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Print Specs 101

Written By Annie Williams

July 28, 2022

While many of our clients have deep experience in direct mail and printing, some are just getting started. If you’ve ever spoken to one of our account or project managers about a project and thought, “They’re speaking another language”—this post is for you. Understanding all the various print specs can be overwhelming, especially if you’re new to direct mail. This post will introduce you to the basics so you can feel confident in making the right choices for your project.


Coated vs Uncoated
Coated papers have a clay coating applied during the manufacturing process. The clay allows the ink to sit on top of the clay rather than on top of the paper, which yields brighter ink colors and crisper images. There are two finishes for coated paper: gloss and silk (sometimes referred to as satin). Gloss paper is shiny (think magazine paper) and tends to be more flimsy than silk paper. Silk is a very popular finish; it’s less shiny than gloss but still allows for bright ink colors and crisp photos. Uncoated paper, as the name implies, does not have a clay coating. The ink prints directly on the paper fibers, giving you more muted ink colors and less crisp images as the ink soaks in. Uncoated paper has a matte finish. 

Aside from aesthetic preference, it’s important to think about the function of a piece when choosing between coated and uncoated paper. If you’re printing a form, for example, it’s best to use uncoated or silk paper because many types of pens will not dry on gloss paper, and the writing will smudge.

Stocks and Weights
Most of the paper we use for our projects is either text or cover. Text paper (also referred to as offset) is a lighter, thinner paper, whereas cover is heavier and thicker. We often use text for letters, brochures, report contents, and flyers. We use cover for things like postcards, invitations, booklet covers, and business cards.

Within each of these stock types, there are different paper weights, usually described in terms of pounds (lbs. or #). The heavier the paper weight, the thicker the paper. Text paper is usually available in 60# to 100#, and cover is usually available in 80# to 130#.


Color Models
We print in two different color models: CMYK and PMS spot colors. CMYK is a multicolor process that stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. You may hear it referred to as process color or four color. With CMYK, the colors in your design are all rendered through some combination of these four colors. PMS (Pantone Matching System) spot colors refer to a precisely mixed color that matches a swatch in the Pantone catalog. PMS colors are often used for branding elements like logos because they guarantee consistent color matching. In addition to CMYK and PMS, we also print in black-only for all black or grayscale materials.

Bleeds refer to ink that runs off the edge of the trimmed paper. If you want your design to run right to the edge of the paper, your design files must include 1/8″ bleed of all images and design elements outside of the trim area. Keep in mind that bleeds require us to print on an oversized sheet and cut down to the final size, which can be more expensive. If there are no bleeds, we can print on a smaller sheet size, thus saving you money. 


Coatings are often used to make print pieces more durable, especially postcards, since they don’t have the added protection of an outer envelope. Coatings can prevent materials from tearing, scuffing, or smudging. Like coated paper, however, they can be difficult to write on, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to use a coating. The primary type of coating we offer is aqueous because it’s efficient and the most environmentally friendly option on the market.

Aqueous is a water-based coating that has replaced varnish. It’s used during the printing process to seal in the ink and allow for shorter drying time. Aqueous is available in gloss and satin finishes. It reduces general scuffing and fingerprints but does not protect direct mail from rubber wheel marks when traveling through the USPS postal system. 

For long-form content like booklets and reports, there are different binding techniques to hold the pages together. Saddle stitch binding is where the paper is folded in half, and two staples are placed along the spine. This option works well for small booklets or magazines (pieces that are less than 96 pages). 

If you have a larger book or report (⅛” thick or more), you’ll want to use perfect binding. With this method, the spine is flat like paperbound books. Depending on the overall thickness, you can print the title or other information along the spine. The best option for tabbed workbooks is mechanical binding, which uses a plastic or wire coil (think spiral-bound notebooks). This binding allows a book to lie flat when open and can easily accommodate tabs. The minimum page count for this option is 60 pages.  


Clearly articulating the size of your print deliverable can be more difficult than you would expect. There are two terms to know regarding size: flat and finished. The finished size is the size of your completed product after any binding or folding. When you pick up your brochure or book, what size is it? That’s your finished size. The flat size, on the other hand, is the size of the paper before we do any binding or folding (i.e., when it’s lying flat). 

Take a trifold brochure, for example. One of the most common finished sizes is 3.667” x 8.5”. When the brochure is fully opened, the flat size is 8.5” x 11”.

Note: For pieces that don’t bind or fold, such as a postcard or a flier, the flat size is the same as the finished size. 

While this just covers the tip of the iceberg, it’s a good start to understanding the basics. Our team is happy to provide recommendations based on your particular project needs, so don’t hesitate to reach out.