Introduction: How to Make Paper

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There are several Instructables about making paper from recycled fibres. That is a fine activity, and one which kept me gainfully employed for four years.

When I worked in a papermill, even though we were an entirely machine-made mill, most of the questions we got from local schools were about how to make paper by hand, or how to make recycled paper.

This Instructable however, will cover the manufacture of paper from virgin fibres, that is, from plant to paper with no recycling, using a mixture of vaguely-traditional techniques from the European and Japanese papermaking styles. The final paper will probably be best classified as a "craft paper", suitable for scrapbooking or for card making.

The plant in question: the common stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), so you have the added attraction of being able to use the left over leaves for brewing nettlebeer, or making nettle tea or nettle soup.

You could also use similar processes to make paper from plants like flax, jute or hemp.

Step 1: Raw Materials

The fibre-bearing part of the nettle is the stem.

I collected a large carrier-bag full of nettles of a mixture of ages, from fresh growth to mature plants.

Long sleeves, gloves, even hat and eye-protection are all useful here, depending on how energetically you harvest the crop. The worst sting I got preparing this Instructable was through the knee of my jeans, but most parts of me got lightly stung, even through gloves.

Step 2: Retting

Retting is the process of loosening fibres from a plant by steeping them in water. It is a core part of the preparation of fibres from mulberry bark for Japanese washi.

I stripped the leaves and leaf-stalks from the stems, and use secateurs to reduce them to short pieces.

The pieces then went in a large plastic bucket and covered with water. It is generally recommended that you use fairly-neutral water, so if you have very hard, acidic or alkali water, you may want to use rainwater. I used water from our rain butt.

Push them all under the water, then leave it for a week (if the stems are very buoyant, they may need pushing back underwater occasionally). There's no need to waste this time, though - spend it making your papermaking equipment.

While the stems are retting, check each day to see if the water needs changing - give the stems a stir, and if the water looks brown or generally unpleasant, pour it down the drain and refresh it.

Whilst the very few sources I have found on the subject recommend retting, I ought to point out that I have yet to find it works successfully. I suspect that some of the sources ret the stems simply because the Japanese ret their fibres. In all likelihood, you will get equally-successful results by going directly to the next step.

Step 3: Making the Equipment.

The actual act of making a sheet of paper by hand requires a vat, mold and deckle.

The vat is the container the pulp floats in. For most hobby makers, this will be your kitchen sink, a washing up bowl or a large plastic tank. You need a flat working surface nearby to place the wet sheets onto, and the whole working area needs to be splash-proof. Papermaking is messy.

If you cannot get permission to make a mess in the kitchen, use a pasting table in the garden.

The mold is the mesh that lifts the pulp out of the water. The deckle is the frame that stops the pulp draining off the edges of the mold.

There is a separate Instructable on their manufacture here, or you can buy simple kits online.

Your specialised equipment is now ready. Make sure you have a stack of clean J cloths handy, and a couple of plastic chopping boards, then go on to step 4.

For a note of authenticity, the J cloths are standing in for papermaking felts. They can be purchased on-line, but cost several pounds each, as opposed to a few pennies for a J cloth.

Step 4: Is the Retting Finished?

Officially: Check a piece of the stem by pulling it apart with your fingers.  If it comes apart into stringy fibres, it is ready for the next step.

Unofficially: After a week, I noticed that the stems smelled as if they were starting to ferment (a tang like freshly-picked gooseberries).

If it doesn't, stir up the bucket and leave for another day.

If you don't like the look of the water (maybe things have landed in it), just pour most of it off and top up with more clean water.

Check the state of the fibres each day until you are happy with it.  Don't worry, it can take a week or so to ret some stems properly, depending how tough they are.  Just don't leave it warm, as it may start to ferment or rot.

Step 5: Cooking and Rinsing.

If, after a week of retting, the stems do not come apart easily in your fingers, they need one last chemical treatment - cooking.

