Binding and finishing

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Quite often, the decision as to what type of paper to use for the publication of a document is a simple case of checking what stock is available in the Repro Department (or perhaps in the photocopier!). But there will be times when it is beneficial - or even necessary - to choose a specific type of paper. Even in cases where you were just going to use whatever is available, it is worth taking a moment to check that what is available actually is the best choice.

Paper weights

Paper weight is generally specified either in gsm (grams per square meter) - as is the case in the United Kingdom - or as the weight of a ream (500 sheets) of a standard size of the paper - as is the case in the United States.

For example, a sheet of standard office copy paper is 80gsm, or 20lb. (which is actually for 75gsm paper - the United States tends to use slightly lighter paper as standard).

Paper sizes

For a comprehensive list of paper sizes, refer to Paper Sizes on Wikipedia.

ISO paper sizes

With the notable exceptions of the United States and (for some reason) Hong Kong, most of the world uses 'ISO measurements' for paper. Here, there are two series that are used:

  • The 'A' series, in which the quoted measurements are the trimmed paper sizes (that is, to the very edge of the physical paper).
  • The 'B' series, in which the quoted measurements refer to the size the paper will be once it has been 'trimmed'. As described in Printing, some print processes (especially those for bound publications, or those where color 'bleeds' off the edge of the page) print on paper that is larger than the finished size, which is then trimmed (typically to ensure a 'clean' edge) to the finished size after printing.

Typically, Technical Communicators will be familiar with the 'A' series, which runs from the largest size of A0 (84mm x 1189mm) to the smallest size of A10 (26mm x 37mm). The most notable thing about the 'A' series papers is that each smaller size is exactly half the size of the one above it, and in the same proportions. So if you take a sheet of A4 in portrait orientation and fold it along the horizontal, you will have a piece of paper that is A5 size. This makes it very easy for developing folded or stapled pamphlets or brochures.

U.S. paper sizes

The table below shows the most common sizes used in the United States.

  Millimeters Inches
Letter 279.4 x 215.9 11 x 8.5
Legal 355.6 x 215.9 14 x 8.50
Ledger 431.8 x 279.4 17 x 11
Tabloid 279.4 x 431.8 11 x 17
Executive 266.7 x 184.1 10.55 x 7.25

Categories of paper

Originally a cotton-content writing or printing paper designed for the printing of bonds, legal documents, etc., and distinguished by superior strength, performance and durability. The term is now also applied to papers such as letterhead, business forms, social correspondence papers, etc. Has a hard surface, and is good for use with mechanical typewriters, impact printers, and manual drawings.
A higher grade of paper suitable for brochures.
A general-use grade that comes in a variety of weights.
(Also called Offset Litho paper.) Similar to Text, but developed specifically for the litho process. Important properties include good internal bonding, high strength, dimensional stability, lack of curl, and freedom from fuzz and foreign surface material. Used on both sheet-fed and web presses. Because it is manufactured and typically bought in bulk by printers, it tends to be cheaper than (for example) coated paper.
A thick, durable grade.
(Also called Tag or Cardboard.) Heavy, thick, and very durable.
Machine finished paper, made from ground-wood pulp. It loses color when exposed to light, and generally tends to be of a lower/coarser quality. It is typically used for newspapers or handbills (things that have a very low shelf-life).
Coated paper 
(also called Art paper. This paper is coated with china clay and is usually polished. It may be coated on one side only (when it is called chromo) or both, depending on the final use. Good for high-quality detail or color. It is relatively expensive, but holds ink well, and is therefore highly-suited to reproduction of high-definition images.
Heavy-grade paper suitable for use as booklet covers.

The term Mechanical Paper is often used to refer to all non-Newsprint paper. It is so-called because it is made primarily from mechanical pulp (i.e. the wood is broken down into pulp via a mechanical process). The paper may also include a chemical-pulp component to add strength. This paper has a better quality than newsprint, and can be finished or glazed to give a smooth finish (see Coated paper above).

Things to consider when choosing a paper

There are several reasons why you may choose to use a specific type of paper - or paper with specific qualities or characteristics. These are described below.

The 'shelf-life' of the work

It is worthwhile considering for how long the publication will be required.

If the publication is required only for a specific, short-term, period after which the publication will be discarded - as is the case with, for example, a daily newspaper - then normally it will be sufficient to use low-grade paper. Low-grade papers, such as newsprint (see below), may well 'discolor' over time, or 'absorb' the print (causing the content to blur) after a few months. This is not a problem with a daily newspaper or a flyer advertising a one-day sale, but would be completely but acceptable for a document with shelf-life of six months or more. The advantage of low-grade paper is that it tends to be (relatively) cheap and therefore may be a good choice where cost is a significant factor.

If the publication will be retained for years to come - for example, a birth-certificate or diploma - then a more robust paper will be needed. The use of the document within the period often must be taken into account as well. A birth certificate may be referred to only a handful of times during its lifetime (or the lifetime of its owner!) and so using a good-quality paper may be sufficient. However, if the document will be physically handled much more often - for example, a passport or driver's license - then some kind of binding or finishing may also be required.

