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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: Make Your Paper Swatch Books Your Second Best Friend

Photo purchased from …

I suppose it’s better to make your spouse or significant other your best friend. But if you buy commercial printing or do graphic design for a living, it’s smart to have a paper merchant as your BFF right after your printer. A deeply knowledgeable paper merchant is a truly valuable asset.

First of all, paper is made at a limited number of mills around the world. The mill is not the paper merchant. The paper merchant is a conduit between paper mills and printers. What she or he adds to the transaction is knowledge and connections. She or he can understand your paper needs, work to find a good source, and coordinate everything with you printer. This costs nothing to you as a buyer.

What a paper merchant offers on a physical level that you might want to request is a collection of paper swatch print books. I have about fifteen corrugated paper swatch book cartons (display boxes) upstairs that include the following: stationery papers, coated paper stocks and uncoated paper stocks, digital paper stocks (specifically suited to inkjet and laser printing), text stocks in various intense colors that might be good for a special invitation (see the colorful photo above), and cover stocks paired with text stocks (so I can better decide what cover paper is right for a print book or annual report).

I’m sure I’ve missed some, or a lot, but you get the idea. Ask your paper merchant (or your commercial printing supplier, if you don’t yet have a paper merchant) for a comprehensive supply of these kinds of sample books, and then purge and replace them every so often, based on the date (ask your paper merchant her or his advice about paper swatch book replacement). Think of these as Pantone Matching Books but for paper (color, surface coatings, brightness, whiteness, weight, caliper, etc.) rather than for ink hues.

In my own case I have to admit that my collection of paper swatch books is out of date. Therefore, I only use the books to specify paper qualities, not brands. This is because specific brands of specific categories of paper come and go.

So it’s important to have current paper swatch books if you do graphic design for a living, but you can see why even out-of-date paper books are useful.

Two Sample Paper Swatch Books

Downstairs in my office I have two paper swatch books for immediate access. They are approximately 5.5” x 8.5”, perfect bound, with a crisp vertical press score running parallel to the binding. Both are from Sappi (one of the owners of paper mills). I believe it used to be called Warren, back in the day, until Sappi bought Warren.

On the cover, one book notes “Lustro,” and the other notes “Opus.” These are two paper lines produced by Sappi. Lustro is a #1 sheet (the brightest possible, also called premium). I believe it is bleached during its manufacture to increase its brightness, which refers to the amount of light a paper reflects. One hundred percent would be the highest. Current online information for Sappi Opus notes that it is 94 bright. The cover of the book notes that this is a #2 stock.

Whiteness, on the other hand, refers to the quality (as opposed to the amount) of reflected light. You may refer to a blue-white (or solar-white) sheet vs. a yellow-white, natural, or warm-white sheet. If you read the paper swatch books, you’ll come upon such language.

Keep in mind that blue-white paper appears brighter than natural white or yellow-white paper (and may be a bit hard on the eyes for extended passages of text). Then again, paper affects what’s printed on it, and a cream, natural, or warm-white shade will add its yellow-white tone to the transparent inks printed on it. In short, you may not like the flesh tones if you print people’s faces on a warm-white stock.

All of this can be physically seen, as well as described (along with numbers from various paper quality scales) in the text of these paper swatch books.

To return to the samples, Opus is a #2 grade of paper as opposed to Lustro, which is a #1 sheet (although I don’t see it online, so I believe it may have been discontinued—another good reason to stay current). In my experience #1 sheets are 96 bright or higher, so the 94 specification for Opus is consistent with its being noted as a #2 sheet on the cover of the paper swatch book.

To put this in context, the brightness numbering convention goes even further down to #4 or #5 sheets, many of which have impurities that will make them last a much shorter time before decomposing. Their brightness numbers would be closer to 74-79 for a #4 sheet and 69 to 74 for a #5 sheet (according to Wikipedia). These look a bit dingy when compared to brighter sheets.

