Preserving handmade paper

To prevent papers from deteriorating in quality over time, they need to be pH neutral. Materials in the paper that are not cellulose whether acidic or alkaline cause the cellulose fibres in the paper to break down causing it to become discoloured and brittle.

Commercially available papers are often treated with acidic or alkaline additions which result in paper which degrades over time. This can be readily observed in paper such as newspaper which, if left outside will yellow and become brittle in a matter of days.

The long term life of paper only becomes a consideration if it is being used by artists and print makers who want their work to stand the test of time. Preserving handmade paper is especially important to conservators. pH paper can be used to test paper at various stages of production.

The pH of the water supply used in production should be close to 7 (neautral). The water should also be free of any pollution and particulate matter. If for example, your paper contains any small iron particles they will eventually cause what is known as foxing (small discoloured spots which show up when the paper is dry). If you are making paper from plant fibres, the pH should be between 10 and 11 during the cooking process. Anything below 10 is too week and anything above 11 can damage the cellulose fibres in the paper. When washing the fibres, the rinse water can be checked until it falls in the aforementioned range. After the sheet of paper has been formed and couched, a pH of between 7 and 8 is considered to be pH neutral, if the pH is above 8.5, the pH will deteriorate quickly.

A diagram of the pH scale
A diagram of the pH scale, showing examples at each step and the concentration hydrogen ions compared to distilled water.

Methyl cellulose glue

Methyl cellulose is a water-based archival quality adhesive. It can be used to size paper externally, strengthen bonding when producing pulp casts and attach sheets of paper to one another wet or dry. It is available from paper making supply stores and some art stores. It is available in 100 gram packets from Ratchford. these will last ages as you only make it in 5 gram batches.

How to make methyl cellulose glue

Here is a recipe to make your own methyl cellulose glue. Scale it up as appropriate.

You will need:

  • 8 teaspoons methyl cellulose
  • 1 cup of boiling water
  • 1 cup of cold water

Sprinkle the methyl cellulose powder into the boiling water then add the cold water and mix well. Let the solution cool to room temperature. It will slowly thicken to a paste like consistency. This is methyl cellulose glue and it can be used to size paper.

Photograph of methyl cellulose
Methyl cellulose is easily available in powder form

Mould and Deckle

The mould and deckle should be made with nonwarping, waterpoof wood. The wood should be well sealed to stop it from rotting. Marine supply stores are a great place to source appropriate varnishes and finishes.

Brass screws should be used as they will not rust – it’s really important that everything is water resistant as the equipment will need to be able to withstand constant drying and soaking.

There are lots of options for screens. Modern screens can be easily and quickly made with aluminium, brass or copper mesh woven screens. These should should have a density of 30-40 wires per inch.

a laid paper making screen and a woven paper making screen illustration
Paper making screen with a laid screen (left and a woven screen (right)

There are three main types of mould and deckle:

Western mould and deckle

Western mould’s were first developed in the 12th Century. They typically use a laid surface which consists of parallel lines of wires sewn into a mesh. These create lines which are visible in sheets of the dried paper. In my opinion this makes the paper much more distinctive and adds character to the sheets than the more modern woven screen which was developed in the 18th century and has a much more consistent surface.

western mould photograph
The underside of my own 18th-19th Century mould. The size is around B2.

Eastern Sugeta

A Sugeta is a traditional Eastern paper making tool. The su is the screen and is flexible not rigid like the Western mould. It is typically made out of bamboo woven together, it can be easily replicated with a bamboo table mat. The keta is a hinged frame that holds the su. The Sugeta is in many ways, more suitable for paper-making with plant fibres such as Mulberry and flax – it makes couching easier when forming thin sheets with many fibres.

A photo of Sugeta mould
A sugeta – su and keta with fine sheet of plant fibre paper being made. Photo from www.papertrail.ca

Deckle box

A deckle box allows pulp to be poured directly onto the mould instead of pulling them from a vat of pulp. This is how the very first sheets of paper were made, this technique is still widely used in places such as India and Nepal. The deckle box allows you to make paper with a small amount of pulp and is good when you don’t have enough to fill a vat.

A photograph of a deckle box
Forming paper in a deckle box. Picture from www.lostcoastculturemachine.org

The deckle box is also great for making sheets of decorative paper as additions can be easily mixed in and positioned accurately before the sheet is pressed. It’s also a good technique for making really thick sheets of paper as you can keep building up layers of pulp.

Khadi papers handmade paper video

Khadi Papers are a great handmade paper company with a strong focus on artistic paper and a small range of well thought out projects.

Khadi Papers have a strong focus on the local environment and community.

The company supplies handmade paper around the world in a number of specialist art and paper shops. They have a well designed webshop which ships worldwide. They have a gallery which displays what artists from around the world have produced on their handmade paper.

When there is a great story behind the paper, it doesn’t necessarily need to be made into other products. The paper can be sold on the story itself.

Xuan Paper making video

A paper making video about Xuan paper

Description from UNESCO:

The unique water quality and mild climate of Jing County in Anhui Province in eastern China are two of the key ingredients in the craft of making Xuan paper that thrives there. Handmade from the tough bark of the Tara Wing-Celtis or Blue Sandalwood tree and rice straw, Xuan paper is known for its strong, smooth surface, its ability to absorb water and moisten ink, and fold repeatedly without breaking. It has been widely used in calligraphy, painting and book printing. The traditional process passed down orally over generations and still followed today proceeds strictly by hand through more than a hundred steps such as steeping, washing, fermenting, bleaching, pulping, sunning and cutting all of which lasts more than two years. The production of the Paper of Ages or King of Papers is a major part of the economy in Jing County, where the industry directly or indirectly employs one in nine locals and the craft is taught in local schools. True mastery of the entire complicated process is won only by a lifetime of dedicated work. Xuan paper has become synonymous with the region, where a score of artisans still keep the craft alive.