You can make paper from just about any plant stems, from grass or reeds or weeds or hemp or straw. You can use cotton rags or linen or even old paper, but if you're looking to make paper from scratch, well, that would just be cheating. So don't do that. Go out and gather your own plant materials, but remember you're looking more for stalks and stems than for leaves or roots. Take your stems and beat them with a wooden or rubber mallet to crack them open. Then chop or cut them into 1-inch pieces and put them in a big pot. Don't use an aluminum pot because it reacts with alkali. Get yourself an enameled or stainless steel stock pot. Fill that pot about half-way up with chopped plant stems.

Next you need an alkaline solution and for this you can use soda ash[1] and slaked lime. These two alkalis react with one another to produce caustic soda, as described in Chapter 15. Fill the pot about half-way up with water so that it covers your plant stems and record in your notebook the amount of water you used. You will need 15 grams of soda ash and 10 grams of slaked lime for each liter of water. Use UFA to figure out how much of these alkalis to use and then add them to your pot. Set your pulp pot on a stove or hot-plate and let it simmer overnight at low heat. The water will turn black and start to smell sweet; the stems will fall apart as the lignin glue is hydrolyzed.

While your fiber is cooking, you can get your tools together. You need a mold, which is nothing more than a frame with a piece of cloth or screen stretched across it. And you need a deckle, which is exactly like the mold only without the screen. The mold and deckle can be any size you want, but if it were me, I'd start out no bigger than about 20 cm by 30 cm. You could even use cheap picture frames with window-screen glued or stapled to the edges. Next you need a tub big enough so that you can get your mold into it without fumbling. A dish-washing tub or a litter box would work well, but don't use the sink, because your drain will get clogged up. You need a wooden or rubber mallet or an electric blender.

You should also have a press, and here you can get as simple or as fancy as you like. At the simple end, you could just put your paper under a board and stand on it. Getting fancier, you could put four bolts through the corners of two boards. Put wing-nuts on those bolts so you can gradually tighten them up. At the fancy end, you could build a press out of 4x4 lumber. I like to use treated lumber so that it is water-proof, but if you choose to do so you should request an MSDS so that you can observe all safety precautions. Cut 12 1-foot lengths of 4x4 and drill a hole through the middle of each one. Bolt 4 of them together with half-inch threaded steel rod with a washer and a nut at each end. Do this two more times, so that way you end up with is 3 thick, wooden slabs, each 1 foot long. Drill holes at the corners and run some more half-inch threaded rod through them to make a little sandwich, with a slab at the top, a slab at the bottom, and a slab in the middle. The holes at the corners of the middle slab should be maybe three-quarters of an inch in diameter, so the middle slab is free to move up and down. Now all you need is an inexpensive hydraulic jack like you would use for changing tires, and you have a fancy paper press that will last you for a good long while. Or you can get by with the simple press; it's really up to you.

Figure 14-1. Mold, Deckle, and Couching Mound

You also need some felts, special pieces of cloth which don't stick to wet paper. If you can't get papermaking felts, you can use denim. Your felts should be a little bigger than your mold, say, 30 cm by 40 cm. Soak all your felts in water and wring them out so that they're damp but not wet. Now, you'll find couching (pronounced koo-ching) a lot easier if you make a little couching mound. Take a felt, fold it in quarters length-wise, and put it on a shallow pan or tray. You now have a damp, quadruple-thick strip of cloth, say, 8 cm wide and 40 cm long. Take another felt, fold in thirds length-wise, and put it on top of the first one. You now have a mound seven cloths thick in the middle and three cloths thick on the side, about 10 cm wide and 40 cm long. Take another cloth and fold it in half, again length-wise, and put it on top of the second one. You now have a mound nine cloths thick in the middle and two cloths thick on the side, 15 cm wide and 40 cm long. Finally, take two or three more felts and put them on top of the stack so what you have is a little mound of damp felts on a tray to catch the water.

By now, your stems have cooked and fallen apart and it's time to remove the alkali. Now, alkali will eat your skin, so wear some rubber gloves for this part. And, of course, you always wear glasses, because there's no paper worth losing your eyes over. Anyway, you can grab up the big clumps of fiber with your gloved hands and when the bits are too small to pick out, strain the rest of the water through a cloth or kitchen strainer. The most important thing is not to pour any fiber down the drain. For one thing, it will clog up that drain. But even more important, that little bitty fiber is the best part for making paper, so you don't want to lose it. Once you have your fiber collected, rinse out your pot, fill it with fresh water, and put your fiber back into the pot. Swish it around with your gloved hand and then remove that fiber again, like you did before. Keep rinsing your fiber, adding it to fresh water and then straining it out again, until the water runs clear. And you can test your final rinse with pH test paper to make sure that all the alkali has been rinsed out. And once the alkali is gone, you can remove your rubber gloves.

