Is Synthetic Paper Worth Considering?
Even though it's not brand-new to the publishing market, synthetic paper is, among the publishing industry, sort of the new kid in class. We don't know him very well, he acts a little differently than the kids we're used to, and we already have friends, so why take the time to get to know him?
As usually happens to the new kid in class, though, one outgoing stranger befriends him and quickly becomes his best pal, and little by little, we'll all get to know him—liking or disliking aside.
A few publishers have taken on the outgoing-stranger role and tried this new friend on for size. Others are curiously eavesdropping, watching to see how this new kid fits in.
Whatever your stance, the new kid is here and he's getting friendly with some of your peers. Here's just about everything you need to know about the new kid to see if he's worth some consideration.
Composition and Strengths
Synthetics contain no wood pulp or natural fibers, and are most commonly made out of polypropylene resin, along with inorganic fibers. The quality of synthetics is so high that it can be hard to distinguish a sheet of synthetic paper from a sheet of 'real paper,' as it looks and feels like a #1 freesheet.
Synthetics derive their strength from a base layer that is covered with surface layers to add an ultra-bright finish, high opacity and smooth texture.
Other unique characteristics that distinguish synthetics from pulp-based papers are strength and durability: They are tear-, water-, chemical- and grease-resistant, as well as UV-stable. These characteristics are ideal for publications that can be read in the bath, pool, spa or shower, and have been used in a number of such products. They can be safely used while boating, fishing, skiing, snowmobiling or scuba diving. They're ideal for instruction manuals for lifeguarding, first aid, emergency preparedness, mechanics or landscaping. Cookbooks and children's books are also good candidates, as they can be wiped clean. You can even sanitize them with disinfectants.
Though synthetic papers have been around for a healthy number of years, magazine publishers haven't taken much notice. One magazine that was willing to seek out the new kid was Clear, which, to our knowledge, is the first magazine to go entirely synthetic (more on this below). While synthetics are used to create durable book covers, their most common uses at this point are for labels, tags, maps, posters, packaging and manuals. They could be a viable consideration for publishers who produce magazines related to water or water sports, such as fishing and boating magazines, beach-related magazines, sports or athletic magazines, and the like.
Synthetics on the Market
The two largest producers of synthetic paper are Oji-Yuka (Yupo), followed by Arjobex (Polyart). Other large producers include Hop Industries (Hop Syn
and Hop Syn II Dura-Lite), PPG (Pittsburgh Plate and Glass,
Teslin) and Transilwrap (MXM,
"Our product was so close to real paper that it was a natural to offer it to the publication industry," says John Courtie, western region sales manager for Polyart. Several producers offer publication-grade stocks internationally. Most stocks are offered in both web rolls and sheets.
Just as there are differences between stocks and brands of 'real paper,' there are differences between synthetics. Some synthetics, like Polyart, are clay-coated and don't require special inks. Yupo, on the other hand, has a directional grain, does not have a clay coating and requires special inks engineered for high-quality printing on a non-porous surface. PPG Teslin is also a homogeneous, non-coated stock, but it doesn't require special inks. The differences between brands offer various advantages and disadvantages, depending on your publication's needs.
The clay coating on some stocks imitates the clay coating on coated paper stocks. The coating helps with drying time and will accept regular offset inks. The coating also feels more paper-like, whereas Yupo has more of a slick, but interesting feel. Teslin also has a unique, somewhat soft feel.
Because of the clay coating, Polyart is also more susceptible to scratches than Yupo. All options have characteristics a designer should take into account.
Even those synthetics, like Polyart, that use regular offset inks require special diluting. So in essence, most stocks require special handling, but Yupo's ink is engineered specifically for high-quality offset printing on Yupo paper. If you plan on using UV coating, Yupo first requires a UV-curable primer or appropriate aqueous coating.
It is the common characteristics between the brands, unique to synthetics, that present the biggest challenges, namely relating to speed. Check with your printer to find out if particular stocks have been significantly slow on the press, or ask any synthetic paper company for its stock's recommended press output speed, as this information may not be available in collateral materials. Transilwrap's specifications for its MXM synthetic paper, for example, state that it was "engineered to feed quickly and reliably through sheeters and printing presses," but no specific figures are cited.
Also, whether they use offset or special inks, most synthetics experience drying challenges. For example, Polyart states it takes a minimum of three hours per side, depending on ink coverage. Some other synthetics have been said to take significantly longer.
