Guide on How to Choose the Right Paper for Your Print Job

collage of paper sheets having different thicknesses textures gsm matt gloss finish etc interspersed with a stationery clips scissors etc.
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Understand how GSM is used to define paper thickness. Learn the difference between coated, uncoated and speciality papers

When you discuss a print job with your print service provider, one of the questions that will pop up in the conversation is about how to choose paper for printing. Any decent print bureau will have a variety of different papers available for you to choose from. You also have to know how to determine paper thickness. These options range from thin sheets to thick cards, coated or uncoated stock and even papers having a textured and metallic finish.

So, before commissioning a print job, it makes sense for you to familiarise with these options so you know how to choose paper for printing. This knowledge will enable you to choose the right kind of paper or cardstock for the job at hand and how to determine paper thickness. Consequently, you’ll have the right specifications and correct costs to budget for.

With this goal in mind, I have written this short guide on how to choose the right paper for your printing job. It will answer the following questions…

  1. What is the various thickness of paper available? How is paper thickness measured? Which paper thickness is applicable for which use-case?

  2. What is the difference between coated and uncoated paper? What are their different use case scenarios?

  3. What are the types of speciality papers available in the market?
    In this section we look at textured and metallic finish sheets of paper. We also cover acid and chlorine-free papers which are eco friendly in nature.

How Is Paper Thickness Measured?

We use thin paper for letterheads or perhaps the inner pages of a diary. We would consider the thick paper for fabricating a box or for making a greeting card. But the words ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ are mere adjectives. And imprecise ones at that. What is needed is a concrete measure which tells us exactly how thick or thin a sheet of paper is. And that is where GSM or Grams Per Square Meter comes in.

What Is Gsm (Grams per Square Meter) in Paper?

You might be wondering ‘what is the meaning of GSM in paper?’ People in the printing and paper industry use a metric called GSM to measure the thickness of paper. As the name suggests, you need to cut one square meter of a sheet of paper and find its weight in grams. That is what GSM stands for in paper.

The thinner a sheet of paper, the lighter it is going to be and the lesser it will weigh. For example, if you take a square meter of the paper used for printing bills and invoices and weigh it, you’ll end up with a reading of 70 – 80 grams on the weighing scale.

On the other hand, a thicker sheet of paper (with more material built inside of it) will tip the scales to a higher reading. Sample a square meter of the paper used to make visiting cards, certificates and you’ll find that it weighs between 250 – 300 grams.

GSM or grams per square meter (of a given sheet of paper) is a very reliable indicator of that paper’s thickness. The weight and the sheet’s thickness are directly proportional. As the GSM value increases, so does the paper’s thickness. This is what is GSM in printing.

sheets of paper of different thicknesses placed one on top of another to show how GSM or grams per square meter is a measure of paper thickness

GSM Chart Showing Papers of Different Thicknesses for Different Applications

Now that you know ‘what does GSM in paper mean’ we can move on to the next thing. Paper manufacturers adopted GSM as a standard way of measuring the thickness of a sheet. Accordingly, they manufactured stock of particular thickness to address various print applications. At a paper merchant’s shop, you will find the paper of 60 gsm, 80 gsm, 170 gsm and so on. To make things easier for you to understand, I have created a chart that shows which GSM papers are generally available at a print shop and what their end application could be…

Paper GSM / Grams Per Square Meter Applications Use Cases
60 - 70 GSM
Notebooks, diaries, inner pages of a novel, the paper used in a photocopier
These thin sheets of paper are deployed for multi-page products where the weight and overall bulk needs to be controlled.
80 - 100 GSM
Bill books, letterheads, handouts, receipts
The application here calls for a thin but premium paper. 60 GSM would look a little cheap for letterhead and an invoice printed on 130 GSM would be difficult to fold.
130 - 170 GSM
Inner pages of magazines and brochures. Posters, tickets, coupons, leaflets and fliers.
While this category is not as thick as a card it still has a nice premium feel.
250 - 300 GSM
Book covers, visiting cards, greetings, invites, price tags, photos, packing boxes, etc.
These thick card sheets have a very premium and hefty feel. They cannot be easily torn or crumpled.
benefits of using coated paper as against uncoated paper
benefits of using un-coated paper as against coated paper

What is the Difference Between Coated and Uncoated Paper?

