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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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Archive for the ‘Paper and finishing’ Category

Custom Printing: Textured Paper Options, and a Nod to the PIE Blog

Monday, July 10th, 2023

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This week we are sharing two short blog articles, one about textured paper options and the other about the induction of the Printing Industry Exchange weekly blog into Feedspot’s Top 40 Digital Printing Blogs.

Paper Choices

When I’m designing something new, my knee-jerk impulse is to print it on gloss or dull coated paper. So I pause for a moment and really think about the purpose of the item. For instance:

  1. Is the job a print book? Does it include black and white or color photos?
  2. Is the job an annual report, and do I want to project a corporate image or a softer, more approachable image?
  3. Am I designing a stationery package, including a business card, letterhead, envelope, and such?

All of these will lead to specific, and different, paper choices.

For instance:

  1. For print books with lots of photos, black and white or color, the images “pop” when they’re printed on gloss stock. That said, if the book is text-heavy, gloss stock can be tiring on the eyes. It’s easier to read text on uncoated paper or dull- (or matte-) coated stock.
  2. In the case of an annual report or other print collateral for an organization, uncoated paper feels softer, and the ink colors printed on the stock (solids and photos) are more muted. This, combined with the softer feel of the paper, can give a more intimate and personal feel to the publication. This might be appropriate for an environmental organization that wants less of a “corporate” look and more of an approachable, environmental-steward tone.
  3. For business stationery, letterhead, business cards, and various kinds of envelopes, you will probably want an uncoated stock. Moreover, to provide a unified look and feel, you might want to select paper from a coordinated stationery-package paper swatch book with different weights of complementary custom printing stock. Or, for the business cards, you might opt for a coated paper (if you’re designing business cards for a tech-oriented company or a financial company, for instance).
  4. You may also want an uncoated sheet for a special invitation, say to a black-tie dinner. In this case, in addition to uncoated paper, you may want a textured sheet and/or a colored paper stock, perhaps even a dark tone like a deep green or black with white text.

In short, the paper should reflect the purpose of the printed item and the tone or ethos of the company brand. Therefore, it is important to choose a stock carefully, and the best way to do this is with samples.

Your commercial printing supplier or paper merchant can send you swatch books (unprinted, but with a variety of selected papers) and printed samples (produced for the printer’s other clients), and these will make your decisions easier. The swatch books will give you a sense of the colors and textures from which to choose, and the printed samples will show you how solid ink colors, type, and photos will look on the selected paper stock.

Options for Paper Texture

Printing is a tactile experience. Your fingers can help you select paper for special projects. If the choice is an uncoated stock, here are some options:

  1. Laid: There are both horizontal and vertical lines in the paper, which are added with metal rollers during the papermaking process. This is a good choice for stately letterhead and printed presentations because it simulates classic, hand-made paper.
  2. Linen and felt: Both of these options simulate the texture and pattern of the cloth after which they are named. As with laid paper, linen and felt patterns are pressed into the paper during the papermaking process. Linen has more of a cross-hatched look with similar-width horizontal and vertical lines (like woven fabric), and felt-finish paper has more of the look and feel of felt cloth.
  3. Column: This pattern comprises, as the name implies, a series of vertical, ribbed columns on the surface of the press sheet.
  4. Vellum: Unlike laid, linen, and felt, vellum is very smooth. It has a slightly puckered texture like the surface of an eggshell.
  5. Wove: Wove is the smoothest uncoated option of all, although its surface is also described as being similar to an eggshell, albeit a bit smoother than vellum.

In all cases, there is no better way to grasp the differences in paper surface (both visually and in terms of the feel of the paper) than to request samples from your printer or paper merchant. Some of the textures are more prominent, while others are less prominent. In all of these cases, the texture lends a sense of understated elegance to letterhead and other elements of a stationery package or to an invitation or program for a special event.

Things to Consider

In my view, color is one of the major considerations, in two senses:

  1. If you choose a dark colored, textured sheet, it will be striking, but since commercial printing ink is usually somewhat transparent, you may need to add a second pass of a color to make the ink/typescript dark enough, evenly applied, and readable. Granted, for an invitation, you can foil stamp the text on the sheet, but this will require the additional cost of a metal foil-stamping die (which also takes time to make) as well as the cost of the foil-stamping procedure.
  2. If you choose a white uncoated press sheet, it will absorb the ink. (In contrast, ink sits up on the surface of a coated sheet, whether dull or gloss.) Therefore, the ink printed on an uncoated commercial printing sheet (type, solid colors, or halftones) will look softer, darker, and less intense than the same ink will look on a coated press sheet. While the printer can compensate somewhat for this fact, large areas of solid ink may appear blotchy (when compared to the same ink treatment on a coated sheet). It’s smart to discuss this with your printer and request samples first.

