Paper Primer: A practical Guide to Understanding Fine Printing Paper


Designers and marketing professionals: Develop a practical and useful understanding of paper goods to assist in choosing the best paper products for each application.


Printing Industry Professionals: Provide a broad and complete understanding of the paper products used in the printing industry for the purpose of purchasing, storing, and using paper goods as well advising customers about available products and their intended uses.


How fine printing paper is classified

“Fine” paper refers to paper products engineered for printing and writing. They are manufactured primarily from chemical wood pulps rather than mechanical wood pulps and usually include fillers that account for up to 25% of total content. The quality and consistency of the pulp, coupled with unique blends of dies, fillers and coatings, determine the general characteristics of each paper product. Some fine papers include the addition of cotton and other plant-based materials.


General Paper Types and Classifications

Offset & Book: made from 100% “wood-free” softwood & hardwood chemical pulp, designed for offset printing processes.

Bond & Writing: uncoated paper named originally from the term “government bonds” which often included cotton fiber. While writing papers often include cotton fiber, general office papers do not. Bond is generally used for office products, letterhead, electronic printing and copying. For more information on bond paper, see Dual weight classification.

Vellum, Tracing, & Translucent: These are hard and dense special purpose papers often used for announcements, invitations, and tracing. Onion skin, one of the most intriguing of the translucent papers, is strong and durable, in spite of its thin caliper. However, it is unsuitable for conventional printing processes. It is more commonly used as a blank insert sheet, for tracing, or in the manufacturing of kites.

Index: Hard, smooth, dense, and durable cover paper often used for inexpensive tags, index cards, binder inserts, and tab sheets. 

Tag: Dense and/or bulky and durable uncoated papers with a poor to moderate printing surface.

Board: The heaviest fine paper stocks used in the printing industry for boxes, cartons and specialty covers. These papers have high ink and moisture absorption with very poor printing surfaces. Dot gain is extremely high so this stock is not recommended for tints or photos.


Bristol: Similar to board stock but manufactured in lighter weights, more colors, and with better printing surfaces. Some bristol cover papers include cotton fiber and are used for exotic applications.

Label and pressure sensitive: These papers come in a wide variety of colors, weights, and textures, used for stickers and peel-and-stick labels.

Coated: Not a specific type of paper but a general classification of paper goods that have a coating on the surface of the paper intended to improve print resolution, vibrance, and reflectivity.

Uncoated: A general classification of paper goods that includes all papers that are not coated.

Carbonless: Bond and offset papers that are coated with die capsules that permit the transfer of imagery from one sheet to another via pressure and the rupturing of the die capsule coating. These papers are used in multi-part business forms. Prior to the development of this technology, carbon paper was inserted between sheets of paper to create duplicate imagery, thus the term “carbonless paper” which negated the need for carbon paper.

Newsprint: Thin web paper made from both mechanical and chemical pulps as well as post- consumer waste. To make these papers more affordable, the expensive process needed to extract the lignin from the pulp are minimized. This results in a paper product that turns yellow over time. These papers have poor to moderate printing surfaces and low strength, primarily due to their thin caliper and post-consumer waste content. Newsprint is only manufactured in web rolls and is not suitable for sheet-fed presses.

Fine Text & Cover: This classification includes the broadest and most expensive variety of fine paper products. Options vary considerably in terms of caliper, color, texture, surface characteristics, density, and fiber composition. These paper products offer the most options in terms of artistic expression, functionality, and application. Fine text and cover papers are expensive, often three to five times the cost of conventional bond and offset papers and sometimes over ten times the cost. These papers are typically used for high-end publications, annual reports, exotic book covers, announcements, invitations, exotic business cards, and scrapbooking.

Bible Paper: Scritta, often referred to as bible paper, is a highly specialized paper that is very difficult to manufacture. Only a few select paper mills make it. While it is designed to be printed using offset printing equipment, only highly specialized printing presses can successfully process and print this paper. It is manufactured from chemical wood pulp but often includes cotton and linen fibers for added strength. Fillers are also used to increase opacity, smoothness, and brightness. Absent the lignin that is present in mechanical wood pulp, bible papers do not yellow.


