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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: Thoughts on the Current Paper Shortages

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About two months ago I received a call from a large printing consolidator asking if I could help them with a job they couldn’t do in a timely manner. It was a series of six kiss-cut forms (bond laser paper forms, perforated, and then glued to a backing sheet and die cut around the labels for easy removal).

After the printing, perforating, and die cutting steps, these forms would be imprinted with variable information on a Lexmark laser printer. The press run for each of the six components of this job ranged from about 60,000 to 200,000 copies per form, at least twice a year. It was a sweet job.

This was a relatively easy print job, and the consolidator, which had multiple plants scattered across the United States (and at least one in China) had come to me as a printing broker for only one reason. They couldn’t get paper for the job, anywhere (including their China plant). Because of the paper shortage, this commercial printing consolidator could only offer their client a sixteen-week turn-around on a job that probably should have taken less than a month including shipping.

My initial response was that in a sixteen-week schedule, I could probably print the job myself and then perforate and die cut it in my garage using a pizza cutting wheel. Needless to say, my hubris didn’t serve me well.

I checked any number of printers across the United States, plus my sources in China, Canada, South Korea, and India. There was no paper to be found. At the time (this was two months ago, as noted above), the paper shortage was contained (i.e. , certain grades of paper could be easily purchased and others—the heavier stock the printing consolidator’s client required—could not). So the printing consolidator and I lost the job and fortunately parted as friends. But the process of searching for commercial printing stock over the course of a month was truly sobering.

What Caused the Paper Shortages?

This experience motivated me to do some research into what was happening. I had spoken to colleagues who said that the shortage was worldwide, generalized across multiple kinds of paper, and apparently not ending any time soon; however, it was less dire for existing customers. The last point surprised me, but I have found that a lot of my existing customers have been able to print their jobs—albeit over a much longer schedule—based in part on existing relationships with printers. Apparently printers have specific allocations (but no extra stock beyond this) from the mills, although sometimes they don’t even receive the full allocation of the custom printing stock they expected.

After talking with my contacts at various printers, I went online and found some intriguing articles describing a perfect storm including a number of events (some of which actually started before COVID but were affected by it) that caused the shortages. Here are some of the things I learned:

  1. According to the Ironmark website (in the article “Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage”), “several North American paper mills closed because they simply couldn’t compete while contending with increased labor costs, stricter environmental laws, and older equipment.”
  2. Because of this, these paper mills changed from offering commercial printing and writing papers to manufacturing high-margin premium grades and packaging board (since the packaging industry had been growing exponentially). With fewer North American sources for custom printing and writing papers, overseas vendors stepped in to fill the supply needs. In addition, there had been a recent business-process-shift among printers from stocking paper inventory to buying paper “just in time” (called JIT, sometimes hours or days before needed), thus leaving their paper inventories at a low point (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).
  3. Then COVID hit. This cut back available labor for paper mill production and also slowed shipping of finished paper to paper merchants and other distributors. COVID actually came in waves, so paper production went through fits and starts, as demand for paper surged when each wave of COVID abated. But papermaking is a demanding process that takes months to ramp up again after each successive slowdown. And at the same time, paper consumers were back in business, using up accessible inventory and seeking to manage the surging demand for commercial printing. Again, this was within the context of a pre-COVID shift at the paper mills from manufacturing custom printing and writing stock to making paperboard packaging (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).
  4. The paper shortage has affected paper manufacturers around the world, “currently contending with labor shortages, shipping delays, and increased prices” (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”). (For offshore vendors, the shipping delays have also been affected by long lines waiting for access to US ports—with ships’ sometimes being staged 150 miles offshore waiting to unload their goods. There have even been shortages in shipping containers, since most have been in use on ships waiting to enter US ports or ports in other countries.)
  5. Printers the Ironmark article referenced have noted paper price increases from 20 percent to 40 percent over the past six to nine months. Ironmark also noted that the shortages are affecting all grades of paper, not just the coated stocks initially impacted by the slowdown. Cover stocks have also been affected as well as text stocks and uncoated paper (“Why Are We Having a Paper Shortage?”).

You may also want to search online for “Where Has All the Paper Gone?” by Matt Marzullo (12/21/2021), also from Ironmark, and “Paper Shortages: What’s Behind the Problem and What Can We Do?” by Lou Caron (03/30/2022), from All of these articles will give you a good overview of the confluence of disparate causes that began before the COVID-pandemic slowdowns and are continuing to wreck havoc with the supply chain. And when papermaking finally catches up with demand, paper prices will drop. Margins will drop. And this will be within the current environment of inflation in general and higher labor costs in particular (“Paper Shortages: What’s Behind the Problem and What Can We Do?”).

So What Can We Do About This?

All of the articles I have read have noted three ways to address paper shortages if you are a buyer (graphic designer, production manager, art director, etc.):

  1. Plan ahead. Assume there will be much longer production times for jobs based on paper availability, so start early.
  2. Keep in constant contact with your commercial printing suppliers. (In one case I waited a little too long between emails, and overnight one printer I was working with changed his schedule for a print book for a client of mine from 12 to 16 weeks. Needless to say, I had to find another vendor.)
  3. Be very flexible regarding paper specifications. (Usually, I say that you should specify paper for your printers based on specific qualities rather than based on its brand. Now I encourage buyers to consider coated vs. uncoated, premium vs. commodity paper, different paper weights—anything your printer can accommodate. Better to have different paper than you’d especially like than to not have any paper for the print job at all.)
  4. One thing I did recently to address paper shortages was to split a job between two vendors. One version of a client’s print book was a lower-quality, laser-printed version. I went to a digital supplier that proofed the book through an InSite portal. This vendor was set up specifically for this kind of work. They had the paper, the schedule, and the expertise. The same client also needed a higher-value version of the print book, produced with French flaps via offset lithography. Most vendors offered a 12- to 16-week turn-around time. But for this job I found one (actually a commercial printing vendor rather than a book printer) that would do the job in five weeks for a premium. Since my client absolutely needed to deliver finished copies to the book distributor by a certain date, she was willing to pay the higher amount.

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