A Paper Primer

Jun 12, 2012



Considering that paper has been around for almost 2000 years, it’s surprising how much there is to know about it. The manufacture of paper has come along way over the years. The first recorded invention of paper was in 105 A.D. A Chinese court official named Ts’ai Lun mixed bark, hemp, and linen with water and mashed it into a pulp. Then he pressed out the liquid and hung the sheets out to dry in the sun.

Of course, years later with the development of the Gutenberg press, demand for paper skyrocketed and these days paper is mass-produced from wood fiber at large mills. The lower Fox River area of Wisconsin has the greatest concentration of paper mills in the world. But at its core, all paper manufacturing is based on the same principle Ts’ai Lun discovered. If you take plant fibers and suspend and separate them in water, they form a mat. That mat is paper.


These days, paper is a lot more than just fiber and water. According to the Paper Industry Hall of Fame, 95% of the surface of today’s paper is actually made up of minerals, which are used to enhance paper characteristics such as brightness, opacity, glossiness, and smoothness.

These qualities differentiate one variety of paper from another and influence a paper’s cost and its suitability for a particular printing job. For example, when paper is made, the fibers are aligned in one direction, which results in the “grain.” When the fibers run parallel to the length of the sheet, the paper is “grain long.” When the fibers run crosswise, it’s “grain short.” Choosing long or short grain makes a difference in how the paper absorbs moisture. Books should always have grain that runs parallel to the binding.

Paper opacity is another characteristic that affects how suitable a particular paper is for a given application. The opacity of the paper indicates how transparent it is. Paper mills rate opacity on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being completely opaque. If you’ve ever tried to read a book printed on paper with low opacity, you know how difficult it can be. High opacity increases readability because words aren’t showing through from the other side of the page.

A paper’s brightness indicates how much light white paper reflects. This number is expressed as a percentage with 100% being a paper that reflects 100% of the light that strikes it. Most papers have brightness between 60 and 90%. Like opacity, brightness also affects readability. Paper with low brightness doesn’t have enough contrast, but type on an extremely bright paper can cause eyestrain as well.

The weight of a paper is expressed in pounds based on 500 sheets (a ream). The word pound is abbreviated #, so you’ll often see 20# or 80#, for example. Different grades of paper have different available weights. The “finish” of the paper describes how smooth, glossy, or matte the paper is. Matte paper has a flat finish that doesn’t reflect light as uniformly, whereas a gloss finish is shinier, which makes photos “pop” and the paper seem brighter.

Lastly, in keeping with Action Graphics’ green standards, many of today’s paper comes in differing recycled percentages.  Before we get into that, there is two different types of recycled content that can be referred to when comparing recycled paper – pre-consumer and post-consumer. Pre-consumer means that the paper is recycled before it hits the consumer – therefore it can be waste paper in the manufacturing and printing processes.  Post-consumer waste is paper made from the “junk mail” and other papers you put to the curb every week or two at  your house for recycling.  Since post-consumer is more of the full lifecycle of paper, it is generally the more accepted and environmentally-friendly paper.  Action Graphics has a wide variety of recycled papers – from 10% to 100% post-consumer waste (marked as PCW) in different finishes available for any of your jobs.  If you are interested in some of the different recycled papers available, feel free to request a recycled paper swatchbook.

When you are evaluating qualities such as color, coating, and smoothness, it helps to look at and feel paper samples. Because these choices are largely tactile, there’s no substitute for having an actual paper sample right in your hand. If you have a project in mind but are unsure of paper stocks, contact us today and we would be glad to get you a paper dummy for your project.

More Insights To Enjoy:

+ An Ink Primer

+ Fonts of Knowledge

+ The Only Question We Can’t Answer is the One You Don’t Ask

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© Action Graphics, 2012. 

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