How to Get a Good Paper Grade

Getting a good paper grade isn’t like acing a test. Paper grades are classifications with very slight deviations from the old school classifications that correspond with how printers order paper. Learning about paper grades this way will make it easier for you to converse with your printer.

Bond and Writing
Bond/writing is very receptive to ink and pencil. For that reason, it is used for stationery and letterheads. Rag bond is made from cotton and is more durable. This makes it ideal for items that are going to be around a long time such as diplomas or folded and refolded and refolded, such as letters. Bond is often watermarked. Writing refers to the lightweight sheets of a suite of matching papers, including text and cover weight papers, and bond refers to the same type of paper but does not have any matching text or cover weights.


A watermark in a writing grade paper.

Text and Cover
This grade is for fine uncoated papers. Sometimes they have a matching writing grade. This grade is never coated and includes linens, felts, and all those lovely colored papers.


Felt papers in a text and cover grade paper.

Coated papers are available in gloss, ultra gloss, dull, matte, etc. Coated papers offer high-resolution reproduction in offset printing. Although they are graded by their brightness, most coated papers exceed their grade range in brightness. This is so that a Number Two can have the brightness of a Number One. Normally another quality such as opacity or “snap” is sacrificed in order to get a number two price with a number one brightness.

The grades, in descending order of quality, are as follows: Premium, Number One, Number Two, Number Three, Number Four and Number Five. The grade directly relates to the cost, so a Premium sheet costs more than a Number One which costs more than a Number Two and so forth. Coated paper that is text weight used to be referred to as book; now it is called text.

This category encompasses text and cover weight papers, sometimes matching, that are not in the “fine papers” text and cover category. It includes offset, opaque, postcard or reply card, and newsprint categories.

Recent additions to this category are matching cover weights to the opaques. This category is the heart of everyday office papers.

Bristol, Tag, and Board
This category is a catchall for all the sturdy, but not necessarily pretty, papers.

Index is perfect for writing on with a pen and is often used for cards that need to be filled out because, in addition to being cover weight, it is also a very stiff paper. Library cards, for those who remember them, were probably made of index paper. It is generally available in smooth, vellum, and the standard “office colors.”

Bristol is a little softer than index or tag and folds better than both. It is available in cover weights in “office colors.”

Tag is strong and very receptive to ink. It is available in white and manila in various cover weights.

Board includes chipboard which is typically the bottom piece of paper on a scratch pad. It can be chip colored, (a grayish, brownish color that varies with each lot due to the characteristics of the recycled material that goes into it) on both sides or C1s and comes in a multitude of weights.


Recycled textures and colors in text and cover grade papers.

This category includes all the oddballs, such as translucent, metallic, and synthetic papers. Synthetic papers are like plastic, do not tear, and are very water resistant. Other specialty papers with surfaces that look like leather or feel like suede are also in this group. Although rarely used now, onionskin, a very thin and strong paper, is in this category. So is Bible paper, which is very thin, strong, and opaque.

swatch assort cropSwatch books showing the incredible range of colors and textures available to graphic designers.

Carbonless paper used to have its own category but, with desktop printers and digital document delivery, the use of carbonless paper has dropped tremendously. Suffice it to say that carbonless comes in multiple “parts,” such as two-part, three-part, four-part, etc., and those parts can come in different colors in whatever order you want. The standard sequence for three part is white-canary-pink, for example, but if you wanted a form to be white-green-goldenrod, your printer can do that too.

Pressure Sensitive and Gummed
This group is enormous with more specialties than you can possibly imagine. Because of the nature of pressure sensitive paper, depending on what the end user is going to do with it, your printer has a zillion options from which to choose, such as printable liner, scoreless liner, diagonal liner, vertical liner, and horizontal liner. Then there’s permanent or removable adhesive. The “face” of the label can be coated, uncoated, writing, fabric, synthetic, you name it. In fact, any paper can be converted into a label. Labels have displaced most of the items that used to be marked with tags made with tag paper and gummed papers that needed to be wet to activate the gum. Old-fashioned postage stamps are an example of gummed paper.

This is a relatively new group of papers that are used in various digital devices. Digital printing methods vary widely, and each substrate (the base material onto which images will be printed) needs to be tested as to its receptivity to the ink/toner/wet toner, etc., and also to the wear and tear the paper can inflict on the digital printing device. Large-format machines require special papers. There are approved papers for each digital device. They are available coated or uncoated, roll, or sheet-fed, and as text or cover. They are all white except for “copy paper,” which comes in the “office colors.” These papers are certified to run on various presses. That does not mean you cannot specify a non-certified sheet, but you may be disappointed in either the reproduction quality or your printer saying “no” because of the wear and tear it causes to the digital press.

Although envelopes are not really a “grade,” I am including them here because they are made from specific papers. Every writing paper has a matching #10 envelope. That is part of what makes it a writing-grade paper. Basic commercial envelopes are 24# white wove. Wove paper is smooth. Larger envelopes are 28# because they need to be thicker to hold more weight. A 10 x 13 catalog envelope is an example. With the exception of the writing envelopes in the #10 size, nearly all envelopes are white or manila in regularly stocked sizes.

You have now been given a great responsibility, choosing the paper grade your project will be printed on. The quality of the paper does affect your printed outcome in function, feel and printed quality, so be sure to choose well, young grasshopper.