A print bureau will offer you a choice between coated or uncoated paper for your print job. So let’s try to understand the difference between the two.

Coated paper generally has a matt or glossy finish. They have a very premium look and feel. Paper manufacturers apply a thin layer of clay on top of the base paper. They use a machine having a knife-like edge to spread the clay on the base surface. The paper is then passed through rollers to even out the coat.

The manufacturing process notwithstanding, coated papers are generally costlier and used for high-end applications. A glossy magazine containing high-resolution photographs would probably be printed on 90 -130 GSM coated paper. This is because the extra coating enables better image reproduction.

Coated papers (both matt and gloss) are widely used for commercial applications like brochures and leaflets, where making an impression on the client is important. Coated papers do have one disadvantage though – it’s difficult to write on them with a pen or pencil.

Uncoated papers, on the other hand, can easily be written upon. We are all familiar with the pages in our school notebooks. Applications like letterheads and bills/invoices call for the use of uncoated paper. Similarly, paper used for sketching and painting purposes has to be uncoated. Many customers also prefer uncoated stock for its more natural look and rough feel.

Uncoated paper is also less expensive than the coated alternative. Hence, it is the material of choice for low-end applications like printing a newspaper.

a collection of papers having different textures that can be used for digital printing
Image printed on a paper having a linen texture finish. The pattern looks very much like the weave on linen cloth

Speciality Papers

As a customer, you should also be aware that print services bureaus can provide speciality papers to cater to more esoteric applications. For example, speciality papers can include…

  1. Textured Papers: Papers with textured surfaces add their own unique dimension to the print job. These papers made prints stand out and look very rich. High end invites and greetings are reproduced on the textured stock. Paintings too, look great on paper having a canvas finish. We have a separate post listing the various textured paper options available at Orchid Digitals here.

  2. Metallic Finish Papers: These papers have a metallic tint and shine. Options available are gold (light and dark), silver, copper, etc. Like the textured option listed above, these papers too, lend a unique and premium look to the print job.

  3. Archival / Acid-Free Paper: All of us have seen paper yellowing with age. A newspaper will yellow in a single afternoon if left out in the sun. Writing paper used for stationery may take longer to age. But eventually, most sheets of paper will oxidise, lose their whiteness and become brittle.

Certain documents need to be preserved for years if not decades. Legal documents, museum prints and paintings are some examples that come to mind. And in such cases, using regular paper will not help.

Paper pulp in its natural form is off-white or even brown in colour. Manufacturers use a bleaching agent (like chlorine) to whiten the sheets. But the bleaching process increases its acidity of paper which results in brittleness and cracking over longer periods of time.

To make paper more durable manufacturers use other (much costlier) whitening agents and also increase the rag content of the pulp. This ensures that the sheet remains supple for decades and even centuries.

This alternative paper is also called acid free paper. Manufacturing it puts less of a burden on nature so the acid free paper is also chosen by ecologically conscious customers.

Premium looking stickers printed on a gold finish paper. Attractive metallic labels for Mr. Milk product cartons to draw buyer attention
Silver metallic labels of the Bee Basket food company make for a very premium looking sticker

Conclusion

There are hundreds of types of papers available in the market. And while you do not need to conduct an in-depth study on this subject, it will pay to have a general awareness about the same. Consult with your printer before commissioning a job. He should be able to guide you into making the right choice.

Most good print suppliers will also stock most of the variants of paper listed above. And if a particular paper is not readily available, you can still ask your print supplier to source the same from a paper mill or paper stockist.

To conclude, this little effort in choosing the right sheet of paper will ensure that you get the best output for an optimal cost.

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