Archives for category: Paper

Photo: Boston Public Library

It’s no coincidence that paper mills are always next to a river or a lake. They need more water than anything else to make paper. The pulp released onto the moving belt in a paper making machine will be diluted to 97% water.

This Sappi diagram, which you can enlarge by clicking on it, claims that paper mills return 90% of the water they use to the rivers. In the olden days, before we got our legal ducks in a row, the effluent was heavily polluted, and living downstream from a paper mill demanded olfactory blindness.

Paper Online has a bit of detail They point out the thought-provoking idea that because the modern paper mill has to purify the water it takes in, the decontaminated outflow may well be improving the quality of water in the river.

The amount of water used in papermaking has been being steadily reduced. For those who want numbers, here’s a 2014 article from Professional Papermaking focussed on the German industry.

Of course the industry’s need for paper doesn’t begin when the wood reaches the mill. Water management is needed in their forestry divisions: trees need water to grow. The following video focuses on that part of the water budget.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.


I need sustaining just to get me past these sorts of complaints, which make me go weak at the knees.

Much of what Tom Corson-Knowles is saying at PRnewswire is true enough in detail, but put it all together and it can’t really justify the headline “Book Publishers and Book Lovers are Destroying the Planet”. (This piece was linked to by The Passive Voice, eager as always to pass on any story which appears to show publishing is a poor light.) Mr Corson-Knowles claims “that around 10 million of the trees that are killed to create books die in vain each year, because the books end up getting destroyed instead of being read.” Well, of course it’s true that publishers print too many copies of lots of books, and that most of this unsold inventory gets pulped. But this problem of excess inventory is really yesterday’s news: publishers’ inventory control is much tighter today that in the past, and print runs are way down, with more frequent reprints if a book takes off. But what’s a publisher meant to do in a world where you can get orders before publication for a million copies of a book? Say that their customers are nuts and print only half a million? In so far as the problem of excess inventory still exists it only affects a tiny proportion of books: most titles are getting preorders for quantities in the hundreds, not the millions, so there’s no need to overprint. You just don’t see headlines saying “Author X’s latest garners 650 preorders”.

It may also be true that somewhere in the world, say Indonesia, forests are being chopped down faster than they can regenerate. But the American paper industry has gotten its act together on this one, and for every tree chopped down for paper-making another tree is planted. It’d be nice not to chop down those 10 million trees, except of course for the 10 million little seedlings who’d never get to start their journey to treedom.

It’s also true that paper making consumes lots of energy and gives off fairly obnoxious by-products. Here again environmental controls plus self interest have led the paper industry to immensely reduced emissions. But paper-making isn’t unique in using energy. Almost anything we do consumes energy, and it’s NOT an argument in favor of ebooks to say that “Printing books is environmentally expensive”. Creating, transmitting, and reading an ebook is also “environmentally expensive” in almost exactly the same way. It’s just that the energy consumption is going on in places which you can’t see. Do you know for a fact whether any of the juice you put into your iPhone or Kindle is coming from coal-generated power? I’m no expert, but I have seen analyses suggesting that the ebook business consumes more energy that paper books do. It doesn’t really matter whether it uses more, the same, or less: the point is that energy cost does not attach to one side of the equation only.

Even more confusedly “If a bookstore can’t sell its copies, its entitled to request a full refund from the publisher. However, shipping books is expensive. So instead of sending the books back, bookstores often rip the covers off and send only those back to the publisher as proof that the book has been taken out of circulation. Those damaged books are often pulped: ground up, mixed with certain chemicals, and recycled into paper for other uses.” Again this isn’t altogether wrong; it’s just wrong in detail. Booksellers don’t “often rip the covers off and send them back” — this procedure happens with mass paperbacks only, and is based upon the calculation that a cheap paperback is worth less than the cost of shipping it. And of course, as anyone who’s bought one of these knows, books with their covers ripped off are not always pulped: all too often they are sold off cheap to customers who don’t mind cheating the author and the publishers who have already given credit for these rip-offs. It is true that the right to return unsold copies is the bane of our business. We have to do something about this, and I believe that the economics of it will force us to. But as long as we believe that people will buy Fire and Fury if it’s there, but will forget about it as soon as they leave the store, this is a very difficult cure.

TCK Publishing, Mr Corson-Knowles’ company, proudly states that they use print-on-demand technology to eliminate the waste of unsold books. Who do they think developed POD? Certainly not TCK Publishing! Oops, it was those very publishers who are out to destroy the planet.

Now of course all TCK is trying to do is put their best foot forward. Maybe the scare headline was put there by PRnewswire. But these sorts of things exaggerate a reality which is actually fairly anodyne, and allow the commentariat to pile on in absolute irrelevancy.

They always do things better elsewhere. In his 2011 Gresham College Lecture John Barrow takes a swipe at us Americans because “There are only three countries in the world that do not use the paper size aspect ratios I have talking about so far, the so-called International Standard, the USA, Canada and Mexico. They use a curious collection of historically somewhat ad hoc paper sizes.”

Here’s a diagram showing the “logical”  International Standard folding down of an A0 sheet (which measures 1 square meter  — but only approximately, as you’ll find if you do the math. But when you stray from the theoretical world of mathematics clunky reality tends to get in the way, like the thickness of the blade making a cut, or the tick mark on a ruler, and the inability of people to hit exactly the same number every time they do a measurement). Superimposed in red in the diagram are American Legal and Letter sizes. But it is true that if you start with an A0 sheet and fold away, you should be able to end up with a tiny 52mm x 74mm A8 bit of paper — in theory you can go on till you reach A10. For those of you who remember being told paper could only be folded six or seven times, think rather of cuts than folds, and view this video of a 13th fold being successfully completed. (Video via Mental Floss.)