Take an enamel, glass or stainless steel cooking vessel (or a ordinary metal saucepan you do not mind suffering possible chemical damage), and add the pulp.

Mix a solution of washing soda, about one spoonful per litre (50g baking soda per 6 litres of water), and top up your cooking vessel with the mixture.

Simmer the stems for about half an hour (you may need to top up the water occasionally).

(After a week of retting in the garden, the first batch of stems I had collected smelled strongly of gooseberries (go figure!). Kitewife promptly refused them entry to the house, so I had to take them to the lab to cook. Converting between spoonfuls and molarities in my head, I added about 40ml of 2M NaOH to each saucepan, and topped them up with about a litre of tap water. Please don’t tell the food technology department that I borrowed their saucepans…)

The second batch did not smell so bad, so I got away with cooking them at home, in a large pot bought specifically for the purpose. However, if you have an extractor fan over your hob, I strongly recommend you use it.

The pulp is ready when the outside of the stems slide off the woody core.

Dump the cooked pulp into a sieve or colander, and pour water through the pulp and sheet to rinse out the remains of the soda. If you are working with a lot of stems, you could use a piece of cheesecloth or an old cotton sheet.

Step 6: Mechanical Processing.

You now need to separate the stems into two kinds of fibre. With a twisting, sliding motion, you can remove the stringy outer bast fibres from the more woody core.

Before they can be made into a sheet, the fibres need beating. Beating is a mechanical process that "frays" individual fibres, whilst at the same time separating them from the bulk stem and softening them. This allows them to both spread out more evenly in the sheet, and to touch more fibres in the sheet. When the sheet is formed, it is contact between individual fibres (just the contact, not any tangling) that gives the sheet strength.

It is at this point that a dedicated, professional papermaker would turn to his Hollander beater and process the whole batch in four hours of continuous beating.

Most normal humans do not have their own Hollander (they cost a few thousand dollars), so use either a blender or mallets.

Mallet method.

This is something I had never tried, because I have never dealt with such amazingly long fibres as those in the nettle.

The method originates in Japan, where papermaking is undertaken with a spiritual, almost religious reverence. Japanese papermaking materials and processes are quite different to the westernised methods I am describing here. If you are interested, the terms to use when googling are washi, kozo, tororo and mulberry bark.

A thick mixture of the stems are beaten with flat-faced wooden mallets on a hard, usually stone, surface. To separate the fibres, a hit-and-drag method is used - as the mallet hits the fibres, it is also pulled towards the papermaker so that friction rubs the fibres apart. Every few minutes, the papermaker pauses to pick through the fibres to lift out loose specks of bark or discoloured fibre.

The beating goes on for quite some time, often hours.

I did not have mallets, nor did I have a stone working-surface.

I did, however, have a lump of wood and an old cheeseboard clamped to my portable workbench.

The method did work, but proved to be amazingly noisy, and tough on the hands (I wore gloves, but it was still a square lump of wood I was holding, not a rounded handle). Bits of stem flew hither and yon, and eventually I was firmly advised by Kitewife to pack in making such a noise. To be honest, I could have done with wearing ear defenders.

With practice, mallets, and a bench made of paving slabs, I could probably get this method to work, but for now I had to resort to the kitchen blender...

Step 7: The Blender Method.

The easiest, though not the best, way of dispersing fibres.  The blades tend to chop and slice rather than beat and fray.

If this wasn't a kitchen appliance, I might consider modifying the blades, maybe folding the sharp edges over to increase the beating over the cutting.

Place small amounts of the stem into the blender with water, and give it a bit of a whiz. Fiddle with the proportion of stem to water until the mixture is circulating nicely without splashing, and without overloading the motor.

Keep blending the mixture until the fibres are fully separated - test this by dropping a small amount of the mixture into a glass of water and stirring gently. It should separate out into individual fibres.

Keep a track of how much water and stem you use, and how long to blend it for, so that you can repeat the same for each batch with less fiddling about. If your blender has power settings, remember to note what setting you are on as well.


