Tagenvelope paper

3 Things to Know Before You Specify Paper (+ a shortcut)

Paper can comprise from 30% to 60% of the cost of a print job, so specifying the right paper is extremely important. The paper selected plays a major role in the final appearance, and success, of a project. In order to correctly specify paper, you need to know the language of paper grades and weights. Grades such as bond and writing are just as important today as they were 20 years ago. Although the demand for some grades lessens, such as tag, it is still important to know all the grades. Understanding the important distinctions between the various grades of paper will help you design more effective items for your customers. I’ve simplified the process by outlining three things you need to know about specifying paper.

1. How Paper is Made

In order to talk about grades, it is helpful to know how paper is made. Trees grown for paper are a renewable crop, like wheat that is grown for breakfast cereal. Furthermore, paper is 100% recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable. Paper starts with pulp. Pulp can come from different sources, such as trees, fibers like hemp or cotton, or recycled paper. There are different processes for making pulp. Some are mechanical, some chemical, and each has its strengths. Pulp can be bleached, brightened, or colored or have additives mixed in to enhance the surface characteristics of the paper. Additives to the pulp may increase opacity or increase ink holdout (helps the ink not soak in so the image stays sharp), depending on the use of the paper and desired characteristics. After everything has been mixed in, the pulp has a liquid, mushy texture. It is then poured onto a wire mesh (the wire) where it settles and spreads before going on a conveyor belt in a long thin ribbon where it is squeezed between rollers to remove all the water still in the paper. Once the water is removed, the pulp goes between big drying drums to dry it out completely. After drying, the paper is calendered, a process that smooths the surface of the paper by pressing it between cylinders or rollers. You can think of calendering like a pasta machine that gradually presses the surface of the paper to make it smooth. Super-calendered paper goes through an extra calendering process to make it exceptionally smooth.

After all these steps, the paper is wound onto giant rolls. Coating is an extra step that lays a coating on the paper that can whiten, brighten, and smooth out the surface. Coated paper is a direct response to the demand for color printing because it provides superior color reproduction, detail, and consistency. Coating can be one-sided, C1s, (pronounced Cee One Ess), or two-sided, C2s. Cast Coat is a super shiny coating made by polishing coated paper. Coated papers can be gloss, matte, velvet, dull, or somewhere in between. There are more terms now than ever before, and none reflects an absolute. Gloss is glossy, and dull is dull with matte and velvet falling somewhere in between.

Embossing is a process that presses a pattern into the paper. Common patterns are linen and stipple. When a paper texture is produced by embossing, it enhances ink holdout. That means the ink doesn’t absorb into the paper as much and looks crisper.

This photo shows different colors of linen paper. Note the distinct fabric-like texture.
Because of its embossed surface, linen papers have superior ink holdout.

This is stipple finish with a blind emboss and a register emboss to the green ink in the upper left-hand corner. Note that the stipple finish is not “ironed out” by the embossing.
This is because the stipple texture is already embossed into the paper when it is made. 

Watermarks are created during paper manufacturing. Watermarks are visible when held up to the light. Although they often are a symbol of the paper manufacturer, they can also be a company’s logo. Custom watermarks used to be enormously expensive. Nowadays, reasonably priced custom watermarks can be made with a chemical technique. Some consider this a “fake” watermark, but it really achieves the same look as a “real” watermark.

A Neenah Paper watermark in a writing weight paper.

Other factors that affect texture occur in the manufacturing process rather than the finishing process. For example, laid paper (paper with a ribbed texture) achieves its distinctive pattern, particularly apparent when held up to the light, by the pattern on the wire on which the pulp is placed. All papers have a wire side and a felt side resulting in two distinct sides that are not exactly the same. Some papers are made on a two-wire machine that mitigates, but does not entirely eliminate, this effect. Adjustments are needed on press to allow for the two different sides of the paper. For this reason, it can be very challenging to print a large solid color on both sides of a sheet of paper and get the colors to match if the paper is uncoated and not a two-wire made sheet.

The characteristic ribbed finish of laid paper. Laid paper has long
been a traditional finish available in many writing suites. 

This image shows blind embossing of a laid paper. As you can see, the heat
and pressure of the embossing die can “iron out” the laid texture of the paper.
Laid texture is not embossed into the paper such as linen.
Laid texture is an impression of the wire on which the paper is made. 

2. Paper Grain

When paper is made, the fibers line up in one direction, which is the grain. If you think of a piece of wood, which is easier to split with the grain, or parallel to the grain, the same is true of paper. When paper is folded with the grain, the fold is smoother. When paper is folded against the grain, depending on the type of paper and type of fold, the fold can appear torn, cracked, and uneven. Grain affects the appearance and is an important part of the printing process. Paper stretches as it goes through a press. In order to minimize that stretch, printers want the paper grain to be parallel to the rollers of the press. When working on a project that includes folds that are 90 degrees to one another, one fold will be with the grain, and the other will be against the grain. A road map, for example, has folds going with and against the grain.