Ledger: Similar to bond paper but manufactured in higher basis weights for added strength and durability. Ledger is traditionally used in legal offices, medical facilities, and some business offices for specific types of record keeping.


Basis Weight and Dimension


Why the Confusion?

The confusion is based on the fact that paper is manufactured and distributed in different sizes. More importantly, each type of paper has an official “basic sheet size.” Aka “base size.” For example, the basic sheet size for most cover-weight papers is 20 x 26. The basic sheet size for most text-weight paper is 25 x 38.


A paper product’s weight classification is determined by how much a ream (500 sheets) weighs in its basic sheet. In other words, the weight, measured in pounds, of 500 sheets of paper in its basic sheet size, is that paper’s basis weight. For example, 500 sheets of 20 x 26 100 lb. cover weighs 100 pounds. Similarly, 500 sheets of 25 x 38 100 lb. text also weigh 100 pounds.


List of basic sheet sizes:    
Bond, Copy, Ledger:    17 x 22  
Cover:      20 x 26  
Bristol:    22.5 x 28.5  
Index:     25.5 x 30.5  
Text, Offset, Book:    25 x 38  
Tag:   24 x 36  


Understanding the concept of basic sheet enables one to explain why 80# cover and 80# text, having the same basis weight, are quite different papers in terms of bulk and thickness. A ream of each weighs the same but the basic sheet size for text is nearly twice that of cover (950 square inches vs 520 square inches). Therefore, in its basic sheet size, a sheet of 80# text weighs the same as a sheet of 80# cover but one sheet is roughly half the size of the other.



GSM (grams per square meter) is another method of classifying a paper’s weight. This classification is more commonly used for small “cut size” paper products used in copy centers and digital printing facilities. Package labels for these products nearly always include both GSM weight along side the traditional paper weight in pounds. Since GSM represents actual weight per area, independent of basic sheet size, it provides a better basis of comparison between different types of paper as seen below.


50# Text/Book     75 GSM    
60# Text/Book    90 GSM    
70# Text/Book    105 GSM    
80# Text/Book    118 GSM    
80# Cover    216 GSM    
100# Cover    271 GSM    
111# Cover    300 GSM    
120# Cover    312 GSM    


Parent sheet vs basic sheet size

It’s important to note that while there is an official international standard for paper dimensions, The Unites States does not comply with this standard. Canada, the Philippine Islands, and some parts of central and South America also use the American standard instead of the international standard. As noted earlier, in the U.S., each type of paper has a designated basic sheet size. However, each type of paper is manufactured and distributed in a variety of sizes in addition to the basic sheet sizes. Generally speaking, basic sheet sizes are correlated to the practical application, purpose, and usage for each type of paper, and are also related to printing press formats. Bond and ledger papers are typically used in office environments where 8.5 x 11 documents are the most common. The basic size of 17 x 22 enables a printer to print four 8.5 x 11 documents on one sheet. No extra room is provided for bleeds and trim because office forms and letterhead are not typically designed with bleeds. IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT THE MOST COMMON BASIC SHEET SIZES ARE BASED ON A FINISHED PROJECT SIZE OF 8.5 X 11. In other words, in the USA, the most common dimension for documents is 8.5 x 11 so many of the basic sheet sizes are designed with this dimension in mind. When a designer strays very far from this dimension, paper costs always go up!


The standard 8.5 x 11 dimension applies directly to the basic sheet sizes for both text and cover stocks but with a twist. Unlike office documents, covers nearly always require trimming during one or more bindery processes. Printed goods that require a cover must start out with a press sheet size that is larger than final dimensions of the finished project. Similarly, multi-page publications printed on signatures designed for a finished document size of 8.5 x 11 must be printed on oversized sheets to account for bleeds and trim during the bindery phase. The basic sheet size for cover, 20 x 26, allows for a layout that enables multiple covers for various binding applications to be printed on the same sheet, including bleeds and trim, assuming a finished size of 8.5 x 11. In short, basic sheet sizes are based in practical application.


