The role of paper in the production process


Paper is an important component of the final printed piece which often goes unnoticed by the consumer. However, as professionals in the graphic communications industry, we can appreciate that paper is a big factor in any printing project. Paper is more than simply a mechanism to communicate a message. It is an expensive material that can make or break a given project. The role of paper in the printing process is to act as a substrate on which to display information, but all of the steps leading up to printing the message on paper are extremely important. Let’s have a look at six key considerations that make up paper’s role in the printing process.

role-of-paperPaper Thickness

Extremes of paper thickness can limit the number of processes available. Sheetfed offset production issues can arise when using very thick stocks. Adjusting packing so that correct pressure can be applied between the blanket and impression cylinders increases makeready and associated time and costs. For very thin stock, sheetfed offset printing may not be an option because of difficulty feeding the paper into the press, and therefore may be more conducive to web offset printing. However, when running extremely thin stocks on web offset presses, web tension issues can cause frequent web breaks that may increase waste and increase the overall cost of the job. Consequently, very thick or very thin paper that is difficult to run on press may actually be more expensive when examined from an overall job cost perspective, versus simply the material cost.


When printing on very lightweight paper, show-through of text and images to the opposite side of the paper is distracting for the reader and can ultimately detract from the message. Fillers can be used to increase the opacity and reduce show-through. Depending on the other properties of the paper, increasing the opacity may or may not have much effect on the overall cost. For example, newsprint contains fillers to achieve a high opacity in a relatively lightweight stock. The other material properties remain the same, while opacity is increased with fillers, resulting in an effective, yet inexpensive, stock.

The Colour of Paper

Paper can often be referred to as the “fifth colour”. In an excellent technical article by author Trish Wales for the IPA called Paper: The Fifth Color (, she explores the impact of controlling colour management in a world where an overwhelming number of paper options are available, all containing a nearly infinite number of variables. Bright white papers that use optical brighteners to increase whiteness can result in a very different final colour than the same project printed on creamier stocks with yellow undertones. The colour of paper can certainly influence the resulting printed colour, and can wreak havoc on maintaining brand consistency and colour integrity between jobs. Therefore, questions to ask are: how often will this document need to be reprinted, and will this paper need to be available from the manufacturer for a long time or is the customer okay with moving to a different stock in the future?

The Weight of Paper

Weight is an important consideration that can often be overlooked because it does not become relevant until distribution and/or final use of the printed product. Shipping and mailing needs must be considered at the outset of a project, as well as how the product will be used. Depending on the size and frequency of your customer’s mailing program, the weight of the stock can significantly drive up the cost of the overall campaign. Is your customer better off moving to a lighter stock to decrease the shipping and mailing costs or will this compromise the overall look and feel of the printed piece? Additionally, how will the consumer use the product? A textbook needs to be transported frequently and a lighter weight stock would benefit the students and teachers using the product.

Perceived and Actual Print Quality

The intended lifespan of the printed product (and therefore determining needs related to paper coating, bulk and specialty stocks) can all be grouped into the category of determining the perceived versus actual print quality that is required. Is the printed product a photo-quality coffee table book or is it a daily newspaper? Very different uses and price points will help to determine the paper used. Printed documents such as trade paperback books are often expected to be bulky by consumers and therefore publishers achieve this by selecting a high-bulking text stock. This keeps the weight of the book and unnecessary costs down, while increasing the overall thickness of the printed piece, elevating the perceived product value. Textured and other specialty papers can often add challenges to the printing process and in some cases compromise overall print quality. There can be an element of the unknown in final output because specialty stocks can be difficult to replicate in the proofing and approval processes. Therefore, if your client requires specific replication of colours and/or images for a given campaign, textured and specialty stocks can sometimes produce varying and unexpected results.

Digital vs Conventional Paper Options

A major consideration for digital press papers is whether or not they will need pre-coating applied in order for the digital inks to adhere, as well as whether or not a specific stock is actually available for a digital press. Often, in order for a digital press manufacturer to maintain their guarantees, all paper that is used on their presses must be tested and approved by the manufacturer. Therefore, a printer may not be able to substitute conventional paper options for their digital presses on-the-fly. This can become problematic if a document will eventually be printed using both digital and conventional processes. For example, a short print run of a book’s advance reading copies may be printed on a digital press and then the full-length production run on an offset press. Later in that book’s life cycle, the printing process may move back to digital when only very few copies or print-on-demand print runs of a single copy are needed. Digital to conventional paper compatibility must therefore be taken into consideration at the initial production planning stage.

In summary, there are numerous considerations when discussing the role of paper in the printing process. Ultimately, the type of paper used for a given printing project must start at the initial concept stage. Here are a few questions to begin a consultative paper discussion with your client.

  • How long does this printed piece need to last?
  • How will it be used?
  • What is the desired look and feel of the document?
  • How important is colour accuracy?
  • Will this piece need to be shipped or mailed?
  • Does the document incorporate high-quality images and photographs?
  • What are the budgetary limitations?

Understanding the big picture is critical when it comes to selecting the paper that will be used in a printing process. The final choice must strike a balance between the printed product’s intended use, overall cost and availability. It is therefore important to consider variables like paper thickness, show-through, colour, weight, quality, and digital options available when selecting the right paper for a printing project.

Diana Varma
Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.

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