Now you're ready to macerate your pulp, which'll be a lot easier now that the lignin is gone. There are two ways to go about it, the hard way and the easy way. The hard way is to take your fiber outside, put it on a flat rock or a sidewalk, and beat it with a wooden or rubber mallet. Your goal is to tear all those cellulose fibers apart, so just beat that pulp until it is more like a thick paste than it is like a bunch of plant stems. The easy way is to put a handful of fiber into a blender, filled about half-way with water, and run that blender using the "pulse" switch so you don't burn the motor out. The blender will make a pulp about the consistency of a milk-shake, like silk, as the Book of the Supports of the Scribes says.

Figure 14-2. Forming a Sheet I

Fill your tub half-way up with water, add a couple of handfuls of pulp to it and swirl it around. Notice that if you let it sit, that pulp will eventually settle to the bottom; it's a mixture, not a solution. Take your mold, screen side up, and put your deckle on top of it to make a little sandwich with the screen in the middle. Swirl your pulp around, dip the mold and deckle into the pulp, and lift straight up. With practice, you'll get a nice, even layer of pulp with no thin spots. Let the water drain out and carefully remove the deckle from the mold. What you have is a layer of pulp sitting right up on top of the mold. Point one of the corners of the mold back into the tub to get the last bit of water out.

Figure 14-3. Forming a Sheet II

Figure 14-4. Forming a Sheet III

Touch one edge of the mold to your couching mound and roll the mold across it. If you do it at the right speed and with the right pressure and if your pulp is of the right thickness and if your felts are damp enough, that pulp will come off the mold and stick to the top felt. If it works and you get a nice rectangle of pulp on the felt, remove that felt, replace it with another, and do it again. If your paper sticks to your mold, you can rock the mold back and forth and press on it with your finger until the paper lets go. And if your paper gets messed up along the way, well, just take the felt with the messed-up pulp and put it back in the tub. That fiber is still good, so don't waste it. Now try again using a thicker layer of pulp or different speed or pressure when couching. Don't worry; you'll get the hang of it before too long. Take your good felts and stack them up as you go to make a post, that is, a felt-paper-felt-paper sandwich.

Figure 14-5. Couching I

Figure 14-6. Couching II

Once you have a 5 or 10 or 100 sheets you can build a post. Start out with a board about the size of your paper and lay a felt with its paper on top of it. Place another felt with its paper on top of the first and keep on building that post till you have run out of felts. Then put another board on top and you have your post ready for the press. Now, you can press those boards between your hands or you can bolt them together, or you can stand on top of them, or you can put them in a press. You can get as fancy as you want, but the long and short of it is that you want to press as much water out of the post as you possibly can. The harder you can press, the smoother your paper is going to be and the faster it's going to dry. Once the post has been pressed, you need to separate the paper from the felt. Think of it as un-couching. Dismantle the post, remove a felt from it, and place the paper side of the felt against a window. Press the felt with your finger so that the paper sticks to the window and then peel the felt from the paper. Allow the paper to dry overnight—in the morning it will very likely have fallen onto the floor, but it will have a nice, smooth face on the side that dried against the window.

To clean up, rinse out your felts and set them out to dry. Pour your pulp through a mold to catch as much pulp as you possibly can and save that pulp for later use. You can press it into balls and set them out to dry. The waste water can go down the sink as long as it doesn't contain any pulp to clog the drain. Wash out your blender and your pot and put them away. Clean off your mold and deckle and set them out to dry so they don't warp.

Figure 14-7. Couching III

Figure 14-8. Pressing a Post

Figure 14-9. Drying Paper

ImportantQuality Assurance

I think your paper ought to be flat and flexible. Like paper. You should tape it into your notebook so that after you are a paper-making whiz, you can remember what your first paper looked like. You can use your paper for making photographs in Chapter 23.



To convert washing soda to soda ash, calcine it overnight in an oven at 100C (212F) or higher. You may substitute potash for soda ash.