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How to Choose the Right Paper for General Use

Choosing the right paper for your project is more complex than just picking the most expensive sheet and keeping your fingers crossed. In fact, you shouldn’t think about choosing paper based on the highest quality available, or the highest quality you can afford. Rather, you should figure out the most appropriate quality paper for your needs because most appropriate equals best. Every kind of paper is graded according to four different criteria as below:


Brightness is how white, or reflective, a paper is. A low brightness in cheap commercial paper (or expensive specialized stationery) means you’ll see diminished contrast between the paper and the ink or toner. In other words, the whites will look off-white, and the blacks look not as deep or as dark as they could.

Brightness is rated according to a scale of 1 to 100, with 80 being the lowest commercial grade and 100 the highest. However, not all paper manufacturers use the same ISO scale, so while the numbers may not be directly comparable from paper maker to paper maker, the rule-of-thumb is, the higher the number, the brighter (better) the paper. The average brightness for photocopy paper is 92, while premium paper may have a rating of 96 or 97. Although most paper sold lists a brightness figure right on the packaging, other paper manufacturers eschew the numerical scale and instead describe their paper with monikers such as UltraBright or SuperBright.


Opacity is the degree to which light passes through the paper. Most paper exhibits a certain degree of translucency, so if you hold it up to the light, you can see what’s on the other side. With some cheap paper, the opacity is so low that whatever’s printed on the other side will bleed through, whether or not you hold it up to a light source. For this reason, low-opacity paper is highly unsuitable for double-sided printing. As with brightness, the general rule-of-thumb: The better (more expensive) the paper grade, the higher its opacity. There’s no specific opacity grading scheme, though many manufacturers will describe their products as low-, medium-, or high-opacity paper.


Weight is how heavy or thick a paper is. Thick paper has a look and feel about it that denotes quality and importance, while thin paper has greater translucency, may impart a sense of cheapness (or the lack of importance of a document), and can be harder to handle (though it’s less expensive, and more can be stored in the same amount of space).

Paper weight is rated in pounds. The measurement reference harks back to the weight of 500 sheets of uncut printing-press paper. A 20-pound rating is the average weight for plain paper, 24 pounds is typical of a better-grade stock, and 32 pounds is generally considered stationery-grade. Report covers are 68 pounds, and postcard stock weighs in at 110 pounds.


Texture, also known as surface or smoothness, refers to how the paper looks and feels. Depending upon a number of factors (such as how it’s manufactured, if it’s coated or uncoated, the percentage of rag to cellulose, if any recycled materials are being used), paper can be smooth or slick, grained or pebbled, matte or silk. Texture affects how ink or toner is deposited and spread onto the paper. The rule of thumb is that smooth papers work better on inkjet and laser printers, while textured papers are more suited for handwritten notes and special-occasion use, such as wedding invitations and birth announcements.

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