Understanding Paper Weights

Once upon a time, a tenth-grade English teacher sought to impress upon her students the importance of following MLA guidelines to the letter. One such guideline was that essays must be printed on paper of a particular weight. That night, twenty-some sophomores went home and told their parents they needed paper of a certain weight, and those parents looked at one another and shook their heads and told their children to use whatever was in the printer because if their teacher went to the trouble of weighing each page she was insane.

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Our papers never did get weighed, and paper weight remained a mystery to me – until now. There are three different scales that can be used to describe paper weight (also called paper density). The first is the U.S. system of Basis Weight, which is the weight in pounds of 500 sheets of paper in its basic sheet size. “Basic sheet size” varies depending on the type, however, which makes it difficult to compare the weights of different types of paper. For instance, the basic sheet size of Bond paper is 17″x22″, while the basic sheet size of Tag Stock is 24″x36″.

The second system of measurement is Caliper, which refers to the thickness of a single sheet of paper as expressed in increments of a thousandth of an inch. Generally speaking, the higher the Caliper (i.e. the greater the thickness of the paper), the heavier the paper will be. The measurement is taken with an instrument called a  micrometer.

The third system of measurement is known as the metric system, and it is used to describe mass per unit of area. It is measured in grams per square meter, or GSM. Therefore, a paper’s weight can also be referred to as its “grammage” when using this system. Therefore, the weight or grammage of a given sheet of paper is equivalent to the weight in grams of a one-square-meter-sized piece of that type of paper.

If you’re not concerned about MLA guidelines, what can you do with this information? Muse Art & Design has provided this helpful list of paper types, weights, and uses:

Common GSM Weights and Their Uses

  • 25 lb (approx 40 gsm):  tracing paper
  • 30-35 lb (approx 45-50 gsm):  newsprint
  • 50-60 lb (approx 75-90 gsm):  sketching or practice paper — thick enough to work on with pencils, charcoal, or pastels, but usually too thin for ink or most markers, which may bleed through.
  • 70-80 lb (approx 100-130 gsm): drawing paper suitable for finished artwork in most media.  Paper any lighter than 70lb will usually be thin enough to see through to drawings or materials underneath.
  • 90-110 lb (approx 180-260 gsm):  heavy-weight drawing paper, bristol, multi-media papers.  Weight in this range is similar to card stock or light poster board.
  • Heavier papers, up to 140 lb (approx 300 gsm) or more, are most often used for painting rather than drawing.  When found in sketchbooks, they are usually rougher papers intended as watercolor journals or to remove for painting on individual sheets.

Armed with your new knowledge of paper weight, check out our extensive selection of notebooks and sketchbooks to suit all of your artistic endeavors. Happy drawing, readers!

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