Basic Papermaking Recipe

“Messy but Fun!”

The art of handmade paper and papermaking can seem very intimidating to the paper neophyte, all that fiber and paper pulp – and then there are all those big, thick books out there on nothing else but how to make paper, with all the endless paper making techniques and encyclopedic list of botanical candidates for this ancient craft.

Don’t’ let this scare you off, - although handcrafted paper making can be very complex (and is truly an artform at that level), it is also a delightfully easy handcraft to master.

The following is “basic papermaking” from other discarded papers. If you really get into this (and believe me, you can), as I referenced above there are numerous books available that will tell you everything you EVER wanted to know about all kinds of natural fibers, grasses, and other plant material that can be gathered, cooked, beaten, pulverized, and eventually turned into absolutely exquisite handmade paper, along with a variety of various papermaking disciplines.

This “from scratch/fiber, in the Wilds” papermaking is the way that I made paper when attending the two week workshop at Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, Oregon that I mentioned before, and although I will probably never beat coconut husk again, one of the truly great things I did come out of that workshop with was knowing why God made Okra – for papermakers! (although I was born in Southern California, my mom’s family came out of the Deep South, and eating okra was one of those things that did not translate well into my psyche).

PS (Personal Sidenote) . . . when working with your own processed fiber you need to help suspend the fibers in the paper vat, and nothing does this better than okra slime. In our workshop we cut up the okra, put the pieces in cheesecloth and placed the whole business in a bucket half full of cold water. The slime oozed out and mingled with the bit of water, and some of this slurry added to our paper pulp/water mixture helped the long plant fibers stay suspended and not “clump” together).

okra for papermaking

The subject of true, “from the raw material, hand made paper making” is huge, can be gone into in depth, and frankly is beyond the interest level of most people who just want to work with handmade paper. So the following ingredients and recipe is papermaking “basics” for all the rest of us.

Ok, since this is a papermaking "recipe", let's start with: "Ingredients"

One of the things that I like to do is keep a “compost heap” of paper scraps – it is all grist for the papermaking mill - everything from torn envelopes and adding machine tape, to scraps of beautiful handmade paper that I have left over from other projects. This is ultimate recycling to me, because LOTS of this “trash” paper was already recycled stuff!

Pick up an old osterizer or blender at the Goodwilll store or a yard sale and label it “Paper Pulper” or some other such moniker so that you don’t accidently make your famous gazpacho with the same machine, even though you do thoroughly clean it after each use. Although it would probably be ok, you don’t know what inks, dyes or other chemicals might be in your paper scraps.

A couple of other quick pointers:

• Almost any type of uncoated paper will do. Avoid really slick paper, wax paper, etc.

• That being said, cardboard, old greeting cards, napkins, paper towels, computer paper, paper bags – you get the idea. Do be aware that the base color (cardboard) and/or inks on your papers will influence the final color of your paper. Too many different colors in one batch usually results in a nondescript grey shade. As with anything, the better the grade of paper scraps you use, the better the grade of your finished handmade paper will be.

• You are going to need a mold and deckle. And here I have to say that this is where many would-be papermakers get hung up. This is NOT a complex and/or exact tool. It is two frames with screening on one – essentially that is it.

• You can buy these from most craft stores or mail-order sources that sell paper making supplies, but you can also easily and inexpensively (cheap hobby again) make your own simply by tightly tacking some window screening onto a frame (an old picture frame works) and then having another frame (same size) that fits on top that is deep enough to hold the pulp on the screening when everything is submersed in a vat of water and pulp. The size of your frame will be the size of your handmade paper (just in case you weren’t sure)

• You will also need a big plastic tub to hold your paper pulp / water mixture, some towels, and “couching cloths” which are usually squares (larger than your frame size) of white felt or flannel for absorbing the water from your wet handmade paper sheets as you stack them. You might also want to start with a stack of newspaper under your first “couching cloth” to add a bit more absorbency.

• You may or may not want to add glue or sizing to make your finished papers less absorbent (for writing, etc.). Traditionally this can be white glue, starch or even water based wallpaper paste. Personally I don’t like the white glue since it always will have a slight “tackiness” to it when damp.

