Paper density (also known as basis weight and grammage) is a term used in the pulp and paper industry and also for fabric industry to denote a measure of mass of the product per unit of area for a type of fabric, paper or paperboard. The term "density" is not used in its traditional sense of mass per unit volume. "Paper density", rather, is a measure of the area density. Paper products that let little or no light pass through (e.g. poster board) are considered dense or heavy. Paper products that allow some light to pass through (e.g. tissue paper) are considered lightweight. In the pulp and paper industry, it is common to set a commercial paper machine to produce paper to a target paper density. Paper density can also be used to distinguish paper from paperboard as the latter usually has a grammage greater than 134 g/m2.
Two ways of expressing grammage are commonly used:
- Expressed in grams per square meter (g/m2), paper density is also known as grammage. This is the measure used in most parts of the world.
- Expressed in terms of the mass (expressed as weight) per number of sheets, it is known as basis weight. The convention used in the United States and a few other countries using US paper sizes is pounds of a ream of 500 (or in some cases 1000) sheets of a given (raw, still uncut) basis size. Japanese paper is expressed as the weight in kg of 1,000 sheets.
In the metric system, the mass per unit area of all types of paper and paperboard is expressed in terms of grams per square meter (g/m2). This quantity is commonly called grammage in both English and French (ISO 536), though printers in most English-speaking countries still refer to the "weight" of paper.
Typical office paper has 80 g/m2, therefore a typical A4 sheet (1⁄16 m2) weighs 5 g. The unofficial unit symbol "gsm" instead of the standard "g/m2" is also widely encountered in English speaking countries.
Typically grammage is measured in paper mill on-line by Quality Control System (QCS) and verified by laboratory measurement.
In countries that use US paper sizes, a less direct measure known as basis weight is used in addition to or instead of grammage. The basis weight of paper is the density of paper expressed in terms of the mass of a ream of given dimensions and a sheet count. In the US system, the weight is specified in avoirdupois pounds and the sheet count of a paper ream is usually 500 sheets. However, the mass specified is not the mass of the ream that is sold to the customer. Instead, it is the mass of the uncut "basis ream" in which the sheets have some larger size. Often, this is a size used during the manufacturing process before the paper was cut to the dimensions in which it is sold. So, to compute the mass per area, one must know
- the mass of the basis ream,
- the number of sheets in that ream, and
- the dimensions of an "uncut" sheet in that ream.
The standard dimensions and sheet count of a ream vary according to the type of paper. These "uncut" basis sizes are not normally labelled on the product, are not formally standardized, and therefore have to be guessed or inferred somehow from trading practice. Historically, this convention is the product of pragmatic considerations such as the size of a sheet mold.
By using the same basis sheet size for the same type of paper, consumers can easily compare papers of differing brands. Twenty pound bond paper is always lighter and thinner than 32 pound bond, no matter what its cut size. And 20 pound bond letter size and 20 pound bond legal size papers are the same weight paper having different cut size.
However, a sheet of common copy paper that has a basis weight of 20 pounds (9.1 kg) does not have the same mass as the same size sheet of coarse paper (newsprint). In the former case, the standard ream is 500 sheets of 17-by-22-inch (432 by 559 mm) paper, and in the latter, 500 sheets of 24-by-36-inch (610 by 914 mm) paper. Here are some basic ream sizes for various types of paper. Units are inches except where noted.
Paper Type Paper Size - Number of sheets Bond, writing, ledger 17 × 22 - 500 sheets Manuscript cover 18 × 31 - 500 sheets Blotting 19 × 24 - 500 sheets Box cover 20 × 24 - 500 sheets Cover 20 × 26 - 500 or 1000 sheets Bristol and tag 22½ × 28½ - 500 sheets Tissue 24 × 36 - 480 sheets Newsprint 24 × 36 - 500 sheets Hanging, waxing, bag, etc. 24 × 36 - 500 sheets Book, Text, Offset 25 × 38 - 500 sheets Index bristol 25½ × 30½ - 500 sheets Paperboard (all types) 12 × 12 - 1000 sheets (1,000 square feet per ream)
Sheets 17 by 22 inches (432 by 559 mm) can be cut into four 8.5-by-11-inch (216 by 279 mm) sheets, a standard for business stationery known conventionally as letter sized paper. So, the 17-by-22-inch (432 by 559 mm) ream became commonly used. The 25-by-38-inch (635 by 965 mm) book-paper ream developed because such a size can easily be cut into sixteen 6 by 9-inch (229 mm) book sizeed sheets without significant waste.
Early newsprint presses printed sheets 2 by 3 feet (0.610 by 0.914 m) in size, and so the ream dimensions for newsprint became 24 by 36 inches (610 by 914 mm), with 500 sheets to a ream. Newsprint was made from ground wood pulp, and ground wood hanging paper (wallpaper) was made on newsprint machines. Newsprint was used as wrapping paper, and the first paper bags were made from newsprint. The newsprint ream standard also became the standard for packaging papers, even though in packaging papers kraft pulp rather than ground wood was used for greater strength.
Paper weight is sometimes stated using the "#" symbol. For example, "20#" means "20 pounds per basis ream of 500 sheets". When the density of a ream of paper is given in pounds, it is often accompanied by its "M weight". The M weight is the weight (in pounds) of 1000 cut sheets. Paper suppliers will often charge by M weight, since it is always consistent within a specific paper size, and because it allows a simple weight calculation for shipping charges.
For example, a 500-sheet ream of 20# 8.5-by-11-inch (216 by 279 mm) copy paper may be specified "10 M". 1000 cut sheets (or two reams) will weigh 10 lb (4.5 kg), half of the four reams of cut paper resulting from the 20# basis ream of 17-by-22-inch (432 by 559 mm) paper.
Paper thickness, or caliper, is a common measurement specified and required for certain printing applications. Since a paper's density is typically not directly known or specified, the thickness of any sheet of paper cannot be calculated by any method. Instead, it is measured and specified separately as its caliper. However, paper thickness for most typical business papers might be similar across comparable brands. If thickness is not specified for a paper in question, it must be either measured or guessed based on a comparable paper's specification.
- International Standard ISO 536: Paper and board – Determination of grammage. International Organization for Standardization, Geneva.
- Paper Weight - Conversion Chart
- Understanding Paper Weights
- Understanding paper weight (Staples, Inc.)
- M-weight Calculator
- Paper Weight Calculator