That said, in my opinion, printing color on uncoated paper can provide subtle, nuanced images that are soft and elegant. It just takes a skilled custom printing vendor to do this.

Printing Industry Exchange Blog Included in Feedspot Top 40 List

The CEO of The Printing Industry Exchange just received notification that the PIE Blog has been featured (as #12) in the Feedspot Top 40 Digital Printing Blogs. If you want to learn more, check out this link:

This is a description of Feedspot’ s vetting process, in their own words:

“The best Digital Printing blogs from thousands of blogs on the web and ranked by traffic, social media followers, and freshness.

“Feedspot discovers, categorizes, and ranks blogs, podcasts, and influencers in several niche categories. We have curated over 250,000 popular blogs and categorized them in more than 5,000 niche categories and industries. With millions of blogs on the web, finding influential, authoritative, and trustworthy bloggers in a niche industry is a hard problem to address. Our experience leads us to believe that a thoughtful combination of both algorithmic and human editing offers the best means of curation.

“There are several ways we discover new feeds.

  1. Publishers submit their blogs, podcasts, or YouTube channels on Feedspot using the “Submit” form at the top of this page.
  2. We have a research team who does extensive research on Google and social media platforms to discover new influencers.
  3. Feedspot has in-house media monitoring tools for discovering bloggers in several niche categories.

“Our expert editorial team reviews each blog before adding [it] to a relevant category list.

Ranking is based on:

  1. Relevancy
  2. Industry blogs (those not favoring a specific brand) are given higher rank than blogs by individual brands (who often tend to promote their own products).
  3. Blog post frequency (freshness)
  4. Social media follower counts and engagements
  5. Domain authority
  6. Age of a blog
  7. Alexa Web Traffic Rank and many other parameters.”

Custom Printing: A Paper-Availability Status Report

Sunday, March 5th, 2023

Photo purchased from …

About a year ago I got a phone call from a large commercial printing consolidator (a company that buys and then operates print shops across the nation and sometimes in other countries as well). My contact said the consolidator couldn’t get paper for one of its clients. This would be a huge, recurring job involving custom printing, perforating, and die cutting labels.

It was a sweet job, and I had good contacts, one who could print the job in China and another in the US in the Midwest. But when all was said and done, I didn’t get the job and I’m grateful for that. Between the client’s demands for specific paper and that paper’s unavailability even among my contacts, I learned a lot about the current paper shortages, supply chain issues, lines of ships waiting to dock at US ports, and economics in general. I couldn’t have received a better education back in college.

That said, now it’s a year later. For those of you who produce recurring print jobs (as designers, print buyers, art directors), what is the current status of commercial printing paper?

The Current State of Paper Sourcing

With this question in mind, I went online and found several good articles, which I draw from (and quote) in the following blog posting. If you want to do your own research, you might check out “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist?” by Toni McQuilken,, 02/15/2023, and “US Printing Paper Demand Slows Down in a ‘More Normal’ December as Panic Buying Ends,” by Renata Mercante, Fastmarkets, 12/21/2022. Both articles, and others, can be found online.

That said, here is the gist of what I have found.

In the past several years we have had shutdowns due to Covid, labor shortages, weather issues, higher costs for shipping, and general disturbances in the supply chain (both for US-based and imported paper). Also, many paper manufacturers in the US changed from producing commercial printing paper to producing packaging board. This reduced printing paper availability (some grades and weights more than others).

When combined with a healthy (and in some cases increased) demand for commercial printing paper (by customers and therefore custom printing suppliers), the reduced paper supply drove up prices (for the paper component of printing).

This year, 2023, according to John Crumbaugh, product manager of ColorPRO Technology, Media Operations, at HP: “The supply chain for producing printing paper is still tight, but there are signs that it’s beginning to loosen up and should be much improved in 2023.” “In North America, the paper mills are operating at or near capacity, but the analog market appears to be slowing, and imports are beginning to increase, so paper is more available than earlier [last] year” (John Crumbach, as quoted in “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist”).

One reason the market is beginning to slow, according to this article and others, is that printers have slowed down their panic buying and are now using the inventory they had amassed. Since paper availability has increased and the end users (apparently) are a bit less demanding, printers have recently been able to both use what they have in inventory and also selectively buy paper to add to their in-house supply.

That said, paper imports have arrived a bit faster (with easier access to US ports). However, this is somewhat mitigated by the lower number of domestic mills producing paper (as noted before, a lot of them had been converted to paperboard making). So paper is more available, but its price isn’t coming down anytime soon.

Plus, the concept of “just-in-time delivery,” at least in paper sourcing, is not viable now and will not be for the foreseeable future.

