Happy New Year!
Last week, I talked a little about the history of papermaking. This week I’ll try to explain how you can prepare to try this at home. Materials are cheap, and the results can be stunning. Besides that, it can be a lot of fun. It does, however, have quite a few disparate steps and specific things to have on hand. It’s better to prepare in advance, so that you don’t have to go scrambling for just the right thing once the process is underway.
Most of the equipment you’ll need can be found around the house. For processing the paper pulp, a big kettle, like ones used for canning, a large colander or sieve, and a good quality blender. Once I’ve used “kitchen” equipment for papermaking, I retire it from food-preparation duties, so I look at garage sales and re-sale shops for these items.
For forming the sheets of paper, You’ll need a mold and deckle. A mold is basically a frame, in whatever size you want your paper to be, with screen stretched over the top surface. A deckle is exactly the same, only without the screen. An embroidery hoop with screen rather than fabric fastened into it, makes a very simple mold that will produce round papers. Stretcher strips, designed for supporting canvas for paintings, can be purchased to size, with corners already mitered, and ready to snap together. With minimal woodworking skills, lengths of 1″ x 2″ lumber can be cut, glued and tacked together to form a rectangle. Whatever method and size you decide on, make two. One will be topped with screen to form the mold, the other will be left open, the deckle, and used to keep the paper pulp from running off the edges of the mold, when it’s lifted from the water bath. Honestly, this sounds more complicated than it is.
It’s possible to use your bathtub, a utility tub, or your kitchen sink for making paper. If you can find them in the right size, meaning a size that your mold and deckle will fit into while you’re holding on to it, and plastic wash tub will work. Over the years, I’ve invested in several bus tubs, purchased through a restaurant supply store, and find them very helpful.
For draining the formed sheets of paper, and removing them from the screen, you’ll need a good quantity of absorbent towels, couching cloths, and felts. I like towels in the bath towel size. I buy them used, at thrift stores, and run them through the laundry before I use them. Couching cloths are just squares of fabric. Cotton, or mostly cotton, works best. I make mine by cutting or tearing rectangles to size out of old sheets. Felt can be purchased by the yard, and cut to size, or purchased in ready-to-use rectangles at most craft or fabric stores. White is best.
Though not absolutely necessary, a couple patio blocks can be very handy for pushing the moisture out of your papers, and helping them to dry flat. A household iron is useful in drying the sheets of paper.
Enhancements and Additions
Any cellulose fiber, which is almost anything that grows, can be used to make paper, Though I’m describing a process that forms papers of mainly of recycled paper pulp, sheets can be beautified and enhanced with other materials. I save flower petals from my blossoms, autumn leaves, banana peels, grape skins, onion skins and many other odds and ends from the kitchen and garden. When I launder new clothes or linens, I save the dryer lint. I save bits of yarn, thread and embroidery floss. Paper confetti small amounts of glitter can add interest to paper sheets. I collect these items throughout the year, and store them separately in snack sized plastic bags. Any natural materials should be stored in the freezer.
This is the material that will form the basis of your sheets of paper. For good quality papers for note cards, stationery or collage, start saving junk mail. Eliminate any papers made of cardboard or newsprint. These are made of recycled trash, and will not form good, long-lasting sheets of paper. Most bills, form letters and bank statements are printed on quality paper that works well for this project. Envelopes are ideal, as they have little writing on them. Be sure to remove any stamps, stickers, and plastic or cellophane windows. Shiny pages with lots of printing, like magazines and catalogues, will produce fine-textured, soft, pale gray sheets of paper. Be sure to remove any staples, binding, or stickers.
I sort my junk mail into colors, especially at holiday time when I receive large quantities of brightly colored envelopes. Any colors will fade somewhat, in the preparation process, but it’s good to keep the red, yellow and oranges away from the bright blues and greens, or you will always end up with beige papers. I also keep a separate selection of papers that are white, with very little printing. Again, shiny catalogue or magazine pages will always produce a pale gray, no matter what colors are printed on them.
When you have a good mound of paper collected, tear it into pieces no larger than two inches in any direction. The smaller you shred your papers, the easier it will be to break down. It is okay to use a paper shredder for this process, but torn edges take less time to break down, and produce a finer end result. Place your shredded paper in the kettle, cover it with water, and put it on the stove. Add about a tablespoon of bleach. Bring the water to a boil, and let it simmer for about an hour. This process removes any sizing from the paper, and begins the process of breaking it down into pulp. Drain the mixture in a colander, and rinse the paper with cool water. Scoop the paper pulp up into your hands, squeeze out excess water, and shape it into balls, about the size of a baseball. These balls of pulp can be stored, in sealed bags in your freezer, until you’re ready to make paper. That’s what we’ll do next week.