I’m currently in the middle of taking a two week intensive special collections class devoted entirely to paper. It’s so much fun and I’ve already learned so much! Paper isn’t something I typically thought about before this class, but now I’m probably going to think about it all the time. It seems that the classes I take here are completely changing my worldview!

So today my class was lucky enough to go to a house that has a small paper mill set up in the garage! We got to make paper and see how it was done properly, instead of just hearing about it. It was such a great experience, and as soon as I have the money/space I’m totally going to make some of my own paper!

Before I get into the actual papermaking process, there are some things you should know about paper. Paper is anything made of matted fibers. The quality of the paper will be changed depending on what you do to the fibers and what you mix in with them before making the paper. You can make paper out of ANYTHING with fibers. The guy who owned the equipment we worked with was in the middle of making paper out of the plants in his yard. That’s right, he took the scraps from when he was gardening last year, and this year he’s making them into paper. How fantastic is that? You can make paper out of dryer lint (although it won’t be very strong since the fibers are so small!) or out of flowers, or even vegetables! Get the point? You can make paper from anything.

Today we made two different kinds of paper: Western style and Japanese style. I’ll go through each one separately so you don’t get confused!

Japanese Style Paper

The first thing you need to make Japanese style paper is the Kozo plant. You soak the plant in water and then remove the outer bark and beat it with a either a special tool, or a stick. You know, whatever you have around that’s good for beating! We used fibers that were already beaten and ready to go, but the unbeaten plant looks something like this:

We were lucky enough to use fibers that were grown in Japan and beaten by a master Japanese paper maker! After the fibers are beaten you put them in the vat (a large tub) with a formation aid. Traditionally the Japanese use the root of the hyacinth plant and call it the Tororo Aoi, but we used some kind of synthetic substitute. The formation helps the paper form and makes it so you can write on the paper without the ink feathering.

So, you’ve got your vat full of furnish (or “stuff” as the very technical papermakers call it :p) what else do you need? Well, you need a paper mold! The Japanese mold is typically made of bamboo (ours was made of wood and mesh) and is called a sugeta. The su is the screen part, and the geta is the wooden frame part. Here’s a picture of a more traditional one than the one we used!

So once you have your furnish in the vat you agitate it either with a tool or your fingers. We used our fingers because it was nice and hot out and the water felt good! The formation aid makes the furnish feel different than normal water… It’s heavier and slimier, almost like you mixed in egg whites. You take the mold and put it straight down vertically into the vat, and then bring it up at an angle. After that you shake it a few times up and down until the fibers begin to settle. The kozo fibers are very fine and much longer than western fibers, and it’s just beautiful to watch them settle! With Japanese papermaking you are dip the mold into the vat as many times as you want and make as thick or thin a sheet of paper as you want! I dipped mine in three times and it turned out pretty nice!

After creating the sheet we took the screen (su) out of the mold (geta) and used a home rigged air suction system to dry the paper a little. We then peeled the sheet off the the screen and put in on a board. Once on the board we used a brush to clear out any air bubbles and flatten it. I was actually kind of surprised at just how strong the matted fibers were when I peeled the sheet off the screen! It wasn’t super-strong, and I could have easily torn the page, but I also didn’t have to be super careful as I walked across the garage.

This is my sheet of paper! Isn’t it beautiful? The Kozo paper is a beautiful tanish color and you can clearly see the long fibers in it. Sorry for the slightly blurry picture! The papermakers showed us some dried pieces and they were not only beautiful, but soft! They almost felt like fabric.

Our papers were being dried in the garage, but traditionally they’re dried outside more like this:

Western Style Paper

Ok, so on to Western paper! Western paper is similar to Japanese paper, but the mold is different and you also don’t use the formation aid. This means that you need to size the paper so you can write it, but that’s whole story and we didn’t do that.

A Western Style paper mold is similar to the sugeta, but the screen is attached to the mold instead of a completely separate piece. The top part of the mold comes off, and is called a deckle. Here’s a picture I found online to give you more an idea…

The furnish for western style paper is different from the Japanese style. Before wood pulp was used, papermakers used cotton and linen fibers, usually from old rags. Ours was mostly made up of lintels, a kind of cotton fiber you can buy partially beaten. In order to beat them more you need to boil them up and put them into a beater. Smaller papermakers use a blender, but we got to see a small Hollander Beater! I forgot to take a picture of the one we saw, but this one is pretty similar:

Ok, so you beat your pulp and make it into furnish and you’re ready to go! You dip the mold in and then you do the “vatman’s shake” which is a fun little series of shakes to get the fibers to lay different ways and mesh together nicely. After carefully taking off the deckle and draining some of the excess water you couch (pronounced coo-ch) the paper onto the post. Here’s my paper!

The paper is a gray color, and a lot thicker than the Japanese paper. Couching it was fun!

Here’s a picture of the vat and post from the papermakers yard-stuff paper!

You couch the paper onto felts. The felts soak up some of the water, and prevent the post form becoming just a giant block of paper! It also usually gives them a nice texture 🙂

Once you have a large enough post you need to press it. This can be done by putting a lot of pressure on it with either a mechanical press or even just having a lot of people stand on some boards. This gets out a lot of the excess water and really forms the paper and mats the fibers together tightly. After drying you’ve got a perfectly usable piece of paper! The papermaker was going to dry ours for us and get them to us before class ends next week, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep my paper!

Papermaking is messy, wet, and very fun and relaxing. It’s calming to dip the mold into the vat, and it’s so awesome to be able to look at the final product and say ” I did that”. Here you can see the fibers that dried on my hand after I made my paper:

So, dear readers, that is how paper is made! There is so much about paper that I never knew that I’m finding is important. I’m so excited to be taking this class and learning about it! Despite moving towards a paperless world, paper is still a vitally important part of our society. Knowing about paper and its properties will hopefully help me repair books and take care them for future generations. Later this summer I’m taking letterpress printing, and in the fall I’m taking Bookbinding, so by the time I graduate I should know all about how to make a book!

Anyone who has any questions feel free to ask me! I don’t know a lot, but by being in this class I probably know more than most people about paper!


My friend Jess is in my class and she got some good pictures of the set up for those of you who are interested!


3 thoughts on “Paper

  1. VERY cool! That looks like so much fun, and I’d love to experiment with different materials – flowers, herbs, etc.

  2. Yeah! My professor told us about a woman who makes paper out of everything… vegetables, any plants she finds… everything! In Japan someone is making it out of bamboo (which is really difficult since it’s such a hard material!) and a few years ago he met someone who made paper out of seashells!

  3. Pingback: Illinois « Emily's Blog

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