Tips & techniques

How to make thin paper

Making thin sheets of paper can be especially difficult.

How to make thin paper

Try putting a sheet of interfacing on top of your mould before covering it with your deckle. Pull the sheet in the normal way and then, instead of couching it onto sheets, carefully remove the interfacing and allow the sheet of paper to dry. Alternately, you could couch the sheet of paper and the interfacing onto a thicker felt.

How to make thick paper

Thick sheets of paper can be made by couching two sheets of paper on top of each other. When the sheets are pressed and dried, they will form strong bonds with each other and become one. Thick sheets can also be made by pouring the pulp into a ‘deckle box’.

Thin japanese paper how to make thin paper
Japanese paper is extremely thin yet strong. Image from

Drying handmade paper

Drying handmade paper can be quite a problematic process. There are some simple techniques that you can use to make sure that you get consistent, high quality results.

The method of drying that you choose will affect the surface texture of the paper that you produce. It is worth experimenting with several methods to find the one which suits you and the climate you are drying in best.

Drying on the mould

Paper is typically dried on the mould in traditional Eastern paper making. This technique requires many moulds and intense sunshine to allow the paper to dry quickly. It allows surface textures to remain intact and can be an especially effective technique if additions are used in the paper.

drying paper on the mould illustration
drying paper on the mould

Air drying

Another effective technique for drying handmade paper is to let the sheets air dry on the surface upon which they were couched. This works best with thin couching surfaces such as interfacing as they dry much quicker.

The sheets can be peeled off of the interfacing when they are dry. They may cockle as the fibres contract, this can be resolved by pressing. If you are struggling to get rid of this cockling, mist the papers with water and put them under a weight between blotting paper or newspaper.

Exchange drying handmade paper

Sheets of paper can be dried between any absorbent materials that will wick paper away from your sheet. These materials include cloths, newspapers and blotting sheets. After the sheets have been pressed, interleave them with one of these materials and form a stack. Change the blotting material once a day until the sheets are dry. This process can take anywhere from a day to week.

Loft drying handmade paper

Loft drying is method of hanging paper to dry. This was typically done in the loft or ceiling of a building where the air was warmer. To loft dry sheets, they need to be:

  1. Pressed between felts
  2. Separated from felts and piled into stacks of four to six sheets depending on thickness (these piles are called spurs)
  3. Whilst piling the sheets, make sure that they are lined up exactly. Rotate alternate sheets to even out any irregularities.
  4. Put a felt in-between each spur forming a small post
  5. Return this post to the press and press until you see drops of water forming at the edge of the sheets. Any more pressure than this and the sheets can be difficult to separate once the paper is dry.
  6. Once each spur has been pressed, it can be hung on a clothesline with clothespins.
  7. If you can circulate additional air with a fan, direct it at the breadth of the sheets not the edges to prevent cockling.
  8. When the sheets are dry, peel the sheets of each spur apart in one fluid motion.
Loft drying handmade paper
Loft drying handmade paper illustration

Board or wall drying

Board or wall drying is practised in traditional Eastern papermaking. Wet sheets of paper are brushed onto walls or boards. Any smooth surface can be used for this. The sheets should be first pressed and then brushed onto a vertical surface using a soft bristle brush. It is important that the edges are well adhered to the surface as they will dry first and could easily pop off the drying surface. Methyl Cellulose can be used on the edges of the paper as an additional precaution to prevent pop off. Shade drying paper allows them to dry slowly, this can be helpful to start with to slow down the initial drying time of the edges of the paper.

Internal sizing with methyl cellulose

Methyl Cellulose (MC) is a synthetic polymer that can be derived from cellulose chains. In low concentrations (eg. 0.5%), these polymers can act as very good sizing agents and can be used both in internal and surface sizing.

The use of a sizing such as methyl cellulose performs two roles:

  • Repel oil and/or grease
  • Enhance the fibre to fibre bonding making the paper stronger and more durable.

MC is a popular size as it essentially disappears into the paper without causing a change in surface sheen or texture. It should be used in a concentration of around .5%. 30ml of .5% solution should be used for every litre of paper pulp.

Internal sizing is added during the beating of the paper pulp. It does not make the paper waterproof or contribute to the wet-strength of the pulp, it does however hinder the absorption of water and contributes a greater dimensional stability to the paper.

Surface sizing provides an additional layer of strength to the paper but can be quite a destructive process.

In Cairo we will be experimenting with both internal and surface sizing with methyl cellulose. I have chosen methyl cellulose as it is acid-free, seemingly does not need to be mixed with any other chemicals such as alum to bond well to cellulose, can be stored for long periods of time once it has been made up, does not attract vermin and it should also be fairly easy to acquire. It is a common chemical and I hope we will be able to find a supplier in Cairo. I will be bringing some with me (hope it’s ok through customs!).

a picture of somebody gelatin sizing some paper
Sizing paper with a brush. This is probably a gelatin solution.

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.