The way in which the publication will be used

Related to the publication's life span is the way in which a publication will be used. Here, the overriding rule is: The quality of the paper should reflect the frequency of use. For example, if a publication will be used as a daily reference, then it is usually advisable to choose a 'heavier' grade of paper that will hold up well to repeated handling. Additionally, if the publication will be used in particularly rough or arduous conditions (such as on a shop floor, or in a mechanic's workshop) then it may be worthwhile using some form of paper that is better suited to this type of handling (such as coated, or grease-resistant paper. By contrast, a publication that will spend most of it's life sat on a shelf and only be referred to on an exceptional basis probably does not require such 'heavy-duty' paper.

The image to be portrayed

Although it would initially appear that a publication having a short shelf-life or one-time use would dictate the use of a lower-grade paper, the image that is to be portrayed may reverse this decision. For example, with some publications, such as company reports, or IPO prospectuses, is it is important to portray a 'professional' (or opulent) image and this normally means using high-quality 'coated paper or 'photo paper'.

The desired quality of illustrations/text

Pure text can use coarser paper; photos need coated paper. Consider also the ability of the paper to 'hold' absolute measurements accurately).

The means by which the documentation will be distributed

If the documentation is being shipped then this may influence the choice of paper. Specifically, if the documentation is being sent by air freight then using a lighter weight of paper may be provide cost savings.

See also Distribution and dispatch.

Page size

'Standard' may be cheaper

Paper color

Colored paper unsuitable for photocopying, but may be desirable for some categories of information (e.g. red for safety instructions)


If paper to be printed both sides, then need opaque paper.


When choosing a binding method, it is important to consider the way in which the document will be used (see Determining how the document will be used). For example, if the document will be read whilst performing a task (as is the case with most user instructions) then it will be a requirement for the document to 'lie flat' when opened.

You should also consider the way in which the document will be stored. For example, if the document is to sit on a bookshelf, then it may be necessary to provide some degree of hard cover - spiral-bound or ring-bound documents don't tend to stand up very well!

Finally, you should consider the frequency and method of update. If the document will have specific pages or sections replaced, then some method of loose-leaf binding will be necessary. On the other hand, if the document is to be completely replaced each time, then a 'sealed' binding method could be used (although loose-leaf binding is still an option). Following on from this, if the document is completely replaced relatively frequently, then a cheap form of binding would be advisable. But if the document will only be replaced very rarely (for example, a dictionary) then the added cost of a more expensive binding method is probably justified.

Binding generally done along left-hand side, but consider top-binding where continuity is important (e.g. fault-finding tables or flowcharts).

Types of binding

Saddle-stitching or stapling

Saddle-stitching involves folding the paper in the middle (so the sides touch) and then stitching (using thread) or stapling along the center crease (the saddle), to form a book(let).

Saddle-stitching is cheap and relatively simple. It is possible to get automatic folding and stapling machines that will take a sheaf of paper, and staple and then fold this to form the booklet. If booklet stapling is done by hand, it is normally necessary to use a 'long-arm' stapler or a 'sideways' stapler.

Saddle-stitching is good choice when publishing on A-series papers, because no trimming is required. To produce an A5 booklet, just take A4 paper, and fold it. To produce an A4 booklet, just take A3 paper and fold it.

Ring binding

Ring-binding is one of the most common forms of 'in-house' binding. It used to be the case that much software documentation was ring-bound (back in the days when software came with printed documentation), in cloth-covered binders that came in their own box, but this is not so common now.

Ring-binding tends to be a cheap option, because binders are readily available off-the-shelf (if not in the office stationery cupboard) in a variety of paper sizes and capacities. Additionally, the lack of a 'manufacturing' step will help keep publication costs down when using an external service. Note, however, that it does tend to be a resource-intensive activity (placing the paper in the binders by hand) which can increase labor costs (whether internal or external). Most large copy shops will have an automatic paper punch (similar to a drill-press) that can be set to punch the required number of holes.

Ring-binding is a good choice where documentation is being produced on standard-sized paper, and where (relatively) frequent updates are expected - whether this is at the page level, or the section level.

It is important to consider the number of holes in the binders. Some countries make extensive use of two-ring or four-ring binders, whereas some countries use three-ring binders. Whichever you choose, make sure that users have easy access to the relevant type of hole punch.

When sending out updates to ring-bound publications, always pre-punch the paper - this will help alleviate the problem of users not having the correct type of hole punch (although you should still always consider this for cases where users want to add their own sheets to the documentation).

Case binding

End papers glued to first/last pages. Usually reserved for hardbacks. Note that book normally split into saddle-stitched 'signatures' that are glued together at the spine.

Mechanical binding

Spiral-bound (wire); comb-bound (plastic); grippers. Spiral/comb good for manuals that need to lie flat. No good for updates.

Perfect binding

Pages glued to a spine.


Not strictly a form of 'binding', but folding may be a good alternative for leaflets or one-page instruction manuals. Consider larger-format paper folded down (e.g. half an A3 sheet (longest cut) can give 8 sides of A6 to play with).

For some forms of consumer documentation, this may be the preferred method of 'binding', especially where the instructions have to fit inside the box along with the product. For example, the documentation for a pen may have to fit inside a box not much larger than the pen itself. In these cases, it is worth experimenting with the different ways that a piece of ISO-sized paper can be folded, and then plan the layout of the information with this in mind.

Further reading

  • The New Print Production Handbook
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