Puzzling over paper? Make a reference collection of paper types

May 14, 2012, 9 AM

By Janet Klug

Postage stamps have been printed on a variety of nontraditional media including steel, plastic, fabric, wood, cork and others. However, most stamps have been printed on paper, and that is where it gets complicated.

There are many variables in the types of paper used in the production of postage stamps. Some papers were made by hand, others by machine. War time paper shortages drove creative uses of whatever paper could be found at the time. An interesting collection or exhibit could be made showing just the varieties of paper used to print stamps.

Making a small reference collection of the types of paper used in stamp printing is a fun way to learn and it serves a useful function. You can consult your reference collection every time you have a question about granite paper or pelure paper.

The reference collection can be assembled on a shoestring budget and you can even use damaged stamps that would otherwise be discarded. The best way to make certain you have identified the paper types correctly for the reference collection is to select stamps that are printed on only one type of paper.

First, you should make a list of all the different kinds of paper types you run across while working on your stamp collection. You might glean these terms from notations in a printed album or listings in a stamp catalog.

Arguably, the easiest paper type to identify is handmade paper. Figure 1 shows the 1850 Austrian 6-kreuzer brown stamp (Scott 4) printed on handmade paper. Handmade paper has, for lack of a better term, an organic look about it. You may find little chunks of plant material, wood chips, rags or other nonpaper elements within the paper. The paper may vary in thickness and generally has a rustic appearance.

Compare the handmade paper with machine made wove paper upon which most modern United States stamps are printed. That paper rarely has any discernible inclusions because the machines have pulverized the chipped wood and other fibers that make up the pulp that becomes paper. The term wove refers to the screen that collects the watery pulp (called stuff) in the papermaking process.

The water drains away through the screen and the solid material collects on top of the screen. The woven screen is what makes this wove paper. Once the stuff has collected in the screen and some of the water has drained away, the loaded screen moves through a series of rollers that removes the remaining liquid and produces paper of even thickness. If there is to be a watermark, it is applied during this process.

The jumbo machinery and processes used are quite fabulous. You can watch a short video of the papermaking process on YouTube at, or simply go to and enter "how paper is made" in the search box.

Laid paper, batonne paper and quadrille paper are all similarly made in the wove paper way. The difference used to be in the screen that collected the stuff. Laid paper had horizontal or vertical wires that were spaced further apart than the wove screen.

Figure 2 shows a photo of the reverse of an 1883 5-kopeck Russian stamp (Scott 34) printed on horizontally laid paper.

The screen for batonne paper has strong vertical wires spaced widely apart, while quadrille paper has wires that were spaced to make a checkerboard pattern within the paper.

Figure 3 shows the reverse of a French stamp (Scott 103) with the quadrille pattern showing. These kinds of paper are still made, but the method of production is not the same and the papers are no longer generally used in stamp production.

Granite and silk papers require the addition of colored fibers to the paper pulp, mixed in to spread the fibers evenly.

The tiny bits of fiber can be seen most effectively on the backs of stamps printed on granite paper.

Figure 4 illustrates the back of an 1899 Austrian 3-heller stamp (Scott 72) with fibers in granite paper.

Stamps printed on silk paper look much the same, only with longer colored pieces of silk fibers that are easily seen on the back.

Figure 5 shows an 1871 United States $2 revenue stamp (Scott R123) printed on silk paper. Some paper will have a long, single thread of silk fiber that runs through each stamp. This is not silk paper as shown in Figure 5, but instead it is called silk thread in the Scott catalog.

Pelure paper is almost translucent. It is thin, lightweight and very strong, similar in appearance to what used to be called "airmail paper."

Figure 6 is a photograph of a Serbian stamp (Scott 179) showing the reverse side with back lighting. You can see the design right through the paper when it is held to light.

Chalk paper has had a coating of zinc and glue sprayed on it during its manufacture. With the stamp image printed on top of the chalk surface, any attempt to remove a postmark would also remove some of the printed stamp image, which was a sure sign that the stamp had been used and abused and could not be used again.

Figure 7 shows a 1927 10kop Russian stamp (Scott 391), printed on chalk surfaced paper. Chalk paper is difficult to detect unless you have a piece of thick wire made of real silver. A quick touch of the wire to the chalk surfaced paper will leave a mark; on paper that does not have a chalk surface, there will be no mark.

With this short primer about common types of paper you will find in a stamp collection, you can begin to make your reference collection.