Spec Rep Secrets: The Big Lie About Coated Paper


When it comes to commercial printing, coated paper is used on the majority of projects. It is considered the workhorse of the print industry. When used thoughtfully, it can be an amazing conduit for beautiful design and production. Printers love running it, and with good reason. It provides a bright, consistently even surface allowing for minimal dot gain, great ink gloss and produces crisp, fine results. Plus it’s fairly easy to run on press. Sounds like a dream, right?

But all too often it’s because of these very reasons that designers do not bother to specify coated papers. Most tend to rely on the printer’s house sheet when printing on coated paper with budget driving that decision or give vague specs like a “No.2 coated.” I’ve seen this happen a thousand times. And the big lie about coated paper most designers don’t know is that they’re giving up way too much for little to no real impact on the budget.


Coated sheets are ideally suited for projects featuring metallics, like automotive or jewelry; projects requiring high definition, like product catalogs and high end photography; or any project requiring a sleek look or feel. Back in the day, if your design required crisp, sharp details you’re only real option was to use a coated paper – and gloss coated at that. Luckily advances in technology has changed all that and designers today have  tons of options.

Coated papers come in four basic finishes: gloss, dull, silk and matte; with gloss having the shiniest finish and matte having a flat, un-glossy finish. Side note, I hear tons of designers refer to a “matte” paper when in actuality what they mean is uncoated paper – these are two completely different things. To avoid costly mistakes, you definitely want to make sure you are using the correct lingo when referring to paper finishes. (I wrote a post about proper paper lingo here).

When it comes to coated paper finishes, printers LOVE to use gloss papers. They produce really high quality results, allow for an even, beautiful ink lay and really crisp dot. Designers tend to love the more tactile side of coated papers; I have to admit I do too. Show me a print piece featuring solid black coverage on a matte finish and I will not let it go. I think it’s that whole yin/yang thing of the smoothness and uniformity of a coated paper paired with the softness of the matte finish. Kind of like umami for paper. But matte coated papers can be unforgiving, if the surface is less than perfect it’ll show in the solids. For the best of both worlds (gloss/matte), a silk finish is a great option – it has great ink gloss but nice tactility and easy readibility which makes it a great choice for annual reports or publications.


Back in the day, coated papers were classified by their brightness levels (brightness meaning the amount of light reflected off the paper), the brighter the sheet, the higher the grade classification. Hence the scale Premium, No.1 , No.2, No.3, etc. A premium grade was considered the brightest and had a price tag to match. This worked for a while, when coated papers sold in North America were all manufactured in North America, and held to the same standard.

Then along came the imports – the bane of every American domestic mill. Imports gave printers the ability to provide the look for less. But like everything else that’s cheap to produce, its shelf-life is fleeting. To achieve that type of brightness, imports had to have a ton of optical brighteners – sounds harmless, but guess what? They yellow. Fast. Not to mention, most coated imports are pretty limp. To achieve the heft and rigidity of their domestic counterparts you usually need to go up a basis weight. FYI – paper is sold based on weight, so going up a basis weight is kinda counter-intuitive to the reason most opt for an import in the first place – to save money.

But the BIGGEST LIE OF ALL? The idea that using an coated imported paper will save your budget. Is it less expensive than a domestic premium sheet? Depends. The average offset sheet-fed print job these days is about a quantity of 2500. When you do the math, the price difference between the paper grades is not that much.

I spent over a decade working for paper merchants, if there’s one thing I understand it’s wholesale paper pricing. Here’s a comparison of the list prices on coated paper from a paper merchant’s price book:

1,000 sheets of 80# gloss text – all the same sheets size (160M for you paper geeks)


Category List Price
Premium $221.68
No. 1 $205.36
No. 2 $190.40
Economy/Import $134.00


The difference between a premium sheet and an economy sheet is $87.68. Seriously, that is all. But here’s the thing – this is only the published LIST PRICE. Printers purchase at a whole different level based on the their volume – so this price is almost ALWAYS discounted to the printer. The discount can be anywhere from 20% – 90% depending on the size of the printer and how much paper they buy from their main paper supplier.

Now here’s the rub, the print buyer will RARELY, if ever, see that savings passed along. Printers use an estimating software that plugs in the paper merchant’s list price – not the transactional price the printer bought the paper at. I’m not saying the paper shouldn’t be marked up, there are costs involved with handling paper, but let’s be honest – the savings the print buyer sees is nominal at best. So who really benefits from using the economy/import/house sheet grade? And yes, they are almost always one in the same.

To put it in terms designers can relate to, the cost to use a paper like McCoy or U1X is comparable to that of a high-end uncoated opaque sheet, and designers are using sheets like these all the time (ex. Cougar). So I say if your budget can afford the use a high-end opaque sheet, your budget can support using a Premium or No. 1 domestic coated sheet.  Always specify the best paper possible for the project.

I don’t know about your clients, but I know I will always use a sheet like McCoy or U1X for my collateral over an import like Endurance any day of the week. And even if I didn’t “know” paper, I know the difference between mediocre and memorable. I think most businesses are willing to spend less than $100 to make a lasting impression. After all, isn’t that the reason they decided to print in the first place?

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2 thoughts on “Spec Rep Secrets: The Big Lie About Coated Paper”

  1. Jill
    I appreciate the article. But I would like to show you all the beautiful catalogs I have on Uncoated paper. Featuring jewelry fashion automotive etc. they are beautiful, and show off the brand as much or more than coated paper.

    Ted oconnor

    • Ted,

      I totally agree – uncoated papers offer an amazing range of options when it comes to print. They lend a very personal connection to the printed piece (and brand behind the piece). In fact I mention this in my most recent Instagram post featuring the new David Prince lookbook on Superfine. Absolutely gorgeous and fitting with this brand. Here’s the link if you didn’t see it https://www.instagram.com/p/BJs-8hChd8E

      This post is more about the industry “lie” by some service providers that when printing with a coated paper, they’re basically all the same so just use a low-end, commodity import/economy grade and the designer will save on their budget. But the problem is the designer doesn’t realize how much they give up by buying into that belief, they should always control the spec no matter what the paper is. And while economy papers are inexpensive, the reality is the designer seldom sees that savings due to the way paper is transacted at the wholesale level between distributors and printers. By giving up that control of the specification process the designer (and client) loses.


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