Understanding Coated Paper

Knowing Which Stock Makes the Grade


The world of coated printing stock is difficult for art directors, graphic designers, and production managers to wade through. The criteria for selection of any paper stock is as diverse as the number of project applications. And, a complete library of sample books doesn’t necessarily help matters. One coated stock can look and feel as good as another and still fall into a much different grade category. How do you wrap your creative mind around the myriad of paper stocks available? Here are a few measurable characteristics to ponder.

Paper grade

The easiest way to specify paper in a printing quote is by using grade numbers. Sheetfed stocks cross four grades from “premium” to “number three”. When crossing over into web offset printing (printing from the long roll), the top four grades also apply, but the range descends to grades four and five.

The top four grades fall into the category of “freesheet” with 10 percent or less mechanical wood pulp content. Below number three grade, papers start to move into the “groundwood” category, containing more than 10 percent mechanical wood pulp.

For the sake of our discussion, we’ll look at the top four grades.

At one time, ranking papers depended solely on the brightness of the stock—a measure of reflectance under strict optical conditions related to a white standard. Brightness is achieved primarily by the addition of chemicals and fillers to increase reflectance.

The higher the grade, the higher the price. Designers weighing budgets with quality, appearance, and functionality or purpose have so many selections of make, brand, and finish, that selecting by grade tends to be a quick criteria for choosing paper. The fact is that only the most discriminating eye can judge the difference between adjacent grades—and sometimes even between comparable-finish ones and threes. And if it’s that difficult for the trained eye, how important is the paper grade to the fellow who gets the brochure in the mail?

Adding to the confusion is that some paper mills, in offering multiple grade options, are marketing stocks as number two and three grades that have brightness numbers in the industry’s number one range.

Still, through the confusion, a designer can’t go wrong by holding to the idea of buying by paper grade. For example, premiums and number ones are good for projects where the client wants to put their best foot forward. Number ones are “black tie” stocks for jobs with higher budgets. Use a number one sheet where image reproduction quality is paramount: art books, corporate annual reports, high-end marketing. If budget starts to enter into the discussion, a number two sheet may do well for the project without much of a trade-off. Corporate brochures and high-end periodicals work well on a number two sheet. Brochures and magazines that are even more budget conscious may move onto a number three.

One important thing to consider here is ego. It’s easy for the designer or client to only want their project to go on the best sheet. But if the final project has a more limited life and contains a good bit of ink coverage, paper brightness can become a moot point. Why spend the money for a higher grade if you don’t have to.

Brightness versus whiteness

Don’t confuse brightness with whiteness. One thing consistent in paper is that white isn’t a constant.

Whiteness is defined as how evenly visible spectrum light is reflected. Some sheets are warmer than others. Some manufacturers add bluing agents to the sheet to make it appear “whiter.” You can lay three or four different stocks of the same grade next to each other under controlled light and each will more than likely be different than the rest.

Blue-white sheets tend to get the immediate vote by designers—after all, they’re “whiter”—until they consider that color proofing systems usually don’t allow for blue-white printing stock and the proofs tend to look yellow at press time. Sometimes, it doesn’t even go that far since blue white sheets tend to be more expensive and budget concerns take over.

Matte, dull, gloss or satin?

The range speaks for itself, and picking a finish is obviously a creative call. The thing to bear in mind—especially on a heatset web press—is that heavier ink coverage areas tend to gloss up on non-gloss stocks. And, while that may be the desired effect, remember that in parts of the photo involving highlights—white shirts, bright sky areas, anything white—the contrast in finish between the colorful areas and the white areas is stark.


Opacity is graded on a scale of 0 to 100 and has to do with basis weight of the stock, brightness, fiber content and fillers. This is where grade also comes into play since brightness goes to the quality of coating and that goes to the ability of the stock to block read-through. If your text absolutely has to go on a lighter basis weight (for postage reasons, perhaps) you may want to budget for a higher grade stock if opacity is important to the project. Of course, once again, if the project has a lot of random ink coverage—photos backing up on either side of the sheet, for example—read through isn’t apparent and a lower grade works fine.

So, how do I pick the coated stock for my job?

It’s easy to say, “Only the best for my publication,” and throw money away for a premium sheet when a number three would do nicely. Conversely, it’s also easy to be penny-wise and pound foolish by using a lower grade stock when corporate image or fine-tuned color reproduction is at stake.

What’s the purpose of the piece? Who’s your target recipient? Is opacity an issue? What about the feel of the paper? Am I going to get any psychological advantage using one finish over another? One grade over another? One brand over another? How much money do I have to spend?

Ultimately, when buying printing on coated stocks—unless there are sound and specific reasons for indicating a specific brand of paper—you’ll do better by quoting by grade.

Your printer buys paper by the truckload and sometimes they’ll get a break from certain mills and distributors. If you ask, for example, for a number two blue-white gloss sheet, the estimator will find the least expensive sheet available within that criteria—which may not be the sheet you were ready to name by brand. But, you’ll likely save considerable money.

A footnote on imported papers

Paper companies are offering more and more stocks from overseas, many of which offer pricing advantages over domestic stocks. Many imported stocks are excellent for the broad range of jobs passing through American printing plants, but there are a few things you should consider.

First, imported stocks tend not to be graded, so you have to pay extra attention to the brightness and opacity numbers. Many imported stocks have lower fiber content and contain more fillers, both affecting opacity. Some imports use fillers including eucalyptus and bamboo among other fibers rather than the mix of hardwoods and softwoods you find in most domestic sheets. On perfect-bound projects, the different grade of fiber in foreign papers could come into play with the binding’s durability, requiring a more expensive binding process—and offsetting the savings from using a less expensive stock.

All this is not to say imported stocks are inferior to domestic papers—just make sure you are keeping everything in mind should you specify an imported paper.

So, paper isn’t just paper

At the most creative level, like everything else involved in project decision making, it all depends on the purpose of the project, who’s reading it, and how much money you have to spend. All else is compromise. But the variety of coated papers, finishes, and grades available should make getting the right stock within your budget a less daunting exercise. And remember, if you can simply specify grade, finish and basis weight, the printer will be glad to fit you with an excellent stock for the best price. ⊗

©2006 Courier Printing Company