How to Select Paper

Many roads lead to Rome and there are surely just as many ways to spec paper.

There is the “hands-off“ approach, the ”most expensive sheet we can afford” approach, the “let’s use the same three papers we always use” approach, to name just a few. 

None of these roads are roads you should travel. To enhance your design, communicate your message in the best possible way and stay within your budget, choose the “I want the best paper for the project” approach. It is easier than you might think.


Here are ten easy steps to find the best paper for your project:

10 Easy Steps


Step 1: Consider Paper Early On

Let your paper supplier know early on in the project’s design stages what paper you are considering.

Part of making a good paper choice is utilizing the sheet size to its fullest potential and creating as little waste as possible. Keep an open mind. Sometimes small changes, such as narrowing the piece by 1/16”, can save you a lot of money on paper and reduce your spoilage dramatically.

Considering paper early on will allow you to make these small adjustments with ease and be prepared for any special delivery times you might have to take into consideration.

Step 2: Personality

Consider the life span and personality of the final piece. Is it an annual report that will be viewed extensively in the months to come and needs to hold up or a direct mail piece with a life span of less than a few days?

For example, if you are talking about environmental issues, select a paper that is manufactured using sound environmental practices, including sustainable forestry. The personality of your piece, its life span, texture, coating and color help determine the price range and the quality of paper you should consider.

Step 3: Finish

Modern prepress technology has opened up a vast variety of papers for full color printing.

Using an uncoated smooth or textured sheet will allow you to enhance the overall feeling of the message you want to send.

Large corporations have discovered this option to portray a softer, more approachable image. With an additional boost of special inks and general advancements in prepress and printing technology (i.e. Stochastic), there is no reason why your color images should not look brilliant on an uncoated sheet.

Step 4: Color and Brightness

Look at some of Domtar’s swatchbooks and you will be amazed about the variety of whites that are offered. Blue-white, soft white, natural white … you name it.

Blue-whites give the paper the appearance of being brighter than it actually is and give the colors printed on them a high contrast, making them really pop.

Blue-whites, by all means, are not suitable for every project, though. This color base can easily make warm skin tones look gray and is not easy on the eye for extended viewing. Skin tones are what natural or soft whites are made for.

Colored sheets are a great “second color” when your budget only allows one-color printing. Be aware that the colored background will also affect the appearance of the ink you choose to print on it. Offset inks by nature are not opaque, so blue ink on an ochre-yellow sheet often has a green tint.

Step 5: Grade

Some 80 percent of printed jobs in North America are printed on white paper – most of them on white coated paper. So let’s have a quick, but very important look at the grading system that classifies paper.

More than 18 years ago, the American Forest & Paper Association set out to make your life easier by regulating white coated papers by grades. Originally, the only criteria used was a paper’s brightness, with a number 1 sheet having the highest brightness.

But as technology and the ability to increase brightness levels have evolved, so have the mills’ approach to how a paper is graded.

Today, a sheet has to have more than a great brightness to make its mark as a number 1 sheet. It also has to have good opacity, formation and runnability on press.

How do you know which grade is right for you? Get a few printed samples of your first choice grade from your printer or merchant and then compare it to samples one grade above and below. Do you see the difference?

Step 6: Weight

Typically, you will find Writing grades for letterheads, Text sheets for the inside of brochures and Cover sheets for book covers, folders, greeting cards and postcards.

Usage may change with market conditions and other related costs. Currently, you may find complete brochures printed on light Cover stock to make up for a reduced page count. Alternately, direct mail campaigns may be printed on lighter weight opaques rather than heavyweight offsets to save on postal costs. Always stay on the light side when creating direct mail pieces.

Hand in hand with a paper’s increased weight is an increased opacity and caliper (thickness).  As a rule of thumb, the heavier the sheet, the higher its opacity and caliper, which is critical when printing on both sides of the sheet for a direct mail piece that has to fulfill postal requirements.

In the case of direct mail pieces, make sure that the paper you are specifying meets the USPS 7 pt. or 9 pt. requirements for mailings in the U.S. and a minimum of 0.18 millimeter caliper for mailings in Canada. This means that the paper is either manufactured to caliper and guaranteed by the mill to fulfill the postal service requirements (noted in the paper’s stock lists).

Step 7: Sustainability

Sustainability is more than just specifying recycled paper, but let’s just start with these key terms to help you with your paper selection.

