Cracking The Paper Code

Toilet paper rolls on a stand

Fun fact: Although toilet paper is considered the foundation of modern Western civilization, remarkably it was invented in 6th century China.

Today toilet paper comes in two varieties: virgin, which comes directly from chipped wood and non-virgin, which is really recycled paper. You also know it can be 1, 2 or 3-ply. Soft or scratchy. Scented or not. But why should you care? What does that have to do with artist papers or SCA scrolls?

When I first started painting illuminations I used watercolor paper. Twenty years later I still have the same pad I used then. Watercolor paper, even without calligraphy, is too rough and matte. So it matters the support you select.

And like choosing the best TP for your bathroom you consider the qualities you want for your artwork’s support. The color, texture, and thickness. A good paper for scrolls should be smooth enough for lettering yet lightly textured so your letters are clean and crisp. If you want a medieval look you also have to consider whether it will have the “tooth” to hold your ink or paint. There’s much to consider.

So what can you do? How do you crack the scribal paper code? To begin there are specific terms describing what you want.

Paper Terms

Learning paper terms is a good place to begin. Terms always help us wrap our head around a topic.

Weight and caliper are good to know so you can better compare options and brands. You want a thicker, heavier paper because it handles moisture well. You don’t want your scroll buckling before you even hand it off.

My Paper Stash
  • 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’re a paper nerd like me you can compare caliper and weight by looking that up here. If you’re interested 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. (BTW, I love his blog.)

But there’s more you may want to know about your 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. 


Now that you know the actual paper terms for ply, scratchiness, and color how do you know which is best to use? Just like buying TP you can experiment. Try different brands and types. But before you start a project consider the characteristics you want. 

  • color
  • texture
  • basis weight
  • length and width
  • cost
  • durability/acid-free
  • project suitability

To help you there are a few easy tricks to figuring out your paper option. A few tests you could do.

Feel the paper to test its finish. Lightly run your fingers over its surface. You don’t want any fibers that would catch your nib. If possible buy a sheet and test its water absorption at home. You can do that by sprinkling a waterdrop on it. If the paper is well sized the water stays on the surface longer than if it’s not.

If you’re not up for testing things yourself you can ask other scribes their preferences. That’s a conversation starter in any scribal group. And you might make a new scribal friend too. 


By now you’re probably asking, “How does this impact your paper selection?” There are several reasons.

When doing illumination scribes work with gouache directly from the tube, as apposed to watercolorist’s washes. Using heavier paper reduces gouache cracking and paper buckling.

When doing calligraphy you want crisp writing so the viewer truly sees each letter’s shape. You can write on most paper that is compatible with your chosen ink. But it takes a good paper-ink-nib combination for that to happen. Some inks bleed on paper easier than others. No matter how pretty the paper looks it just may not work.


Not every paper is good for practice. Seeing your fine strokes helps you learn best. Paper won’t advance your learning if the ink blurs. Here are two options I like for “practice”.

  • Laser printer paper. It’s designed to hold toner better than copy paper. Try 24 pound or 32 pound laser paper. You can find it for as little as $7 for a ream. 
  • Rhodia padded paper. You can find it in 80 gsm weight that are blank, ruled or graphed. I love the fun little orange  3″x4″ graph pads to carry with a marker in my purse. They’re perfect for practicing while waiting like at the dentist’s office.

The paper I tried after the watercolor paper I mentioned was Bristol board. I still occasionally use it as do other scribes. It is economical and practical. With care it can be corrected by carefully scraping the surface. It’s produced in sheets and pads by many companies and in various weights. I use the smooth surface Strathmore 300 series weight. It is a 2-ply, 270 gsm/100 lb acid-free paper. Don’t buy the vellum surface Bristol, even though the name seems proper. It has a texture not suited to calligraphy.

Arches Hot Press Watercolor Paper is favored by many scribes. Hot pressed is the smoothest surface of Arches 3 textures. It is 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”. Arches also makes 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 practice. Most student lettering appears crisp on white cardstock. It is also used for Calontir preprint awards.

Pergamenata is my favorite support. It is easy to paint or letter. And it feels like you’re working animal parchment. You can correct 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 do stretch and tape the light weight perg to keep it from buckling. 

Pergamenata is 100% cellulose with a mottled, parchment look. It comes in white or natural colors, and in 160 gsm and the heavier 230 gsm. It’s ph neutral. I’ve bought and used both the full sheet and 11″x14″ size, in both heavy and light weight. I buy it at John Neal Bookseller, but you can also find it at Paper & Ink Arts.


Be cautious when buying paper. It’s easy to confuse terms. 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 used referring to paper types. The term may refer to the paper’s surface texture or its translucence. While the paper may work for calligraphy they are animal skin.

There’s also 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 has been used for centuries as described. But it is not an animal skin. Nor is it the pergamenata used by SCA scribes for scrolls.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s hard to know which paper is best, especially now that you often shop for it online and can’t actually feel its texture or test it before you buy. Knowing and using the paper industry terms for ply, scratchiness, and color reduces its myriad options to a convenient few. While you can use any support you choose, cracking the paper code will help you find the best support for your scroll.

At a minimum – unless you expect your work to be canned – you absolutely must use smooth, acid-free, archival safe paper to prevent its yellowing over time. Other criteria may be optional. Acid-free, archival paper is not.

Categories: Materials And Tools

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