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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: Ways to Save on Paper Costs

So, you’ve completed the design of your brochure, print book, poster, or whatever other offset or digital print project you’re working on, and it’s time to choose paper to print it on. What’s to choose? It’s just paper, right?

Not so.

If you’re a graphic designer, you’re probably well aware of the nuances of paper specification, everything from the texture to the opacity to the whiteness vs. brightness of the paper. Is it coated? Or should it be uncoated, and what does this imply about the brand values of your company? Many designers even have preferred brands of paper and specify these directly to their paper merchants, asking the paper merchants to coordinate paper purchases with the mills and the offset or digital commercial printing suppliers.

Some of this attention to detail and paper selection can add up financially, particularly if paper costs are a large portion of the overall commercial printing budget. (For example, selecting an expensive paper for a perfect-bound print book with a page count of 512 pages and a press run of 60,000 copies can really drive up the overall manufacturing cost of the book.)

What can you do to save money?

Select Paper Based on Its Specifications Rather Than Its Name Brand

Printers and paper merchants (who negotiate directly with the paper mills and have a vast knowledge of paper) can often get good deals on commercial printing stock. In addition, most printers have “house sheets” within various categories of paper. That is, they may have an uncoated stock like Cougar or Lynx that they buy in bulk and use for the majority of their perfect-bound print books. The printer’s house sheet might be just fine for your needs, but if you insist on another brand, like Finch Fine stock, you may wind up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars more.

The way around this is to learn the meaning of the paper characteristics and then ask the printer or paper merchant for a particular paper based not on the brand but on the specifications. A few paper specs to research online are:

    1. Whiteness (for example, blue white or solar white vs. warm white or cream). Whiteness pertains to the paper’s ability to reflect all colors of light (i.e., a pure white), as opposed to the amount of light it reflects.


    1. Brightness (specified in terms such as “premium,” #1, #2, etc.). This specification notes the amount of light (rather than the color of light, or its whiteness) the paper reflects. A premium sheet is brighter than a #1 sheet. But it’s not always necessary to print on a bright paper stock. For instance, for a trade magazine or a catalog, you might even choose a much lower grade (perhaps a #4 sheet or a #5 groundwood sheet). It wouldn’t be as bright, and you wouldn’t specify a #4 sheet for an annual report, but for a mechanic’s parts catalog, for instance, it might be ideal—and competitively priced, particularly when you’re printing a lot of catalogs.


    1. Coated vs. uncoated. A premium uncoated sheet might well cost more than a lower quality coated sheet (counter-intuitively), but usually coated paper costs more than uncoated paper. Discuss this with your printer or paper merchant. Decide what you really need and what is appropriate for your printed product. (Perhaps an uncoated sheet would send more of an Earth-friendly message about your company.)


    1. Surface texture. A matte sheet might be smooth enough for your needs. You may not need a dull sheet. On the other hand (if you’re specifying an uncoated paper), you might in fact want to pay a premium for a textured, uncoated sheet if you’re sending out an invitation to a fancy office gathering.


    1. Paper weight (related to paper thickness or caliper). Research customary weights for various projects. For instance, a corporate promotional booklet might go well on a 100# cover and 100# text combination (for the cover and book interior). In contrast, you might specify 50# or 60# text stock for the interior of a perfect-bound book, and if you don’t need to print on the inside front and back covers, you might choose a 10pt. C1S (coated one side) stock for the cover.


  1. Opacity. This is the light blocking power of a press sheet. Choosing a 60# opaque sheet for a perfect-bound book with a lot of photos will make it less likely that you will see the photo on the back of the page when you’re reading the front of the page. A regular 60# offset sheet wouldn’t be quite as opaque. Opacity is the quality of paper that minimizes what is known as “show through.”

So here’s what you can do with this information. Start with printed samples you like on specific papers you like. Then discuss the variables noted above with your printer and paper merchant (if you have a relationship with a paper merchant). Ask the printer for his suggestions based on what he has on the pressroom floor, what house sheets he buys, and what brands might be economical.

Or, if you’re in a pinch, choose paper from a paper merchant’s swatch books and then note on the specification sheet you compose for your printer that you would be interested in “suggested paper substitutions.” Another way to phrase this on the printing specification sheet is to say “such and such a paper, or comparable.”

Design Economically to Save Paper

This involves a number of considerations. First of all, ask your book printer about the best size for your particular custom printing project, based on the size of the presses he has on the pressroom floor. For example, you might be able to get a 16-page press signature (8 pages on each size) on his press with room for printer’s marks, the printing press gripper (which grabs the press sheet and moves it through the press), and even bleeds if you reduce its size from a 6” x 9” format to a 5.5” x 8.5” format. This change in size might allow for larger press signatures (and therefore fewer press runs) as well as less paper waste.

Probably no one will see the difference, and you will save money. Or, you could forego the bleeds (or confirm with your printer whether or not the bleeds will increase the price by requiring a larger press sheet size and therefore a larger offset press).

Reduce Paper Weight and Quality

Another thing you can do to save money on paper is reduce the paper weight of the project (as noted above). Or you can print on an uncoated sheet (as noted above, with all other things being equal, coated paper often costs more than uncoated). For instance, if you had been considering printing a book on a 70# gloss coated text paper, you might instead decide to print it on a 60# uncoated sheet. Lighter weight papers cost less than heavier weight papers.

As noted above, paper comes in various levels of quality, usually dependent on the brightness of the press sheet. You could save a lot of money by stepping down from a premium sheet to a number #1 or #2 paper. In fact, these days some #2 papers are indistinguishable (to the naked eye) from higher grade papers.

Address Publications-Management Issues

If you’re thoughtful in your approach, how you manage the overall press run can save you money on paper costs.

For example, you could:

    1. Make PDFs of the job available online and therefore reduce the total number of printed copies needed.


    1. Reduce acceptable overruns (usually up to 10 percent overs are acceptable). Negotiate this with your printer.


    1. Clean up all mail lists and be more selective in bulk distribution. Fewer names equal fewer copies going to more precise and accurate addresses. Think about where you make your print product available in bulk as well. Do you need to deliver that big a stack of catalogs to the neighborhood stores?


    1. Print your publication less often. If you combine such a reduction in publishing frequency with an increase in online marketing and editorial content, you can still retain your customers’ interest and loyalty. If you research this suggestion online, look for “multi-channel marketing.”


  1. Print fewer pages. Granted, this requires editing and writing discipline and design/layout acumen, but it can save a lot of money. Reducing a periodical by even four pages and multiplying this by (perhaps) 50,000 copies will save a lot of paper. Fewer pages will cost less to print (sometimes resulting in even fewer press runs for the same product) and will require less paper.

The Take-Away

Here are some suggestions:

    1. Go to school on paper. Learn as much as you can.


    1. Discuss your paper needs for your various projects with your printer.


    1. Develop a relationship with a paper merchant. Consider attending a paper mill tour to see exactly how paper is made.


    1. Collect paper swatch books. But keep them current. It can be frustrating to pick the perfect paper and then learn that it has been discontinued. (Check the dates on the back of the paper books.)


  1. Collect a swipe file of printed products you like because of their paper qualities as well as their design.

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