Recycled – No matter whom you talk to, there will always be some misconceptions about recycled papers. You’ll hear, “They cause trouble on press,” “All recycled papers are of lower quality” or “There are hardly any recycled papers out there.”

But today’s recycled papers are a far cry from what some printers might have experienced more than 15 years ago. Today’s recycled papers run as smoothly on press as any virgin sheet and emboss even better because the recycled fibers are softer. And when it comes to variety, there are hundreds of recycled papers on the market today.

Pre-Consumer Waste (PCW) – Is paper which has been used by the end consumer and collected for reuse in the papermaking process. PCW requires additional processing prior to usage in white paper grades. The processing will remove printing ink and/or toner.

Post-Consumer Waste – This is the paper you and I recycle so carefully every week … and this is what you should pay attention to.

Virgin Sheets – These papers contain no recycled content.

Beyond Recycled – Pressure has been mounting on large corporations to make sustainable, sound paper choices. Growing public concern about the conservation of forests worldwide has led consumers to demand that their purchase of any forest products should help secure natural resources for future generations.

Buying paper with recycled content is an honorable notion, but is it enough? A study done by Metafore, an independent nonprofit organization, shows that without adding “fresh fiber” into the papermaking process, North American consumers would run out of paper in less than a month.

Although use of PCW reduces waste going to our landfills, virgin fiber is required to maintain paper strength and printing sufaces. Therefore, we need virgin fiber, but virgin fiber that comes from responsibly managed forests. As a response to these demands, independent third party certification programs have gained a lot of respect for the work they do.

The most prominent certification program is the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC. With the support of 85 percent of the leading environmental groups, FSC sets standards for forest management, as well as chain of custody (the path taken by raw materials from the forest to the consumer). The FSC label on any paper product gives you the confidence that the product comes from a responsibly managed forest.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative qualifies a mill overall for their forest management efforts. SFI principles combine the perpetual growing and harvesting of trees with the protection of wildlife, plants, soil and water quality.

There are several ways to support sustainability … as there are many ways to Rome. A 100 percent FSC virgin sheet can be as good for the environment and our future as a certified recycled sheet.

Step 8: The Printing Process

If your budget allows for specialty printing processes, such as embossing, foil stamping or letterpress, make sure your paper is suitable for these techniques. As with the paper grades, take a look at printed samples to get a good idea of how your design will look on a specific paper.

It is important to select a paper that carries a digital guarantee. Papers guaranteed for digital prinitng will have specific formulations, specifications and attributes that will guarantee performance. Some papers will carry a multi-functional or pre-print guarantee. This allows for offset printing of logos, letterheads or background images on papers that will ultimately be cut to 8.5 x 11 and laser imaged.

Using the right paper for the printing process, whether digital, offset or specialty, eliminates one variable in print production that can cause problems – and we don’t have time for problems.

Step 9: End Usage and Distribution

When designing corporate identity pieces, remember that 99.9 percent of letterheads will be imprinted with laser or inkjet printers. Look for the mill’s laser pre-print guarantee when specifying a paper.

If you have your eyes set on a paper that is not called out in this manner, be sure to get a few sample sheets and run them through your laser printer. Better safe than – you know the drill.

We already spoke about what to watch out for when mailing a printed piece, but even if mailing is not on your agenda, think ahead. If a piece is handed out in person and the recipient might be inclined to write some notes on it, make sure to take this into consideration when looking at varnishes.

For educational or reference pieces with a long life span, pick a paper that offers sturdiness and durability.

Step 10: Availability

Most papers are readily available and at your merchant or printer within one-to-five business days.

If the paper you have chosen is stocked out of state/province or is a specialty paper that has to be shipped from the mill, no problem. When you have considered the paper choice early on in your project, you are well prepared and will encounter fewer problems.

Every once in a while, you will come across the term “mill item.” This term can refer to papers that are made to order, but it is also often used if a merchant doesn’t have a specific paper in stock and has to order it from the mill.

In the latter case, be aware that what is considered a “mill item” for one merchant, might be readily available on the floor of the next merchant.

Naturally, every merchant stocks the papers they sell the most, so any unusual colors or substrates, in general, might require a few extra days in delivery.

Specifying paper is a critical issue, but if you follow the ten steps above, it should be a breeze for you.


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