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Sabine Lenz

Making the Grade

By Sabine Lenz

About Sabine

Sabine Lenz is the founder of, the first online paper database and community specifically designed for paper specifiers.

Growing up in Germany, Sabine started her design career in Frankfurt, before moving to Australia and then the United States. She has worked on design projects ranging from corporate identities to major road shows and product launches. From start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, her list of clients included Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Deutsche Bank, IBM and KPMG.

Seeing designers struggle worldwide to stay current with new papers and paper trends inspired Sabine to create PaperSpecs, an independent and comprehensive Web-based paper database and weekly e-newsletter. She is also a speaker on paper issues and the paper industry. Some refer to her lovingly as the "paper queen" who combines her passion for this wonderful substrate called paper with a hands-on approach to sharing her knowledge. 


The Big Lie About Paper Grades


Starbucks gets it right every time. “One Shade Grown Mexico decaf grandé.”
“Two double-shot Caffè Americano soy.”

No matter how confusing these orders may sound to your ears, the person behind the counter knows exactly what the customer has ordered. Someone at Starbucks sat down and defined their system and in every store around the world, this definition is consistently fulfilled every minute of every hour of every day.

Starbucks can do it but for some reason, we, in the paper and print industry, have a hard time getting it straight. No, I’m not talking about coffee. I’m talking about paper grades.

I really thought we had this settled.
Earlier this week, I came across a paper merchant’s Website (I will not mention any names here, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones) and was dumbfounded. They proudly show their visitors the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) brightness chart, claiming that brightness equals paper grade.

Hello, wake up. This is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a big fat misrepresentation.

Yes, the AF&PA tried to bring some consistency into the paper world more than 15 years ago with a brightness defining system. Names like “Grade No. 1” and “Grade No. 2” were born and precisely defined based on their respective brightness levels. This ultimately also reflected the paper’s pricing in the marketplace.

Is brightness really binding?
But in today’s business world, 15 years is a long time. With ever-increasing brightness levels in the paper industry, the AF&PA, as well as other companies, has tried to update and redefine these general grade rules by including brightness and opacity in their measurements.

As per the revised standards, a No. 1 sheet today has to have a brightness level of 91 and greater. A No. 2 sheet has a brightness level from 87.0 to 90.9. So, how come we see No. 3 sheets with brightness levels of over 90 these days?

None of the proposed standards are binding.
They are mere “suggestions,” which means any mill can decide independently if they want to adhere to these standards...or not.

Hold on, don’t shake your head and turn away just yet.

If you know me a bit by now, you know that I like to dig deeper. I wanted to know. So, I spoke to five VPs from some of the top coated paper mills in the United States, and here’s what it all comes down to:

  • Brightness and opacity are, by far, not the only concerns when grading a sheet.
  • Grading is based on brightness, opacity, formation, runnability...and marketing.
  • With modern technology, mills can create ever-brighter papers these days, and they sometimes even have to “hold back” on the brightness, as I was told.

This is where marketing comes into play. Even though a sheet could pass for a No. 1 grade, if the mill already has a No. 1 sheet on the market, they will sell the new sheet below its actual value to complete their offerings.

Marketing is everything, and as much as I would like to say there is a firm, set, precise standard for paper grades, it’s a marketing free-for-all so to speak. The bright side (pun intended) is that smart buyers can find great quality at great values.

Industry Centers:


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