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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Commercial Printing: Using Paper Sample Books

One of the downsides of having had a house fire is that all my printed samples and paper sample swatch books are gone. This is a problem for a print broker.

Actually, I have one paper book, from NewPage, that a digital printing supplier sent me this week.

Benefits of the Paper Swatch Book

Commercial printing involves putting ink or toner on paper. Paper is an important element of the product, and it’s often easy to forget this in the rush to write copy or create the graphic design. Moreover, it is sometimes confusing to specify paper. “Make it like this” is a less than specific way to describe to your custom printing supplier the kind of paper you will need. Therefore, if you have the same paper swatch books your printer does, you can, for instance, say you want “60# white gloss text, or a 10pt matte coated cover stock.” Immediately you and your printer will be communicating about the exact same paper.

So here’s a crash course based on the sample paper book I just received.

Paper Weight (Pounds vs. Points, Cover vs. Text)

Cover stock comes in a particular standard size, which is 20” x 26”. Other sizes are available, but for the sake of standardization, this is called the “basic size,” and the weight of 500 sheets at the basic size is called the “basis weight.”

Let’s say you want to print a postal mailer on 130# cover stock (your paper swatch book will note this information on the sample sheets). This basis weight is the same as 10pt. stock. That is (and you can find paper conversion charts online), the thickness and stiffness of 130# coated cover paper and 10pt. coated cover paper will be approximately the same.

My NewPage paper swatch book is ideal on this count. On the front cover of this (approximately) 5.5” x 8.5” wire-O bound book, the headline notes that I’m looking at Productolith paper. Inside, on the page I’m reviewing at the moment, the printed text notes that I’m considering “Productolith Pts., 10pt. (134 lb.) semi-gloss C1S Tag.”

This rather cryptic description includes the name of the paper, its basis weight in points, its basis weight in pounds, its coating (semi-gloss, as opposed to matte, dull, gloss, satin, or uncoated), and “tag,” a specific category of paper (a lower quality sheet used more for tags and labels than for high-end marketing collateral). The description also tells you that the coating is only on one side of the sheet (C1S, as opposed to C2S). You might use this paper if your job requires full-color heavy ink coverage on one side of the paper and just a little black ink on the other.

The printed specs do not distinguish between “cover” and “text” stock because the paper is obviously very thick. But you will need to keep this in mind when you specify paper (or review a different paper book). Most paper books will distinguish between the text sheet (for instance, 100# text measured at a basic size of 25” x 38”) and the cover sheet (for instance, 100# cover measured at a basic size of 20” x 26”, as noted above).

Paper Color (Whiteness vs. Brightness)

Paper brightness tells you how much light a paper will reflect (96 is brighter than 90, for instance). In contrast, paper whiteness tells you the color of light the paper reflects (a blue-white, or cool-white, sheet will actually appear brighter than a yellow-white, or warm-white, sheet).

Paper Surface Finish

As noted above, you have a number of options starting with high gloss (which is a good coating if your printed product includes a lot of photos–it makes them “pop,” as they say). For text, this is less ideal, since it tires your eyes. If your job includes a lot of text, you might consider a dull or matte coated sheet (a less reflective paper surface). In between gloss and dull, you’ll find silk or satin. These surface coatings have a little texture (you can feel them when you run your hand across the sheet), but they don’t have a high gloss coating.

Keep in mind that not all sheets come in all coatings and some companies have different names (some call matte paper dull; some call satin paper silk). Just think about the three textures (glossy, not glossy, and something in the middle).

All of these are coated sheets (a mixture of clay and additives added to the surface of the paper to seal the sheet and allow the ink to sit on top of the paper rather than seeping into the fibers). In addition to coated paper, there’s uncoated paper, which has a nice, natural feel. There are also other variations in texture such as “linen” (which has a criss-cross pattern), “felt” (which is like the fabric felt), and “laid” (which has a ribbed texture). The best thing you can do is ask your custom printing vendor for a handful (or several boxes full) of paper swatch books. These will become a valuable tool for communicating with your printer (and educating yourself).

Final Caveat

Printers will often forget to tell you this when they deliver your boxes of paper swatch books, but it bears repeating. Like three-day old fish, paper swatch books have a shelf life. On the back of the paper swatch book (usually in very small type), you will find the date the book was produced. (My Productolith book was produced in 2012, so it’s not that old.)

Let’s say you’ve found the perfect paper for your new marketing campaign, and your chief marketing officer has approved the stock. But let’s say that the paper book has a date of 2001 rather than 2012. Chances are, the paper has been discontinued. This could be a problem. So make sure your paper books are “fresh.”

Getting the Paper Swatch Books

You can get paper swatch books from your commercial printing sales rep or your paper merchant. Both of them want your repeated business, so I’m sure both will be most helpful in getting you a selection of these invaluable paper books.

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