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How to choose a good paper

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If one question stands out as the one I'm most often asked, it's this: What paper should I use?

Unfortunately, I simply cannot answer it for anyone but myself. I can make suggestions, based on whether you use a broad or fine nib, like wet or dry writers, are light- or heavy- or right- or left-handed, are a night- or morning-person, and whether your mother fed you lentil soup or graced you with grilled burgers.

This is like writing on cheap paper with a fountain pen!Nobody would actually take an expensive car onto this kind of trail, but they will take their high-quality, expensive pens for a "ride" on the equivalent—cheap paper.

OK, I'm kidding about the lentils. But the fact remains that neither I nor anyone else can tell you that any one paper is the paper you should use.

Now, let me assure you that paper choice isn't rocket science. You'll know a good paper when you find it the same way you know a certain shoe fits well or a particular sweater will be a favorite: It just feels right. No intellectual effort, learning curve, or complex set of criteria; you'll just know.

That said, I can give you some guidelines.

First, decide on your price range. Ultra-expensive, ultra-luxurious handmade papers and hang the cost? Piece of cake. Mid-range papers, with good quality and value for the dollar? Still pretty easy. Cheap papers that feel like either of the above? Uh. . . no.

Linen-finish paperPaper textures are extremely difficult to show in photos. Here you can see the cloth-like texture of a linen finish.

The single piece of advice I most often hand out to pen people in search of the paper equivalent of the Holy Grail is this: Do not use cheap paper. Especially, do not use cheap recycled paper. (Unless you're using a ballpoint or rollerball; then it doesn't matter, except for your own tactile pleasure.) Some folks disagree with me, but I suspect they've never used a really good paper.

Would you purchase a Ferrari, then take it at top speed up a mountain-bike trail on a rocky cliffside? It's the same with a good pen: cheap, crummy paper will feel nasty, cause your pen to skip, scratch, or clog, and most likely look feathery and bleedy when you're done. Better to spend a little extra and get something you'll be happy with (and more to the point, that your pen will be happy with). A ream of decent paper will probably cost you about as much as a low-end pen; it'll be higher if it's pretty good quality, and can be $50 or more if it's really, really good. The top-end, hand-made papers may run you $3 or more per sheet, depending on size.

However, please note that that $50 would buy only an inexpensive pen—nothing like the $250-$500 pens you probably have sitting around—and a ream of paper will probably last you for at least a year. That's a dollar a week—less than the cost of one measly latte.

Rough-textured hemp-based paperThis rough-textured paper is made largely of hemp and you can see bits of plant matter in the surface. While it's far too rough for actual fountain-pen use, note the details of the "W." All the lines, fine and thick, are crisp — no feathering — even though the paper is textured enough to have pulled the tines out of the desired path. It's rough, but well sized.

Next, decide on color. This can determine the lines of paper you'll consider; while paper comes in a rainbow of colors, writing-quality paper favored by those who take their writing seriously comes in a much, much smaller range. Usually, it's white and white, or maybe white, off-white, and ecru, if the company's really adventurous. Vibrant-colored papers are generally not manufactured with writing (certainly not writing with fountain pens) in mind.

I'm not going to recommend brands, because invariably people rush out and buy Brand A, then find out they don't like it. But I will give you qualities to consider. And you'll notice I'm concentrating on what you need to know to select a good paper for yourself, not telling you to go order my paper (although I do offer a sample packet). That's because I want you to physically feel, fold, write on, and examine papers. It's important.

Unless you're an experienced fountain-pen user, you'll probably want to start off with smooth papers. These are the most forgiving and the easiest to use (think of the difference in feel between silk undies and burlap, for instance).

Now, find a printer nearby. Most of us live in areas where there's at least a quick-print company; even if you live in a wilderness area, your local newspaper office will usually carry a line of higher-end papers (generally intended for wedding invitations, but ask--the worst they can tell you is no, and they're likely to be quite helpful). A good-sized office-supply store is another option. Find a place that believes in customer service and will allow you to test papers before plunking down your hard-earned cash.

At the printer's, tell them what you want: a smooth, hard-surfaced paper that will be good for use with fountain pens. They may not know fountain pens from dynamite, but they do know ink hold-out and sizing. They'll probably make some suggestions. Among those may be papers made for use with ink-jet and/or laser printers; both surfaces are usually good with fountain pens (with some caveats, which we'll discuss below).

A typical manufacturer's swatchbookA typical manufacturer's paper swatchbook, with each color, weight, and finish displayed next to each other for easy comparison. Often (left side), they'll include samples showing how the paper performs with different printing methods.

Ask to look at their swatchbooks. Feel the different weights and textures. Ask if you can take a bit of those you really like and try them out. Many swatchbooks (which, by the way, manufacturers often make the printer pay for, so it wouldn't hurt to offer some remuneration if you're taking several—if nothing else, it's a good-will gesture) contain perforated squares. These let you tear out a square of a particular sample.

