There is only one paper and printer best for paper modeling – It’s the one you are most comfortable and proficient with.
Ok. Seriously the truth is more like: There are numerous, different, best papers and printers for different models depending on complexity, your skills and preferences as well as a ton of other factors, availability being one of the major. Actually this is true for any tool, glue or whatever you can use making your models. What works for me may not work for someone else, what work good for one model may fail with another.
If you are a seasoned modeler this is probably nothing new for you. You probably already have your perfect choice of papers, tools and secret techniques. If however you are a rookie or casual modeler you may find below some useful tips on what to consider when looking for the right materials.
Grammage – thickness, stiffness and other physical properties.
Most important paper properties from paper modellers POV – that is thickness, and rigidity are usually not given directly on paper packaging, but hidden somewhere under the term Grammage. Grammage is basicly paper weight per unit of surface (g/m2 in ISO countries or lbs/ream where basis weight is used)and roughly corresponds to above mentioned traits. Paper of greater grammage will usually be thicker and more rigid, than that of lower grammage. How much thicker or more rigid exactly depends on paper type and manufacturer. You may find papers of the same grammage but different in thickness or the same thickness but of different density. Choosing the one that suits you will require some experiments.
In general small and more complex models will require thinner (lower grammage) paper while simple or big ones can go with thicker cardstock.
For large models like buildings, bridges and simplified geometry landscape or vehicles, thick 200-300 g/m2 paper may be a good option. It is rigid and when modelled properly can support even heavy miniatures without additional strengthening. It is also the best choice for all flat folded elements with negligible 3rd dimension like doors, fences, thin walls or 2D miniatures with relatively simple outline. More complex silhouettes may be tricky to cut out without scratching the cut edge. Paper this thick is also hard to round to small radius or fold to sharp edge, as it may delaminate when worked too much. Other downsides of higher grammage papers are that they almost always require edging to look good as the cut edges are quite thick, furthermore thicker papers can be difficult or impossible to feed to home or office printers.
For me the most versatile range is 160-180 g/m2. Most models on this site were made with thin (dense) 180 g/m2 paper. It bends and rounds well even to small radius and folds easily to sharp edges. When cut with scissors the cut edges are thin enough not to require edging in most cases. It is also really good for models built by layers and wet shaping. For bigger models or large flat surfaces it may be however too thin and may require additional reinforcing elements or lining with more rigid cardboard.
Rarely thinner paper may also be useful. Standard copy paper (80-90 g/m2) is great for small details eg. 1:50 scale skulls, horns, torch flames, and for tight paper rolls and coils I use building wheels, axles, posts, gun barrels etc.
Printer and paper finishes.
These factors have a direct impact on the quality of the print – and a very significant impact on its price. Laser printers generally give excellent print sharpness and saturated colours. It is great for any large or flat elements and surfaces. It has however a certain disadvantage when it comes to modelling. The toner does not penetrate into the paper and only covers its surface. This means that it can crack and fall off the folded edges or cutting lines. It is not very important on large models like buildings or terrain as it can be masked by careful edging but can be quite annoying on small elements with complex contour. In addition, toner seals the surface preventing the glue from penetrating into the paper, when it comes to gluing together printed surfaces the glue will bond with toner and not the paper making a relatively weak bond that is likely to break.
I prefer to print my models on inkjet printers.
If you do not watch your prints with a magnifying glass modern inkjet printers give very good print quality. Compared with laser printers colours may seem bleaker or toned down, but if it look better or worse is a matter of personal preference. Inkjet prints also have another advantage. Ink soaks into the paper (how deep it depends on the type of both paper and ink) and this means that the print is safe to fold and round, and even if it breaks the crack on the paper is not as visible as on the laser print and does not wear off so fast as with laser prints. In addition the ink does not seal the surface allowing the glue to penetrate into the paper reinforcing it and creating a stronger bond. A certain disadvantage is the risk of ink smudging or bleeding if the glue has too high water content (or if you are working with wet or sweaty fingers), but it is not as troublesome as it may sound.
When it comes to the type of paper finish, generally the finer is the finish the better are the colours and the weaker is the glue penetration thus weaker bond. It also increases the risk of smudging on inkjet prints and chipping off toner on laser prints. If you are a careful and clean modeller (which I am not), and you are not afraid of these risks, prints on satin, coated or even photo paper can give great results colour-wise. I think however, that it is an overkill. On paper models in scales 30mm and less you really don’t need that kind of quality. I prefer simple, plain paper. It is cheap and contrary to above mentioned it absorbs ink and glue well which is in my opinion more important.
Go and Experiment.
There is no single best, universal, good for everything paper or printer, almost every paper or printer have some qualities you can use to your advantage. The only way to find your optimal materials by trial and error. Good luck on finding your perfect material. Have fun.
In case you are using U.S. basis weight system (lbs/ream) you may find this conversion table useful.