According to Crumbaugh, as quoted in “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist,” “Pricing for printing grades of paper have increased up to 40% over the past five years.” “Supply chain issues, transportation, and increased cost of production have driven pricing up very quickly. Pricing is likely to stabilize as opposed to dropping quickly, as many of the increased cost factors are still in effect.”

In short, paper is available, but the cost of the paper for a commercial printing job (and this can be a large portion of the total cost of the job—especially for print books) will keep overall custom printing prices high.

According to “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist,” these are the paper grades affected (Toni McQuilken includes comments by a number of printers in this light as well). According to Crumbach (as noted earlier), these papers include “uncoated text and cover,” “some packaging grades, especially premium grades,” and wood-free paper grades. Plus, “Coated, as well, is difficult for both popular mid-range weights, as well as heavyweight point stocks” (John Crumbach, as quoted in “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist”).

Importing paper has made things easier, but this has not completely mitigated the effect of many domestic paper suppliers’ having gone offline in the past several years.

At the same time, according to “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist,” some papers that weren’t available a year ago are now more accessible, such as 70#, 80#, and 100# coated book papers (“mid-range weights, in general”) (“2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist”), and these are accessible in various sheet sizes for different-sized printing presses.

What to Do (for Printers)?

“2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist” suggests the following approach to the current state of paper sourcing, at least through this year:

  1. Think ahead. “2023: Will the Paper Chase Persist” encourages printers to plan for the workflow rather than stockpiling paper. This means keeping good relations (and open communication) with paper suppliers. McQuilken’s article especially notes that mills do not treat spot-buyers of paper as well as those who have developed mutually beneficial, repeat working relationships with the mills. McQuilken suggests that printers evaluate their projected paper needs for upcoming jobs on a monthly basis (rather than a quarterly basis).
  2. Don’t buy in a panic, but also don’t assume “just in time” sourcing will work.
  3. Be flexible. It is smart at this point to be open to alternative papers suggested by mills.
  4. If you are a printer, McQuilken suggests diversifying. That means perhaps even buying new equipment to be able to handle different commercial printing jobs in different ways on different presses, should paper for one press be more difficult to source. This will at least keep printers, and pressmen, from being idle in difficult times.

The Takeaway for Designers

Many of you who read these PIE Blog articles are not commercial printing suppliers, but rather individual print buyers in for-profit and non-profit organizations. Most of McQuilken’s suggestions will pertain to you as well.

In short, you will benefit from planning jobs earlier than in prior years. You can’t bring printers into the equation too early. Talk to your suppliers. Keep them in the loop.

And depend on their expertise. When they suggest alternative stocks that might work as well as your preferred custom printing paper, keep an open mind.

Commercial Printing: Make Your Paper Swatch Books Your Second Best Friend

Sunday, November 13th, 2022

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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.

Custom Printing: Thoughts on the Current Paper Shortages

Sunday, October 16th, 2022

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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.

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

Thursday, August 18th, 2022

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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.

Commercial Printing: A Smattering of Paper Options

Monday, May 23rd, 2022

In the early ‘90s I realized I didn’t know much about commercial printing paper other than the few paper stocks I was using for textbooks. I had already been in the printing and publications field since high school (managing two yearbooks), so it was time to remedy my ignorance, particularly since I had just been promoted to production manager/art director at the government education nonprofit foundation where I worked. (more…)

Custom Printing: Saving Money When Buying Printing Services

Monday, April 4th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

At the present moment the state of the economy in general and the supply chain delays in particular are driving up prices. More specifically, for printers and print buyers this is reflected in higher paper prices. However, depending on how you approach your design work and your print purchasing, you may be able to contain these costs. (more…)

Custom Printing: More Fun Facts About Printing Paper

Monday, March 14th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

What you see in the photo above is not a roll of commercial printing paper (a web) feeding into a heatset web press but a huge take-up roll of paper, winding up the custom printing stock as it is converted from a liquid pulp mixture into the dry, flat printing paper onto which presses will deposit ink. The Fourdrinier machine, as it is called, is almost as long as a football field. The paper pulp mixture travels through the machine on a wire mesh, and the water is allowed to drain off, yielding a flat, stable mesh of paper fibers suitable for commercial printing. (more…)

Book Printing: Two More Paper Specifications to Know

Monday, June 14th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

A single print book started my education in commercial printing (Getting It Printed by Mark Beach and Eric Kenly). If you read this book you will learn far more than you thought possible about paper—everything from the difference between whiteness and brightness to how paper is made to the difference between long- and short-grain paper stocks. It may make your head hurt, but it will vastly improve your design skills and print negotiating skills. It did for me. This used to be an area in which my knowledge was lacking. (more…)

Commercial Printing: Ways to Save on Paper Costs

Monday, June 15th, 2020

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. (more…)


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