So. . . . if 8.5 x 11 is the standard size that cover weight AND text weight paper dimensions are based on, why is the basic sheet size different for cover than for text? Because printed covers are applied to the outside of books and must extend beyond the inside text pages of the book to facilitate a clean final trim. Consequently, cover papers are slightly larger than text papers. For small presses, the standard press sheet size for book printing is 19 x 25, exactly one-half of a full-size text sheet of 25 x 38, which is the basic sheet size for text paper. Covers intended for covering book pages printed on 19 x 25 stock are typically printed on 20 x 26 cover, the basic sheet size for cover, OR 26 x 40, which is exactly double the dimensions of the basic sheet size.


Similar rational applies to the other basic sheet sizes. They are determined based on the most typical application for each type of paper. For example, tag paper dimensions are designed for tags which have historically been produced in specific standard sizes. Paper is manufactured with these traditional sizes in mind.


So what is “parent stock”?  parent stock refers to the actual stock dimensions that paper mills produce and distribute. These sizes include the basic sheet sizes along with all other manufactured sizes. Most parent stock sizes are closely related the stock’s own basic sheet size or to a basic sheet size of another stock that may have a similar use or application. The table below illustrates this clearly.


Paper Type   Basic Size Available Parent Sizes
Cover   20 x 26 20 x 26, 23 x 35, 26 x 40, 28 x 40
Text/book/offset   25 x 38 25 x 38, 19 x 25, 23 x 35, 23 x 29, 28 x 40
Bond   17 x 22     11 x 17, 17 x 22, 17.5 x 22.5, 23 x 35, 8.5 x 22


The table above provides a general guideline and does not include a variety of exceptions. Over the course of many decades, the parent size options have increased substantially for a select group of paper goods in order to accommodate more flexibility.  Some mills offer parent stock dimensions like 20 x 28, 23 x 29, and 28 x 40 for some popular text and cover products. Nearly all mills now manufacture “cut size” paper in larger sizes like 12 x 18, 13 x 19, and 14 x 20 in addition to the smaller traditional sizes.  


Dual Weight Classification

In addition to the confusion about basic sheet sizes and their relationship to paper weight classification, some papers are labeled with two different weights. This seems silly but is easily explained. Dual weight classifications apply primarily to bond and offset papers. Historically, bond paper, named after watermarked war bonds, was primarily used for watermarked certificates, letterhead, and writing paper. This was a high-grade paper product made from a combination of wood pulp and cotton or linen fiber. Over time, bond paper became associated with high quality paper. Eventually, a second type of bond paper was developed for broader application and less expense that did not include cotton fiber. Both types of bond paper are made primarily from chemical wood pulp. However, the most expensive cotton rag bond papers are made from 100% cotton fiber while the Lesser quality rag bond papers typically include 25% or 50% cotton fiber.


Bond papers made without cotton fiber became the preferred product for common use and book printing. However, when offset printing technology was developed in the mid 1900’s, a new type of paper was developed to match the new printing technology. These new “offset” papers were very similar to the traditional non-cotton bond papers but were manufactured in a larger basic sheet size to accommodate the new offset presses which were much larger than traditional letterpresses. Today, many of the bond and offset paper products are very similar, if not identical, especially for the most popular and broadly distributed products. For this group of similar products, consumers cannot discern the difference between them. In practical terms, the only difference for many of these products is their basic sheet size.


Since these products are very similar but have different basic sheet sizes, paper mills often label their bond paper products with two weights, one being the actual weight derived from the paper’s basic sheet size and the other derived from its matching offset paper equivalent. For example, as seen below, 20 lb bond is equivalent to 50 lb offset, and so on.