Paper folded without a score to dramatize the difference when folded 
with the grain (top sheet) and against the grain (bottom sheet).

3. Paper Grades

Now that you know how paper is made, we are ready to talk about paper grades. I am going to give you my version of paper grade classifications because there are very slight deviations from the old school classifications that correspond with how printers order paper. Learning about paper grades this way will make it easier for you to converse with your printer.

Bond & Writing
Bond/writing is very receptive to ink and pencil. For that reason, it is used for stationery and letterheads. Rag bond is made from cotton and is more durable. This makes it ideal for items that are going to be around a long time such as diplomas or folded and refolded and refolded, such as letters. Bond is often watermarked. Writing refers to the lightweight sheets of a suite of matching papers, including text and cover weight papers, and bond refers to the same type of paper but does not have any matching text or cover weights. For example, Neenah Paper, a paper company, offers Atlas Bond, which is not available in text or cover. Neenah also offers Classic Crest Writing, which is available in text and cover weights. A few bond papers are available with a matching cover weight, but in general, if the paper has matching text and cover weights, it is referred to as writing.

Text & Cover
This grade is for fine uncoated papers. Sometimes they have a matching writing grade. This grade is never coated and includes linens, felts, and all those lovely colored papers.

The characteristic finish of felt paper. Felt paper has long been a traditional finish available in text and cover.

Coated papers are available in gloss, ultra gloss, dull, matte, etc. Coated papers offer high-resolution reproduction in offset printing. Although they are graded by their brightness, most coated papers exceed their grade range in brightness. This is so that a Number Two can have the brightness of a Number One. The grades, in descending order of quality, are as follows: Premium, Number One, Number Two, Number Three, Number Four and Number Five. The grade directly relates to the cost, so a Premium sheet costs more than a Number One which costs more than a Number Two and so forth. Sometimes a paper rep will tell you that a paper is a Number One priced as a Number Two. In my experience, this is when a characteristic such as opacity or snap has been lessened for a gain in brightness. Generally, you get what you pay for in paper. Most Premium coated papers are acid-free/archival and will not yellow as much as a non-acid-free paper. Coated paper that is text weight used to be referred to as book; now it is called text.

Within coated paper are the C1s, C2s, and cast-coated subgrades referred to as board grade. These papers are often used in packaging and come in a wider variety of thicknesses for that purpose. Board grades also include C1s papers that are more foldable, are bulkier, or have other characteristics specific to packaging. Cast coated papers also fall under the board category.

This category encompasses text and cover weight papers, sometimes matching, that are not in the “fine papers” text and cover category. It includes offset, opaque, postcard or reply card, and newsprint categories. Recent additions to this category are matching cover weights to the opaques. This category is the heart of everyday office and publication papers.

The paper used for items like instruction booklets and direct mail notices is Offset paper. It runs well on press and is inexpensive. Offset is not available in cover weight.

Opaques refer to papers with less show-through. They generally have a better quality finish than offset. Both offsets and opaques are normally available in a wide variety of weights for various bulk requirements and are commonly used for books and textbooks. Typical finishes are smooth and vellum. These papers are available in white and sometimes cream and ivory. The standard office colors of goldenrod, blue, green, canary, cherry, etc., are available in opaques and offset. Postcard or reply card is an inexpensive white paper that calipers to 7pt. thickness, which is the minimum mailable thickness for a postcard sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Newsprint is an inexpensive paper that is only available in three text weights and generally one color, newsprint. Newsprint color varies from one manufacturer to another.

Bristol, Tag, & Board
This category is a catchall for all the sturdy, but not necessarily pretty, papers. Index is perfect for writing on with a pen and is often used for cards that need to be filled out because in addition to being cover weight, it is also a very stiff paper. Library cards, for those who remember them, were probably made of index paper. Index is generally available in smooth, vellum, and the standard “office colors.” Bristol is a little softer than index or tag and folds better than both. It is available in cover weights in “office colors.” Tag is strong and very receptive to ink. It is available in white and manila in various cover weights. Board includes chipboard which is typically the bottom piece of paper on a scratch pad. It can be chip colored, (a grayish, brownish color that varies with each lot due to the characteristics of the recycled material that goes into it) on both sides or coated one side,C1S, and comes in a multitude of weights.

This category includes all the oddballs, such as translucent, metallic, and synthetic papers. Synthetic papers are like plastic, do not tear, and are very water resistant. Other specialty papers with surfaces that look like leather or feel like suede are also in this group. Although rarely used now, onionskin, a very thin and strong paper, is in this category. So is Bible paper, which is very thin, strong, and opaque.

