Skill Session: Specifying paper for letterpress

Techniques , Letterpress Paper
by riseandshine

Skill Session: Specifying paper for letterpress.

How to choose paper for letterpress printing

You have probably seen beautiful prints on soft, textured paper that sings when combined with a signature letterpress bite. In this skill session, we’ll shed some light on how to explore the world of paper for yourself, and to communicate clearly with your printer so you receive the results you desire. We’ll talk about all the different weights, calipers and finishes, and what it all means in relation to your project. And we will give you plenty of resources to learn more.

Start exploring papers with mill swatch books

Paper mills (“mill” is the term used to describe a paper manufacturer) all distribute swatch books of their products. A paper mill will usually have several line names or brand names that it produces, and each will have its own swatch book. Inside, you will usually find a waterfall of paper samples along with the color names, available weights and finishes. They often include examples of fine printing techniques on their papers. In the Resources section below, we have links for you to order swatch books for yourself.


An example of the many papers available from Neenah Paper Company from our paper library. Each swatch book is packed with examples and information about each paper brand.

French Muscletone swatch book

A swatch book from French Paper Company, the oldest family-run paper company in the US. French Muscletone is very popular for designers specifying stocks for letterpress. French Paper can be purchased in small quantities direct from their website, so it is a great choice for short-run projects. They also stock matching envelopes for every grade and color in their line, which is fantastic for stationery designers. French also sells a Sample Pack Multi Pack, which is an amazing box of 8.5 x 11″ sheets of every paper they make. At $30, it is seriously worth the money for any graphic designer.

Mohawk Via Vellum Open Swatchbook

Inside a swatch book, you can find a waterfall layout of paper with a key sheet that describes the colors, weights and finishes available.  Some colors may not be available in all weights, so check carefully to make sure you weight and shade combination is available.

It’s good to have a soft side.

Every paper has its own personalty on the press. Before you pick a paper, it’s best to decide what you want to express. Do you want your prints to have a soft, delicate, pillow-like impression profile? Or do you want to give your prints a deep, chiseled indentation?

Here are some examples of the kinds of papers you can choose, and the impression that results:

  1. Crane’s Lettra. This example features 220lb Crane’s Lettra, a 100% cotton paper designed specifically for letterpress printing. It has soft, pulpy fibers that give it the feeling of hand-made art paper.
  2. Neenah Classic Crest. This is a fine example of a high-quality “commercial” style sheet, generally designed for offset printing. It prints beautifully with letterpress, too. You can see how the hardness of this sheet is less yielding to the letterpress impression. It gives the letterforms a chiseled appearance when viewed up close.
  3. French Muscletone. Though this paper is made of 100% recycled wood fibers, it has a softer finish more similar to the cotton paper.
  4. Wild 35% Cotton. This paper has a unique surface texture. The added cotton gives this paper a luxurious softness without sacrificing weight and presence in the hand.
  5. Mohawk Superfine 120lb iTone. Designed for digital printing, we use this paper for letterpress + digital combination prints.


Weight vs. Thickness

Paper weight does not accurately indicate paper thickness. For example, 110lb Crane’s Lettra Cover is actually slightly thicker than 130lb Neenah Classic Crest Cover. That’s because weight doesn’t take into account the density of the paper. The Lettra is soft and pulpy. The Classic Crest is hard and smooth. It simply packs more fibers into a thinner sheet.

The number to consider when thinking about thickness is the paper’s “caliper.” Paper thickness is usually measured with a device called a micrometer. In the US, it reads in thousandths of an inch, but we use the word “points” as shorthand. A paper that is 40 thousandths of an inch thick (0.040 inches) would be referred to as 40 point. For a handy reference, a dime is precisely 0.053 inches thick, or 53 points.


The paper industry uses the term “finish” to describe the paper’s surface texture. Every paper company has their own unique take on what these textures mean, but we have selected some favorites to show here.

  • Smooth. Smooth finish papers have no discernable texture. They are smooth and uniform in finish with no discernable texture or tooth.
  • Wove. Wove finish is usually similar to smooth, or it may have a subtle mesh finish.
  • Vellum. Vellum is toothier, slightly more coarse in texture than wove finish. It is used for stationery because the texture makes it great for writing.
  • Eggshell Finish. Similar to the texture of an egg. Toothy and slightly textured. Very similar to vellum finish paper.
  • Linen. Linen finish paper has the texture of linen fabric. Linen fabric is made from the flax plant, but a linen paper is not an indication that it is made with flax fibers. Instead, this is a finish that is added to the paper to resemble the fabric.
  • Laid. Historically, this finish was the result of a handmade paper making process that used a wire mesh to form the paper sheets. Modern laid finish papers add the texture as an effect in the paper, similar to the way a watermark is added. It imparts the paper with a unique, classic look.


Paper Manufacturers

French Paper Company –
Mohawk Paper –
Neenah Paper –
Reich Paper –
Domtar Paper –

Learn About Paper

Legion Paper –
Visit their “our papers” section for photographs and descriptions of many great commercial and fine art papers.

Paper Specs –
A subscription service that gives you easy access to swatches and resources. Also free galleries, blogs and videos.