Bond       Offset
20 50
24 60
28 70
32 80
36 100


Paper Textures

Fine paper is manufactured in many different textures. Paper texture refers to surface characteristics including pattern, smoothness, fiber density, touch, and feel. Common textures include but are not limited to the following: linen, laid, vellum, felt, smooth, super smooth, canvas, cordwain, oxford, matte, gloss, stipple, techweave, woodgrain, and columns. Texture has a profound impact on printability and how the paper receives ink and laser toner.



A paper’s ability to receive offset ink, inkjet ink, and laser toner in a manner that results in an acceptable image that meets a specific expectation is referred to as “printability”. The printability of various paper goods varies substantially.


Sharpness: Hard, dense, and smooth papers, especially coated papers, provide the best surface characteristics for maintaining image sharpness while soft, uncoated papers reduce vibrance, color accuracy, and image sharpness.


Saturation and color accuracy: Smooth coated papers will always outperform soft, textured uncoated papers in terms of color accuracy, color vibrance, and color saturation.


Drying rate: Uncoated, soft, textured papers dry much more slowly than coated papers. The difference in drying rates often results in higher costs for projects printed on uncoated papers because both sides of the sheet cannot be printed the same day when printing on uncoated paper.


Cost: Coated paper is substantially less expensive than uncoated paper. Nearly all textured papers are uncoated. In addition, uncoated paper requires much more ink than coated paper. In fact, uncoated paper can require up to five times more ink. This is an important factor for large projects that are designed with heavy coverage and large images including tints and solids.


Digital Print: Papers with heavy, high-relief textures perform poorly on digital printing equipment, especially for projects with large images, heavy coverage, solids, and tints. However, due to the nature of laser toner, digital printing equipment outperforms offset printing equipment in terms of color vibrance and saturation when printing on smooth uncoated paper. 


Dot gain:When offset ink is applied to a paper product, the ink spreads slightly. This spreading effect is particularly noticeable in rasterized images such as photographs, tints, screens, and other forms of continuous tone imagery. The spreading effect of offset ink results in the enlargement of the dots that make up all rasterized images. Dot enlargement is called “dot gain” and it has a negative effect on the quality of rasterized images. Dot gain is much greater on uncoated, low density papers than it is on coated papers. The effect of dot gain is most noticeable in the highlights and shadows of photographs and other forms of continuous tone imagery.


Shade and Brightness (White paper)

White paper comes in different shades and degrees of brightness. Therefore, a standardized brightness scale is used to rate the brightness of white paper. The scale runs from 0 to 100 and is used mostly to rate and classify copier, offset, book, and bond papers. Brightness refers to the amount of light a paper reflects, not the color. During the past 30 years, there has been a gradual trend in the paper industry toward the production of brighter papers. For example, most copier paper manufactured in the 1980’s and 90’s had a brightness level of 86 to 88. Today, standard copier paper products have a brightness level of 92 to 96, with the highest quality color copier papers maxing out at the top of the scale at 100. Printing on bright papers will enhance the vividness of colors and produce a more striking contrast between dark print, and the ambient white background.


Please note that “brightness” is different than “whiteness” and shade. The actual shade or color of white is often referred to as “whiteness”. Most white papers being manufactured today have a slightly cold or blue appearance, a neutral appearance, or a slightly warm and yellow appearance. Generally speaking, the neutral and warm-colored white papers provide more pleasing results than the blue shaded papers.


Evaluating Paper Costs

Several variables and contingencies determine paper prices and paper costs for a specific printing project. Consider the following factors when selecting paper for a project.


