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The size of sizing

Sizing is a big, important subject for people who use fountain pens! I can't explain why it's called sizing, any more than I can explain why a water/pulp mixture is called stuff, although the word comes from the Middle English sise meaing set, like Jell-O sets. Since much sizing actually is a kind of Jell-O, this makes a certain amount of sense.

I can, however, tell you what it does.

Unsized paper is super-absorbent. Blotting paper or a paper towel, for instance. Water, ink, any liquid will feather into it almost immediately. This is good if you've spilled the Shiraz, but not if you're trying to write neatly and legibly on your expensive hand-made paper.

Sizing makes the paper surface more resistant to feathering. In a way, it makes it harder. Paper can be sized two ways: while the stuff is in the vat or after the sheets are formed and dried.

In the vat, sizing chemicals (usually plain old gelatin, I kid you not, just not the colored, sweetened kind) are added in a certain proportion, then the process goes on as usual. After sheets are formed, they can be sized by immersing them in a sizing solution, soaking them thoroughly, and then pressing and drying them again.

The kind of mold will affect the paper's texture, and that, too, affects the way a nib glides (or doesn't) across it. A paper can be calendered (yes, that's spelled correctly) to flatten it and harden its surface. This means it's passed between two big rollers attached to a frame. It looks something like the wringers on Great-grandma's wringer washer, if you've ever seen one of those. But a lot bigger. "Double calendered" means the paper has passed through this torture twice and should have a hard, resilient surface; but that's not always the case.

The other method is to press the paper—place it between two metal sheets and, again, squeeze the bejaysus out of it. This is where we get the terms hot-pressed and cold-pressed paper, depending, of course, on the temperatures involved. Each results in a distinctive texture.

Considering that early scribes polished their papyrus with smooth objects, I've wondered whether rubbing a sheet of paper evenly with something hard and smooth, like a bone burnisher, would serve the purpose. I've not tried it. If you do, let me know how it works. I suspect the "evenly" part would be the trick.

~ Try this at home! ~

Try it on paper you already have, or buy a papermaking kit and play with that. Several sizing formulae and proportions exist; dink around with them until you find the right proportions for you, if you have that much patience.

For sizing in the vat:

Mix a maximum of 1 tsp. of powdered rosin or alum and 1 tbsp. of a starchy powder (cornstarch, animal-hide glue, acrylic polymer medium, rice paste) OR unflavored gelatin in a quart of water. Gelatin is the handiest because one packet is about the right size. Put this in your vat, with the pulp, in the 1 tsp./1 Tbsp./1 quart of water ratio, and proceed as you normally would.

For sheet sizing:

Mix 1 packet of unflavored gelatin and 1/2 tsp. alum or powdered rosin (try bow rosin from a music store if you can't find powder) in a quart of hot water. It has to be hot or the gelatin won't dissolve, and then you have sticky gelatinous lumps. Put it in a tub and add sheets of paper one at a time, up to eight or ten. Let them soak a bit, then remove them, put them on prepared, damp felts, and squeeze them in a a press for a minute or so (make a temporary press from smooth boards or Formica pieces surmounted by a bunch of bricks, or sit on it if you're big enough). Put paper on a rack or table to dry.

If the sheets ripple or wrinkle, you can flatten them with an iron at low temperature; if you do, they may not turn out as flat as they originally were. When I've tried this, they certainly haven't, but they have had, um, character. You can, as I said, experiment with the amount of gelatin and rosin/alum you use. I'd be really interested in your results.


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