Paper Making

The invention of handmade paper in 105 A.D. is credited to the Chinese. Ancient methods of making pulp often consisted of boiling vegetable fibers with lye. Today handmade paper is often considered an art form, with examples of cast and manipulated paper seen in galleries. Paper can be made in the classroom by a variety of methods:

SCREENING: The traditional method of dipping a screen deckle into pulp-filled water and lifting it straight up to leave pulp on the surface of the screen. Some artists make paper without deckles by lowering small (approximately 8 by 8 inch) pieces of screenwire into a vat and overlapping the resulting "free-form" pieces together on felt to make large sheets of paper. Screening pulp may be pressed into molds.

PATTY CAKING: Pulp filled water is strained through a sieve, and the resulting pulp pressed into molds.

POURING: Pulp is poured from a container onto a screen to make large forms or "paintings." Shaped paper is made by pouring into shaped styrofoam or foam core on top of a screen.

FURTHER SUGGESTIONS: Large plain sheets of hand-made paper can be lovely, but may be boring. Sew on it with fine copper or brass wires, even stitch it on a machine. Incorporate natural materials such as sticks, string, or grasses into the paper to create more interesting art.


  1. Have students do the preparation. Tear linters in class, then grind the pre-soaked fibers in a blender at home. Only three or four small (1 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches square) pieces of linter should be ground in a quart of water before emptying the water through a sieve and grinding the next batch. It is possible to prepare a gallon of pulp in less than half an hour. You can also grind large quantities by using an 18 inch paint mixing extension on the end of an electric drill.
  2. Keep wet pulp in plastic ice-cream cartons. A handful of pulp in a dishpan full of water is adequate
    to make a few sheets of paper approximately 4 by 6 inches.
  3. Students could work in groups of four to prepare the materials for a vat of pulp from which to make
    their paper.
  4. You can either set up one corner of the room for paper making, with small groups working, or you can use the entire room for paper making for a short period of time. Secondary students begin to use their imaginations only after understanding the basic process, so allow them enough time for experimentation.
  5. Dyes can be added to slurry vats for intense colors. To keep odor under control, add 1 cup of alcohol to the vat. At the end of a few days, use the sieve to remove slurry from a vat, saving the pulp by patting it into tennis-size balls to dry, and changing the water.
  6. The vats could contain any of the following materials:
    • Cotton linter: may be mixed with colored construction paper, or paper scrap from a print shop. A handful of iris leaf pulp added to this makes an Oriental paper. A handful of yellow paper pulp and crumpled dried ginko leaves gives an interestingly textured paper. Any dried flower petals may be used in the pulp or carefully placed on finished paper. These may be purchased from art supply stores.
    • National Geographic magazines ground up make a thin grayish paper. A handful of linter will add strength.
    • Paper dress patterns can be ground up. Many words survive the grinding, and you will still be able to read them when the paper is finished.
    • Create mystery slurry by putting all the pulp that would be thrown away in a small plastic tub, then regrind it with linter, adding color, and making paper.
    • Because paper making uses large quantities of water, protect the floor around the slurry table with layers of newspaper to absorb the water. Put down fresh paper as needed. Keep sponges and a damp- mop or two available for clean-up.
SAFETY NOTE. When grinding paper, keep the area around the blender free of water by frequent sponging.


Deckles: frames may be made of wood or by using butcher trays. You need two frames of the same size - one with wire stretched across the opening, the other to use on top of it.
Materials for pulp: cotton linters, old National Geographics, construction paper, old paper dress patterns, fibers (such as dried iris or gladiola leaves) that have been boiled. Have a "paper-saver" box for wasted drawing paper to recycle.
Additives for paper: embroidery or colored thread, dried ginko leaves, dried iris or gladiola leaves that have been boiled until they disintegrate, colored scrap paper from a print shop, construction paper, sesame seeds, dried rose petals, dried chrysanthemum petals
Vats: square dish pans or other tubs; for large screens, black plastic tubs used for draining grease from cars may be purchased from hardware stores
Size: paper used for print making or writing, may be sized with LePage's glue, spray starch, commercial fixative, l 1/2 cup water to 1/2 box cornstarch, or l 1/2 cups water to 1 envelope of Knox gelatin
Large sieves
Plastic ice cream tubs (or pickle tubs from your cafeteria or local fast-food vendor)
Wooden screens: old, torn screens students bring from home
Screenwire: should be metal-plastic screenwire is not heavy enough
Duct tape: to tape screenwire onto butcher trays
Blender: for grinding fibers (or you can grind them in large quantities by soaking them and using a long electric drill paint-mixing extension. To avoid burning out electrical appliances while grinding fibers, pre-soak the fibers before grinding and work with small quantities of fiber in large amounts of water.)
Sponges: small and inexpensive-cut them in half to use for couching
Felt: white is preferred, as other colors have dyes that run and may affect the paper; rug remnants, old blankets, heavy cotton sheets, or Pellon may also be used for removing excess water
Plastic storage trays: these are good for standing on the post of felt and paper to squeeze out water
Small plastic containers for the middle of the work tables
Mops for clean-up
Wooden boards at least the size of the felt (for squeezing out water), 12 by 16 inches
Newspaper: to absorb water from floor
Iron: to dry paper placed between sheets of newsprint (if desired)


