Creativity
A Beginner’s Guide to Making Your Own Paper
Papermaking workshop in Sheila Nakitende’s Studio. Photo by Women’s Studio Workshop, via Flickr.

Papermaking workshop in Sheila Nakitende’s Studio. Photo by Women’s Studio Workshop, via Flickr.

Making paper is magical; the medium holds boundless potential. I first learned this over 25 years ago, at a professional hand papermaking studio in New York, where I worked for six years. From there, I went out on my own and have been exploring the medium ever since. Whether you try papermaking as a hobby or dive deep into it like I did, you’ll be amazed by the transformation that occurs during this creative process.
Basic papermaking involves dipping a screen stretched across a frame—known as the “mould and deckle”—into a vat of pulp (made from recycled paper or plant materials). You then lift the screen out of the vat, and shake it so that the fibers interlock as the water drains through the screen. The freshly made sheet of paper is then transferred onto a surface—usually a piece of felt—and is then pressed and dried.
There are many ways to make paper, including Eastern and Western techniques that involve dipping or pouring. Here, I’ll describe the Western dipping method, which allows you to create unique, handmade sheets from the scrap paper you have at home.

What you’ll need:

  • A mould and deckle (or, if you want to make your own, 2 old picture frames or 2 inexpensive stretched canvases, plus a piece of fiberglass or aluminum window screen)
  • A blender
  • Recycled paper (office paper, tissue paper, etc.)
  • Water
  • A plastic vat (larger than your mould and deckle)
  • A staple gun (if you have one already)
  • Duct tape or strapping tape
  • Several sheets of felt, newspaper, fabric, or towels
  • A sponge
  • A clothesline
  • Optional: Confetti, flower petals, string, or bits of thread (to add color and texture to your paper)

The mould and deckle

Making a mould and deckle. Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds by Helen Hiebert.

Making a mould and deckle. Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds by Helen Hiebert.

You will need some sort of screen to capture the paper fibers and hold the sheet’s shape—this is called the mould. You can make a simple mould from an old picture frame or the stretcher bars of a new, inexpensive canvas from a big-box store.
  • Remove the existing canvas if there is one, then use a staple gun to affix a piece of window screen—made from fiberglass or aluminum—that is cut slightly smaller than the frame. Apply duct tape or strapping tape to cover the staples and the edges of the screen. If you don’t have a staple gun and are making a small screen, you can just use duct tape to secure the screen to the frame.
  • You will need a second frame that is the same size as the mould to use as your deckle. (Learn more about making your own mould and deckle here.)
If you want to purchase a mould and deckle instead, you can buy a set or a papermaking kit online at specialty suppliers like Arnold Grummer’s and Carriage House Paper.

Making pulp

Making pulp with a blender.  Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds by Helen Hiebert.

Making pulp with a blender. Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds by Helen Hiebert.

The first step in creating a sheet of paper is to make pulp, which you can do with a blender and recycled paper. If you really get into papermaking, there are many ways you can upgrade the process to increase your production and make larger sheets, but I recommend starting out small.
You can use a standard kitchen blender to beat pulp (but I don’t recommend using the same blender for food and papermaking). Large commercial-grade blenders are more efficient because they can blend more pulp at a time. (The king for processing pulp is the Hollander beater, developed in Holland in the 1680s, which is still used in professional papermaking studios today.)
  • Fill your blender ¾ full with water, and add a handful of recycled paper (the equivalent of one standard sheet of office paper). Use plain white if you want white paper; printed/recycled office paper will yield a light grey, and/or you can mix in some colored paper. Experiment with various paper types (text weight, 100% cotton, card stock) to vary the resulting colors and textures.
  • Put the lid on the blender and turn it on. I usually start at a slow speed—such as “mix”—and then switch to a higher speed when I hear the blender running smoothly (after about five seconds). If the motor sounds strained, turn it off and check that the pulp is not wrapped around the blades, or that there is not too much pulp in the blender.
  • Dump the freshly beaten pulp directly into the vat if you will be making paper right away; or, you can collect it in a bucket and store it for a few days (it will start to smell if you leave it too long). Continue blending the pulp by the handful.
  • The ratio of pulp to water varies, depending on how thick you want your sheets to be. Start with a few blenders full of pulp in a vat and see if you are happy with the thickness. Then, add pulp or water as necessary. As you make sheets, you will need to replenish your pulp.
  • At this point, you can add other small decorative elements to the pulp, like flower petals, confetti, or bits of string or thread. Note that natural elements (like flower petals) might bleed or turn brown—you’ll have to try it to see what happens!

