Ever Heard of Onion Skin Paper? And how do we process it

We are currently working on a very large archive of old books that require HQ scanning to Archival TIFF images.  Once processed, these images will be OCR (optical character recognition) applied before being prepared to PDF format.


The difficulty in this order, is the books are prepared using a medium called Onion Skin Paper.

Whilst we are very confident in preparing this type of medium, it is very important to be aware that there are risks with scanning, given the sometimes-fragile nature of the paper.  Tears and rips can occur, so a very gentle white glove approach is required.

Equally, with the nature of onion skin, the paper is very translucent which requires a sheet of white paper to be placed under each page before scanning. This then grants a very good HQ image that we can work with. 


Onion skin paper is a type of very light weight, almost translucent paper that somewhat resembles the outer skins of an onion. 

It is also relatively durable, given how lightweight it is, because it usually contains a high percentage of cotton fibres, which make for stronger paper. 


There are numerous practical applications for this paper, including airmail stationary, Books, Journals, Records, Bibles, and other situations where lightweight, strong paper is needed.  Entire books can be printed on onion skin paper when they have a lot of material that would otherwise make them very unwieldy. When handling a large onion skin text, such as some versions of the Bible or the Oxford English Dictionary, readers should be aware that the larger pages are more subject to ripping if roughly handled than some other papers, so they should not be hasty, even when an etymological argument is vital.

Along with other specialty papers, it is available from paper supply stores and companies in varying sizes to meet differing needs.  

The weight of onion skin paper is very light; a stack of 500 sheets of bond size weighs around 9 pounds (4 kilograms), depending on the manufacturer. Bond size is 17 inches by 22 inches (43 by 56 centimetres), meaning that it is double the size of a standard letter sized sheet. 

The light weight of onion skin paper makes it ideal for situations where large amounts of records are being generated, but still need to be kept manageable. For this reason, it is also often used to make duplicates, carbon copies, and records of official correspondence. 

While the official version may be sent out on regular paper, the records are kept compact on this specialty paper.  

The finish of onion skin paper is usually cockled, meaning that it was air dried while it was being made. Cockled paper has a slightly wavy, hand-made feel to it, along with a mildly dimpled finish. This property means that the paper often crackles while it is being handled, as the sheets do not lie flat against each other. It also prevents the sheets from sticking to each other or other surfaces, a common problem with very light weight papers. 

While onion skin paper and tracing paper are technically not the same thing, this paper can be used for art tracing. It can also be used as an interleaving material in books with colour plates that have the potential to be damaged.


 Kind regards to Mary for her write up about this fascinating medium.

Mary McMahon

Last Modified Date: January 26, 2021


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