Laid-finish paperThis shows a laid finish, characterized by parallel raised lines on the surface.

Some very popular papers, like those in the Clairefontaine / Exacompta lines (I know I said I wouldn't recommend brands, but I'm not recommending—I'm telling you about their characteristics), have a hard surface, but they're also fairly slippery. Many, many people love them; I'm among that bunch, for most of my pens. If your pen has the slightest bent toward skipping, though, it may (or may not) be magnified on these. Some people have complained that these papers pick up skin oils easily, which means your nib may skip more easily over these areas (this can be avoided simply by putting a tissue under your hand, between you and the paper). If these prove too slippery for you, go to Plan B. If possible, always try the paper before buying a large quantity.

Plan B involves a felt or wove finish. This is a smooth finish embossed into the paper during manufacture. In between this and the French papers mentioned above is a vellum finish (on some lines; on others, this is awful for fountain pens, and you'll just have to try them to judge). Other textures to try (once you decide to embark on the Texture Adventure) include laid, linen, and cockle.

Ink feathering on absorbent paperFeathering (bleeding, too, if you could see both sides) shows fairly clearly on this absorbent paper. The edges of the quickly drawn line are soft and have projections; a wet writer just touches the paper and feathers out.
Ink bleeding through paperBleeding blotches the back side of the paper so you can't write on it, but doesn't always affect the writing on the right side. You can see some feathering on the right side, and a couple of spots where fibers have lifted and dragged ink where it wasn't supposed to go.

When trying papers, watch for feathering and bleeding. Feathering occurs with insufficient sizing: Ink absorbs into the paper and capillary action sucks it away from its point of origin, feathering the stroke outline. Short fibers in recycled papers accelerate this. Write on a paper towel or coffee filter to see for yourself.

Bleeding could be described as vertical feathering, with the ink bleeding through to the back side of the paper. It may or may not feather, as well. A caution, though: If you're using an XF (or scratchy) nib, it may scratch the surface of the paper, which can cause even a good paper to bleed.

Just for simplicity, here are a few general pointers. If you write with

  • fine nibs: Smoother papers will probably make you happier, and feathering and bleed-through are usually less of a problem so you often have a wider range to choose from.
  • broad, BB, or italic nibs: Smooth papers will be fine, although you can probably do well with more textured papers, such as laid or linen. If you have good control over your italic nib, the texture probably won't bother you; if not, it may cause the tines to jump and scatter ink, so be cautious. A B or BB nib should be rounded enough that the texture isn't an issue, and the bigger footprint gives the nib more stability over a rougher surface.
  • light pressure: Smoother papers will probably be best. Light pressure on a heavily textured paper can allow the paper to grab the nib and pull it out of the path you want it to travel.
  • heavy pressure: You can probably use either smooth or textured papers, but will definitely want one with body (i.e., a heavier paper and probably a higher-quality, higher-rag-content paper) to stand up to the battering.
  • your left hand: Go with a smooth texture and a paper that will dry as quickly as possible. Papers made with ink-jet and laser-printer finishes can be (but aren't always) a life-saver for lefties.
  • wet writers: If you use broad nibs, you'll likely want a strong, high-rag-content paper with body; if medium or fine, somewhat lighter papers should be good (nothing under 24#, though, in my opinion). Sizing and ink hold-out are vital with a wet ink flow.
  • dry writers: You can probably get along with almost any paper, especially if you use F or M nibs. In my experience, more-absorbent papers make it harder to write with a scanty ink flow, so you'll probably want one that's sized nicely.

Things to avoid include

  • coated papers: These often have a clay-like or varnish-y coating on them that will come off and gunk up your nib. Icky.
  • recycled papers: These contain shorter fibers, which when moistened with ink may raise and catch in your nib. An exception can be those manufactured for ink-jet and laser papers, which have a special surface that prevents this (unless you break through the surface as mentioned above).
  • papers with chunks of leaf, bark, and flower petals: They look neat, but your pen will not like them. Unless, perhaps, you're using a very wet BB or BBB nib. And even that's chancy.
  • the glossy stock often used with greeting cards: It has a plasticized or varnished surface that ink won't stick to, dry on, or both.

Above all, don't be intimidated. Ask for a sample sheet, half-sheet, or swatch. Offer to pay if you're asking for more than a couple of sheets. Look for the terms "writing" or "text," along with the kind of finish you're interested in—vellum, felt, smooth, laid, linen, whatever. Try them out.

Expect many of them to be horrible. But when you find that one... you'll know it. And you'll have a treasure.

One more warning: Many manufacturers are systematically easing their higher-quality papers out of production because costs are making them harder to sell. If you do find a paper you like, buy as much of it as you can afford. It may not be there next time. I've had this happen too many times!

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