Types of printing paper and when to use them

Reading time: 10 minutes

Although we live in a largely digital world, paper hasn’t gone away. And that’s a good thing—think about the rush of opening a birthday card or that soft, satisfying feel of thumbing through a magazine. Paper plays an important role in our everyday lives, and as a small business owner, the paper you choose for your projects says a lot about who you are and what you offer. Different products need different types of printing paper. We’re here to ensure you’re always choosing the best paper for your needs. 

Understanding key paper terms

Printing paper uses unique terms to describe the characteristics of different paper types.  A few important paper terms to know include: 

Weight

In paper, the term “weight” refers to the paper’s thickness. Sometimes it’s listed in pounds, such as “20 pounds” or “80 pounds.” Other times it’s listed as points, like “16 point.” These two conventions refer to how the paper’s thickness is measured. 

With pounds, it refers to what an uncut ream of that paper type weighs. With points, it refers to how many thousandths of an inch thick a sheet of the paper is. For example, 16 point paper is 16/1000th of an inch thick. 10 point paper is 10/1000th of an inch thick. 

Coating

Many types of paper—but not all—have a coating. This is the chemical outer layer applied to the paper that can change how much it shines, how much ink it absorbs, its texture and how colors appear. 

The most common type of paper coating is aqueous coating. This type of coating has a bit of a shine to it, and it’s effective protection against fingerprints on the page. It’s generally recommended for heavier papers, as it can cause thinner paper to wrinkle. 

UV coating is another type of coating, and it can be used to create a variety of finishes. It’s effective at protecting paper, but it can also make the paper difficult to fold, so it is not recommended for projects like pamphlets and brochures. For projects like these, go with propylene coating, which has a soft finish and can easily be folded.  

Varnish coating is a low-cost, simple coating that offers less protection than other types, but is less expensive, which makes it a good choice for projects that don’t need to last a long time or won’t face a significant amount of handling. 

Polyester coating is the most durable type of coating, which makes it perfect for any paper product that needs to stand up to regular handling and potential exposure to the elements. It tends to be fairly expensive, so it’s generally reserved for report covers, folders and other items that need to stand the test of time.

Finish

In discussions about the types of printing paper, “finish” is closely related to coating. While coating refers to the actual chemical coating on the paper, finish refers to the sensory experience it creates.

For example, matte finish produces softness. This means that it’s easier to fold and when you touch it with your fingertip, the paper might not feel perfectly smooth—instead, it could feel more like cloth than paper. Imagine a tissue or the paper in a sketchbook. In contrast, a glossy finish feels smooth to the touch, like you’re running your fingertip across a pane of glass or a piece of untextured plastic. 

Types of Printing Paper

Matte

Matte paper has a soft, non-glossy finish that slightly refracts light. Think of your standard printer paper—usually, it has a matte finish. Because a matte finish absorbs, rather than reflects, light, choose it to reduce or eliminate glare that can obscure a page’s content. 

When it comes to printing projects, matte paper is ideal for text-heavy books and flyers because of its soft texture and glare-reducing finish. It’s also great for stationery, because ink doesn’t wipe off matte paper like it tends to wipe off glossier finishes. 

black and white letterhead featuring a large logo in the upper left side

Letterhead design by velvetmade

Generally, matte paper is less expensive than other types of paper. It’s also fairly light, generally weighing 70 to 90 pounds. Keep in mind that  printing paper prices can vary, so don’t assume matte (or any other type of paper) is going to be the least expensive or the best option for your project. 

Glossy

Think of glossy paper as the opposite of matte. While matte paper absorbs light, glossy paper reflects it. This makes it ideal for photos and other colorful images, as it can make the colors brighter. Other good uses for glossy paper include menus and lookbooks.

While the glossy finish makes this type of paper smooth to the touch, it also makes it difficult to write on, so it’s not the best choice for any document that needs to be signed and returned, like a Save the Date. Generally, glossy paper is on the heavier side, weighing in at 80 to 130 pounds.

black, pink and blue brochure

Brochure design by DSKY

Silk paper

Coating-wise, silk paper falls between glossy and matte. It’s shinier than matte but not as soft, and it’s softer than glossy but not as shiny. Generally, silk paper weighs 80 to 130 pounds. 

