Synthetic Paper: Is It for You?
You may have heard a few things about synthetic paper:
- It's more environmentally friendly because it's not made of trees and it is recyclable.
- It has a long life span because it can handle a lot of stress without tearing.
- It's waterproof and doesn't degrade in water because it lacks wood fiber.
- It folds without cracking.
Still, how do you know if your in-plant can utilize synthetic sheets to produce maps, manuals, menus, banners or other products for which such paper is well suited? After all, most synthetic paper should not be used in copiers, fax machines or laser printers due to the high temperature they generate. Offset, flexographic and gravure presses are fine, requiring only minor variations to the printing process.
Here are a few things you should know before deciding whether synthetic paper is for you.
1. 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.
2. Synthetics on the Market:
The two largest producers of synthetic paper are Yupo Corp., 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, Pro-Print).
"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 differences exist 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.
3. Drying Issues:
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 may first require a UV-curable primer or appropriate aqueous coating.
It is the common characteristics between the synthetic brands that present the biggest challenges, namely relating to speed. Ask any synthetic paper company for its stock's recommended press output speed. 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, yet prints like paper and avoids some of the ink and absorption issues found in some 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.
5. Binding Issues:
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.
6. Die-cutting Considerations:
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.
True, synthetics are usually more expensive than other papers. And their special needs on press will tack on additional costs. But synthetic papers have met and even exceeded the quality standards that customers expect.
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. Noelle Skodzinski is the editor of PrintMedia and BookTech magazines.
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