“What paper grain means to you” is often one of the first discussions I have with newly hatched designers working on their first professionally printed project. Most of them didn’t learn about grain in design school, probably because they rarely got to print anything.

Paper grain is the way the paper’s fibers line up in relation to the edges of the paper during its manufacture. “Yeah, so what?” you might ask.

DSCF0627_2Let’s say you’re making a brochure. The stock will fold smoothly if the grain is running parallel to the fold. These parallel fibers support that fold or spine, for nice, erect (ahem!) character. But let’s say you don’t specify grain and the printer prints and folds the brochure cross-grain. It will be wimpy and limp! (Granted, this stock is really light, exaggerating the limp effect!)

DSCF0630This take-one, designed to be displayed in a rack, is limp because the piece was printed cross-grain.

Paper grain matters when it is needed to structurally support your design. On a pocket folder, grain choice can make the pockets gappy or snug. On a perfect-bound book, grain direction influences how wide or flat the book can open and how stiff the pages feel.

Folding across the grain can also result in unattractive cracking or a lumpy fold, something that’s especially problematic when there’s heavy ink coverage where the piece folds.

Sometimes the printer won’t have the choice of laying out your project grain-correct on the press sheet, such as on a big brochure with more panels than will fit on the width of the sheet. (Grain is usually parallel to the long side of the sheet.) In that case, letterpress scoring can lessen cracking.

One exception to the go-with-the-grain rule is landscape-format folded greeting cards. If you want them to stand up for display, print them cross-grain and score the fold. Otherwise, they will dish and sag.

Disaster avoidance tips

Always talk to your printer during the design stage and discuss whether grain does matter on your project.

You can also find out for yourself by ordering up a few parent sheets of the desired stock and creating your own paper dummies.

Source: USPS memo, Eligibility for Commercial Flats Failing Deflection*

If you are designing a catalog or flat piece that will be mailed, its relative limpness will affect the postage price. The USPS has even devised a test for the acceptable degree of droopiness!

Paper grain, weight, and type of stock all come into play here. In this instance, really limp is really not good.

Before selecting stock for this type of product, I recommend getting advice from a USPS mailing specialist or your mailing house rep.

This helpful article by Jim Tierney, USPS Issues Final Rule on Catalog Droop Test, discusses the USPS standards for degree of deflection (droop or limpness) allowable for mail processed with automated equipment.

Also see the USPS Physical Standards for Flats section of the USPS Direct Mail Manual.

*See Eligibility for Commercial Flats Failing Deflection

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