So why choose silk paper? Because for certain projects, like magazines and posters, it strikes the ideal balance between these two ends of the glossy-matte spectrum. For any project that needs a high-end feel, silk paper is exactly what you need because of its smooth texture. Beyond magazines and posters, it’s a great choice for marketing materials and invitations. 

Brochure design by Sali Designs

Bond

Bond paper tends to be heavy-duty and durable, yet light—typically between 20 and 80 pounds. This makes it ideal for any document that needs to last a long time, like a report or an envelope. Bond paper is characterized by its lack of coating, which can leave it susceptible to scuffs and stains. That’s perfectly fine for products that aren’t distributed outside your office or otherwise don’t need to look pretty, but it is something to keep in mind when you’re considering bond paper for your print project. 

Bond paper holds onto ink well, so it’s a great choice for any type of intricate logo or print. Aside from envelopes, it’s a good choice for company stationery. 

Envelope design by ElleGFX

Cardstock

Out of all the types of printing paper on this list, cardstock—which is usually 80-pound paper—is the most heavy duty. As its name implies, cardstock is great for cards: business cards, postcards, greeting cards, reminder cards and direct mailers you want to stand out in recipients’ mailboxes. Due to its durability, cardstock is your go-to for documents that need to withstand prolonged handling or exposure to the elements, like displays for trade show booths. Cardstock is available in both glossy and matte finishes, so you can choose the one that’s best-suited for your project. 

white business card with black text and a gold logo

Business card design by ultrastjarna

Photo paper

Photo paper is paper coated with a light-sensitive chemical formula that enables it to render photos and other images clearly and vibrantly. This coating provides a glossy finish that’s generally more intense than standard glossy paper…think of it as “extra glossy” finish. Although it shares this characteristic with glossy paper, it tends to be lighter, at 24 to 70 pounds. 

This extra, photo-specific coating also absorbs a significant amount of ink and dries quickly. This makes it ideal for large jobs, like runs of hundreds or thousands of photo-heavy brochures. It’s also a good choice for any image you plan to display, such as prints of your favorite photos. 

collection of printed photos

Image via Sarandy Westfall via Unsplash

Best types of printing paper for different projects

When you’re planning a print project, the type of paper you choose is one of the most important decisions to make early in the process. If you choose an inappropriate type of paper, you can end up with a finished product that just doesn’t look right. You may even need to re-print it. Familiarizing yourself with various types of printing paper and their uses before you start designing can save you a lot of time and money. 

Best paper for color printing

For color printing, you want to go with glossier finishes that enhance bright colors. Good choices are gloss or silk finishes. For the weight and coating type, good choices are thicker paper and UV coating wich does not affect color.

Photo paper is a great choice for printing color photos (and even black and white photos) because it’s coated with a light-sensitive solution that reacts to light, which renders crisp details and provides a wide tonal range for the colors in the image. 

flyer featuring green text boxes, photos and text

Flyer design by YaseenArt

Best paper for letterhead

Bond paper is ideal for letterhead because it’s easy to write on. This is due to its lack of coating. It also holds ink well, so you can print your logo and other information onto it without worrying about it bleeding or becoming distorted.

orange and white-patterned stationery, envelopes, and business cards

Brand identity design by uxboss  

Best paper for marketing materials

For marketing materials, you need to produce something that’s easy to read, easy to handle and presents your company in the best light. Bond paper is a great choice for single-use marketing materials, like envelopes for personalized business letters. For postcards and sturdy one-pagers that will change hands frequently, go with cardstock. And for those marketing materials that will showcase your brand, like leaflets and promotional booklets, silk paper gives a luxe look and feel. 

colorful envelopes featuring desert landscapes

Envelope design by Natalia Maca

Get the best print possible by choosing the right paper type

When you have a print project to complete, the kind of paper you choose matters. Make your design look its best by printing it on the type of paper optimized for it. 
If you’re not sure which kind of paper is best for your project, or you haven’t finalized your design yet and you need help getting it just right, Vistaprint can help. Contact us today to work with our design experts.