Carbonless paper used to have its own category but, with desktop printers and digital document delivery, the use of carbonless paper has dropped tremendously. Suffice it to say that carbonless comes in multiple “parts,” such as two part, three-part, four-part, etc., and those parts can come in different colors in whatever order you need. The standard sequence for three part is white-canary-pink, for example, but if you wanted a form to be white-green-goldenrod, your printer can do that too.

Pressure Sensitive & Gummed
This group is enormous with more specialties than you can possibly imagine. Because of the nature of pressure sensitive paper, depending on what the end user is going to do with it, your printer has a zillion options from which to choose, such as printable liner, scoreless liner, diagonal liner, vertical liner, and horizontal liner. Then there’s permanent or removable adhesive. The “face” of the label can be coated, uncoated, writing, fabric, synthetic, you name it. In fact, any paper can be converted into a label. Labels have displaced most of the items that used to be marked with tags made with tag paper and gummed papers that needed to be wet to activate the gum. Old-fashioned postage stamps are an example of gummed paper.

Swatches of paper with flecks or fibers. From top to bottom: French Paper, Speckletone, color: Kraft;
Neenah Paper, Royal Sundance Fiber, color:
 Thyme; Neenah Paper, Royal Sundance Fiber, color:  Cottonwood;
 Paper, Astrobright, color: Stardust White.

This is a relatively new group of papers that are used in various digital devices. Digital printing methods vary widely, and each substrate (the base material onto which images will be printed) needs to be tested as to its receptivity to the ink/toner/wet toner, etc., and also to the wear and tear the paper can inflict on the digital printing device. Large-format digital machines require special papers that are approved and profiled for each digital device. They are available coated or uncoated, roll, or sheet-fed, and as text or cover. They are mostly white except for “copy paper,” which comes in the “office colors.” These papers are certified to run on various presses. That does not mean you cannot specify a non-certified sheet, but you may be disappointed in either the reproduction quality or your printer saying “no” because of the wear and tear it causes to the digital press. Find more information about digital printing here.

Although envelopes are not really a “grade,” I am including them here because they are made from specific papers. Every writing paper has a matching #10 envelope. That is part of what makes it a writing-grade paper. Basic commercial envelopes are 24# white wove. Wove is smooth. Larger envelopes are 28# because the paper needs to be stronger to hold more weight. A 10 in. x 13 in. catalog envelope is an example. With the exception of the writing envelopes in the #10 size, nearly all envelopes are white or manila in regularly stocked sizes. Design a pink 10 x 13 envelope and prepare your client for some sticker shock, read more about designing custom envelopes here. For more information about designing for standard 0ff-the-shelf envelopes go here.

Paper Finishes
The paper finish refers to the appearance and texture of the surface of the paper. The following chart summarizes which finishes can be found in each grade.


Speccing Paper Shortcuts

Here are some well known paper specs that might be new to you. If you are new to designing, knowing what these basic papers are called might help you out.

Letterhead – 24# Writing
Envelopes – 24# Writing
Business Card Old school – 80# Cover
Business Card New school – 110# Cover
Business Card Annoyingly thick – 130# Cover
Brochure Trifold, stiff – 80# Cover
Brochure Trifold, floppy – 100# Book
Catalog Thicker Cover and thinner pages – 100# Coated Cover and 100# Gloss book pages
Catalog Cover and pages the same – 100# Gloss book self-Cover
Packaging – 10pt C1S
Paperback Book – (perfect bound) Cover 10pt c1s pages 50# Offset

I hope this helps demistify the specifying process. If you have a question I haven’t answered, please comment below, I would love to hear what you are interested in and I bet other readers would too!


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Designing Custom Envelopes


Through custom converting (making an envelope out of a flat printed sheet of paper) you can get an envelope of whatever size, paper, etc. you want, with a few caveats. Custom converting is great for large quantities especially quantities over 25,000 but depending on what you want to convert, even a quantity of 5000 can be a reasonable cost.

There are a few things to know before you go and design an envelope that is going to be converted. There are design restrictions, paper restrictions, and some size and shape depending on what you want to do. I will walk you through the process so that you can tackle that custom envelope project with confidence and show off your skillz!


Custom envelopes are made with dies that cut out the shape. Your printer will give you a die line to follow for laying out the envelope. It is SUPER IMPORTANT that you use the file from the printer you are going to work with for the printing. Each printer uses their own converter and each converter’s die lines may vary slightly from one to another. Here’s an example of a die line for a #10 commercial envelope. In this case, the envelope will be printing 4-up on a 19×25 press sheet. Your printer will not expect you to lay out the press sheet, just one envelope. When you are laying out your design, you will not be able to print in the glue area. That means you cannot put any design elements in the glue area. Not even a little bit! In this example, the glue area is shown in blue. (Thank you to Western States Envelope for the die line!) As you are finalizing your design, print it and cut it out with a pair of scissors, then glue it along the glue marks to make sure everything is hitting where you want it to.



