Spec’ing the Right Paper

Years ago, my publisher came bouncing into my production office. "Have I got a paper deal for you," he burbled. "The printer in Indiana just called to say he has some paper left over from another customer, and he’s willing to give it to us at cost. The best part is, it’s coated!"

I didn’t have much experience in those days, but I knew enough to wonder if printers ever "gave" anything to anyone. On the other hand, we really needed coated paper. We were a new publishing company trying to launch a book series and a magazine. The first book we had designed was filled with photographs. We needed those photos to sell our book, and we needed the book sales to carry the company until the magazine took off. The printer’s deal sounded too good to be true, so naturally, like rubes at a circus arcade, we snapped it up before the printer could come to his senses.

The books arrived in our office about the same time that the IRS was threatening to chain shut our doors. So you can imagine how eager we were to see the book that was going to save us all. I pulled out the first copy. "Where’s the rest of the book?" asked the publisher.

Somehow the printer had managed to compress 500 pages of our blood, sweat and tears into a book the size of a paperback western. "No one’s going to pay $10 for this," our publisher said. He was right. Later we went out of business.

Controlling the Variables
The nice thing about an experience like this is that once you manage to get yourself back into a job, you can reflect on what you’ve learned. One thing I learned is a maxim summarized recently by Bryan Ortman of MeadWestvaco, makers of coated and uncoated papers: "In papermaking, you have three variables—weight, caliper and smoothness—and you can control only two of them."

Coated papers are made by using a specific amount of fiber, fill and coating to create a sheet of a certain weight (80lb., for example) that has great smoothness. To achieve the desired characteristics, the fibers must be highly compressed and smoothed by calendering, even before the coating is applied. The process itself causes the paper to lose caliper, or thickness.

"Fine paper mills emphasize weight and smoothness, and some focus on caliper and smoothness," Ortman says. "If you specify weight, the stiffness will vary. If you specify caliper, you’re guaranteed a certain stiffness, which may be important for projects with strength or postal requirements."

Identifying the Objectives
Another thing I learned from what I’ve come to call "The Great Paper Debacle" is that no paper can do every job. Sometimes one characteristic (i.e., smoothness) works against another characteristic (thickness). To select the best paper for any job, you need to tell your paper supplier exactly what you expect the paper to do. Ned Heidenreich of Stora Enso, maker of magazine and publishing papers, fine papers and packaging stock, calls this identifying your objectives.

"Ask, Who is your audience?" Heidenreich advises. "How many images are there? How much copy do you have? What are you trying to convey? There’s a tactile quality. There’s a stiffness or a lack of it. These factors are subconscious, but they all give you an impression that’s very important."

Meeting technical standards
But, cautions Marjo Halonen of M-real Corp., one of Europe’s largest paper merchants, "The initial decision on paper is based on precise needs and budgetary restrictions. Paper is an important part of image and quality impressions, both through its appearance and feel and through its printability." In other words, Halonen says, paper contributes to image, but it also must meet high technical standards.

These standards fall into two broad categories: physical and optical characteristics. When you spec paper, you need to select a sheet that gives you the visual quality you want and also the physical strength you need.

I learned this highly significant fact working on the job I got after "The Great Paper Debacle." I was in Ohio doing my first press check for my new boss and noticed that the cover stock coming off the press was not the 8pt. paper I had spec’ed. At first, I thought the printer was using a crummier paper for makeready. Alas, no. He had failed to order my 8pt. stock in time, so he substituted 80lb. paper instead. "It’s the same thing," he cheerfully said. But it wasn’t. The 8pt. board stock I had specified was not only thick, it was also stiff. The 80lb. paper I got was thick all right, but limp.

When I got back to L.A., I didn’t even bother to tell the publisher the bad news. I simply went into the back room, selected a box (two-ply corrugated) and packed up my office. Some goofs are simply impossible to explain.

7 questions to consider
Before you select any paper, you should articulate to your paper supplier every job that the paper needs to perform. Here are some of the most important considerations:

1. How much bright color and sharp detail do you need? Very smooth, glossy paper gives the best color and maintains the sharpest dots. Rougher paper absorbs more ink and scatters more light, reducing both brightness and detail.
2. How important is color fidelity? Blue-white paper gives great color fidelity except for warm-toned subjects such as skin tones. Cream-white paper does best with warm tones but can never produce the pure whites needed for snow or cloud pictures.
3. How much gloss do you want? A glossy finish adds brightness to images but is hard on the eyes. A matte finish is easy on the eyes but grays the colors. Also, ink tends to rub off easily.
4. How dense is the ink coverage? Heavy ink coverage requires papers with a lot of opacity so you won’t get show-through. Free sheets are not as opaque as groundwood sheets. Lighter-weight sheets are less opaque than heavier basis weights.
5. How much bulk do you need? If you need a certain thickness, for example, to meet postal requirements, consider spec’ing by caliper in either coated or uncoated paper.
6. How much folding strength do you need? Coated stock can crack when folded, and it can tear more easily than uncoated paper.
7. How stiff do you want your paper to be? Board stock is milled to preserve stiffness and caliper; fine paper stock is milled to preserve smoothness and basis weight.