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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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Custom Printing: Case Study on Paper Weights, Sizes, and Sourcing

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About a month ago I received an email from a rather large commercial printing consolidator. They wanted to subcontract five forms for one of their clients because they themselves could not access the paper they needed for the press runs, some of which reached 600,000 copies every six months. All five forms had perforations. Three had labels with liners. Only one had any printing.

Interestingly enough these forms would be used around the country by some rather prestigious vendors in the beauty/cosmetics industry. As noted above, it was a large recurring job. A sweet deal for a broker.

My prospective client (the commercial printing consolidator) could not do the job on their own in less than 24 weeks because of the difficulty in sourcing paper in the United States. So they asked me to check my sources. As you may know, this request comes in a time of paper scarcity. From vendors I approached from California to the East Coast, I learned that no one had the right paper.

The Context

To put this in context, this is what the 8.5” x 11” and 8.5” x 14” forms were to be printed on:

90# White Index
110# Tag Board
Or 60# – 80# Cover

Once printed, these forms were then to be imprinted with variable data using Lexmark laser printers.

So the client wanted a thicker stock, probably bright-white or solar-white (as opposed to yellow-white or cream) with a hard surface that would support toner application. Moreover, since the Lexmark laser printers would use high heat in their fuser drums to affix the powdered toner to the substrate, the paper had to be uncoated. (Lexmark noted that the cover coating on coated paper could melt in the high heat and foul the laser printer rollers.)

In addition, grain direction would be an issue. (Paper grain had to be parallel to the direction the paper would travel through the laser printers. Or, for very thick paper, the paper grain might have to go the other direction—grain short–to facilitate the bending of the paper as it travels through the printer.) And, paper thickness would be an issue. (According to Lexmark, the paper weight could not exceed 163 gsm, or grams per square meter, which is about 60# cover stock or 110# text stock.)

What Does This Mean?

Basically this is a huge job for a huge printer with a reputation they want to keep. They also want to keep their client (by keeping their client happy). So doing all of this research into the paper is very important. There’s no room for error, such as paper jams in the Lexmark printer due to the size, coating or lack of coating, or thickness of the paper. In fact, all of the printers I approached (about 25) once cut down to a manageable number who could get paper and print and convert the forms (only two), wanted to do a test with the actual paper before the end-user client (the commercial printing consolidator’s client) signed up for even one six-month press run of the five forms.

Paper Specs

At this point, let’s return to the paper specs. The client had requested 90# White Index, 110# Tag Board, or 60# – 80# Cover stock. How could these be even close to the same thickness?

The “basic size” of a sheet of commercial printing paper of “text” weight (used for the interior pages of books) is 25” x 38”. This means that no matter how it is finally trimmed, 500 sheets of 60# text stock at 25” x 38” weigh 60 pounds. In contrast, cover stock is weighed at a different size (the basic size for cover stock is 20” x 26”). Since 500 sheets of 60# cover stock weigh 60#, the reason the cover stock is so thick and the text stock is so thin is that even though the “basis weight” is the same, the “basic size” is different.

And the reason the 90# White Index and 110# Tag Board seem to be of an odd weight is that these are weighed at the following basic sizes:

Tag Board: 24” x 36”
Index: 25 ½” x 30 ½”

Just as an aside, bond and duplicator paper are measured at a basic size of 17” x 22”.

Paper Thickness

Now let’s go back to the specifications Lexmark stipulates for their laser printers. The paper stock used in the laser printers cannot exceed 163 gsm (except, according to some Lexmark literature, for paper used in special paper handling trays, which can be thicker). This 163 gsm stock would be comparable to 60# cover. However, label liner paper will need to be glued to the paper under the 4” x 6” labels that will be a part of the 8.5” x 11” and 8.5” x 14” forms. Therefore, in my mind, it seems that 60# cover might be too thick. Regardless, if the end-user client (the commercial printing consolidator’s client) had specified 60# to 80# cover, anything over the 60# cover stock would be out of the question.

To be honest, I have not yet looked into the thickness of 90# White Index and 110# Tag Board because none of these seem to be available due to the complete scarcity of paper in the United States.

Sourcing Paper

The custom printing consolidator that could not do the job for their client in less than 24 weeks apparently had access to this thicker paper about a month ago. In contrast, none of the 25 suppliers I approached during this past month’s time, apparently, could get this stock.

Given the consistency of the replies I received (one of the vendors even sent me a note from their paper mill noting that anything above 24# bond was out of stock until further notice), presumably the availability of custom printing paper is worsening, and printers are only servicing existing clients.

Options for the Client

One of the two printers in the final cut noted that their pressmen were using 24# bond for similar forms, with great success in imprinting using similar laser printing equipment. These words were poetry to my ears:

  1. This particular 24# stock was available.
  2. There was a proven track record for using this particular paper for similar forms-printing work.

I let the commercial printing consolidator know what I had found (along with pricing from the two vendors that could use this paper, do the perfs, create the attached labels, etc.), but unfortunately the end-user client still wanted the thicker paper (Index, Tag Board, or 60# to 80# Cover).

I checked my sources in Canada (as did one of the two printing candidates on my short list of vendors), India, China (through one of the two printing vendors), and South Korea. I had no luck.

We’ll see what happens. After chasing a huge recurring job (for free; brokers don’t make anything until a product is sold) for a month now, I have to wait. Presumably, if all of my sources in the United States are saying the same thing (you can’t buy anything thicker than 24# bond until further notice), the commercial printing consolidator will eventually come to the same realization.

If this were a one-off job, perhaps an odd-lots firm could collect the paper from various suppliers. But for a recurring job with five forms ranging from 120,000 to 600,000 copies, my guess is that everyone, everywhere, is in the same boat. Perhaps the client will accept the 24# stock, for now. We’ll see.

The Takeaway

Even if this goes no further, it has been exciting. It has also provided a lot of object lessons I can share with you, which you may find useful in buying your own commercial printing jobs. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Find a paper conversion chart online. This is the one I use: Such a paper conversion chart compares paper weights for cover stock, text stock, index, tag board, bristol, bond, and a number of other paper classifications and also notes the basic size from which these basis weights have been calculated. With a chart like this, you can see that 20#, 24#, and 28# bond are essentially equivalent in thickness to 50#, 60#, and 70# text stock. This can be incredibly useful information. That said, you should still get printer’s samples and even consider buying a micrometer to measure paper thickness. Why? Because two different paper stocks from different paper mills may be slightly different (even if they are both 60# text or both 60# cover). Also, not all printers can get all possible weights of a particular paper.
  2. Assume that paper is scarce now and for the foreseeable future. So be open to options. My client’s client, for instance, might not like thin paper forms. I understand that. But thin forms for the present moment may be better than no forms.
  3. Expect increasingly long lead times to source paper. So even if your paper isn’t completely inaccessible, it still may take some time for your commercial printing supplier to buy it and have it delivered. Therefore, make this assumption when you determine your print schedules, and confirm it with your printers.
  4. Start collecting paper sample books from your printers, paper merchants, or paper mills. Don’t rely on memory to gauge how thick or thin a particular paper will be. Keep in mind, though, that over time, many paper stocks will go into and out of production. The mills stop making some brands and introduce others. So if you like a certain paper stock and your paper book is out of date, that paper might no longer be available.

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