Making paper

Dipping the mould and deckle into the vat of pulp. Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds by Helen Hiebert.

Dipping the mould and deckle into the vat of pulp. Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds by Helen Hiebert.

Your vat (a plastic tub) needs to be larger than your mould and deckle. For a mould that makes 8.5-by-11-inch sheets, I recommend a small cement mixing tub; for smaller sheets, you can use a dishwashing tub.
  • Agitate the pulp in the vat with your hand to create a homogenous, evenly mixed solution.
  • Thoroughly wet the mould and deckle with water. Then place the deckle on top of the screen side of the mould, making sure that all edges and corners line up.
  • Hold these two pieces together as you dip the mould and deckle into the vat at a 45-degree angle to the bottom of the vat, scooping underneath the surface of the pulp and pulling toward yourself.
  • Bring the mould and deckle parallel to the bottom of the vat, lift them up out of the mixture, and shake—left to right and back to front—to interlock the fibers. Shake it semi-vigorously (like you are panning for gold), until you see the fibers starting to settle on the screen.
  • Be careful not to shake it for too long; when you see that the fibers have settled on the screen, you can remove the deckle. Set the deckle aside, gently tilt the mould, and watch to see that the sheet on the surface does not start to slip off.

Couching

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The next step is transferring the wet sheet from the mould to another surface, traditionally a piece of felt. There are many felt substitutes, including newspaper, towels, fabric, or Pellon (interfacing). The couching material should be slightly larger than your sheets of paper, and you will need four or five couching sheets. Placing your couching material on a tray—like a cafeteria tray or cookie sheet—will help with collecting excess water and prevent a big mess.
  • To couch, set one edge of the mould down on one edge of the couching material, with the wet sheet facing the couching material.
  • Carefully lay the entire wet sheet onto the couching surface, and apply even pressure on the back of the mould’s edges and screen to ensure that the sheet transfers to the couching surface.
  • Lift one edge of the mould, peeking underneath to see that the sheet has released, and then remove the mould.
To continue making sheets, place another couching material directly on top of the sheet you just made. Make another sheet, and then couch it onto the surface, lining it up with the sheet underneath. I recommend making just a few sheets at a time before pressing.

Pressing

Once you’ve made a few sheets of paper, you will need to press them in order to remove some of the water. The lowest-tech device for this is a damp sponge.
  • Lift one sheet of paper (attached to its couching surface) and place it onto a dry felt or newspaper (something that will absorb some of the water).
  • Next, place a dry sheet of fabric or interfacing on top of the sheet to protect the wet paper’s surface, and gently but firmly sponge water out of the sheet.
  • Wring out the sponge repeatedly as you continue pressing over the entire sheet.

Drying

Drying. Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds  by Helen Hiebert.

Drying. Illustration by Alison Kolesar from Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds by Helen Hiebert.

There are many drying methods, but the simplest is to dry the sheet on the couching material.
  • Make sure the sheet is pressed and firmly attached to the material, and hang it on a clothesline.
  • When dry (this can take up to 24 hours, depending on the humidity level), peel the sheet off of the couching material, and put it under weight if you wish to flatten it.
  • If you want a really smooth and flat sheet, you can try transferring the wet sheet from the couching material to a smooth surface, like a countertop or window.
  • You can even dry sheets on textured surfaces, such as wood or walls, to give your sheet a unique surface.
This is just scratching the papermaking surface! My books, including Papermaking with Garden Plants and Common Weeds and The Papermaker’s Companion, go into extensive detail about each step in the process, and other methods. Enjoy!
Helen Hiebert is the author of five how-to books about paper and teaches classes in person and online. She lectures and exhibits her work internationally and is the host of the podcast Paper Talk.