Having being forced to give up the mallet method, the blender method proved quite reasonable to use on the woody cores.

I started with a flask one quarter full of water, then added the stems whilst pulsing the motor.

I then topped up the water until the stems were circulating and breaking up.  About five minutes in the blender produced pulp I would be willing to turn into paper.


The bast fibres, from the skin of the stem, were a whole different affair...

Although I started with less fibre than the woody stems, the motor was audibly working much harder to circulate the fibre, and got quite warm, at one point actually smoking.

The long fibres had tangled together around the spinning blade - I had to remove about half the fibre, which came away in a single, twisted mass, like a mass of pond weed.  The spining motion had turned the two-inch pieces of stem into a six-inch length of rope.  It became amazingly clear why people have used nettle stems to make rope and cloth in a similar manner to hemp.

It was also clear that a lot more energy was being transferred to the pulp, as the water temperature rose well above body-heat.

Step 8: Sizing

Sizing paper (also known as paper sizing and paper size or just size) is not the same thing as the size of paper.

Size alters the way water - and hence ink - penetrates the paper. Unsized papers (also known as waterleaf) are very absorbent, and ink from a fountain pen or printing stamp will feather, soaking rapidly along individual fibres before it dries. Hard-sized papers resist the penetration of water, and inks can end up standing on the surface of the paper, meaning that it will smudge easily.

Paper can be sized in two ways - engine (internal) sized, or tub (surface) sized.
  • Engine sizing involves mixing the sizing agent with the wet pulp. For hobby hand-made papers, the most common engine sizes are starch or a small amount of water-based PVA glue. Industrial-scale papers are engine sized with a variety of artificial resins or rosin.
  • Tub sizing is traditionally performed by dipping the paper into a tub of starch or gelatin solution. It can also be done by painting the paper with a solution of the same.

As you will see, sizing did not become an issue for this paper.

Step 9: Pulling a Sheet

Before making your pulp into paper, place a stack of slightly damp "J cloths" or other similar non-woven kitchen cloths beside your vat. Lay one out on a chopping board, ready to receive the first sheet of paper.

Whatever your chosen vat, add about a cupful of your beaten, sized pulp, and then top up with water. For the sake of your own comfort, and to make the paper drain slightly quicker, use luke-warm water.

Stir the vat with a spread hand to disperse the fibres, but not to swirl it so much that small vortices make patches of fibre-free water that will leave holes in the final sheet.

Place your deckle onto the mold, and hold them firmly together by squeezing the sides.

Dip the deckle and mold edge-first into the pulp, hold it level for a moment to allow air-bubbles to escape, and then lift it smoothly out of the water in a single, smooth action.

Pause for a moment over the vat to allow the last of the water to drain out, and then lift the deckle off the frame. Be careful not to let drips fall off the deckle and hit the wet sheet, as each drip will leave a hole.

You are now ready to couch the sheet...


The nettle fibres proved to be very slow-draining, so each sheet had to stand a while to drain.

Step 10: Couching

Couching (pronounced cooching) is how you get the wet sheet off the wire frame.

You should have a slightly damp non-woven towel ("J cloth") laid flat beside your vat. Turn the mold over gently, and press it firmly into the middle of the J cloth.

If a lot of water oozes back through the mesh, blot it off with another J cloth.

Hold the edge of the J cloth down with one hand, and lift the edge of the mold up with the other. The sheet should remain stuck to the cloth, and the deckle should come away clean.

Lay another J cloth over the fresh sheet, put the deckle back on the mold and pull another sheet.

You can keep pulling sheets from the same vat-full of pulp. If they get a little thin, simply add more pulp from the batch you have already made.


As you will see in the video, the sheets made from nettle fibre did not couch well. This was not an issue with the technique (which is very successful with main-stream fibres), but rather an issue with the nettle-fibres.

Step 11: Oops!

If you make a mess of a sheet - if it has holes in, or tears apart when you couch it, simply scoop the mess back into the vat and stir it.

