Understanding Paper Grain Direction

Happy Mother's Day accordion book open

 Knowing the paper grain direction was important when I made this Happy Mother’s Day accordion book. I wanted the folds to be crisp and clean. In addition, when making a book, the grain direction of the boards, the paper covering the boards and the paper inside the book need to all go in the same direction.

Have you ever noticed that folding along one direction of a piece of paper will give you nice, crisp straight folds? And that folding along the opposite direction is more difficult, giving you unruly, crinkly folds? That is because of grain direction.

If you’re going to be working with paper, understanding paper grain is important. The paper grain usually runs parallel to one of the edges of the sheet, making it easy to fold or tear along that direction, and difficult to fold or tear in the other direction. I’ll explain why a little later.

This is the inside of the above napkin fold card. It says "grandchildren are the dessert in life."

Grain direction wasn’t important for this Napkin Fold card. There are just as many horizontal as vertical folds. Still, I did make sure that on the center piece, all the papers had the grain going in the same direction.

Up until now, the templates and instructions I’ve shared don’t require the paper grain to be in any particular direction. That is because there have been both horizontal and vertical folds in all the templates I have shared. However, understanding paper grain direction is going to be very important in some to my future projects which will include some simple bookbinding. Don’t stress about this. When paper grain direction is important, I’ll provide a link back to this blog post to refresh your memory.

When paper is manufactured, it starts as wet pulp in water. A mold, or mould, (basically a frame with a screen) is used to pick up the watery pulp and is shaken back and forth by a machine to remove the water and make an even layer of the pulp which will become a sheet of paper. The result of this mechanical shaking makes the fibers of the paper align mostly in one direction, because of the back and forth motion. This is referred to as the paper’s grain direction. With handmade papers, the grain direction is often much less noticeable because the shaking is done by hand and sometimes in both directions.

The direction in which the fibers of the paper line up is called the direction of the grain. The direction of the grain direction can be either vertical (referred to as grain long) or horizontal (referred to as grain short). A typical 8 and 1/2″ by 11″ piece of paper is grain long. This means it is easier to fold the paper in half lengthwise.

Red, orange, yellow and hot pink long stemmed hearts.

When I made these Long Stemmed Hearts, I made sure I folded the hearts with the grain of the paper.

With text weight paper, it’s just easier to fold in one direction than another. However, with cover stock or watercolor paper, it can mean the difference as to whether the paper will crack or tear when it is folded. When using heavy paper, it is best to score the paper first before folding. This is the case, whether folding either with or against the grain. And even then, it is possible that you will have trouble with your fold. Sometimes trial and error will be needed to find a paper that will work for a specific project.

When doing a project that requires folding, try to have all or most of the folds go with the grain and fewer against the grain—if possible. Sometimes it’s the same number of folds. Sometimes it’s a decorated paper, and there’s a certain part that you absolutely must have in a certain place. But like I said before, up until now it hasn’t mattered which way the grain of a paper went because there were about as many horizontal as vertical folds required when I shared a template. For some of my future projects, knowing about paper grain direction will be very helpful.

Paper grain direction is important for more than folding. It also affects how paper behaves when it is torn or when there is moisture as with gluing. When paper is moist or wet, it stretches, usually more in one direction than the other. It also curls with the direction of the grain. So, when gluing two pieces of paper together, you get much better results if the papers have the grain going in the same direction. Binding boards and mat board also have a grain, and they should go in the same direction as the paper when gluing.

How to find a paper’s grain direction:

The easiest way is simply to have the manufacturer tell you. If you purchase a ream or package of paper, one of the numbers is sometimes underlined. The number that is underlined is the grain direction. So, if a package of paper says 11” x 17” (with the 11 underlined), then it is grain short, with the grain in the horizontal direction of the paper. If the 17 is underlined, then it is grain long, with the grain in the vertical direction of the paper.

These are two pieces of the same paper. Both are gently pushed down until resistance is felt. Notice that the one on the left can be pushed down more before resistance is felt? That shows that the paper grain goes lengthwise on this paper.

These are two pieces of the same paper. Both are gently pushed down until resistance is felt. Notice that the one on the left can be pushed down more before resistance is felt? That shows that the paper grain goes lengthwise on this paper.

If you don’t know the grain direction of the paper, the easiest way to check is to see which way the paper bends easiest (without making a crease). The way the paper bends easiest will be in the direction of the grain. This is easiest with heavier paper, but with practice you can usually tell the grain direction of most papers.

Notice the difference in the tear of the paper. The paper tore easily with the grain and was more difficult to tear against the grain. The same thing happens when folding. One direction is easier to fold than the other.

Notice the difference in the tear of the paper. The paper tore easily with the grain and was more difficult to tear against the grain. The same thing happens when folding. One direction is easier to fold than the other.

If you can’t tell a paper’s grain direction by just bending it, you can try tearing it or folding it. It tears or folds easiest in the direction of the grain. If you are tearing or folding against the grain, the tear or fold isn’t as straight and your fold may show signs of cracking, especially with heavy paper.

If bending the paper doesn’t tell you the grain direction, you can tear off a piece of the paper and wet it. It will curl with the direction of the grain.

I know that not everyone will understand by just reading, so I am posting two videos that show how to determine paper grain direction. The first video is by a bookbinder. The second video is by a paper manufacturer.

I look forward to sharing some new fun projects that will be much easier to make when you understand a little about paper grain direction and how to find out which way your paper grain goes.

Hugs to all, Candy

6 responses to “Understanding Paper Grain Direction

  1. This is a really cool educational post.

    • Thanks, Delaine. It was actually a hard post for me to write. The hard part was to try and make it easy to understand and not be technical. It was a lot of writing, and I know people like lots of photos. I tried to pare it down to the essentials.

  2. SO much good info here, thanks Candy.

  3. THis is good for when doing Asian Calligraphy. The paper is folded to indicate where to put the strokes.

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