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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: Thoughts on Choosing Printing Paper

I found a perfect-bound mythology book in the thrift store this week that I had last read and loved in 1981, so I bought it for a dollar. But what struck me even more than the surprise of finding it again was the publication date (1976) and the fact that the cover, cover coating, and interior paper showed absolutely no sign of age. None.

Unlike many other print books I had seen recently in the thrift stores, both the text stock and the cover stock of this book showed none of the yellowing around the edges that I was used to seeing in much more recently printed books. All of the photos on the crisp uncoated stock were pristine and exactly as I had remembered them from my first reading of the book thirty-six years ago.

This brought to mind a few thoughts about paper.

First of all, reading a book is a tactile experience, and for me the thickness and feel of the paper and gloss cover coating as well as the roughness of the paper and even the thickness of the book were relevant to my overall reading experience. None of these qualities can be replicated on an e-reader.

My next thought was that certain qualities in the paper made this print book look as good as the day it had been published. Since there was no discoloration or yellowing, I made an educated guess that alkaline paper had been used. This is considered to be of archival quality, in contrast to other books I have from the 1970s that are now yellow and brittle due to the highly acidic content of their text paper. These are not considered to be of archival quality.

When you compare these two paperbacks to some of the hardcover books printed and bound in the late 1800s, it is interesting to see that the older print books in many cases seem to be in much better shape than the paperbacks from the 1970s. Again, this has to do with the quality of the materials used.

Paper is not cheap, and alkaline paper is often more expensive than acidic paper, so the paperbacks I had collected in the 1970s were probably meant to be read and then discarded, or at least not kept for the ensuing forty years. This is fine. I paid very little for them.

How Does This Relate to Contemporary Book Printing?

In recent years, a large percentage of books have migrated from hard-cover and paperback format to electronic media only, as files for e-reader devices. This has been leveling off or decreasing recently. People are not giving up on print books. But in many cases publishers are choosing a print format to highlight particular print qualities not available in electronic media. Many of these involve properties of printing paper that will improve the tactile experience of book-reading. Therefore, it behooves designers and print buyers to learn a bit about commercial printing paper.

Here’s a starting point.

On another trip to the thrift store I found a paper handbook from the 1980s. It was specifically written for those who sell or buy paper. I’m sure contemporary paper mills, printers, and paper merchants can provide similar books. All you have to do is ask. Here are some of the subjects the book addresses.

Paper Properties

These include “whiteness, brightness, color, surface texture, finish, opacity, stiffness, flexibility, grain, and gloss” (Walden’s Handbook for Paper Salespeople & Buyers of Printing Paper, Second Edition). These are just the visual properties. More tactile qualities include thickness, bulk, resistance to tearing, smoothness, opacity, ink receptivity…. The list goes on and on.

If you were to boil down this list into a few key concepts, they might be:

  1. The thickness and stiffness of the paper as it feels in your hand (and the appropriateness of the thickness for the product you’re printing).
  2. The color of the paper (whether it has a bluish-white or yellowish-white tone, or whether it has a more intense color altogether like a dark green tinted sheet used for a holiday invitation and printed with silver ink).
  3. The quality of the paper, or its formation (its consistency across the sheet when held up to the light), since an even paper formation allows for evenly printed halftones and text.
  4. Whether the paper is coated or uncoated, and if coated whether it has a gloss or dull finish.
  5. The runnability of the paper. That is, does the paper possess those qualities (such as dimensional stability) that will make it run through a commercial printing press easily without causing problems. A related concept would be ink receptivity, or whether the paper absorbs ink evenly into the paper (if uncoated) or whether the ink sits up on top of the paper surface (if coated).

The Paper-Making Process

A paper handbook such as this will also explain the process of making paper, from the essentially liquid form in which it starts to the final cut sheets that are ready to load into the commercial printing press.

You will also find descriptions of paper flaws to look for (such as wavy edges) or the propensity of a paper for picking (having pinpricks of the paper—along with the ink–come off during the printing process). Dimensionally unstable paper is another flaw to avoid, as is paper that is not trimmed squarely.

Paper Tests

The Walden Handbook also describes a number of tests to ensure the quality of the paper, such as the burst test and tensile strength test, which relate to a paper’s propensity for tearing.

In addition, the paper handbook describes opacity testing (related to the light-stopping power of a particular paper). This paper property is particularly useful if you have a photo on one side of a sheet of paper and text on the other. Using an opaque sheet will ensure that you won’t see the photo on the back of the paper when you’re reading the text on the front of the sheet.

Charts Describing Paper Options

A paper handbook such as this will also discuss (and even include drawings of) formats for envelopes. (You can get the same information from the US Post Office.) In addition, it will include charts showing the relative thickness of different kinds of paper (text stock weights compared to cover stock weights, for instance). This is useful in converting from one type of paper to another. Usually, such a chart will also show the “basic size” to which these “basis weights” refer.

Information for the Printer

Such a paper book will also list the standard dimensions of cut sheets of commercial printing stock as well as useful information for printers regarding storage and conditioning of paper prior to printing. This section will include information on skid packing of paper, characteristics of paper rolls, and how cut sheets of printing paper will arrive in cartons.

All of this information may make your head swim. It’s a bit like reading a dictionary. However, over time you will start to recognize certain paper qualities, and the more your knowledge grows, the more precise you can be in designing printed products that benefit from different paper choices. You will also be better able to discuss these paper properties and potential pitfalls with your printer or you paper merchant.

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