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How to Make Paper

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handmade paper

John Butterworth shows us how to make handmade paper.

The basic steps in papermaking are:

1           Obtaining some cellulose fibre and pulping it very finely.
2           Making a very thin slurry with this pulp (it’s called furnish) in a bath of water.
3           Sieving it onto some form of mesh to get a thin but very mushy layer of paper.
4           Pressing the water out to make a compressed sheet.
5           Air-drying the sheet (or ironing it if you’re in a hurry).

And there you have it − handmade paper.

First, see my article on how to make a paper press, the mesh frames for sieving out paper pulp; next, how to make paper pulp from raw materials (nettles) or waste paper; last of all, once we have all the components to hand, we’ll look at how to make the paper itself.


(if you want to see doing it the easy way see below!) Why nettles? Because the raw material needs to be very fibrous (which nettles are) and easily available – ditto! Alternatives containing this vital cellulose fibre are many and varied − cotton waste, wood pulp (used in commercial papermaking), bamboo, straw and hemp, to name but a few. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus; the Chinese used mulberry bark.

Plant materials, such as nettles, contain lignin as well as the cellulose fibres that we want, so that has to be removed first.


Several chemicals can be used, including nasty caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) – but better, is one you can make yourself for nothing, which is lye (potassium hydroxide). They’re both alkaline, which dissolves lignin. Making lye is relatively easy − it just needs wood ash, preferably hardwood ash, and water. Take a cheap, nasty bucket (99p from most DIY stores, and worth every penny) and drill a load of holes in the bottom. It needs a filter between the holes and the ashes, a piece of landscape fabric is ideal, so put that in the bottom of the bucket, doubled over a few times to slow the flow right down. Fill the bucket three-quarters full with wood ash. Wedge it over a bigger container, as in the picture,

Filtering water through ash

Filtering water through ash

and fill it with rainwater (not tap water – there are too many chemicals!). Let it filter through, the slower it goes the better, then add about another half bucket of water in total. The resultant filtered stuff is very orange, and that’s your lye.

To use lye to dissolve the lignin from your raw material (nettles, in my case), the alkaline chemical reaction can be speeded up using heat, so I cut the nettle stalks that I’d gathered into 2in pieces and put them in an old steel pan (don’t use aluminium, or anything that will be used for food ever again!), then filled it up with lye. I was banned from the kitchen with this foul brew, so I put it on the barbecue for several hours, keeping it as near to boiling as I could. 

Boiling the nettle stalks in the lye

Boiling the nettle stalks in the lye


Alas, my lye solution wasn’t very strong − at any rate, the fibres remained stubbornly unclean, so I put the whole lot into a cement mixer with a bucket full of wooden blocks and tumbled it for half an hour, then flushed it with clean water until all the brown colouring of the lye disappeared. Then I sorted out the straw-like fibres that I wanted by hand (hard work) from the remains of the lignin.

Now you have to beat the fibres for ages to get a nice homogeneous mix of fibre, rather than distinct pieces, so either bash it for ages with a meat tenderiser or similar (even harder work), or in my case, chuck it back in the cement mixer with the chunks of wood for a few hours.

Incidentally, this is why early paper mills were by big, slow rivers. You needed constant, low-level power to beat the cellulose pulp for days, and a water mill was ideal for this work.


There are a number of easier ways to do this, though the first two are a bit of a cop-out, as you’re essentially using paper to make paper!

1           Shred some existing paper and put it in a blender with water until it’s a very fine pulp. Lots of people apparently do this with junk mail as a way of recycling it. Shredded office paper can be used too, if you can hang around near a photocopier. Soaking the paper in water overnight makes it easier to blend. I used shredded office paper for most of my attempts.

2           You can even buy it as paper pulp (referred to as furnish) by mail order − see Further Info. Some sell cotton pulp too, or mixtures.

3           Stick with the nettles, and the alkaline treatment, but put your short pieces of nettle fibre into the blender to finish it off. It’s probably best to get a second-hand blender for this sort of work! My cement mixer method did not make a fine enough pulp.



*           A large, deep, plastic bowl, preferably rectangular − I used a shelf out of a defunct freezer

*           A supply of fibre pulp, or furnish, that you’ve either made as above or purchased ready-made

*           Lots of water

*           A piece of mesh screen or a mould and deckle

*           Absorbent felt (J Cloths work just fine)

*           A press

A stack of heavy books would do for a press at a pinch; or you could use two pieces of blockboard, and four bolts and four wing-nuts to fit them, but the one we’ve made here is so much better!


1           Put a plastic sheet (a bin-liner is OK) on a flat table and spread a towel over it.

2           Fold two newspapers into rectangles of reducing size. Starting with the smallest, build them up into a mound − not a cone-shaped hill, just a sort of big corrugation, as in the picture.

Making a mound

Making a mound


3           Cover this mound with a single layer of newspaper, then a J Cloth, and dampen the whole thing with a hand-sprayer.

4           Place another J Cloth on top and dampen that. That’s now ready to receive your first sheet of paper.

5           Mix your pulp with loads of water in the bowl, making a sort of thin slurry.

6           Put the deckle on top of the mould, and grip them together firmly.

7           Submerge the assembly (or your piece of stiff mesh) at about 45 degrees under the slurry, then bring it up horizontally. Rock it gently back and forth whilst lifting it up out of the bowl so the water runs out through the mesh.

Sieving with the mould

Sieving with the mould

8           Shake it side to side to align the fibres. You’ll end up with a thin, even layer of very wet pulp on the frame.

9           Remove the deckle very carefully (it drips), then roll the mould face down onto the absorbent cloth on top of the mound. Lift it off the other side, leaving the (very wet) sheet of paper behind. This is a really tricky bit, but stick with it and keep practising – any failures can simply be scraped up and put back into the bowl.

Rolling the sheet off the mould

Rolling the sheet off the mould


A wet sheet of paper on the stack.

A wet sheet of paper on the stack

10         Place another J Cloth on top.

11         Add several more layers in the same way, to make a stack − cloth, paper, cloth, etc.

12         Carefully lift the stack and place it on the press. Slowly turn the screw to clamp it tight and press the water out.

Compressing the stack

Compressing the stack

Do this outside!

13         When nearly dry, the sheets can be ironed, or simply laid flat and left to dry somewhere. I found they dried well with the J Cloth pegged to a radiator. When dry they peel off the J Cloth fairly easily.

A sheet drying out on a radiator

A sheet drying out on a radiator

The really rough sheet is the nettle sheet − as I mentioned earlier, the fibres really should have had the blender treatment.

The finished sheets, including a nettle sheet

The finished sheets, including a nettle sheet

There are several refinements when you get the hang of this. One is to add a size (try liquid starch, or gelatin) to the pulp, or paint it on the finished paper, which makes it easier to write on (without, it can be a bit like blotting paper). You can add stuff like glitter and flowers (which kids love) to make the paper look Christmassy: either add to the pulp or lay on top of the wet sheet before pressing. You can even ‘watermark’ your paper by, for example, fixing thin plastic letters to your mould. This makes the paper thinner over the letters so they show up when it’s held to the light. Very professional!



Posted in: Papermaking

About the Author:

Ruth Tott is the publisher of Home Farmer Magazine, and together with her husband, Paul Melnyczuk, Editor,is founder of the company. But her background is far removed having specialised in Costume History with a Post-Grad diploma in Museum Studies to boot. A far cry from looking after chickens, growing veg and making bread!

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