Spec Rep Secrets: Do You Know the House Sheet You’re Printing On?

I got an email last week from a former customer of mine wanting info on a printer’s house sheet, which was a private label. The job was scheduled to go to press that day and he hadn’t heard of the paper being used and wanted to know what it was. It’s a fair question. As a creative professional one’s reputation is based on the quality of one’s work, and when it comes to print, paper has a huge impact on the final results. So the fact that my former customer was reaching out to me for answers made me think – do designers really know what they are getting when it comes to a house sheet?

It’s kind of like asking if you know what you are getting when you buy a generic brand at the grocery store. For me, I frequent a local grocer that’s been operating in my city since the early twentieth century. The stores are clean, well stocked, their employees are friendly and knowledgeable, their commitment to sustainability very transparent and their prices are fair – not the cheapest, but that’s OK with me. I trust them to sell me a quality generic brand – not some chemical laden, GMO product imported from half a world away. Obviously not all generic brands are equal and the same goes for private label house sheets. It comes down to one thing – do you trust your printer? Hopefully the answer is yes. If you’re not sure, here are some things to think about when it comes to using private label house sheets.

The factors for determining a house sheet are usually driven by performance, price and availability. No printer I know wants to deal with paper claims, so performance is a given. And if a paper is not stocked locally, then it won’t make the cut for house sheet status – you need something readily available. That leaves price as the remaining factor when choosing a house sheet. As a former paper rep, I will tell you this is the level where 80%+ of all commercial printing papers are sold. Which, in my opinion, is the biggest reason for the decline of print – stop making it about price. If your client wants to print, they want their work to stand out – so use a better paper, the difference in cost is not that much as you’ll see below (notice I didn’t say price). So if 80%+ of all print jobs are produced on a house sheet, chances are pretty good at some point your work will end up on one. Don’t you want to know what you’re getting?

Begin with finding out what paper mill makes the sheet. This is different from who the printer buys the paper from. For most sheet fed commercial printers, when we are talking about house sheets we mean economy coated papers. At this level, there are only a few branded coated sheet fed economy papers that are made in North America, that usually means one from Sappi, NewPage or Appleton Coated. All the rest are imports, usually from Europe or Asia. Many merchant private label programs switch manufacturers frequently, because they too are buying on price. This is especially true with national suppliers. If the “brand” name is established they will keep the name but change the supplier they source it from – what could have been a domestic mill may now be a foreign one, but the name remains the same.

The only way a designer knows what they’re really getting is if they ask – which was the case with my former customer. Don’t be surprised if your rep doesn’t know who actually makes the paper, most only know the brand name and the merchant they buy it from – chances are if the brand name is the same and the merchant switched suppliers, the rep won’t even know it. It’s understandable – no one likes change. When things that are perceived as working, “change” runs the risk of scaring off customers, so it’s not likely to be something that’s advertised. Not to mention if the reason for switching papers is due to costs, are those savings being passed along? In many cases that’s not very likely.

For me when I’m talking about economy papers I’m not focused on price – at that level the difference is pretty insignificant. For me the main difference is in terms of aesthetics, imports are usually brighter and the European gloss sheets tend to be über glossy. If I had to settle for an economy grade (yes, I said settle) I would always opt for a domestic, mill branded sheet. Not only do I think the paper is of a higher quality – meaning better formation, opacity (less show-through), and bulkier than private label imports, but also better environmentally, and I don’t just mean initials and a logo. When it comes to sustainability there is no way you are going to convince me it’s justifiable to support the greenhouse gas emissions necessary to ship a sheet across an ocean – to say nothing of the inequitable manufacturing/labor practices of imported sheets from countries like China.

You get what you pay for – or do you? Here’s the dirty little secret no one on the supplier side wants you to know – paper is marked up multiple times. The mill sells the paper to the paper merchant (mark up #1), the merchant sells the paper to the printer (mark up #2) and the printer includes the price of the paper (with another markup – #3) in the overall price of the finished job. It can vary, but in general there’s about 70-80% markup on the merchant’s published list price. Although there is a lot of expense that goes into the shipping/receiving/warehousing/delivery of the product not to mention the credit issues of customers, suffice it to say that just because the paper has a published price with a mark up of 70% does not mean the printer is paying that price for it- quite the contrary. The average margin on coated sheet fed stock paper sold to printers is around 15%. Every printer pays a different price (depending on things like volume, credit, service levels, etc.). Now for the rub, most estimates use the paper’s published list price (70-80%) plus the printer’s markup (on average around 20%) and pass that along in the price of the overall print job – not necessarily the true cost to purchase the paper.

Obviously, when a paper costs less to purchase there’s wiggle room with the markup, especially when comparing the “price” of the house sheet on a specified, mill branded grade. There’s a reason it’s called a house sheet, it is used a lot. The printer buys in volume, pays a lower price and can use it on numerous jobs – this saves time, costs and improves operating efficiencies. The question becomes how much of the savings from using a house sheet is passed along in the final price? I don’t know the answer to that but what I do know is that the difference between using house sheet and branded mill sheet may not be as much as you think.

Compare the price of 1,000 sheets of 80# gloss text coated (160M) so you can see how much more/less you are paying for a premium, mill branded product vs. an economy grade.

Category Paper Published Price
Premium McCoy $223.23
#1 Utopia One $212.16
#2 Sterling Premium $190.40
Economy European Import $145.52
Economy Flo $139.26

As you can see, there is a difference between a premium, mill branded product and the rest. Although I’d argue that a difference of less than $100 (the difference between McCoy and Flo in the example above) is not going to wreck havoc on one’s budget, so I’d choose the best sheet possible. This is especially true if the design calls for a silk or dull finish, or features heavy solids/metallics. If you are printing a small run or digitally, don’t let price deter you from using a better paper – at that point paper is such a small part of the overall job and can have a huge impact on the finished print results. But if you have a tight budget and it’s a larger run, price out the difference between using a #2 and an economy grade (in this case under $50), and finally, if all things still point to the economy grade – opt for domestic whenever possible.

If you’re working on a print project and are struggling with paper options, drop us a line – will help answer all your questions from identifying a house sheet, to finding the right shade and finish. To learn more about paper and print resources, join our community – we believe knowledge should be accessible to all, regardless of location or client roster.

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