To Coat or Not to Coat

wax paper vs paper towel experiment

Another 60 second soap box lecture I like to use in teaching customers is the one about coated paper vs uncoated paper. Visualize yourself going into the kitchen and tearing off a sheet of paper towel. Lay the sheet on the counter. Now, do the same thing with a sheet of wax paper. Take a singe drop of liquid and release it on the paper towel. Do the same with the wax paper. What do you notice? The drop on the towel spreads and penetrates. The drop on the wax paper beads and stays on the surface.

paper surface

“And what does that have to do with printing?” you might ask. The above example is a dramatic representation of what happens with ink on paper. The softer the sheet the larger the ink dot gets. A hard surface keeps the ink on top. So? What does that mean? Think of a newspaper, or better yet go get a newspaper. Find a color picture of a person, usually on the front page. Now, get a shiny magazine. Compare the image on newsprint with the image out of the magazine. What are the differences? It won’t take you long to discover that the colors are more brilliant on the magazine and the images are sharper.

Does that mean that magazine printing is superior? No, not at all. There are many times that a graphic designer may want to choose an uncoated paper.  The purpose of the piece might be better served with a softer look. Pastels usually work better on uncoated paper. If there is something the customer needs to write on like an RSVP or order form, uncoated paper accepts pen, pencil, crayon or any other writing implement. Coated paper doesn’t.

gloss, dull, and matte

I’m tempted, at this point, to walk you through the paper making process so we can discuss the differences between the three most common paper coatings  gloss, dull,  and matte, but I think I’ll hold off on that. What I will talk about is how these three coatings accept ink dots. You understand by now that the harder the paper surface the more the dot stays on top and the less it penetrates into the sheet, right? Which of the three, gloss, dull, or matte would you imagine has the harder surface? If you said gloss, you are right. Dull is next, followed by matte. I’ve had customers confuse matte with uncoated paper because matte looks similar to uncoated. While the ink dot penetrates the fibers more on a matte than a gloss, it doesn’t penetrate a matte like it does on uncoated. So, if you want a softer look, but want to still get some pizazz out of the ink, try matte. If matte is good but lacks a little crispness, go to dull coat. If your image screams for brighter deeper color, by all means specify gloss.

deciding which is best

So out of gloss, dull, matte, and uncoated which paper is best? The answer is it depends. The best paper is the paper that fits your project.  It seems like that should be a no-brainer, but believe me it is not. Graphic designers usually have bookshelves full of paper swatches to play with, to aid them in deciding what stock to specify. Choosing the right paper can make the difference between a successful result and one that just doesn’t make it. If you don’t have a bookshelf full of swatches and you are a designer, or a designer wannabe, call your local paper merchant and ask to meet with their paper specifier. They can guide you and usually provide you with more samples than you will ever need to use. You can also rely on your printer for help, or if you are lucky enough to get me, you will have one of the best in the biz, I say with all humility.

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