Adventures in Papermaking: Part 1

A friend and I have been longing to recycle our old scraps of un-usable printmaking paper (and horrible prints) for about a year now. As we both graduated this past week, it’s been really hard to find the time to embark on this sort of project until now.

I suppose we’re cheating in some way by making paper out of paper – at least that’s what it seems from the papermaking books we’ve read. But, you have to start somewhere and this seems like the best place to begin for both of us. Crazy amazing papers made of roots and nests and broken bits of this and that come later.

Because so many papermaking books seem to espouse simply cutting up old paper to make new paper – we’ve had to play things a bit by ear, or rather by eye. The essential principle is the same no matter what – chop, grind, disperse, pull, couch, dry… lather, rinse, repeat.

We took advantage of the empty printmaking classroom to begin the project and quickly took up the entire room.

(my personal domain)

Making Frames:

We made frames from old screen and stretcher bars. We later noted that it’s better to staple the screen as evenly and as close together as possible to the center hole of the frame. I will place a strip of waterproof pipe tape (the black shiny kind) over the staples when I make my next set of frames to create a masked area which will prevent the edges of my paper from getting underneath the screen from above or below. I found that I had a great many problems “couching” the sheets (getting them off the screen and onto another surface to dry) because pulp would creep under the screen in this area. When pulp touches pulp, it doesn’t want to let go.

Making Pulp:

Many pieces/scraps of paper were torn or cut and placed into large soaking tubs to loosen up. It was our hope that in using printmaking papers with considerably good quality sizing, our finished papers would maintain the strength and absorbency necessary for printing, ink, and watercolor (because that is what sizing is meant to do). Although we added some additional non-sized paper (construction paper for color), I believe this will be true though I’ve yet to test our finished products.

The key to making good pulp seems to be water, and plenty of it. At first we were stingy with how much water we put in the blenders but this only led to lumpy pulp and super-think sheets of equally lumpy paper. The more water in the blender the better. In the end, it only took a handful of wet scraps to a full pitcher of water to make a nice smooth “rice-paper” consistency sheet of paper.

(pulp in the vat)

Pulling Sheets:

Pulling paper is the best, and most relaxing part, of making paper. It’s also the wettest part. We got water everywhere as we figured out the best ways to strain the pulp up through the screens as we pulled sheet after sheet of new paper. The suction of the screen as it moves beneath the water’s surface effects how the pulp disperses and builds as you pull the screen out of the water – this alters the evenness, texture, and even the thickness of the paper that will form.

Couching:

Once you’ve pulled the screen out of the water and have a nice pulpy sheet of gooey mess sitting on top you have to do something with it. At this point the paper sheet is very very fragile. Bumping or shaking the screen makes the pulp bulge or collide and create imperfections on the surface. Despite the fragility of the pulp sheet – the suction of the pulp to the screen means it’s easy to turn it over and transfer it to another surface. It doesn’t fall off but any jarring motions can make the pulp shift.

The key to this process, called couching, is that the surface you deposit your pulp sheet onto is damp too, and that it’s sturdy and secure and doesn’t pull away with the pulp and screen when you begin to lift the screen. My friend discovered that blotting the excess water off the back of the screen also helped and prevented the pulp from pulling back up with the screen (he’s a genius).

I found that my screen edges were often to blame for sheets that refused to be laid down without ripping as the screen was removed – the areas where pulp crept under the underside of the screen made the edge of the pulp sheet stick to the screen.

(right) A sheet pulled without a deckle frame. (left) With deckle frame.

I tried to deposit my sheets onto some old press board (the kind that’s on the back of art pads) which were topped with damp pieces of cotton fabric. The damp fabric stuck to the cardboard and provided a stable surface that didn’t pull up when the screen was removed. I then placed shear net-like fabrics (a slicker version of tulle and some soft silk-like nylon) on top of the newly made paper to ensure a smooth texture on the surface.

My friends, who made much larger sheets than I did, discovered that they could couch their sheets directly onto board or dry-wall (that were dry) and that this worked as well. The dry-wall was particularly successful for them because it immediately started to suck the water from the pulp sheets. As these newly formed sheets are about 96% water – that’s very helpful. They even went so far as to blow dry their sheet, expediting the dry time exponentially.

Drying:

Because my friends took some short cuts, they left for the day with a stack of dried paper – showing some proof of their days effort. On the other hand, I put my stack in a heavy paper press and left it there overnight to dry. I’m more of a traditionalist in this sense – well, for the most part.

When I returned the next evening I found that my paper was still extremely moist and that the boards I’d used between each cotton/paper/net sandwich, was starting to show signs of impending mildew. I should have had a felt pad in between as is suggested and this was precisely why.

I went to the Salvation Army and bought a cheep blanket, cut it up, and re-did my layering at home. I set a piece of foam core on top and weighted the tower down with heavy marble book ends.

The next day my sheets of paper were much dryer and could be removed from the stacks and handled carefully. I was impatient (and needed the blankets for my next paper run) so I took a blow dryer to the sheets and then pressed them all overnight beneath the book ends, sans blankets. It worked very well. When all was said and done, it took 3 days and about an hour of blow-drying until I could actually hold real “paper” in my hands. I now have 25 nice little sheets of handmade paper and I like them all.

Despite the lengthy drying process I don’t see myself using the board technique my friends used – while the dry-wall seemed okay, the board left it’s impression (and flakes of wood) in the surface of the paper and overall, the end result was a bit more crumbly and “pilly” than the sheets I made the “tedious” way. Because I intend to use ink and watercolor on these pieces of paper, the surface is very important to me.

The experience was very fun and also quite rewording. I made a second batch of paper yesterday and it’s drying as I type this. I have some projects envisioned in which this paper will become a major component. Hopefully, with more practice, I’ll find quicker and more effective ways to produce the kinds of paper I want to work with.

I will most definitely do this with my next group of 2D students. It would be a great texture exercise and I the hands on group aspect of the process would the a great way to build community – it was certainly a lot of fun to do this with my friends.

At least I know now that I need new screens and better felts (I’ve been using acrylic and it sucks)… and lots and lots of towels…

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2 thoughts on “Adventures in Papermaking: Part 1

  1. Thank you very Much, i have a Question
    do you have any Information if the Denisty of Paper bevor/after Pulp change?

    Thank you very Much

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