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How to buy paper

Paper is one of the key ingredients needed to produce a quality printed piece. Whether it is a letterhead, a brochure, poster, newsletter, annual report or the day-to-day flow of information from computer printer or copying machine, the best possible vehicle is wanted to carry the message.

As with any purchase, it is important to know as much as possible about what is being bought to be sure it will be the best for the job. Factors to consider when selecting paper include the paper’s measurable physical characteristics as well as an assurance of quality methods and materials used in its manufacture. The buyer will also want information on competitive pricing and on-time delivery schedules before deciding.

Establishing a good relationship with the paper merchant is the best way to keep in touch with the latest in printing techniques and papers, plus anything else needed to know in making selections. The following guidelines will not answer all questions, but are helpful criteria to keep in mind when talking to the paper merchant.

How is the paper to be used?

Let us consider the printing method first. Papers are graded according to their specific end-uses and will produce the best quality when matched to the appropriate type of printer; e.g., office copier, letterpress, flexographic, or offset. Do we need reeled or sheet-fed paper? This, too, depends on the type of press or printer ( I.e., reeled paper is used in web printing; sheet paper is cut to standard sizes and fed individually to press or copier machines ). Inks or toners must mix with the paper colour and the final effect produced must be sharp and clear.

Choose the degree of surface smoothness depending on the ratio of copy to graphic content, using anything from bond or vellum to high-gloss finishes. Less gloss is easier to read, high gloss enables better reproduction of photography. If designs include embossing, a heavier weight will be needed to withstand the impression used to raise the surface.

In bindery, folds should be made with the grain of the paper, to avoid cracks or roughness. Die-cuts to hold business cards must be in a heavier weight, stuff enough paper to avoid tearing. Paper weight is also a factor to consider when bulk quantities are to be mailed, because of the added postage required.

What characteristics should the paper possess?

The paper’s characteristics for its ultimate use are determined by the composition if its pulp and the way it is processed through the paper making machinery. The following are important terms relating to paper because they have a significant bearing on the appearance of the paper and the ability to print on it:

Substance or basis weight - paper weight is indicated in grammes per square metre (gsm) per ream (500 sheets).

Brightness - affects the contrast between the sheet and the image printed on it.

Caliper - thickness of the paper.

Colour- affects readability when certain coloured inks are printed on various tints of stock.

Gloss- luster or reflective finish of the paper, ranging from vellum (dull) to high gloss.

Grade- paper’s classification based on its intended use (e.g., Bond-stationery; cover- brochure covers; Reprographic- office copiers; Coated or Uncoated, Offset and Text- general printing).

Grain- position of fibres in the sheet, usually parallel to the paper machine on which it is produced. (printing and bindery work better running with the grain of the paper.)

Moisture content (RH- relative humidity)- should match that of the pressroom, to avoid wavy or tight edges in the paper, which could affect print quality and registration.

Opacity - degree to which the paper prevents ‘show through’ from opposite side of printed page.

Smoothness - measure of the surface texture of a paper, related to ink coverage and resultant print quality possible ( e.g., smoother- more uniform ink coverage).

Smudge resistance- ability of paper to accept computer- based imprinting and not to wear off or smear.

Strength - tensile and tear properties important for such added features as brochure pockets or die-cuts.


Attention to quality control at every step of the paper making process is essential. Research and development scientists and technicians should have in-depth technical knowledge of print production techniques and paper’s role in the process. They should work with copier manufacturers and printers to develop papers, which perform best for various types of equipment. Careful selection and thorough testing of all raw materials used in papermaking is another critical factor. Paper makers should test their methods and materials under simulated end-use conditions.

Of course, the buyer wants to know that each time he orders paper it will be consistent with the previous batch ordered. With the latest computer-controlled machinery, all variables are automatically checked to make sure the formula for each grade of paper is matched precisely. Online scanners should monitor paper characteristics, such as moisture content, thickness and weight, throughout the process. Cutters should trim paper to precise sizes. And, at the end of the line, the paper should be packaged to protect it from the effects of light and humidity. Manufacturing quality control technicians should use computers to verify, warn, make automatic adjustments and carry out their instructions. They should perform visual inspections by taking samples off finished paper rolls. They should make dozens of checks for quality before the paper every leaves the plant.

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