Choosing the Best Paper for Paper Airplanes

Paper is the most critical part of the paper aircraft. Yup, it's all about the paper. This may sound so obvious that it becomes ridiculous. However, there are several properties that can vary between different types and brands of paper. Understanding these properties and how they change the airplanes aerodynamics is essential to designing and building good paper airplanes.

Important paper properties include: strength, stretch, stiffness, weight, and texture. The most important properties during folding are strength and stretch (stiffness, weight, and texture mainly matter indirectly as they change the other two). On the other hand, when it comes to flying paper planes the three most important are stiffness, weight, and texture. You can refer to the Basic Paper Airplane 101 PDF file for more detail on why these properties are so different for different brands of paper. What we are going to concentrate on here is what our best choices are for success in both building and flying paper airplanes.

Starting with folding; as we mentioned the primary concerns are strength and stiffness. These are directly related to each other and our main concern is being able to fold the paper airplane without tearing the paper. Most types of bond paper work fine but if you want to use specialty paper (such as old resumes made of rag) paper airplane designs with several layers of fold can over stretch the paper past its strength limit and tear. Bond paper fibers can stretch better and maintain strength than rag or many other specialty papers. As long as we are able to make a cleanly folded and symmetric paper glider without tearing we can call the folding phase a success and move on to the more important part - flying quality!

Over the years I have noticed that if I find a colored variety of paper that make good airplanes it does not seem to stay on the market for very long. Part of this is that paper sales have been based on supplying a product that is used for so many different things. I personally think that the aerodynamic quality of the stock should take precedence. However, not everyone agrees. With the demand for heavy, bright colored printer paper over the last several years, I thought that the problem was no longer going to be an issue. The only problem is that cost of making good paper airplane stock is more expensive than just making bright colored paper. The main characteristic that suffers in today's market is stiffness (not from too little but from too much).

It requires more processing time to reduce stiffness and produce a softer paper. This increases cost and in order to provide the most competitive price most stores are selling lower quality paper. My favorite airplane paper was "eXtreme colors" from Ampad and sold at Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, this paper was replaced by "Embassy Colored Paper" from Ampad. This paper is much too stiff for paper airplane folding. For those of you who didn't read The Science of Paper Airplanes PDF file, the problem that occurs with stiff paper is that the wings won't curve due to the difference in air pressure on the top and bottom of the wing. This causes a decrease in lift and an increase in drag, thereby, shortening airplane flight time. (See the FoilSim, full version, software page and using flat plate wing add a little camber and watch the improvement.) Worse, one wing can bend while the other does not and the lift and drag become unbalanced leading to instability. I have not checked Kmart or Target to see if they have changed their paper types. As a note, the paper they have sold before ("Hots" from Georgia-Pacific, and "Brights" from Riverside) were better than "Embassy Colored Paper". "Hots" is fairly good and "Brights" is OK but a lighter paper.

The good news for those who like colored paper is that yet more changes have been made as of 2014 and the current available paper is now better then that which was available a couple of years ago. Ampad Copy Paper 24 lb (Walmart), Neenah Astrobrights 24 lb (Walmart), and Pacon Brights Laser and Inkjet Paper 20 lb (Fred's) all work well. The glow color variety of the Ampad Copy Paper seemed a little less stiff (better) then the primary color variety. However, I doubt that colored type paper is ever again going to be made with the same quality as the business world demands plain white bond to hold.

bond paper for paper airplane design 1

Weight is the next important property for airplane flight. Unlike full size aircraft, we are trying to get as much weight as possible built into our paper airplane. The reason for this is to give us the most energy and momentum to overcome drag. When we hand toss our throw is limited by the speed of our hand. Increasing the weight of the paper airplane does not change this max speed we can toss. (Think about the difference if a baseball pitcher throws a baseball verses a hollow plastic ball - both would leave his hand at near the same speed but the energy and momentum of the heavier baseball makes all the difference!) Therefore, we increase both the momentum and energy of the paper airplane by increasing the weight. Most paper gliders have wings that produce more then enough lift to compensate for the heavier weight as long as we maintain a good speed. But, at the same time, the paper must remain fold-able. A heavier weight paper also increases the stiffness. This usually leaves us to compromise at a paper that is 24 lb weight. You can search out the details of why paper is labeled under the weight values you see on the package but I am going to just present a table at the bottom of this page that show the weight values and equivalent thicknesses. For folded design we are going to be using bond paper. For those gliders that do not have too thick of a bend 28 lb paper can be used for an even better weight.

