Pondering Paper

A few months ago I pur­chased sam­ple packs of print­mak­ing paper for giclée (French for «inkjet») print­ing, intend­ing to test the papers out with the print­er a client of mine has giv­en me per­mis­sion to use. I have been get­ting the prints of my pen & ink work done at Pho­toworks here in San Fran­cis­co, and they gen­er­al­ly do good work. Nev­er­the­less, I would like more con­trol over the process. A cou­ple of times mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions have led to frus­trat­ing delays or wast­ed prints. My think­ing is that if I can move the pro­duc­tion «in-house» I’ll be able at least to scrap and re-run my prints blam­ing only myself. At best I can save days on pieces being reprinted.

Doing the print­ing myself gives me addi­tion­al lat­i­tude in choos­ing the brand and type of paper. While I could bring my own paper to Pho­toworks, doing so would only add con­fu­sion where con­fu­sion has been a prob­lem. Fur­ther­more, mak­ing the prints myself has an eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit. Even fac­tor­ing in the cost of the inks mak­ing the prints myself costs about a fifth of what Pho­toworks charges. In the­o­ry, there’s no downside.

Prac­ti­cal­ly there is great risk of a down­side. The good folks at Pho­toworks have expe­ri­ence with this kind of print­er. So do I, but it’s been years since I’ve used one dai­ly, and when I did it was a con­stant strug­gle against print qual­i­ty prob­lems. I could end up putting a lot of time and ener­gy in only to pro­duce infe­ri­or prints. With good rea­son I’ve been hes­i­tant to com­mit to doing the work myself. How­ev­er, I’d be fool­ish not to explore the option. There is a good chance that increased con­trol over the process would make for bet­ter qual­i­ty prints.

My first step was to test the avail­able selec­tion of papers by mak­ing a set of proofs. I bought sam­ple packs from two com­pa­nies: Moab and Hah­nemüh­le. There are oth­er com­pa­nies out there mak­ing print­mak­ing paper, but this gave me a good start­ing point. I spent yes­ter­day after­noon and evening in my clien­t’s emp­ty office, installing print­er dri­vers, famil­iar­iz­ing myself with the print­er, down­load­ing ICC pro­files, and mak­ing prints.

So far, all my prints have been made with 505g/m² (grams per square meter) Som­er­set Vel­vet print­mak­ing paper from Epson. There are a num­ber of oth­er com­pa­nies that make Som­er­set Vel­vet, includ­ing Moab, which is one of the paper­mak­ers I have a sam­ple pack from. The 505g/m² vari­ety is referred to as «dou­bleweight», the stan­dard weight being 255g/m². By com­par­i­son, 20lb copy paper is the equiv­a­lent of 75g/m². 255g/m² is essen­tial­ly the weight of very heavy card­stock. 505g/m² Som­er­set Vel­vet sim­ply will not bend under its own weight.

Som­er­set Vel­vet’s oth­er virtues are its tex­ture, col­or, and com­po­si­tion. It is 100% cot­ton paper and free of acids or oth­er impu­ri­ties, and there­fore designed to be archival and durable over a long peri­od of time. It is a medi­um white, not as bright a white as qual­i­ty copy bond but not so yel­low as to be an off-white. It is very much like the col­or of the bris­tol draw­ing paper I use. It takes black ink very well and cre­ates a very pleas­ing con­trast with­out being harsh or severe to the eye. Its tex­ture is sub­tle; there is some vari­a­tion to the sur­face, but not enough to dis­tract from the mate­r­i­al print­ed on it.

Last night I test­ed prints for com­par­i­son from ten sam­ples of fine art paper:

  • Moab Kayen­ta Pho­to Mat­te (205g/m²)
  • Moab Som­er­set Vel­vet (225g/m²)
  • Moab Som­er­set Tex­tured (225g/m²)
  • Moab Entra­da Rag Nat­ur­al (300g/m², also comes in 190g/m²)
  • Moab Entra­da Rag Bright (190g/m², also comes in 300g/m²)
  • Hah­nemüh­le William Turn­er (310g/m²)
  • Hah­nemüh­le Ger­man Etch­ing (310g/m²)
  • Hah­nemüh­le Muse­um Etch­ing (350g/m²)
  • Hah­nemüh­le Pho­to Rag (308g/m²)
  • Hah­nemüh­le Bam­boo (290g/m²)

Most of these papers have sig­nif­i­cant­ly more col­or to them than Epson’s Som­er­set Vel­vet, and none of them are as heavy as the dou­ble-weight. I’m gen­er­al­ly more impressed with the Hah­nemüh­le offer­ings than the Moab ones.

The Som­er­set options are good, but com­pared with Epson’s Som­er­set Vel­vet I pre­fer the lat­ter. Moab’s Som­er­set Vel­vet’s tex­ture has a fin­er and less notice­able grain, which makes it a lit­tle less friend­ly-seem­ing to me. Som­er­set Tex­tured is more so. It is a gor­geous paper, but Epson’s is more appeal­ing to me. The col­or of each is very sim­i­lar to Epson’s Som­er­set offerings.

Moab’s Entra­da papers are smoother than Som­er­set, but on care­ful appraisal a pleas­ing tex­ture makes itself known. Entra­da Rag Nat­ur­al is shade yel­low­er than Som­er­set, but the dif­fer­ence is slight. Entra­da Rag Bright splits the dif­fer­ence between copy bond and Som­er­set. It would def­i­nite­ly be accept­able. 300g/m² is a bit heav­ier than the bris­tol I draw on, but it does­n’t have the sat­is­fy­ing stur­di­ness of the 505g/m² dou­ble-weight Som­er­set Vel­vet. None of these papers do, actu­al­ly, but some of them do come in heav­ier weights.

