Paper – So simple yet not. – Scribal Materials and Tools


As people of the modern world we handle paper every day.  It is a seemingly simple thing ins’t it. Yet a quick study of paper shows that even talking about paper is much more complicated than one might think at first.  When we stop and think about it for a moment it make sense.   We have paper towels, toilet paper, tissue paper, printing paper, tracing paper, cardboard, card stock, packing paper, wrapping paper, water color paper, litmus paper, crepe paper, paper plates, paper cups and… its tiring just to think of the different kinds of paper there are.  No wonder how it can be complicated to talk about paper and the qualities of paper.  A glossary of terms would be very useful to have.  One of the easiest to use and understand online glossaries for terms having to do with paper can be found here on

Today we are going to limit our conversation to paper that might be useful to us as calligraphers and as historical calligraphers.  And because I am more focused on “European” styles of calligraphy we will focus more on the papers that are used for that.  I have great respect for middle eastern, African and oriental cultures, their writing and thus their writing surfaces, I just will not be focusing on those today.

You walk up and grab some paper.  What is one of the first things you see describing the paper?


You will see paper listed as having a weight of 22 pounds, 120 pounds and other numbers as well.  Yet it is a single sheet of paper and it can’t possibly weigh much.  So what does “weight,” mean?  Some people believe that the weight of paper is a measurement of the thickness of the paper. While the weight of the paper is related to the thickness of the paper that isn’t completely accurate.  If the paper I am looking at is the same kind of paper from the same manufacturer then the heavier the weight the thicker the paper will be.  However, if I look at two different kinds of paper they both may have the same weight but one will probably be thinner than the other.  This has to do with the density of the materials in the paper and the process to make the paper being different.

A ream of paper is 500 sheets of paper.  The weight of 500 sheets of that specific paper is considered the weight of the paper in the master or “capital” size (area) of that paper.  This capital size (area) may or may not be the same as what is before you.  This measurement is called “basis weight,” in technical terms.  These days paper manufacturers rarely put 500 sheets on a scale and weigh it, instead they prefer to simply do math of measuring a master, or in technical terms “capital” sheet and then simply do the math to figure out how much 500 sheets of it would weigh.

This definition is very American/English centered.  There are international and metric measurements of weight as well.  A website that I use to “translate” between different weights is here.

If you want a website to do the conversion from basis weight to grams per square meter (gsm) International Paper has this page for you.

If you wish to convert gsm to basis weight Ballore Thin Papers has this page for you.

The take away: The weight of paper is the weight of 500 (a ream) of master sheets of  that paper.   Generally speaking the heavier the weight of the paper the thicker it will be but this isn’t true in the specifics.  Weights of different papers may be the same and the thickness will very likely be different.


The caliper of the paper is the thickness of the paper expressed in 1/1000 (0.001) inch.  This can be translated into pages per inch.  A handy online calculator is provided by Graphic Communications here.

This definition is very American/English centered.  There are international and metric measurements of weight as well.  A website that I use to “translate” between different calipers is here.

,001 inch = 0.0254 mm or 25.4 microns.

The take away:  Thickness is its own measurement.

Sizing of Size

Sizing is defined as:

The process by which gelatin rosin, starch or other synthetic substance is added to paper to provide resistance to the absorption of moisture or eliminating ink feathering and bleed through. Sizing added to the beater or vat of pulp is known as internal sizing. After a sheet is formed, it may be either surface sized (painted or brushed on the surface), or tub sized (immersed in a bath).

Definition provide by artpaper.

To argue a fine point in the definition, not all sizing is synthetic.  Tree sap such as gum sandarac is perfectly natural and has been used for centuries to size both paper and parchment.

If no sizing is added to the paper then you are very likely to end up having your ink feather and spider and bleed through.  In other words it is blotter paper or to think if it another way, a paper towel of sorts.  This of course depends on the materials and process used to make the paper so take the idea of a paper towel with a grain of salt.

The Take Away: Sizing can be added during the process of making paper and applied to the surface of the paper afterwards.  Sizing keeps the ink on the paper where you put it, instead of being absorbed by the fibers and feathering through the paper.


The finish of a sheet of paper refers to the condition of its surface; a highly finished surface is one that is hard and smooth, while a low finish is one that is relatively rough and “toothy.”  Definition provided by glatfelter

There are different kinds of finish for paper.  Arches hot press has a smooth finish but their cold press has a rough finish.  This is typical of hot pressed and cold pressed papers. We also see paper called Bristol Smooth and Bristol Vellum which are two different finishes.  The finish is directly related to the tooth of the paper. Tooth is the slight surface texture of the paper often preferred by dry media such as charcoal and pastels.

The Take Away: The finish of the paper has a direct affect on how the ink is going to interact with the paper.  A high gloss finish will cause the ink to sit on the surface of the paper and may cause it to pool there.  A matte finish may not.  As calligraphers using broad edge pens and ink we generally want to avoid rough finish paper and go more for smoother finished papers.  We want the tooth of the sheet to be minimal as a toothy writing surface can create problems when writing with a broad tip or copperplate pens.


Paper is made up of fibers of cellulose that are threadlike.  You can see the fiber in some paper and not in others.  The materials to make paper are broken down into a pulp.  Somewhere in the process of making the paper the fibers are laid on a surface and allowed to cohere to one another.  Once dry you have paper.  The fibers can lay there randomly or various techniques can be used to influence the position(s) the fibers end at.  One of the easiest to understand is simply running water over the fibers as they are laid on the surface. This causes the fibers to align in the same direction.

The fiber of the paper can have a strong impact on your calligraphy.  Fibers that stick out can catch your pen and cause very interesting results.  The fiber of your paper has a lot to do with how you will deal with mistakes in your projects. Do you scrap the whole thing or can you scrape the mistake without needed to start over?  Also, what the fiber is made of matters a lot to the quality of the paper.  Wood pulp paper is generally of lower quality than linen fiber paper.

The Take Away: As calligraphers the fiber of the paper can really influence the quality of our work.  Use the paper that will give you the results you are looking for.

Pressing the Paper

Paper is made using water.  Getting the water out of the paper is one of the key processes of making paper.  You can let it air dry or you can press the water out of the paper.  The pressing process has a definite affect upon the surface finish and other qualities of the paper.

Paper that is pressed without any heat is called cold pressed and it is generally a rough paper. defines cold press as, “A paper surface with slight texture produced by pressing the finished sheet between cold cylinders.”

Paper that is pressed with heat is often a smoother paper and often, more expensive than cold pressed paper. defined hot press as, “A paper surface that is smooth, produced by pressing a finished sheet through hot cylinders”

The Take Away: Hot press and cold press are quick ways to know how smooth the paper will be.  Don’t get caught in the trap of assuming one way or the other though.  Check the paper if you aren’t familiar with it.

If you have taken any time to read the glossary there are many other qualities of paper that I have not covered.  I’m already over 1,500 words which is double my normal limit.  I hope to revisit paper another time.

2 responses to “Paper – So simple yet not. – Scribal Materials and Tools

  1. Pingback: Cracking The Paper Code – An Itinerant Scribe·

  2. Pingback: Untangling Your Scribal Paper Purchasing Puzzle – An Itinerant Scribe·

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