  1. To make paper, fill the vats to within 2 inches of the top with water, then add one or two handfuls of pulp. Before dipping the deckles, always stir the slurry with your hand so the pulp is floating throughout the water.
  2. Place the screen deckle and open deckle together convex side up, with the open deckle on top. Hold the deckles vertically and dip them down the side of the tub. Turn them horizontally (flat) on the bottom, and lift them straight up.
  3. Continue holding the deckles over the tub; shake them forward and backward, then from side to side to blend the fibers and drain excess water. Use one hand to remove excess fiber from the deckles, then carry the deckles to a piece of felt.
  4. Remove the open deckle and turn the screen deckle with the paper upside down onto the felt. Use a sponge to gently push on the inside of the screen to release the paper. This step is called couching, which in French literally means to "lay down." When the paper is on the felt, put another piece of felt on top of it.
  5. Although you can now squeeze water from the paper by applying pressure, it is easier to make several sheets of paper and squeeze all of them at once. An alternating stack of felt and paper is a "post."
  6. To remove water, place a post of paper between two boards (inside a plastic tray on the floor) and apply pressure by standing on the board. The paper is delicate, so do this gently.
  7. To remove the paper from the felt, roll back the top felt with both hands, then use your fingertips to handle the paper. If you try to hold it between thumbs and fingers, it may tear. Carry it to a screen and gently lay it down to dry. To dry many pieces of paper, stack the screens on top of each other, holding them apart with sponges in between or put each screen on a shelf or a drying rack.

    Another method of drying is to place the damp paper between two sheets of clean newsprint and iron it dry. It can also drain dry on clean newsprint on top of a stack of newspaper.

  8. Experiment with variations in paper making:
    • To make paper with a different color on each side, make two different-colored sheets of paper and lay one on top of the first before placing the felt on top.
    • Place slurry and water in squeeze bottles and "trail" colored slurry on top of the paper on the screen before you take it away from the vat.
    • Dip a string into a vat with slurry such as iris leaves (or ground up blue jeans); when you lift out the string, the slurry will hang from it. Lay that on top of a piece of paper before squeezing out water, and it become part of the paper.
    • Lay small strips of scrap paper or string onto wet pulp before squeezing it.
    • Add rose petals or other dried flowers to the sheet of paper before squeezing.
    • Prepare a colored sheet of paper and place it on the felt. Then make a different color of paper and pour water onto your screen to create a natural "hole" in the paper before taking it away from the vat. Place this paper onto the first sheet of paper before squeezing out excess water.
    • Stretch pantyhose over the bottom of a large plastic bottle (cut 2 inches deep) and hold it with a rubber band. When it is dipped into the slurry and drained, the result is a round piece of paper. An embroidery hoop with hose on it gives the same effect.
    • Use an upper deckle with a high rim around it that will contain slurry (use 2 by 2 inch wood and make a frame, tacking screenwire on the bottom). Place several handfuls of pulp inside the rim of the deckle, then lower the screen into a vat of plain water so the pulp floats around and settles evenly.


  1. Make paper masks by pressing paper pulp inside "sculpt-tape" masks lined with plastic wrap The paper shrinks in two days and is easily removed.
  2. "Cast" paper into any kind of container or shape such as the textured trays used by bakeries for cookies or cakes. Many different shapes of molded plastic are used as make-up containers. Start saving these to make cast-paper sculpture. Cut shallow bottoms from textured trays, and lay them next to each other; when you cast the paper, a larger textured sheet is created.
  3. Make a plaster mold by pouring plaster into a plastic or clay vessel. These can be reused many times. The plaster absorbs the water from the paper, and you can make containers of paper. Impress natural items into the paper, allowing them to stick out on the rim.
  4. Cast paper on top of seashells to create an interesting surface.
  5. To make large, shaped paper, cut shapes in 1/2 inch thick styrofoam or foam core, place it on top of a large screen, and pour slurry through the screen into a large plastic tub. Allow the paper to dry on the screen, or simply turn the screen over onto a large piece of felt and cast several shapes that are alike.

Excerpted from: A Survival Kit for the Secondary School Art Teacher.

The ancient art of paper making is explained in this lesson plan, which provides many suggestions for interesting variations on the standard procedure. Your secondary students are sure to enjoy this arts & crafts project, a departure from the normal curriculum. The ancient origins of handmade paper make this a great activity for the Chinese New Year.
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