More good news for 2015 is that Georgia-Pacific has put out 300 sheet packages of 28 lb paper available at Walmart. Until now 28 lb paper was not an easy item to find. I have tested this 28 lb paper and found it to make very good paper airplanes. I was even able to fold the Lunar Hawk design (requires the most stretch of any of my designs). There was a little wobble at the start of flight due to the heavier stiffness in some designs but within a few feet of flight the wings balanced and I saw smooth flight.

One last note about weight is that I mentioned when we toss by hand heavier weight is better because our hand is going to give the airplane a consistent initial velocity. However, if we use a battery powered paper airplane launcher to fly the paper airplane we may not get as much advantage. If the motors (or batteries) are not strong enough then instead of a constant velocity they will cause a slow down for heavier gliders. This does not mean that the heavier paper glider will not perform as well as a lighter one only that you may not gain as much advantage as with a hand toss. This would make a great science project experiment. A Note just for the Science Student - For light weights, such as paper airplanes, a human arm or a well powered motor act like "constant velocity" launchers. A weaker motor (or batteries) and rubber band powered devices act like "constant energy" launchers. And, although hard to construct for a paper airplane, some devices would act like "constant momentum" launchers. Understanding and explaining this concept would be of great value to a science fair presentation!

bond paper for paper airplane design 5

So, at last, I have come to the point of giving my final opinion on the best paper. With the disappearance of "eXtreme colors" the best choice I have found is .... drum roll please...... 24lb Ink Jet Paper like the type shown above from Georgia-Pacific. Yes, it is plain paper, but is also plane paper!!!.
For those who need color you have two choices: Use computer graphics to add some art to your favorite designs or keep looking for that perfect paper.







Click on Text Below for Folding Links
Paper Trimming Paper Plane Parts Folding Tips
Design Tips Decorating Tips Science Fair Tips


Chart compiled by: Micro Format,Ink -- Check out their site for other good data.
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Bond
Ledger

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Offset
Text

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Cover
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Tag
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Index
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Points
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*Caliper
(inches)

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millimeters
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Metric
(grams/sq meter)

Equivalent 16 40 22 37 33 3.2 .0032 0.081 60.2 gsm
Weight 18 45 24 41 37 3.6 .0036 0.092 67.72 gsm
20 50 28 46 42 3.8 .0038 0.097 75.2 gsm
24 60 33 56 50 4.8 .0048 0.12 90.3 gsm
28 70 39 64 58 5.8 .0058 0.147 105.35 gsm
29 73 40 62 60 6 .0060 0.152 109.11 gsm
31 81 45 73 66 6.1 .0061 0.155 116.63 gsm
35 90 48 80 74 6.2 .0062 0.157 131.68 gsm
36 90 50 82 75 6.8 .0068 0.173 135.45 gsm
39 100 54 90 81 7.2 .0072 0.183 146.73 gsm
40 100 56 93 83 7.3 .0073 0.185 150.5 gsm
43 110 60 100 90 7.4 .0074 0.188 161.78 gsm
44 110 61 102 92 7.6 .0076 0.193 165.55 gsm
47 120 65 108 97 8 .0078 0.198 176.83 gsm
53 135 74 122 110 9 .0085 0.216 199.41 gsm
54 137 75 125 113 9 .009 0.229 203.17 gsm
58 146 80 134 120 9.5 .0092 0.234 218.22 gsm
65 165 90 150 135 10 .0095 0.241 244.56 gsm
67 170 93 156 140 10.5 .010 0.25 252.08 gsm
72 183 100 166 150 11 .011 0.289 270.9 gsm
76 192 105 175 158 13 .013 0.33 285.95 gsm
82 208 114 189 170 14 .014 0.356 308.52 gsm
87 220 120 200 180 15 .015 0.38 312 gsm
105 267 146 244 220 18 .0175 0.445 385.06 gsm

The darker colored boxes above represent the "most common paper weights" for that category.

Normal paper manufacturing tolerance within a paper production run is + or - 5% to 7% caliper

This Table was compiled by Micro Format, Inc.

Copyright 1997-2005 Micro Format, Inc.

This table may be duplicated with permission from Micro Format, Inc.