Ever since linen and cotton rags became too hard to find in sufficient quantities we have been making paper from wood. Lots of other plants have been tried, but wood wins out over all of them. In 1719 René de Réaumur hypothesized that the way wasps chewed up wood to make paper for their binks might be adapted for our stationery purposes. But it wasn’t till 1800 that Matthias Koops, an English papermaker, made a book of which part was printed on “paper made from wood alone”. Friedrich Gottlob Keller’s 1844 patenting of the first practical wood-grinding machine is what made possible the industrial-scale manufacture of paper from trees.  But what is it about wood than makes it suitable for making paper, whether by wasps or men?

Wood is 50% cellulose, 30% lignin, 16% carbohydrates, and 4% proteins, resins and fats. Paper is made from cellulose and that’s what papermakers need, not the rest. Paper makers used to be able to satisfy demand by getting their cellulose from rags, but waste collection limits your supply to the amount of rags people are throwing away, or what you can collect from textile mills as off-cuts and waste. The specialized making of paper from linen rags still goes on however. Cellulose is composed of tiny thin fibers. The fibers in different bits of a tree differ, as do fibers from different types of tree and from trees grown in different climates. Softwood trees (conifers) produce longer fibers than hardwoods, whose fibers are denser. The cellulose fibers are held together in a tree by lignin, a complex organic polymer which also provides the structural support. To make good lasting paper you need to be get rid of lignin.

The structure of wood is illustrated in this video:

Wood burns, it floats in water, and it’s hard enough to bend a nail. The chemical structure of wood is not reproducible by one formula: it consists of too many different constituent parts. It is, however, made up mostly (about 98%) of carbon (c.50%), oxygen (c.42%), and hydrogen (c.6%): Cellulose’s chemical formula is (C6H10O5) and lignin’s C9H10O2,C10H12O3,C11H14O4. Wood also contains small amounts of  nitrogen, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, and manganese.

I was interested to discover from the second video that the cellulose chains in the middle of a tree are aligned in spirals while on the outer layers they are vertically aligned. This allows a young tree to bend, and an older one to stand up against the wind.

Finally, as a lagniappe*, here’s a sort of wood-structure ballet from an Open Culture tweet. 

If you don’t see any videos here, please open the post in your browser by clicking on its title.

Just as I’m finishing this off, here comes a post suggesting we may one day, Dr Doolittle-like, learn to speak to the trees. Maybe once we learn what the trees have to say about us we’ll have to stop making paper books. Is sympathy for plants more of a risk than the ebook?

For the indefatigable, that link includes a link to a TED Talk by Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard about communication between trees.


* I had assumed this was a word coming from southern Europe, but no. Apparently it was a Louisiana French word derived from Creole which had picked it up from Quecha. For non-Americans therefore I should perhaps explain that it means a small gift given by a merchant at the time of a purchase; what in Britain we’d call the baker’s dozen.