Untangling Your Scribal Paper Purchasing Puzzle

Are you puzzled about paper? Even in this digital age it supports writing today, as it did in the past. Besides it has myriad other uses I’ll avoid. I prefer to focus on the papers commonly used in the SCA.

Paper selection for calligraphy is knotty. The best looking papers may be too slick and not have enough “tooth” to hold the ink. A good paper should be smooth for lettering yet lightly textured so your letters are clean and crisp.

To decide which paper to use there are paper terms you’ll want to know

Samples of 5 paper types
Papers in this post.

Weight and caliper are good to know because thicker, heavier papers handle moisture better without buckling. Their measure also helps you compare options and brands.

  • Weight (or technically basis weight) refers to the pounds a ream (500 sheets) weighs in its uncut size. For example, book paper is 25″x38″. A ream of it weighing 70 pounds would be 70-lb. book paper. The same example metrically would weight 104 g/m2 or gsm. The sheet size is not the same for all paper types.

  • Caliper is a paper’s thickness measurement. Thicker, heavier papers might be measured in “points”, abbreviated “pt”. One point is 1/1000th of an inch. Cardstock might read “8-pt” if it is 0.008 inches thick. 

If you are a paper nerd and want to compare caliper and weight you can look that information up here. There’s also this handy caliper to basis weight calculator. Both initially provided through paper information on Ian the Green’s excellent blog Scribe Scribbeling

But wait, there’s more I look for in a support…

  • Brightness is the percent of light reflected from the paper’s surface. Common copy paper has a 92 brightness. The higher the number the brighter the paper.

  • Fiber refers to the paper’s plant source. Whether cotton, linen, flax, jute, hemp, bamboo, rice straw, rattan or wood all provide cellulose to make thin mingled paper layers. The common fiber types for calligraphy, drawing and painting are cotton, cellulose or their combination. 
  • A paper’s surface finish is its general texture, which affects how ink interacts with it. Common finishes are rough, coldpress, and hotpress. Hotpress paper is manufactured with heated rollers and is very smooth. It is commonly used for pen lettering. But, too glossy a finish causes ink to sit on the surface and possibly blob.  A matte finish may not, but may be too rough–have too much tooth–for a broad nib pen.  

  • Grade refers to the paper’s intended use. Bond paper is used for documents. Thicker common grades include Bristol and index.

  • Sizing paper–not the paper’s measured size–coats the paper to prevent moisture absorption. This reduces ink spread, feathering, and keeps your lines looking crisp. 
With huge paper options available, before starting a special project I consider the paper characteristics I want to have. 
  • color
  • texture
  • basis weight
  • length and width
  • cost
  • durability/acid-free
  • project suitability

Without experimenting yourself, how do you know which paper is suitable for a scroll? 

There are a few tell-tale signs. I look closely for tiny protruding fibers that would catch my nib. I feel the surface to test the finish. You could buy a sheet to test the finish later, by sprinkling a waterdrop to see its absorption. Water stays on the surface longer when paper is well sized.

You could ask other scribes or your kingdom’s signet their preferences. That’s a conversation starter in any scribal group. You might make a new scribal friend too. When your kingdom holds a scribal exhibit check out the displayed projects’ supports. 

How does this affect your “paper” selection? 

When practicing calligraphy I want crisp writing so I truly see my or my students lettering results. I want a paper-ink combination that doesn’t cause feathering, especially when using a cartridge pen. Here are two options to try for “practice”.

  • Laser printer paper is designed to hold toner better than copypaper. Test your pen on 24 pound or 32 pound laser paper. (Starting at $6 for a ream
  • Rhodia makes 80 gsm paper pads that are blank, ruled or graphed. I love the fun little orange  3″x4″ graph pads to carry with a marker for practice, perfect for waiting at the podiatrist office.

    Here is a video by Dan Nelson explaining paper choices.

    You can write on most paper that is compatible with your chosen ink. Experiment…Some inks bleed on more papers than others.

    When I first started painting illuminations I used watercolor paper. I still have the same pad I used for this. Watercolor paper, even without calligraphy, is too rough and matte. You can tell that from this picture when you click it to enlarge. 

    The next paper I used was Bristol board. I still occasionally use it. For SCA scrolls, calligraphy or illumination, it is economical and practical. It can be corrected by carefully scraping the surface, but it is tricky. It is produced in sheets and pads by many companies in various weights. I use the smooth surface Strathmore 300 series weight. The vellum surface Bristol has a texture not suited to calligraphy. Strathmore 300 series smooth Bristol paper is an economical, 2-ply, 270 gsm/100 lb acid-free paper. 

    Arches Hot Press Watercolor Paper is favored by many scribes. Hot pressed is the smoothest surface of Arches 3 textures and ideal for detail and calligraphy work. It is more period than Pergamenata because, as its ads say, “it has been made in the same mill in Lorraine, France since 1492″. It is also made in a recycled version. (I wouldn’t count on the recycled version being acid free etc., but it is economical.)

    For scribal classes, I use printer friendly card cardstock. This allows me to print out a ductus or script with a grid for student’s practice.  Most student lettering appears crisp on white cardstock. Cardstock is also used for Calontir preprint awards.

    Pergamenata is my favorite support. It is easy to paint or letter and feels like working animal parchment. You can correc it easily using the period scraping method. 

    To prepare it, I simply rub my large white eraser all over the surface to remove oils. I don’t even tape down the heavier weight. (I stretch and tape the light weight perg to keep it from cockling.) 

    Iren-hirth award scroll
    Recent Iren-hirth scroll on pergamenata.

    Pergamenata is a 100% cellulose product with a mottled, parchment look. It is made in Italy in white or natural colors, in 160 gsm and the heavier 230 gsm. It is ph neutral. I’ve bought full and 11″x14″ sizes, heavy and light weight at John Neal Bookseller. You can also find it at Paper & Ink Arts.

    Tip…Because scribes work with gouache directly from the tube–as apposed to watercolorist’s washes–heavier paper reduces gouache cracking.

    Be cautious when shopping. It’s easy to confuse terms online or in the store. Historically and today, both vellum and parchment refer to an animal skin writing support. Shopping at office supply stores or online you will see both terms referring to paper types, not animal skin. The term may refer to the paper’s surface texture or its translucence. They are also sold for modern calligraphy.

    There’s a very thin paper called European Parchment that comes in a color called “Pergamenta Ivory”. It is described on Amazon as a “cloud-like translucent, Ivory parchment paper.” It may be great for certificates and have been used for centuries as described. It is not an animal skin, nor is it the 160 gsm or 230 gsm pergamenata used for scrolls by scribes in the SCA.

    Believe it or not, this is a light-weight post about paper. There’s more you can discover, like how it was made in the Middle Ages, re
    moving mistakes
    , or how to stretch it. Hopefully, this post untangled your paper purchasing puzzle.  

    External Links:
    Paper Glossary–Simple 
    Paper Glossary–Industrial
    Blick’s Paper Related Information
    Virtual Instructor’s Paper Related Information

    Categories: Materials And Tools

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