In paper-consuming businesses we refer to groundwood all the time. I suspect the word doesn’t mean a whole lot to the man on the Clapham omnibus, sitting there reading the day’s newspaper.

Newsprint is the most conspicuous use for groundwood paper, though newsprint actually usually contains only about 85% groundwood fiber — depending on how much you care you’ll get more non-groundwood material mixed in to the pulp to improve its strength and staying power. When we had telephone directories and mass market paperbacks they were printed on groundwood paper too. Nowadays perhaps the commonest use in printing is in the form of coated groundwood paper: a sandwich basically of a groundwood sheet between two layers of chalky coating designed to make the sheet look good and to accept a color halftone. This type of paper is much used for magazines, catalogs and advertising. The use of  groundwood in old books can immediately be identified by the way the paper has turned a rusty-orangy-brown as the acids in it work away at the fibers. For $7.37 you can buy a pen from Amazon so you can identify whether you are dealing with acidic or non-acidic paper. (Not sure just why anyone would want to do this though. You find out because the pen draws invisibly on pH neutral or alkaline papers while showing up as an orange line on a groundwood sheet.)

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest quote for ground wood (they make two words of it) comes from Forestry & Forest Products in 1885, “Ground wood was first used for paper-making about the year 1846, when it was manufactured by Keller”. Friedrich Gottlob Keller, a weaver from Hainichen in Saxony, Germany, patented the first practical wood grinding machine, which as the name might hint is fundamental to the production of groundwood pulp. Tree trunks, their bark removed, are fed into a gigantic array of rotating blades and come out the other end as little chips. This is a strangely inspiring sight: a bit like a gigantic aggressive pencil sharpener greedily consuming a whole heap of pencils with ear-splitting roaring and bellowing.

Don’t see a video here? Please click on the title this post in order to view it in your browser. (Video: Sean Doherty.)

Paradoxically, groundwood is the opposite of wood free. Wood free means not free of wood: wood free pulp is wood with the lignin removed. If you need to be reminded what lignin is please go to Wood. It’s what turns the paper brown.