Paper Matters Blog
How to Read a Paper Swatchbook

When it comes to designing for print, there is one tool that is essential to helping insure a smooth press run – the paper swatchbook. Unfortunately, many creatives wait to the end of the process to consult this mighty little book – when in fact, starting with the swatchbook can eliminate many headaches. Here are a few tips on how to read a paper swatchbook.

While learning the printing process comes through years of on-the-job training for many, understanding how to read a paper swatchbook can make a big impact in understanding the basic of paper.

How to Read a Paper Swatchbook

  1. The Waterfall – This is an at-a-glance look of all the papers within a particular grade line. It is the most prominent feature of the swatchbook and its purpose is to showcase the range of the grade and highlight its features and attributes. The waterfall usually displays all the colors in a grade in a stepped layout and includes the specs (color, basis weight, finish) of that particular paper swatch.
  2. Stocking Information – The stock list for the paper grade is usually found located alongside or often underneath the waterfall. The stocking information will list all the items or SKUs of that paper grade along with their specs and stock details. For example, Cougar is broken out by Finish and weight type, then lists all available sizes by basis weight and includes SKU details like M weight, packing type ( cartons or skids), packing quantity (number of sheets/carton or skid) and item code.

The stocking information is a critical step in paper specification, often times creatives assume a common weight or finish is available in a certain color, when it fact it is not. It is important to cross reference your desired paper specs with the stocking information in the swatchbook to insure the paper is actually in stock and available.

  1. Finish– Most swatchbooks will be divided and tabbed by finishes. Flip to the finish you are interested in using, in the world of uncoated papers the default finish is going to be smooth, but you’ll most likely see multiple options.

For example, the Cougar swatchbook features three finishes to select from: super smooth, smooth and vellum.  Flip through each of the tabs and feel the texture of the paper, you’ll notice a very sleek, smooth feel on the super smooth compared to vellum, which has more of a toothy, tactile feel, and smooth is somewhere in between.

  1. Basis Weight – Simply stated, basis weight refers to the weight of a ream (500 sheets) in a certain size as it relates to its paper category. Each basis weight is relative to its weight type and paper category.
  2. Sheet Size – Papers are available in a range of sizes with most grades offering options in folio sheets (offset printing) and digital sizes. Common sizes for offset printing include 8.5 x 11, 11 x 17, 20 x 26, 23 x 35, 23 x 29, 25 x 38, 26 x 40, and 28 x 40. Common sizes for digital printing include 8.5 x 11,
    17 x 11, 12 x 18, 13 x 19, 20.5 x 14.33, 26 x 14.33, and 29.4375 x 20.75.
  3. Environmental Qualities – Common environmental information that is be included in most swatchbooks are things like post-consumer waste content (PCW) and environmental certifications like FSC, SFI, Green-Seal, Green-e and Carbon Neutral.
  4. Print Samples – The swatchbook itself is a marketing tool or the paper mills and can serve as an effective example of how the paper will print. Many swatchbooks will feature specialty print techniques like embossing, foil stamping and metallic inks and can serve as a useful print sample

To learn more about the paper swatchbook and use it to maximize your print budget, make sure to read our series of How to Use a Paper Swatchbook.

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