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Designing Business Cards

The second most common item designers are asked to create is business cards. And with tools like Adobe InDesign at their fingertips, oftentimes, success on smaller projects like a business card may encourage someone to pursue an education and career in graphic design. Although business cards are small, they have a big impact and can be the most used part of an identity system. Because business cards are so often reordered, clients may scrutinize their cost more closely than another item like letterhead. And, like most of graphic design, the printed cost is in the designer’s hands, not the printer’s. There are some things that can make business cards really expensive. Let’s go through and see what’s what.

Some things that make business cards expensive are relative to the size of the company and the number of business cards ordered at a time. Some identity systems depend on expensive flourishes to differentiate their branding. Some are distributed by the millions in mailboxes and need to be as economical as possible. It is up to the designer to explain ongoing costs to their client and also teach them the most economical way to order new cards and reorders in the future. If you are unsure, ask your printer for assistance, advice and if necessary, a meeting with your client. Your printer will be happy to help!

If you are designing business cards for a small company, give or take less than 10 employees, digital printing and gang run printing will be your friends in keeping costs down. The following items are moderate to expensive to add to a design:

  • Foil stamping
  • Embossing
  • Die Cutting
  • Very thick paper
  • Unusual paper
  • Large areas of solid ink

If you are working with a large company, designing a business card that can work with masters will keep costs down. Expensive add-ons such as foiling, embossing and die cutting become much more economical when amortized over a large number of masters (more on business card masters later in this post).


This elegant card uses blind embossing to dramatic effect with its minimalist design. 

Printing presses come in different sizes. As you can imagine, the bigger the press, the more it costs to operate. A large press takes more ink, larger plates, and more staff. For that reason, business cards are normally printed on smaller presses that can print on smaller sheets of paper. These smaller presses (with a few exceptions) cannot print a large solid without compromising the quality of the solid. Small presses (often called duplicators) also may not be able to print more than two colors in tight or precise registration. For this reason, business card designs that take these limitations into account can be printed more economically than designs that do not.

There are some exceptions to this (aren’t there always? LOL). When printing large runs of masters, the mastered elements can incorporate large solids and tight registration because chances are they are going to print on a much larger press sheet on a much larger press. Here are some examples of business cards that are difficult if not impossible to print on a small press:

B card

The tan solid on the reverse side of this business card would be enough to negate the use of a small press, but add-on the tight registration of the purple rectangle, and there are few small presses that can handle this project. Also note the round corners. This can be accomplished with die cutting or round cornering on a smaller machine that makes it economical to round-corner small lots.  


This impressive card uses bright solids and die cutting to make a lasting impression. 


The solid green on the reverse of the card is preprinted on masters. 

Printing business card masters involves designing the variable items (name, phone, etc.) to be printed in one color as an imprint. That leaves the static information (Company name, logo, slogan, etc.) to be printed on masters and held for the imprint at the printer. How many cards is enough to constitute a master run? Well, it’s not just the quantity but also the finishing processes that are added. But in general, estimate 50,000 cards as a bare minimum for a simple design that is mastered on only one side. Ask your client how many employees will get business cards and how many. That gives you a total amount for the initial run. Adding another 30% onto that is a really easy way to put some masters on the shelf. Then, when the reorders start coming in the masters will be available and your printer can track how long they last. The first time cards are ordered, when a company is rebranded, for instance, ask your client what their hiring practices will be for the next 6-12 months. Sometimes they will be adding 200 people and your printer needs to be prepared. Remember that business card reprints should always be ordered in a manner that will not waste a master. For example, if the masters are 4-up and you order 500 cards each for three people you are going to waste a slot. You can change the order to four people or you can double the quantity for one person by putting their name into two of the spots on the press sheet.

  • Business card masters are good for:
  • Better color control on a custom color or large solid
  • Process color on an uncoated paper
  • Speeding up turnaround time on imprints
  • Lower cost of imprints
  • More cost-effective to add an enhancement such as foil stamping, embossing, or die cutting.
  • Using a special paper (such as a duplex cover) when the minimum quantity needed is for zillions of cards.

Business cards should be convenient and useable. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, consider the recent popularity of super-thick business cards. Some of these double pasted papers are 4-6 times as thick as a regular business card. What that means to people who carry and hand out a lot of business cards is they have to refill their wallet, folio, card case, etc. four to six times as often! Is that convenient? No. That’s why people who hand out a ton of cards hate thick business cards. What else is inconvenient… have you ever tried to write a note on a UV coated card? IMPOSSIBLE. Even with a Sharpie marker! If you must use a super high gloss UV, keep it on the front so that notes can be made on the back. 



Here’s a super awesome card! It was printed on white paper with a double hit of black plus
a spot dull varnish over the black and clear foil on the orange. WOW.

Thanks to all the talented designers who designed these cards! Many of these have been saved over the years to the printing inspiration box. If you see your work here please let us know! Have you had a surprise business card experience? Maybe you changed something small and it resulted in a big cost increase? We would love to hear your stories, please share in the comments section.

Confused about digital printing?

For a limited time to can get the actual decision tree in my book, for free! The ultimate tool for figuring out if a project can be digitally printed or if it needs to go on press. PLUS you'll get a heads up when the Kickstarter campaign launches.

We respect your privacy.