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How paper is made

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Westerners might not have invented paper, but, as we've done with most things, we did manage to mechanize it to produce the largest quantity with the least amount of work and money. For all I know, it was a slow-moving plot to take over the world . . . in the post-modern age, he who best manages his junk mail wins.

To begin the paper-making process back in the olden days, rag scraps were put in vats of water and beaten with huge, heavy hammers until the fibers separated. If you've ever tried to do this in a blender, with a whizzy motor doing the hard part, you have some idea what a long, arduous process this was with crude, heavy tools and human musclepower.

A beater from the 1500s had four or more vertical stones attached to the same axle.A paper-making machine from the 1500s, called a beater, had four or more vertical stones attached to the same axle.

Some clever soul eventually attached the hammers to an axle rotated by a very strong guy turning a wheel. The hammers, or beaters, fit into hollowed stones beneath them. With each revolution, the beaters pounded the bejaysus out of the rags. Eventually, the rags would give up and disintegrate.

Later, the Dutch invented something other Europeans called, not very imaginatively, a hollander. Involving a cylinder with wicked-looking spikes attached to its surface, it stabbed and crushed and mangled the rags into fibers. A brutal business, this. It also required a lot of water, which is why paper mills are located near good water sources.

However it was done, the point was to get the cloth separated into filaments—in essence, reversing the work that had already been done to make the fibers into thread and then cloth. It says a lot about economies of the times that all this hard work was still less expensive than buying raw fiber. Once this was accomplished, the papermaker had a vat of stuff. No kidding, that's the technical term for the mixture of pulp and water: stuff. Ain't English grand?

The Western barbarians had stolen from the Chinese a method of making molds to hold this amazing stuff. . . er, stuff. . . well, you know. . . while shaping it. There are several methods, but if you want to know more, hover over the +. We'll talk here about a simple wire mold.

Kid and linen-finished papersPapers with kid (left) and linen finishes provide very different writing experiences.

Our mold has closely placed rows of parallel wire held together by evenly spaced horizontal rows of wire. (The Chinese mold had a similar look, but used bamboo and horsehair.) It consists of this wire screen surrounded by a wooden frame. Inside the mold nests a deckle, which is actually what determines the dimensions of the paper sheet. Visualize two nesting wooden frames, with a wire form in the bottom one.

The vatman (the papermaking dude) takes this mold, sinks it into the vat of stuff, scoops it up and gives it a complex rolling shake. This criss-crosses and intertwines the fibers and is much more difficult than it sounds. These folks were (and are) highly skilled craftsmen.

The vatman didn't usually look as maniacal as this one does.The vatman was a highly skilled worker who dipped the mold into a vat of stuff, swirled it around, and came out with a sodden paper leaf.

The water drains out, pulling the fibers into a mat. The deckle is removed and--guess what? The sheet of wet paper, now called a waterleaf, has a soft, irregular edge that we call (ta-daaa!) a deckle!

Now, the vatman couches the waterleaf—turns it out of the mold face-down onto a sheet of damp felt.

Screw-type press.A post (stack of waterleaves) was placed in a press and squeezed to remove as much water as possible.

This process is repeated until a big pile of wet paper sheets, alternating with damp felt pieces, is formed. The pile, called a post, is placed into a press and the bejaysus squeezed out of it yet again (I told you this is a violent process, not for the young or faint of heart). This not only eliminates excess water but the additional pressure makes a tighter bond between the fibers. The sheets are removed from the felts and dried slowly, over a rack or flat, to prevent ripples from forming. The paper may be sized or not, as desired.

Eventually, people discovered that wood could serve the same purpose as rags and was a lot cheaper and more easily available. What they didn't know at first was that a plant substance called lignin would cause yellowing and deterioration of wood-pulp paper. Bleaching, washing and other techniques, which I won't discuss, remove this to make archival, acid-free wood-pulp papers today.

Comparison of real and false decklesTop to bottom, deckles: mold-made, made by tearing moistened paper, and made with patterned scissors.

Mechanization has automated and sped up the process, putting lots of vatmen into unemployment lines but allowing us to make many kinds, colors, textures, and weights of paper so quickly that it would astonish our forebears. Paper is cheap (comparatively, though it's getting more expensive by the week these days) and readily available, not the precious luxury commodity it once was. Mostly, this is a good thing; but I'm not going to delve into mechanized paper-making. There's little romance in a dandy roll.

Dandy-rolls are still used to impress watermarks and texture.The continuous paper sheet feeds between the dandy-roll and the bed, and the watermarks (the blotchy bits) press into the surface.

The truly amazing thing about the papermaking process today is this: It is still done exactly the way the Chinese did it 2,000 years ago. Only the mechanics have changed.

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