If you do not like the look of a sheet still on the mold, simply remove the deckle, turn the mould over and touch it to the surface of the vat - the the fibre will float away from the mesh, and you can stir it back into the mixture.

Step 12: Pressing and Drying.

The first stage of drying the paper is to press it.

When you get to your last J cloth, do not couch a sheet onto it. Instead, put your second chopping board on top, and add as much weight as you can - concrete blocks are the obvious DIY method, but serious papermakers use a press, either a screw-press or a hydraulic press.

Press until you think no more water oozes easily from the pile.

Remove the weight, and then peel the cloths apart - you should find the sheets of paper stay stuck to their cloths.

Hang the cloths to dry, with sheets still stuck. It is possible that the sheets will peel off as they dry, so if you cannot hang around to monitor the paper, it would be best to do this indoors.

When the sheets are dry, they will be quite wrinkly. This is called cockling, and is perfectly natural. Use a steam iron to smooth out the sheet, then peel it gently from the cloth.

Stack the ironed sheets under a light weight, such as back between the (dry) chopping boards, and leave them in a corner for at least 24 hours to condition, when the moisture content of the paper settles to match the humidity of the air.

Step 13: Done!

Your paper is now ready to use. Enjoy. Get creative.

What are you going to do with it? Draw, paint, cut, fold... do I really need to tell you?

Hand-made paper makes a great gift "as is" for artist friends, and also commands a premium price at art and craft fairs. Scrap bookers like the unique texture to add interest to their own hobby.

So, make loads, and sell it online, or give it away to other Makers to practice their crafts.

If you plan on trying this again, you can experiment with your fibre. Just about anything can be tweaked;
  • The length you cut the stems
  • The time you harvest
  • The amount of retting
  • The cooking time

Step 14: A Word on the Mess...

Papermaking is a messy business. Water gets everywhere. It smells. It splashes. You get a house full of drying sheets.

That is part of the deal, I'm afraid. You won't be able to avoid making the mess, but you must not be tempted to ignore it!

Even if you are lucky enough to have plenty of space, enough to leave equipment stood around between sessions, you must tidy everything up - paper pulp will dry hard and crusty, and become very hard to remove. Use plenty of water to rinse everything off, and make sure you follow the dirty water down the drain with plenty of clean water to stop the pulp settling in u-bends and causing blockages.

You should even wash your hands and arms off before it dries - if you're at all hairy, rinse off quickly, as dried pulp pulls you hair when you peel it off.

Step 15: And Finally, Failure.

The final sheets I produced in this project are some of the poorest sheets I have ever made.

The main problem was the failure to leave the deckle when couching.  This is not usually a problem with other fibres, so I am blaming this squarely on a lack of equipment.

The vast majority of people who make their own paper do so using recycled fibres.  These have already been treated, both chemically and mechanically, to flow smoothly, to cling to each other and to form a cohesive matrix.  Since I have prepared virgin fibres, I do not have the legacy or prior treatments, and the nettle fibres (particularly those from the inner stem) were not flexible enough to form a proper sheet.  To be a successful fibre, the nettles must be beaten.  This is a mechanical process that breaks cell walls, and unravels individual strands of cellulose from the fibre surfaces.  This makes the fibres more flexible and increases their surface area, both of which increase the number of other fibres that each fibre touches many others to form bonds.

Unfortunately, much as I would love a Hollander beater, all I had available was a blender, which only chops fibres shorter.

Having referred to failure in the title of this step, the failure is not total.  I did make a sheet, and I know what to do to improve things.  As it stands, the unbeaten nettle fibre would make a decent replacement for woodpulp in packing situations, like egg-boxes, or in non-structural materials like fibreboard.

Time has beaten me for further work at the moment - not only does a contest deadline loom, but papermaking is a messily-wet out-door activity, and it is now November, so I have cleaned up the equipment and put it away until warmer weather arrives.

I will do some further research and experimentation, and return to papermaking from raw materials some time in the future.
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