Paper Making

The subject of Bushcraft is so wide and varied that the pleasure of unearthing new knowledge seems thankfully endless, and can take you in directions you couldn’t predict.

With my lack of photographic memory ability I am a prolific note taker, as anyone will tell you.  All the information I have gathered over the years is stored in notebooks and used for referencing at a later date, so paper has always been close to my heart.

paper finishedNettle paper

Paper has been around for nearly two thousand years and the Chinese are credited with its first production.  Prior to this the Egyptians, five thousand years ago, used papyrus and is where the word paper is derived from.

So this got me thinking, what if I had to rely on myself to produce my own paper? I set to task to add this to my skill set.

Paper can be made from a wide range of natural fibres. I had understood from a friend that young nettle fibres made for really good textiles so with this knowledge and knowing of nettles ability to make good strong cordage, I thought it would be interesting to see if this quality transferred to the paper making process..

First things first, I needed to collect nettles and lots of them. After collecting a reasonable quantity I set to extracting the long strong fibres. I processed the nettles in the same way I do for cordage. Crushing the nettles and then splitting them to remove the woody pith, being left with only the outer fibres of the nettles.

rolling stemsCrushing nettles to extract fibres

removin inner pith Removing the woody pith

hanging fibersNettles on the line

To make nettle paper you will need a base fibre. I found using recycled brown junk mail envelopes perfect for the task at hand. Don’t be tempted to use newspaper as the poor quality will detract from the end goal. Soak these in a suitable container overnight.

cutting fibersCutting the fibers

boiling fibersBoiling the Nettles

Then I cut the nettles into 1” lengths and boiled for three hours to help break down the coarse nettle fibres  into much  finer fibres. To then process these into the pulp required for paper you can either pulverise them in a mortar and pestle or take the speedier option of a food blender……I chose the latter.  A word of caution here however.  Nettles do not get their reputation for having strong fibres for nothing, and only the smallest of handfuls should be added to the food processor and its container then topped up with water to its maximum to help suspend the fibres in solution and ease the strain on the blender. Pulse the blender initially before blitzing the nettles constantly for one minute.

If this is not done, an aroma not too dissimilar to that of a Scalextrics race track will soon emanate from your device, shortly followed by a terminal fault which does not contribute to a harmonious household if the blender happens to not be yours!!!

What should be left are the very fine fibres, it should  feel like there are no fibres in the solution at all. Repeat this process until all your nettles have been processed. These are then added to your vat from which you will draw the paper, which should be a large shallow tray large enough to fit the paper making frame you are using (see below).


nettle pulpNettle pulp

Now take your recycled envelopes, breaking them up small pieces by hand before also processing them in the blender and adding them to the vat.

You will now have a suspended natural fibre solution from which you can draw your paper. In order to do this you will need to make or use an old picture frame and stretch some open-weaved fabric like hessian over it using a staple gun or tacks. You now have the vehicle for which you can draw your paper with.

frameHessian Frame

Pulling the paper from the vat is something you will need to practice a few times first to achieve a satisfactory result. Prepare the fibre solution by gently agitating the water by swirling your hand around, helping to suspend the fibres relatively evenly in the solution.

flipPaper fresh on the frame

Now angle your frame (hessian side up) parallel to the side of your container before sweeping it level to the bottom, but not touching. Now very, very slowly start to draw the frame up level, as you do so the fibre suspended solution will seemingly part from the centre of your container to the outer edges. As you near the top you will have a couple of moments to help regulate the consistency of your paper. By employing slight and gradual side to side or/and back and forward tilting motions.

Be careful not to overdo this as the fibres will clear themselves from the centre of the frame making it, at best thinner than the rest of your paper and at worse with a hole in the centre. Continue to draw the frame carefully clear of the water and allow the excess water to drain from the frame. When the water has gone to a drip, you need to agitate the fibres in order for them to knit together and strengthen the paper. Do this by firmly motioning the frame back and forth and side to side a few times.

spongeDrawing out excess water

Place the frame vertically on the edge of your felt and bring the frame down (hessian side at the bottom) onto the felt. Using a sponge draw it slowly, but firmly along the back of the hessian. This will help draw out some of the excess water and compress the paper.

You can now pull the frame away leaving your newly formed sheet of paper on the sheet of felt. If the paper remains on the frame when you pull the frame away from the felt, don’t worry there is no need to panic. Continue to turn the frame over with a hand ready should the paper sheet decide to separate from the frame. Once upright place a piece of felt on your sheet of paper and dress the edges on the paper with a spatula to reduce the sheet tearing upon removal. Lift one edge of the paper up and roll it onto the felt as you do so until the entire sheet is on the felt. Repeat these steps until you have made the desired amount of paper or your fibres run out, at which point you simply add more.

With your newly formed sheets add another felt sheet and place all the paper under pressure. A homemade press of simply a heavy log, or whatever you have to hand. A cider press is perfect for small works. Allow this process to draw out as much of the water that remains as possible. When the sheets are dry enough to handle allow them to air dry slowly. This process will take between two days to a week to complete. If your newly formed sheets of paper buckle under the drying process, this can easily be rectified. Simply mist some water either side or using a tea towel over the paper iron your paper flat again.

dryingPaper drying out

rough sheetsDried paper

trimmedTrimmed to desired size

final sheetdCompleted Sheets of nettle paper

And there you have it newly formed paper to bind and add more notes to.

Jay Jenner


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