Moab Kayen­ta Pho­to Mat­te is the whitest paper I test­ed, though there were brighter sam­ples in the box. It has a smooth mat­te fin­ish with almost no detectable tex­ture. As the name sug­gests, it would be a good paper for pho­to print­ing, but I found it to be too bright a white and over­ly smooth for line art. Though it was fair­ly white, it did­n’t hold the blacks as well, so it is dou­bly less suit­ed for high-con­trast work. None of the Moab papers I test­ed were as good at hold­ing black ink as the Epson Som­er­set Vel­vet. In fair­ness, I have to dis­close that it may be because of the art­work I used to test, which is nei­ther as good a scan nor as dark as the work I com­pared it to on the Epson Som­er­set. I’ll per­form some more tests using files I’ve already print­ed onto the Epson Somerset.

The Hah­nemüh­le papers were all a plea­sure to look at. The Pho­to Rag was the bright­est of these that I test­ed, rough­ly the same as the Epson Som­er­set. There is an «ultra smooth» vari­ety of Hah­nemüh­le Pho­to Rag as well as a «bright white». As their names sug­gest, one is smoother and the oth­er whiter. The Pho­to Rag papers have a pleas­ing tex­ture once it can be seen, but the tex­ture is not pro­nounced. You real­ly have to be look­ing for it. Pho­to Rag is also avail­able in a 500g/m² vari­ety which makes it a real con­tender here. I’m unde­cid­ed about the tex­ture though. The tex­ture is inter­est­ing, but it is not easy to see. I real­ly will want to make more tests with the Hah­nemüh­le Pho­to Rag.

Hah­nemüh­le Bam­boo is a fas­ci­nat­ing paper. While the oth­er Hah­nemüh­le papers test­ed are either 100% cot­ton or alpha-cel­lu­lose, Bam­boo is, as its name sug­gests, made from 90% bam­boo fibers and 10% cot­ton. It is smooth with a tex­ture much like Pho­to Rag and a less bright, more nat­ur­al col­or. It holds black well, but pro­vides a less dra­mat­ic con­trast due to the nat­ur­al tone of the paper. It would be a good choice for warm-toned images.

At the oth­er end of the range is Hah­nemüh­le William Turn­er, which has dra­mat­ic sur­face tex­ture. Almost rough to the touch, the William Turn­er paper feels stronger than the oth­er 310g/m² papers. It holds blacks well and is ever so slight­ly less bright than the Epson Som­er­set Vel­vet. It might be a con­tender, but I find the tex­ture to be too dis­tract­ing for my work.

Hah­nemüh­le Ger­man Etch­ing bears a strong resem­blance to William Turn­er but is not so severe. It is smoother to the touch, and has tex­ture that is not as pro­nounced as William Turn­er. It is lighter than William Turn­er, mak­ing it a good match for Epson Som­er­set except for the tex­ture, which I still find too pro­nounced for my work. I can imag­ine many images that would work well with this paper; in par­tic­u­lar I think this would work well with actu­al etch­ings, where the tex­ture in the paper with­in the area of the etch­ing plate is pressed flat but the tex­ture sur­vives around the edges. For an inkjet paper I think the tex­ture is too much.

I’ve saved the best for last. Hah­nemüh­le Muse­um Etch­ing is a tru­ly gor­geous paper. At 350g/m² it feels sub­stan­tial in the hand. It holds black very well, and it has exquis­ite tex­ture. It is the only paper of this bunch whose tex­ture I like more than the Epson Som­er­set Vel­vet’s. It’s 100% cot­ton, which will please the paper snobs (though I’m not at all biased against alpha-cel­lu­lose and am down­right intrigued by bam­boo.) My only quib­ble with it is that it is just a shade less bright than I expect. It is smoother to the touch than the oth­er Hah­nemüh­le papers I test­ed except for Pho­to Rag, but real­ly we should­n’t be touch­ing prints and get­ting our grub­by hand oils all over them, should we? I think I’ll need to make more tests with this to see how it per­forms with oth­er images, but this real­ly might be my replace­ment for Epson’s Som­er­set Velvet.

Of course, there’s noth­ing say­ing I can’t keep using Som­er­set Vel­vet from Epson. It’s an excel­lent paper and works for me for all the rea­sons I out­lined at the begin­ning of this arti­cle. It’s read­i­ly avail­able and I’ve been hap­pi­ly using it for years. There’s also no rea­son I can­not choose my papers accord­ing to the piece I’m print­ing, though I do like the con­sis­ten­cy and my pen and ink work does­n’t vary too much in what I demand of the paper. If I con­tin­ue to use Som­er­set Vel­vet, I’ll do so know­ing that I’ve con­sid­ered more options than those pre­sent­ed by Pho­toworks. Also, I doubt that I’m done test­ing paper. There are dozens of mak­ers of paper, and I’d be a fool to think I’ve seen it all. But there will also come a time when I’m cer­tain of what I like and what works best for me. At that time I may still feel the pull of exper­i­men­ta­tion, but for its own sake—not from a sense that I haven’t seen or tried enough vari­ety to get what I want.

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