Now for the: "Recipe"

Ok, you got your stuff, now the fun begins. Separate your paper scraps into colors that are going to work with each other when they all get mushed up together. If you have trouble visualizing this, get yourself a (cheap) and basic color wheel that will show you what you get when you put red with yellow, or blue with red.

1. Rip your selected papers into small bits and put in your “Paper Pulper” blender, filling about half full (if you are working with stiffer paper, like cardboard, etc. you might want to let them soak in some warm water for an hour or so before doing this step).

2. Add enough warm water to the “Paper Pulper” to finish filling the container. Turn it on slowly at first, then faster as you can see the mixture blending. Usually less than a minute is required. Open; check it out, blend a bit more if needed.

3. Fill your tub about halfway with water and add about 3 blenders worth of your paper pulp. This is something you just have to play with. The more pulp, the thicker the paper and vise versa. If you want to add sizing this is the time to do it. About 2-3 teaspoons of whatever will be sufficient.

4. This next step is usually the trickiest part for most neophyte paper makers. And it is just something that you need to do a number of times until you get the correct “feel” of it. Holding the mold/deckle at an angle tipping down and away from your body, dip it into the pulp in a “scooping” movement. Level out the mold and let the pulp settle onto the mesh. You are going for an even distribution of pulp and it may take a few tries to get it right.

5. Lift the mold out of the water. Not happy with it? Dip it again. (this is a very forgiving art form) When you have that thin layer, allow the water to drain out the bottom of the screen

6. Remove the deckle (lift straight up, you don’t want to mess up that hard-won layer of paper pulp) and place the edge of the mold on the side of a “couching cloth”, gently easing the mold down until it is flat on the cloth, paper pulp side down. Use a sponge on the back of the mold screen to remove as much water as possible from your newly formed sheet of handmade paper.

7. When you think you have most of the excess water sponged out, SLOWLY life the edge of the mold and remove the mold in a “peeling” movement – not a “lift-off”. The paper SHOULD stay flat on the “couching cloth”. If it doesn’t you may need to press out more water.

8. Lay another “couching cloth” over your new piece of paper and start the whole thing all over again, couching each piece onto its own cloth and stacking them up on each other with a last piece of “couching cloth” for the top.

9. Put something flat (a board, a cookie sheet, etc.) on the stack of wet handmade paper and again, press out as much moisture as you can (depending on your earlier success with water removal, this can be messy, so be forewarned). You can also place a heavy object on top of the stack and allow it to drain overnight.

10. Separate the sheets and allow them to dry. You can do this in a number of ways. Lay them flat on newsprint paper (the paper sheets, not printed newspaper, the inks may transfer onto your new virgin handmade paper – ugh!), hang them to dry, or gently iron flat.

11. And when they are flat and dry - Voila! – your very own handmade paper!!!

So there you have it – Papermaking 101, complete with all the cheap thrills.

Now, the above are the “papermaking basics”. Once you have those down you can add all sorts of other things to jazz up your handmade paper.

Water based dyes, stains and./or acrylic paints can be added at the pulping stage to create your own colors and hues.

Vegetable matter can also be used to color your pulp. Onion skins, flower petals, beets, etc. will all add their own distinctive coloration to your mixtures. I have also used cut-up pieces of embroidery thread to add squiggly bits of color throughout the pulp.

Once your paper is couched and flat, but still damp you can add other natural materials. Dried pansies are a favorite of mine, and as the paper dries they often “bleed” into the surrounding paper pulp, creating a variety of different effects.

I believe I have mentioned elsewhere that papermaking is a strangely addictive pastime. It is one of those things that you really can’t explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but there it is – take it for what it’s worth and consider yourself forewarned.

Whether the actual papermaking becomes a passion, and you make your own handmade paper, or, like me, you just HAVE to explore the endless varieties that are now available - the art and decorating ideas unleashed that you can do with this fabulous stuff will be one continuing obsession – guaranteed!

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Handmade Paper, a Personal Passion

Paper Making Possibilities, To Pulp or not to Pulp, That is the Question