Teslin sheet, a waterproof, single-layer, uncoated silica-based film, reportedly differs from other synthetics in this vein. "Teslin is made from silica particles, so it's more porous than plastic sheets," and can resist damage from higher temperatures, explains Robin Hunt, market development manager for PPG Teslin. Because of this, says Hunt, "It absorbs ink like a paper, and requires no additional drying time. As soon as you print it, it's dry." Teslin is waterproof and resistant to chemicals as well, and can be printed using laser, ink jet and digital processes.
Most brands are tear-resistant, but not tear-proof; they will tear if the edge gets nicked.
Yupo's directional grain makes it almost impossible to tear against the grain. Some synthetics, like Polyart, have no grain. It's recommended that any stocks over a 120-# weight be scored and folded with the grain.
Tru-Tech Fine Papers produces another tear-resistant product that has some of the qualities of synthetics, but yet prints like paper, and avoids some of the ink and absorption issues found in some of the synthetics. Tru-Tech is actually a layer of film between two layers of paper, so its paper surface can be printed on using any method or inks used on paper.
Tru-Tech isn't manufactured to be water-resistant, but it can be made so, if specified.
A Bit of a Bind
Binding synthetics has its own requirements. Saddle-stitched books usually require stainless steel wire, while spiral-bound publications may require rounded, die-cut holes. And perfect-bound, or patent-bound, publications will likely require a silicone- or urethane-based hot-melt glue for underwater adhesion.
Some synthetics also demand caution when die-cutting. Square holes have corners, which provide the nicked edge that will cause most synthetics to tear easily. Round holes are the only option when spiral-binding with synthetics.
Teslin sheet, however, is an exception, as it will not tear with die-cut square holes. "You can cut all different shapes into it and still get good strength," explains Hunt. Again, she points to Teslin's silica-based composition as the root of this added durability. Teslin also requires no special glues for binding, she notes.
Most printers have no problem with synthetic stocks for print quality. "We find running Polyart easy. It has a great surface, dries easily, [has] good ink holdout, folds easily, and takes to embossing and such," says George Anderson, estimator for Riddle Press in Beaverton, Ore. "It is not paper, yet it has everything you want from a good-quality paper … and then some."
Benefits to Magazine Publishers
Magazine publishers haven't been moving in droves to synthetic paper. And, it's likely because it's not necessary—most magazines don't need to be
tear-proof or waterproof. Synthetics are also usually more expensive. By how much varies depending on the project.
Many factors affect the actual price of various stocks, and the additional printing costs attributed to the special needs of synthetics makes direct price comparisons misleading. Prices can also vary depending on which printer you use. The best thing is to get your own printing bids with different stocks quoted.
One potential benefit to magazine publishers who don't polybag their issues is that a tear-resistant cover could prevent dog-eared magazine covers from arriving in readers' mailboxes.
A third reason why synthetic papers aren't more commonly used is that many designers are unaware of their availability.
Once Clear, a high-style, cutting-edge fashion and design magazine published in the Detroit area, discovered synthetic paper, it wasted no time. Emin Kadi, the magazine's creative director, comments that he decided to try synthetic merely for "the intrigue of it."
Kadi finds synthetic paper so intriguing that an entire issue of Clear has even been printed on it. The cover is printed on a patent-pending clear, plastic cover wrap.
There is one drawback to printing on synthetic paper in that it is significantly more expensive than printing on traditional paper, he notes, and "it's trickier to print on plastic and takes longer."
Despite the added expense, and design and production challenges, Clear goes to the trouble of printing on synthetics because it gives the edgy magazine an edge. As Kadi says, "[It] sets us apart."
Synthetic papers have met the quality standards that magazine and book publishers expect and, arguably, exceeded them. But, if you decide to print on them, be prepared for the idiosyncrasies of their special characteristics. Being aware of these subtle differences can help make printing on synthetic paper a hassle-free process.
Steven W. Frye, of Frye Publication Consulting (www.SteveFrye.com), negotiates printing, paper and distribution contracts for magazine, catalog, book and newspaper publishers, and designs cost-management software for the publishing and printing industries.
- Steven Frye and Noelle Skodzinski
Some Synthetics on the Market
Arjobex North America
Tru-Tech Fine Papers*
(*not actually synthetic, but has many qualities of synthetics)
Hop Industries Corp.
Transilwrap Company Inc.
Franklin Park, Ill.
Yupo Corp. America