Home » Magazines Blog » Do You Know Your (Paper) ABCs? Grade, Basis Weight, and Finish

Paper is a center stage player when it comes to both the design and cost of a publication. You don’t need to be a paper expert to make smart paper decisions. Once you understand the basic quality differences, and can compare costs between them, you are well positioned to make the right choice for your publication.

Choosing a paper requires three primary decisions, (1) grade, (2) basis weight, and (3) finish.

Selecting a Grade

Coated paper is categorized by grade levels, with a premium being at the top of the heap, and a #5 groundwood representing the low end.

Grade levels are determined by a paper’s brightness. A premium paper offers the highest brightness available, followed by a #1, all the way down to a #5. Magazines which are printed sheet-fed, and are shorter-run, most commonly print on a #2 or #3. Magazines that run on a web press, and have longer press runs, most commonly print on a #3, #4 or #5.

Paper manufacturers routinely provide three specifications for the papers they produce; brightness, gloss and opacity. Generally speaking, the higher the grade level, the higher the brightness and gloss. Opacity is more a function of basis weight.

  • Brightness, which determines grade level, is the amount of light reflected back off a paper’s surface versus being absorbed into it. Brightness is important as it is the light source for the inks (think of the difference a 100 watt bulb makes in a room versus a 60 watt bulb).
  • Gloss refers to the amount of light which is reflected off a sheet of paper at a 75 degree angle. High gloss papers look very shiny and, generally speaking, when buying a gloss paper, higher gloss readings are more desirable. Papers with a matte or dull finish will have a low number for their gloss specification.
  • Opacity is measured by the amount of light that is blocked by the sheet. Opacity is important as it prevents “show-through” of images from one page to the next.

When choosing a paper, it can be helpful to compare the specifications between, say, a #2 and a #3, or a #3 and a #4. However, while paper specifications can help guide a decision, the best way to choose a paper is to look at printed samples and relative costs.

Going up in grade category will generally improve the quality of reproduction, while going down will generally improve the bottom line. What is most important is finding the right balance for your publication. You wouldn’t expect Architectural Journal or National Geographic to use a low quality paper; their images and the quality of the reproduction is too important, and their magazines often remain on coffee tables for a long time. Likewise, it wouldn’t make sense for a weekly magazine like Time to invest in a high quality paper when it has a short shelf life, is editorially driven and the four color images do not require top quality reproduction. Your quality choice is a balance between image, functionally and cost.

Selecting a Basis Weight

Once you have selected a grade level, the paper’s basis weight becomes the next important decision. The higher the basis weight, the heavier the paper. In general, heavier papers (1) feel more substantial (2) are bulkier, so fewer pages per inch, and (3) have greater opacity (so less show-through). They also cost more than the same quality paper in a lighter basis weight, and may increase your mailing cost.

Who uses heavier basis weights? Publications which print sheet-fed (you can’t go as low in basis weight on sheet-fed equipment), magazines that want to impart a feel of quality through weight or where opacity is critical, magazines with low page counts that feel they need the added weight and bulk, short-run magazines where paper has less of an impact on total cost, and magazines that don’t mail (so weight doesn’t impact postal costs).

Who uses lighter basis weights? Magazines that print web, magazines with long run lengths where paper becomes a very significant part of the overall printing cost, magazines sensitive to mailing costs, magazines with high page counts that want to reduce the overall bulk and weight, magazines that are primarily text where opacity may not be as important.

Often your printer can supply you with paper “dummies” that enable you to compare the feel of different basis weights using your trim size and page count.

Last but not least,

Choosing a Finish

The paper’s finish, glossy or dull, is the last of the big paper decisions. Gloss papers are eye-catching and their smooth surfaces allow for more precise reproduction. Matte or dull papers have a softer, more subtle feel, and are easier to read. Both are widely used. Influencing factors may include reader demographics, industry category (environmental publishers may want a more natural, subtle look, while a fashion magazine with bold four color reproduction will prefer a gloss) and page count (matte papers bulk higher than their gloss counterparts). Most often, however, the choice between using a gloss or matte is simply which fits best with the overall image the magazine is trying to convey.

Taking a little time to choose the right paper can be a fun process with very worthwhile results.

We appreciate that you are in print! Please call with any questions or for help in choosing the right paper for your publication.