If you choose to add a bleed (a design element that runs off the edge), to a custom envelope design, be aware that a bleed that is shown on the front, or the back, must wrap around to the opposite side. The high-speed equipment that makes envelopes are not “dead on” for each and every envelope. You must expect your design to roll one way or another. Depending on your paper, the converter, operator skill, etc. the design may roll as much as 1/16″. When showing a folded proof to your client, I strongly recommend that you show them how the bleed will affect both sides. I have seen too many clients surprised when they receive their envelopes and think there has been a mistake.

envelope bleed

In this photo, the design elements that appear on the fronts of the envelopes also appear on the back. Ask your printer how much you should extend the art. They will know their converter’s equipment and give you the best advice.


Designs with elements that cross over seams need to be carefully built. Some seam styles are better than others for creating these crossovers. Talk to your printer at the idea stage about your desired goal. It may affect the paper, envelope shape, seam style, flap style, etc., depending on what it is you are trying to accomplish. Look at the direct mail pieces you are receiving at home and work. Note the precision (or lack thereof) on envelopes that have an all-over design. This is a good example of the type of situation when you should ask your printer for samples. Review their samples and if the tolerances are not what you consider acceptable, ask questions. Although the skill is at the converter, not at the printer, your printer needs to show evidence that they are working with a quality converter and if there was an extenuating reason, like a weird paper choice, give them the opportunity to explain anything on the sample you might not want on your job.


Any process that presses an image into the paper, like foil stamping and embossing, will NOT show up on the back of a converted envelope but will show up on the back side of the paper which is on the inside of the envelope.


If the paper you are thinking of using for an envelope has a pattern that you want oriented a specific way, request sample sheets to make a dummy and show this to your printer when you request the estimate. It may profoundly affect the cost because envelopes may be placed on the paper diagonally for less waste and correct grain direction, not necessarily to accommodate a paper pattern. Some dies have envelopes placed in different directions, making it impossible to use that die if a specific pattern direction is required.


This photo shows envelope dummies I made to show patterns running vertically, horizontally and diagonally across the envelope.


If you want to make an envelope out of a funky paper that you have never seen an envelope made out of… there could be a reason for that. If the paper, fabric, plastic, whatever it is you are thinking of using, does not glue well or handle moisture it may not be a good candidate for an envelope. And if you successfully made a dummy out of a sample sheet with a glue stick…. don’t assume it can be done on high-speed printing and converting equipment. Check with your printer. She may need to check with her converter to see what is possible, but you are better off safe than sorry!


If you have a window in your envelope, with or without the cellophane/poly, it will cost the same as an envelope with the material. I know it seems weird. If you are using less material it should lower the cost, right? But that is the way it is. Sometimes it is counterintuitive because the exception, and setting up for that, takes away any savings realized by subtracting something. the size of the window and the location may be fixed depending on what type of dies your printer is using. Always check with your printer if you want to change the size or placement of a window. You need to mention this at the time you are giving specs for an estimate!


If you venture outside the standard shapes or sizes of envelopes, prepare to spend thousands of dollars on the die. Unlike a pocket folder die or other small cutting die, envelope dies are expensive. Depending on the equipment, the converter might have an adjustable die, or they might be able to put a square flap on a regular flap envelope. Ask your printer what you can customize and what you cannot before you have shown the concept for something out-of-the-box to your client. Just saying. It’s easier to raise an expectation than to lower one.


Some gang run printers that offers custom envelopes are printing digitally and then converting. Bear in mind that envelopes that have been printed on a laser printer cannot be put back through a laser printer without risking image loss. Check that your digital printer is using a printing method that is laser compatible.


Do not attempt to deal with an envelope converter directly!  Your printer has tons of experience and knows the language not to mention the information that needs to go back and forth in order for you to get the best results. Remember that the converter is not going to print your envelope, your printer will do the printing and then send the press sheets to the envelope converter for die cutting and gluing. If you try to work with the converter directly and omit important information to your printer (like the imposition on the press sheet) you could have stacks of useless printed sheets on your hands at your expense.


If the envelope you are designing is going to be used in the mail or for a direct mail project and the envelope is unusual or “different” you are supposed to have it reviewed by the USPS Mail Piece Analyst (MPA). Unfortunately, not every post office has an MPA so you might need to work with your local folk and their supervisors to have them sign-off. Once it is signed off by USPS personnel the Post Office has to accept it. If you are designing a piece that will be processed by an out-of-state mailer, either get the piece approved through the national MPA department or ask the mailer to get approval.

Let me know if you have come across an issue while working on a converted envelope project. I love to hear about successes (as well as headaches) especially if you feel like your printer saved the day!

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