I read Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home a few weeks ago, and that’s when I developed an undying urge to make paper. In the book, Bea Johnson tells the tale of how she decided to make less waste and move towards a trash-free existence. She eliminated most of the paper in her life but her kids were still bringing home paper from school. She didn’t want to recycle, for reasons too far outside our scope, so she decided to turn all that scrap paper into new paper. I was inspired. Of course, the whole point of Bea Johnson’s anecdote about making paper was this: That it was an impractical, time-consuming, an unsustainable way of reducing household waste. But maybe it will work for me, thought I.
I made some paper. To make paper all you really need to do is wet some paper scraps, blend them into a slurry and slop the mixture down into a sheet-like shape to dry. But to make decent paper, of rough yet “artisan” quality, you really should use a deckle. I sought high and low for a used deckle—and by that I mean I asked my craftiest friends if they had one that I could borrow. Nope. When that didn’t work, I made a Freecycle post that got zero traction. Strike two. Then I went to two big box craft stores where I tried to buy a deckle. Couldn’t find one. So, as a final resort, I went to Amazon. Wouldn’t you know, they had one.
Here’s how to make paper.
Soak your paper
Cut several sheets of paper into one-inch pieces and soak the pieces in water for 30 minutes or several hours, depending on how eager you are to get started. Softer paper is a little easier to work with, I think.
Blend your paper
Once your paper is sufficiently soaked, transfer a portion of it to to blender, add some cool water, and blend on high until the paper is all mashed up. Transfer to a deep tray, or baker that’s wider and longer than your deckle.
Assemble your kit
Place all of the components of your paper making kit together. My kit contains a hard plastic grid, a flexible plastic screen, and a wooden frame.
Skim the paper
Swirl the slurry to stir up the paper, then place your kit into the water and allow the paper mixture to settle on the screen. Lift the deckle out of the water and allow the excess water to drain.
Dry it off
Transfer the new paper to a different tray to dry. I used a cookie sheet covered in a silicone baking cover (alternative to aluminum foil or parchment paper—from Amazon but I love it).
Remove the wood frame and set it aside.
Place a screen, included in the paper-making kit, over the new paper. Press the screen with a sponge and wring the excess water out of the sponge. Repeat until no more water comes out.
Remove the screen from the new paper.
Flip the new paper onto a cloth, so the bottom plastic screen is now on top. Press with a sponge and wring the sponge dry often.
Cover it in cloth
At this point you can place another cloth on top of the paper, or fold the edges of the bottom cloth over the top. You can press excess water out of the paper with a rolling pin or press bar at this stage, but I’ve found that pressing can negatively alter the shape of the paper or put holes in it, so I just pat the cloth gently.
Set the iron to a hot temperature with no steam. Take note of the type of fabric with which you’ve covered your paper. Do not set your iron beyond a temperature suitable for the fabric or you can burn the cloth and stain the paper. Carefully iron the cloth until it stops steaming. Flip the cloth-covered paper and repeat this step.
Unwrap your paper
After you’ve carefully unwrapped your paper it should still be damp. You can choose to iron the paper until it is dry, but I find this makes my iron dirty and holds up the process. Instead I prefer to let the paper dry naturally.
Press your paper
Once the paper is fully dry, flatten it by placing it underneath a stack of heavy books. Allow it to stay there for several hours or overnight. When you remove the books from the stack, the paper should be flat and beautiful.
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And there you have it. How to make paper without starting a paper mill.
Although the mechanics are relatively simple, the road to making paper is paved with trouble. Make the paper too thick, and it’s really more of a cardboard. Make the paper too thin and it tears easily. Squeeze the water out of the paper too hard and it gets holes in it. Iron the paper too firmly and it breaks apart. Turn the iron on too high, the paper scorches. Turn the iron on too low, it takes forever to dry the paper. Dry the paper all the way, increase the risk of tearing. Leave the paper to dry naturally, increase the chance of the paper curling while it dries. Given all the various ways in which one can ruin a piece of homemade paper, I will say I’m impressed that I made one near-perfect paper—that’s out of 14 tries.
That’s not to say the other 13 pieces of paper aren’t usable. I can use most of them. The ones that are too far gone can probably be cut into notecards and the wonky parts can be reblended into new sheets of paper.
I’m not deterred by the difficulties. Bea Johnson was right that making paper is time-consuming, and ultimately an unsustainable practice if you’re doing it simply for the purpose of eliminating your recycling bin. But I’m a crafter (and crafters have to craft) and I’ve decided to commit to making paper for a bit longer. I don’t need the paper for myself. But I’d like to create the paper, turn it into cards or stationary, and then sell it at an upcoming community event in order to raise money for an environmental organization.
Good intentions aside, we’ll see if I can cut it. It took a lot of labor to make 14 sheets of paper, so who knows how long it will take to make a large batch that’s worth selling. I learned some shortcuts during this process but not enough to turn my home into a day-and-night paper factory.