Personally, I think the numbers themselves are less important than their relative comparison. Moreover, a #4 or #5 sheet isn’t a bad sheet for a web-offset-printed auto parts catalog for a mechanic, something that doesn’t have to look pristine or last a long time. I just wouldn’t use these papers for an annual report.

On the bright side (no pun intended), a premium sheet costs more than a lower-number sheet (#4, #5, commodity, etc.). Also, if the paper swatch book uses words like “free-sheet,” you know that the paper is of good quality because this means it is free of impurities.

Paper Surface Coating

Lustro lists the following as optons for surface coating (the clay—and other components—that comprise the liquid surface coating applied to the paper). This makes ink sit up on the surface of the press sheet rather than seep into the paper fibers. This is called “holdout,” and it is what allows for crisp, colorful photos. Newsprint paper would be the opposite, an uncoated sheet that soaks up the ink like a sponge. Photos get muddy and lack detail. Photo halftone screens must be coarse (like 85-line) for newsprint rather than 133-line and above for a nice coated sheet.

In the paper swatch books, Lustro is noted as being available as patina, dull, dull cream, and gloss, while Opus is noted as having the following options: matte, dull, and gloss.

What does this mean? A dull coating is smooth and flat but not as smooth as a gloss coating. It actually scatters reflected light and therefore makes reading text easy on the eyes compared to gloss. However, photos don’t jump out as much as they do on gloss coated paper. If your book is heavy on text, your readers will thank you for a dull sheet. In my experience, matte is just a less expensive dull with a slightly rougher texture (actually a slightly less even surface coating). To refer back to whiteness specifications noted above, dull cream is a yellow-white version of Lustro Dull.

Extra Coatings

The additional coatings (gloss vs. dull varnish) noted in the paper swatch books are actually applied on the commercial printing press (in contrast to the original surface coatings, which have already been applied when your printer buys the paper).

That said, both of the Sappi paper swatch print books show a portion of the main sample photo coated with gloss varnish, dull varnish, and then no varnish. In this particular case, in the Lustro book, there is a glamour shot of a model printed across sample sheets of patina, dull, dull cream, and gloss paper, with each sheet sticking out slightly beyond the prior one (for comparison). The varnish, as noted above, coats the image in horizontal strips from the top to the bottom of the page. Sappi noted that the image is printed in 4-color process ink (i.e., no extra colors; plus all process colors are transparent, unlike some other inks).

Paper Weight

Paper sample books include swatches of all available paper weights, both cover and text. This is useful for two reasons. It shows you, without guessing, exactly how thick each sheet at a particular weight will be (since they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and from paper to paper, even if the specification numbers are the same).

This way you can choose from a sample piece of paper rather than a reference number online or in a print book. Moreover, you can better pair a cover weight sheet with a text weight sheet. You can even ask your paper merchant for a paper dummy (an unprinted copy of a sample book made up with your chosen papers). This way you’ll know exactly how a print book of a particular length will look and feel before it has been printed and delivered.

The Takeaway

What can we learn from this? First of all (do as I say, not as I do), keep your paper book collection current. It will be easier to communicate with your printer. Failing that, use old paper books to only determine specifications, not brands. For instance, with my old books I can still see how a 100# cover sheet and a 100# text sheet for a book will look and feel with a dull, matte, or gloss coating. Then I can ask for brand suggestions and request a paper dummy.

If, on the other hand, you have a current set of paper swatch books, you can select a particular name brand, ask for that or comparable, and, even more importantly, you can see how a 4-color photo will look on the paper stock with a dull, gloss, or no varnish.

All of this will help you visualize the final product and even feel it in your hands. Neither of these can be done if all you have are the reference numbers online for paper brightness, whiteness, finish (the dull or gloss spec), and caliper (thickness at a specific paper weight). Trust your hands and eyes first. But do look at the paper books under various lighting conditions, such as sunlight (5000 degrees Kelvin, like the pressroom observation booths) and maybe incandescent, tungsten, and fluorescent light as well.

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