Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Kind of Paper Works Best When Printing Collage Sheets?

Last year, while researching the best system for printing my wholesale collage sheets, I spent a full six months visiting a dozen commercial printers and trying out close to 100 different types of paper. I learned the difference between pounds in text weight and pounds in cardstock, and whether a satin finish is the same as smooth. I also created a mini Q&A lab where I stuck every possible type of glue or glaze imaginable on the laserprints and tried to get them to smudge or crack (surprisingly, even basic Elmer’s glue worked pretty well).  Rather than keep all this info in my head, I thought I’d share some of the tips I learned.

Of course, the type of paper you pick depends on what you plan to do with your collage sheets. If you are printing at home and want to just jump in, I'd suggest picking up a ream of any paper labeled "premium" that is 24-30 pounds with a matte finish. That should be pretty good for most applications.

But should you want to get fancy, paper quality really does matter. Here’s some good things to know:

Paper Weight
When you buy paper by the ream, it should have a label somewhere that tells you how many pounds it is, normally labeled as "weight." It's a bit complicated how they come up with the poundage label, but basically, as long as you're comparing apples to apples (text weight to text weight, cardstock to cardstock), the higher the number, the thicker the paper. At copy centers you can ask for the poundage if you don't see it listed.

I have a personal preference for thicker paper. I think it looks better, you don’t get as much “show through” on the back, and it tends to hold up. Basic copy paper is 20 pound text weight. Most premium laser and inkjet paper is either 24 or 32 pounds and works well for scrabble tiles, scrapbooking, decoupage and putting paper into bezels. Paper labeled as brochure or flyer paper is often 50 lb text weight and is a great catch-all size. For glass tiles and some other instances where a slightly thicker paper works well, I love a light-weight cardstock (under 80 pounds). Photo paper I’ve found to be too thick for cutting out small images, though I will use it for collages on wooden blocks when I want a visibly raised look.

Summary: pick 24-50 pound text weight or a cardstock under 80 pounds for most

Printer paper should have a brightness label on it, usually ranging from 80 to 98%. This number represents how much light reflects back from a sheet of paper. The higher the number (and thus the brighter the paper), the more vibrant your images will look. Stock copy paper is often in the mid-80s, while better paper will be in the 90s. If possible, try to find at least 97% brightness (US scale). Labels such as “Bright White” or “Ultra White” are imprecise but might work if no percentage is listed.

Summary: get as high of a percentage as possible, at least 97% (U.S.)

Recycled Content
From an environmental standpoint, the more recycled content—especially post-consumer (PC)—the better. Sadly though, basic papers with a high PC-recycled content tend to be “toothy.” In other words, a little bumpy or with tiny little divots. It is almost impossible to find 100% post-consumer paper that is super bright white and perfectly smooth. If post-consumer recycled content with a super-smooth surface is very important to you (as it is to me) you’ll most likely have to head to a specialty printer or paper store rather than an office supply store. Here in Portland I have access to a good option only by going through a print broker who purchases the paper directly through a mill by the crate (we’re talking thousands and thousands of large sheets of paper). Short of that, it’s a question of balance. You can try a lower total recycled content, or find sustainable papers certified by organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). There are some good options that are 100% recycled but have a lower post-consumer content (10-20%). For example, most of the paper used in my local Kinkos is FSC certified, and while the standard laser paper they use has no marked recycled content, you can ask for 100% recycled paper for a small extra charge that works very well (though there’s no acknowledged post-consumer content).

Summary: go with the highest recycled content you can get that still looks good

Finish (Gloss vs Matte)
Similar to house paint, papers can come in a variety of finishes, including (in increasing levels of shininess): matte, satin, semimatte, or glossy. Most of the difference is a matter of personal taste, with glossy papers tending to make the images “pop” more. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that super-glossy paper can sometimes cause some issues, such as shiny spots showing under glass tiles or soldered pendants. In contrast, matte paper can sometimes accept glazes better. So if you’re running into any problems with shiny spots or lack of adhesion, trying a duller paper might be a good solution.

Summary: when in doubt, stick with matte paper

I think that’s it for now. There’s a couple of other special doo-dads that some papers have, such as fancy fast-drying or color-lock technology. But in general, sticking with paper that is at least 24 pounds, 97% brightness, and matte will work for 90% of what you’d want to do.

photo credit from top: a random range of papers from


Brie Oshiro said...

Thanks for sharing this! I've often gotten stuck trying to figure out what all of that means. :)

Claire said...

Thanks so much for this good info. Now I can expand beyond one of my favorites--Staples brand matte photo paper. A little thick for some applications but oh boy, the way it takes the color is great.

monicaKcampbell said...

Great info. Learning all of this solo is time-consuming, costly and sometimes (almost always) frustrating. This will be very helpful for a lot of people. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great summary of some very important info, thanks for doing this.

darlene said...

Excellent reference information! Thanks so much for sharing.

piddix said...

Thanks all. I wasn't sure if this would be helpful to others since there's so much detail, but hopefully there's some parts that will work for everyone.

Karen Clarke said...

I have tried this with matter photo paper, cardstock, and glossy paper and no matter what I keep getting shiny spots on my images. Help!

piddix said...

Hey Karen. What's your end use for them (soldered pendants, scrabble tiles, etc.)? And what process are you using (what glazes, etc.)? Also, do you know what finish was on your cardstock (matte, satin, etc.). -Corinna

Anonymous said...

I've varied papers, also, but I continually have bled problems. I've also tried your suggestions from your post on ink bleeding and nothing has worked for me.

piddix said...

AnnieBanannie, if the different options listed here didn't work, we might have to get more specific. What type of printer and paper are you using? I wonder if using a pigment-based ink might help. See this article:

Or have you tried it with laser prints? If all else fails, that's one way around the smudges.

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