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Printing Terminology: What is a Substrate?

A male hand separating a large stack of paper sheets

What is a Substrate in Printing?

In general terms, a substrate is the base material on which another material is applied. Hence, in the realm of printing, the Substrate refers to the paper, cardstock, or other printable material to which ink, clear top coats, embossed designs, or similar enhancements are applied.

Commercial printers use a wide variety of substrates. Which one is chosen for a particular print job is largely determined by the functional and aesthetical requirements of the project. That said, the most common substrates used by commercial printers are as follows…

A man looking over a large printed sheet
Traditional paper is the most commonly used substrate within the printing industry

Traditional Paper -

Made from wood pulp, Traditional Paper is far and away the most common substrate used in commercial printing. In addition to being very economical, traditional paper is available in many different weights, textures, and finishes. This explains why it is often the first choice for many types of print projects.

While being manufactured at the mill, paper can be coated or it can be left uncoated. Coated stocks have a thin layer of clay, polymers, and pigments applied to one or both sides. The coating adds a variety of characteristics to the paper, including diverse levels of opacity, smoothness, and sheen. Because coated paper yields sharper images, it is a popular choice for full color printing, such as flyers, brochures, and catalogs.

Uncoated paper does not receive any coating during the manufacturing process. As such, it maintains its natural rough texture. Uncoated paper is also more absorbent than coated paper, which results in softer images. Also, because no surface treatment is applied, uncoated paper has virtually no sheen. Print projects that commonly call for uncoated paper include letterhead, envelopes, worksheets, instruction sheets, and the pages of books.

Two male hands exchanging a blue business card
Cardstock is thicker and more rigid than regular paper

Cardstock -

Cardstock has the same attributes as traditional paper outlined above, except it is thicker and stiffer. Thus, cardstock provides durability to printed items. This is an important feature for pieces that will be handled frequently.

Being thicker, cardstock also provides a noticeable heft and professional feel to print materials. This enhances the perception of quality and helps to make a positive impression, which is especially important for printing that is used for promotional purposes.

Cardstock is a popular option for business cards, presentation folders, and invitations. It is also the preferred choice for postcards, table tents, rack cards, door hangers, bookmarks, and the covers of softbound books.

Labelstock -

As its name indicates, Labelstock is the substrate used to produce labels. Whether manufactured on rolls or as sheets, labelstock is made in various configurations to accommodate different printing methods and application processes.

<em>Green and white labels moving through the rollers of a printing press
Labelstock is made with a variety of materials and adhesives, and is available as rolls or sheets

Labelstock has three main components: a facestock, an adhesive, and a liner.

The facestock is the part of the label that is printed upon. It is commonly made of paper but can also be a plastic film, such as polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. Some labels even have a facestock made of metallic foil.

The adhesive layer enables the facestock to adhere to the surface of whatever is being labeled. Label adhesives are generally made of rubber, acrylic, or silicone compounds. Depending on its formulation, the adhesive can affix the label permanently or it can allow the label to be removed or repositioned.

The liner refers to the backing material that secures the label until it is ready to be applied. It is typically constructed of treated paper or a plastic film and is designed to easily release from the adhesive when the label is peeled away.

NCR Paper -

NCR Paper was invented by the National Cash Register company in 1953. It is a special type of paper used for making duplicate copies of a document without the need for carbon paper. NCR paper is primarily used to create multi-part forms.

NCR paper has a layer of chemicals applied to one or both sides. The chemicals are activated by direct pressure, such as what occurs when writing with a pen, or using a typewriter or impact printer. When the topmost sheet is written upon, or struck by a typewriter key or printer head, the markings are transferred to the underlying sheets.

Parts of a 3-ply NCR form: White, Canary, and Pink
Each ply of a multi-part NCR form is generally printed on different colors of stock to ensure proper distribution

This happens because a firm impression causes the microcapsules of ink, which are contained in the coating on the underside of the top sheet, to break. Thereby releasing the ink and causing it to react with a clay coating on the face of the next sheet. This creates a duplicate of the original. This process can be repeated for multiple copies, with each additional sheet in the stack receiving a copy of the original writing.

NCR paper is often quite thin. This aids the transfer of information from one ply to the next. However, the last ply in a stack of forms is often thicker than each ply before it. This last ply acts as a backer sheet and adds some rigidity to the joined set of forms, making the set easier to handle as a unit.

NCR paper is popular for a wide range of multi-part documents and forms. This includes invoices, proposals, contracts, purchase orders, delivery tickets, receipts, work orders, requisitions and any other type of form that requires multiple copies to be made quickly and easily.

Synthetic Paper -

Whereas traditional paper is made from wood pulp, Synthetic Paper is a man-made substrate that is created from polymer-based resins. It has the appearance and print characteristics of traditional paper. But since it is a plastic-like material, it offers greater strength and durability.

Two restaurant menus lying underneath a plate of food
Synthetic paper is made from plastic resins, resulting in a strong and waterproof substrate for printing

Synthetic paper normally has a higher price tag than traditional paper. However, unlike paper made from wood pulp, synthetic paper is resistant to moisture, oily substances, and tearing. As such, these traits make synthetic paper an excellent alternative to traditional paper for print projects that will be subject to frequent handling or damp, greasy, and dirty conditions.

This means synthetic paper is a particularly good choice for restaurant menus and placemats. It is also ideal for any printing that will be used outdoors, such as maps or field guides.

Color Vision Printing is always ready to help!

There are numerous types of print substrates available. Because choosing the right one plays a major role in the success of your printing project, Color Vision is always happy to help you select the best type of paper for your specific needs.

Just give us a call at 800-543-6299 to discuss your print project. Or, send us your project's specifications via our simple Quote Request form and we will email a quote to you.

As a full-service printer, we look forward to assisting with any printing need you may have!

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