to a premium or No. 1 sheet, you pay for great brightness and perfect runnability. But how do you know which sheet/grade is right for you? Once you are considering a sheet, ask your supplier for a printed sample of the best sheet one grade below and compare.

Mills are known to upgrade the quality of a sheet. Even though a sheet could pass for a No. 1 grade, the mill may have no offering in a No. 2 grade yet, so they sell it as a No. 2 grade to complete their palette and annoy the competition. It’s all about marketing.


As for colored paper, it can enhance a one-color job and serve as a background cover, but it can also affect the appearance of the printed text and images. Blue ink on an ochre-yellow sheet will look green. Some mills have made great promotions available which show exactly what you can expect when you print C, M, Y, or K on a their colored stock.

But there are other options than offset printing on a colored stock. Create an interesting cover with blind embossing, foil stamping and/or a die-cut window that reveals a full color image on the inside of the brochure.

5. Weight

Now that we know which finish and color we want for our print job, let’s look at weight. We have writing papers for letterheads, text sheets for text pages in a brochure and cover sheets. We all know that these guidelines don’t really have a big impact on your paper choice anymore.

In keeping with an overall trend for heavier weights in stocks, a lot of designers spec 80-90 lbs. 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.

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 does not allow any show-through. If in doubt, go one step heavier in weight.

If you are working on a piece that will be mailed, the weight of the finished piece is a major consideration. Watch out for postage costs and make sure the finished piece is below the USPS requirements. Look at your dummy and don’t forget there will be ink added to the weight, as well.
Always stay on the lighter side. I remember a beautiful holiday card I designed for a client that was ready to be mailed and fit the 32-cent postal requirements perfectly. But then, my client decided to add a gift certificate and the postage went up to 55 cents.

There is something else you should remember: If bulk and weight are important, an uncoated sheet will work better for you. Due to the clay coating, a coated paper will weigh more than its same-sized counterpart. Even though it weighs less, the same piece printed on an uncoated sheet will be thicker because uncoated paper naturally has a higher bulk.

If your job requires stiffness, such as with a business reply card, make sure the paper is manufactured to caliper and guarantees a specific thickness and stiffness.

Papers are manufactured to either caliper or weight. A paper manufactured to weight has a slightly fluctuating caliper, as the main concern during the production process is weight. If a paper is called out in “pt,” or you see a footnote in your swatch book that states that this specific weight is manufactured to caliper, you are fine.

6. Recycled Content

Some of you might be very familiar with recycled papers. The fact is that government agencies and conservation groups continually advance the issue and put pressure on corporations to “think green.” So be prepared.

When it comes to recycled papers, there are still a few misconceptions among designers and print buyers. Some believe that all papers are recycled anyway, and others worry about having limited paper choices. There is also a perception that recycled papers have a potential for technical problems in the printing process. All these fears are unfounded.

If you think looking for recycled papers will limit your creativity, think again. From the 3,500 papers we feature at PaperSpecs, nearly 60 percent have some recycled content and more than 1,000 meet or exceed the current Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

The EPA standards for printing and writing papers are 30 percent post-consumer waste content for uncoated papers and 10 percent for coated papers. Many mills have created papers with the minimum requirements, while others are continually aiming to produce papers with higher recycled contents.
It is not only the post-consumer contents you should watch out for, but also the way the paper you choose is bleached.

For years, chlorine gas has been used to bleach paper, which produced cancer-causing dioxins that infiltrate our surface waters. Now most mills in the U.S. use ECF, an Elemental Chlorine Free process that reduces these toxins dramatically, but doesn’t eliminate them completely.

A more environmentally friendly option is to look for paper that has not been bleached at all, or substitutes oxygen-based compounds for chlorine compounds. These papers are marked Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) when talking about virgin fibers, or Processed Chlorine Free (PCF) for recycled papers. The distinction is made because the origin of the content in recycled paper and the way it was bleached is not known and can’t claim to be TCF.

Another option is to look for paper that is FSC-certified. This means that the fiber content in this paper, even though virgin, comes from plantations that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council for sustainable forestry practices.

But, let’s not forget about the paper’s on-press performance. Today’s recycled papers have come a long way, from what you might have heard about years ago, and run as smoothly on press as any virgin sheet. In addition, they are even known to score, fold and emboss better because recycled fibers are softer and allow these processes to be performed with ease.

7. The Printing Process

If your budget allows for specialty printing processes, such as embossing, foil stamping, letterpress and the like, make sure your paper is suitable for these techniques. Look at printed samples. They are available and you just have to ask for them.

As digital printing becomes more and more popular, be aware not to speck a digital sheet for an offset press and vice versa. Digital printing papers are made specifically to perform under the high heat/low moisture conditions of a digital printer or press. Offset papers are manufactured to perform at low temperatures and with liquid inks.