Paper Type:Uncoated papers cost much more than coated papers. Textured papers generally cost more than smooth papers. However, “super smooth” papers cost more than papers with a standard smooth finish. Paper goods that include special fiber content like cotton, hemp, or linen are much pricier than papers made from standard wood pulp fibers. Papers with special surface characteristics, including metallic treatments, are very expensive. Also, think twice about using papers manufactured by small, exotic mills dedicated to highly specialized products. In recent years, synthetic papers made from polyester, vinyl, and plastics constitute some of the most expensive papers on the market. These papers are also very expensive to print on. Designers making decisions about paper goods are often faced with trade-offs. Look and feel are often kicked to the curb in favor of printability or vice versa. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for designers to select a very expensive paper that is not well suited for the intended application. Frequently, the less expensive option produces the best result.


Paper weight: Thickness and density, specifications that contribute to a paper’s weight, have a substantial impact on price. Heavy cover-weight papers are very expensive, especially the uncoated cover-weight products with unique surface characteristics. Densely milled papers tend to be thinner than other papers of the same weight but often cost more because of the additional milling required. Densely milled papers usually have a better printing surface but cost more and may be more challenging to process through folders and binding equipment. Choosing the right paper for the Specific application is important. Specifying a paper product that is heavier or thicker than required adds unnecessary cost. However, choosing a paper product that is too light or thin can result in unsatisfactory results and may increase production costs because excessively thin papers are less stable and are difficult to feed through printing and binding equipment, increasing spoilage and production time. Generally speaking, printing facilities produce the best results with papers that are at least .004 inches thick (4.0 caliper). This equates to 60# offset and 24# bond. Other than regular copier paper, all the paper goods typically used at UVU Printing Services have a caliper of at least 4.0.


General Quality:Paper quality varies considerably between the many products available. Good quality papers are more stable throughout the printing and binding processes, usually have a better printing surface, score and fold more cleanly, are manufactured more consistently, and produce a better final product.


Availability: Selecting a paper product that is available from a local resource is an important consideration when trying to keep costs down. Paper goods stocked locally can often be purchased by the sheet, enabling the printer to buy exactly what is needed to complete a project. This is not the case when paper goods are ordered directly from the mill. Customers must order product in full cartons and packages, usually increasing project costs because excessive quantities must be purchased. In addition, special orders from the paper mill require extra lead time, often as much as two weeks.


Spoilage: Printing facilities experience spoilage or waste in virtually every production process used to complete a project. Spoilage can be as little as 1% or as much as 50% of the total paper used to complete a project. The average spoilage rate is about 10%. Often, the biggest percentage of spoilage results from the portion of the sheet that gets trimmed out and thrown away. Since paper is manufactured in many sizes, and the dimensions of printed goods (cards, brochures, tags, booklets, labels, etc.) are varied, the potential for waste is significant. Flexibility in determining project dimensions can save a lot of money. For example, reducing the length of a card or brochure by a quarter inch may enable the printer to increase the number of cards or brochures printed on a single sheet by as much as 40 or 50%. Selecting a paper product that is available in a slightly larger sheet size can product the same results. When possible, select a paper product that is available in a size that enables you to make the best use of the paper you choose. Failure to plan ahead and choose the right paper product for your project frequently results in excessive, unnecessary spoilage and expense.  


Quantity:The proportion of a project’s cost dedicated to paper increases as the size of the project increases. For a small printing project, paper costs may only account for 10% of the total project cost. Paper costs for large projects can exceed 70% of the total project cost. Therefor, selecting an expensive paper product for a small project won’t break the bank. However, selecting an expensive paper product for a very large project can turn a $10,000 project into a $20,000 dollar project.

Choose your paper products wisely and keep your costs down. It’s a constant temptation for designers to reinvent the wheel and introduce something that appears new or different. However, keep in mind that all printing and binding equipment is manufactured to accommodate standard paper dimensions. In America, the standard dimension most prominent, useful, and efficient is 8.5 x 11. Most paper goods produced for the U.S. market are manufactured to accommodate this dimension. Designers will experience the best results when they work with multiples or divisions of this standard dimension. The further one moves away from this standard, the more costly projects become. Yes, designers can try to reinvent the wheel, but this approach often comes with a cost.