As a printing broker one of the most difficult challenges I face in trying to determine bid specifications is paper. Why paper? Because most people have no idea how many different kinds of paper are available. Usually I have to resort to questions like, “Does it feel about the same as the paper in your office copier?” Or, “Is it more like poster board?” These questions at least get me in the ballpark. Then maybe I can start pinning it down by asking about the surface of the sheet. “Is it smooth, or textured?” “Is it shiny, or flat?” “If you scratch it with your fingernail does it leave a shiny spot?” “If you hold it up to a light source can you see a watermark?” Anyone in the printing business will understand what I am talking about. It’s like a game of twenty questions, particularly if we’re speaking on the telephone.
Here is something funny–I was discussing a job with a customer the other day–and to help me determine the weight of the paper, he flipped the corner of the sheet over the mouthpiece. When I asked what he was doing, he half-seriously said, “You [Bill] have been in the business for so long that I thought you’d be able to tell how much it weighed by the sound.” That was a first. I’ve had customers expect me to read their minds, but never has one asked me to identify the weight of paper by the sound.
Of course, the easiest way to figure out what kind of paper a customer wants to use is to have them provide a sample. Usually the stock will become immediately evident, but then there are those occasions when it is not a domestic sheet and importers don’t carry it either. I had that problem once with a local company who represented a skin care line of products manufactured in France. They produced a paper sample that neither I, nor three different paper merchants could identify.
Some of the problems come from the paper industry itself. Paper has been around a long, long time. Just like a foot became a length of measurement by the King’s shoe print, paper weight had rudimentary methods of comparison. How many shovel-fulls of this or that went into the mix. For example here is a list of some weights you may encounter when buying printing: Cover, Text, Book, Bond, Ledger, Tag, Duplex, Blanks, Bristol, and Index. To make it more confusing you can buy 80# Cover, or 80# Text but they aren’t the same thing–not at all. 80# Cover is heavy more akin to poster board, and 80# is similar to your office stationery but probably a little heavier. People will often say something like the paper is eighty pound and be sure they answered the question, until I ask, “Cover or text?” That’s when they get stuck.
Most stationery is printed on bond and you can often recognize it by a watermark. A 24# bond sheet weighs about as much as a 60# offset. Confused? We haven’t even gotten started yet. No wonder customers can’t figure out what they want the printing/paper industry has made it impossibly difficult. Not on purpose, but there it is.
If your job requires interaction with printers, I have some recommendations to simplify communications:
- Always try to provide a sample of the paper you would like to match.
- Create a paper sample book. Put various papers in a binder and label them with their weight, finish, and color. By doing this you will have a ready reference to help you.
- Watch for paper that crosses your desk. It might be direct mail, catalogs, or invitations. Slip them into the pocket of your binder if you like them and have your rep identify them later.
- If you find a paper that you particularly like and want to use it often, ask your print rep to get you a swatch book to keep with your binder. The paper mills put them out to display their wares and they will show you all of the weights, textures, and colors that the paper comes in.
- In many markets, the paper merchants will conduct seminars to teach customers about various aspects of paper like weight, thickness, surface, and brightness. Ask your printer if there are any learning opportunities like that in your area.
- Avoid using phrases like, just regular paper, something cheap, you know what we like, or something like we did last time. Honestly we want to help, but most of us in the printing business are terrible at reading minds.