You will see that many mills offer digital side lines for their established grades and there are more coming into the market all the time—from white sheets to metallic papers that run with ease on digital presses.

Using the right paper for the printing process, whether digital, offset or specialty, eliminates one variable in print production that can cause problems—and we don’t have time for problems.

8. End Usage and Distribution

Will the piece be mailed, mass mailed or handed out personally to selected prospects?

We discussed mail-outs earlier, so watch out for overall weight and when choosing reply or post cards, make sure the paper you speck is manufactured to the caliper required.

If you design stationery, be aware that in 99 percent of all cases, letterheads will be printed by laser or ink jet printers, so make sure the paper you speck is compatible for this specific use. When it comes to embossed finishes, many mills offer laser compatible versions of their textured sheets, called Light, as in a light version of cockle, or Imaging, as in imagine that looks like laid. This paper will still show the specific texture, but in a less embossed way, which makes it suitable for use in laser/ink jet printers.
If the paper is not specified for laser use, be sure to get a few sample sheets and test it yourself. When it comes to textured sheets, toner has a tendency to easily rub off, especially when touching the imprinted copy.

For educational or reference pieces with a long life span, pick a paper that offers sturdiness and durability. Synthetic papers, for example, have proven to be a great alternative to index stock, when it comes to tabs.

If a piece is handed out personally, you are home free—no postal regulations, no weight constraints—well, nearly none. Will the person handing out the piece or the recipient want to make notes on the piece? In that case, watch out for coated gloss papers or varnishes. Few pens write well on them and your prospects will be frustrated.

In cases where a lot of handling occurs and you are worried about fingerprints, a coating or varnish is definitely the way to go.

9. Price

It has happened to all of us. We have champagne taste on a beer budget. Paper averages 30 percent of the cost of a print project. That is not a small percentage and definitely one to take a closer look at, if you work on a tight budget.

There are a lot of ways to “cut corners” and save on the general paper cost, but this would make for a whole article in itself. If you are interested, check our money-saving paper tips in the archived Paper Tips section.

If those tips don’t cut enough corners for you and your budget still doesn’t allow for the paper you have in mind, talk to your printer or speck rep and ask for lower cost alternatives.

And if you are specking a coated white sheet, look at your grades and see what the best sheet one grade down has to offer.

10. Availability

If you were told in the beginning stages of your project that the paper you have specked will be shipped from Wisconsin and you are based in sunny California, allow for some lead time. You will be well prepared and this will not be an issue for you.

We do hear of frustration when it comes to a paper’s availability and the term “mill item” comes up a lot. Be aware that a mill item to one merchant might be readily available on the floor of the next merchant.
Around 80% of print jobs in the U.S. are printed on coated or uncoated white paper. This is what sells the most and this is what you will definitely find in every merchant warehouse.

Due to the economic situation, merchants and printers try to carry less stock to assume less financial responsibility. Mills have, in general, warehouses all over the country and make sure they are always are well stocked, so you can have your paper in days, not weeks.

When it comes to specialty papers, especially those manufactured overseas, certain amounts are stocked in warehouses here in the U.S., but if you need a larger amount, they will immediately tell you if they need any extra lead time. Mills like Gmund from Germany and the French Thibierge & Comar are known to airfreight your paper to the U.S., if needed.

If you are in a rush and flexible when it comes to your paper choice, consider your printer’s house sheets. As printers buy those in bulk, they are readily available and you will usually get a good price.
In most cases, your printer is your best friend and you should have a good working relationship. But every once in a while, we hear about someone who tries to avoid asking more than one merchant for a specific paper.

We heard from Rob, who was very disappointed to hear that Strathmore was not making the Elements line in light grey anymore. Well, Strathmore is definitely still offering this grade, but the printer’s favorite merchant stopped stocking it on the floor and so he just told Rob, “They don’t make this anymore.”

I warned you from the start that specking paper is very complex, but recent changes in the economy have created even more issues on paper availability that warrant discussion.

We hope we’ve clarified many of the features you need to consider when choosing the most appropriate paper for your projects. If you keep our tips in mind, selecting your next paper should be a breeze.

Copyright © 2002-2004 PaperSpecs Inc. All rights reserved.

  • anonymous says:

    I am not at all familiar with paper, so this was a terrific learning opportunity.

    But, please, it is “spec”, not “speck”. Please fix all those irritating “specks”, because they really detract from the quality.

  • Anonymous says:

    v helpful. Thanks

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree with your view that you should figure out the most appropriate quality paper for your needs because most appropriate equals best.

  • Anonymous says:

    very helpful, thanks for the info!!

  • Guest says:

    santa you are the best and i love you merry christmas.

    love Jeanae Wright   To Santa.

  • Guest says:

    santa you are the best and i love you merry christmas.

    love Jeanae Wright   To Santa.

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