(If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser,)

Now American cut paper sizes are of course not just an ad hoc choice. They are based upon ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standard ANSI/ASME Y14.1, which used Letter size, 8½” x 11″ as its basis. Contrary to what Professor Barrow implies in his lecture God did not include a paper aspect ratio of 1:√2 in his briefing to Moses on Mount Sinai. It may well be neat and nice that A3 and A4 etc. all enjoy a relationship between length and breadth which is based on √2 and can each be derived by cutting their predecessors in half maintaining the same proportional relationship between the long side and the width. But neat and nice is just neat and nice. As Barrow tells us about √2, “This number, famously, is an irrational number, and that fact was discovered by the Ancient Greeks. It was known, supposedly, to the Pythagoreans, and there are stories and legends that the first person to discover it was regarded as an enemy of the people and thrown into the sea because he had unveiled something that was indeed irrational and therefore dangerous to the world of thought.” Clearly we in America have taken care to protect ourselves against that irrationally (if only by adopting a completely different basis of irrationality), and while it may be annoying to the purist that the margins of a document printed on legal paper will change if reduced and printed out on a letter size sheet, it really doesn’t matter in any practical and meaningful sense, does it?

Paper sizes were only standardized in the last quarter of the 20th century. Prior to that they were maintained by custom and convention. Britain’s participation in the International Standard no doubt has something to do with its membership of the EU: maybe they’ll want to get back to good old foolscap again. The reason a sheet of paper is of a certain size originally resulted not from far-sighted papermakers conferring as to what they should do in accordance with some Platonic ideal. The aspect ration, which may or may not have had something to do with the Golden Ratio, was decided upon by each vatman who would make his mould as best suited him. He’d no doubt try to get the biggest sheet out at any one time, and the width would be governed by the extent of his reach with arms stretched wide. The breadth would then follow with considerations of weight and balance coming into the picture. Make it too big and you won’t be able to dip the mould and lift it: make it too small and you’ll get exhausted making handkerchief-sized paper. Who’s to say that the idea of what shape a page should be may not have been influenced by the size of a sheep or a calf, as early papermakers were of course competing with parchment and vellum?

Long before the late 20th century paper sizes for book work had been fixed by the sizes of printing presses. Of course printing press sizes would initially have been influenced by the sizes of paper available. Mutual reinforcement continued until it would became insane to produce paper measuring 26″ x 39″ or a multiple thereof for the American market, where a standard of 25″ x 38″ had evolved.

The Kraft process, the chemical procedure used to separate the cellulose in wood from the lignin which binds the cellulose fibers together and provides to structure of a tree, surprisingly (at least to me) was not invented by a German named Kraft. It was actually invented in 1884 by a German named Carl Ferdinand Dahl. The first pulp mill using the process came on line in Sweden in 1890-1. Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all maintain it is called Kraft (strength in German) because it makes strong paper. I wonder. The US Patent for the process makes no reference to Kraft or strength ( — if you do look at this you’ll find an extravagant illustration of the pitfalls of optical character recognition technology). The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the term kraft paper is derived from the Swedish kraftpapper (which no doubt does mean strong paper) so I suspect we’ve got the cart pulling the horse here, and Mr Dahl’s process picked up its name because it was first used in Sweden to make the strong brown stuff we now call kraft paper. The Kraft process doesn’t have to result in brown paper though: 80% of the pulp produced chemically in the USA uses the Kraft process.

The Kraft process tweaked the earlier soda process, and is sometimes referred to as the sulphate process, after the sodium sulphate it uses.

It certainly takes a deal of craft to follow this diagram, which can be enlarged by clicking on it.

Wood chips, steamed to expand the water cavities in them are mixed with a combination of black liquor and white liquor, and the mixture is then cooked in a digester. After a few hours the chips fall apart into cellulose and lignin plus other byproducts, including turpentine. The black liquor, which is actually produced during this process, was in the past mostly vented into the river which is always to be found next to a paper mill. Eventually we came to realize that this wasn’t exactly good for the fishes, who tended to turn up dead as a consequence.

The cellulose from the digester goes to the blow tank, so called because the cellulose is really blown in there. After that the cellulose fibers are screened, washed, and bleached. Various chemicals, including surfactants, defoamers, dispersing and fixing agents are added to help the pulp perform in production. The pulp delivers from the end of the machine and its driers as a continuous thick blanket. This is cut into sheets and baled for shipment. Most pulp is produced in specialized pulp mills, though there are still a few paper mills which produce their own pulp. Notable among these is Glatfelter — a much appreciated manufacturer of book papers. A visit to their Spring Grove plant in Pennsylvania starts with a visit to their forest! Here’s their video of the pulping process:

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post so as to view it in your browser.

Jeff Peachey’s blog tells about splitting paper. Taking a single sheet of paper and dividing it into two sheets each half as thin, sounds insanely difficult. The benefits, if you want to display on your wall both sides of a single printed leaf, are obvious. (One does perhaps have to repeat one’s disapproval of dealers who dismember old books in order to obtain pictures they can sell to intellectual punters.) I don’t imagine paper splitting is as easy as the description suggests though. The things book restorers have to get up to!

Here’s a video from the Morgan Library’s blog showing how it’s done. It all works well, but I think we can assume lots of attempts which don’t work out, resulting in the destruction of a leaf which takes with it whatever information it contained. In other words this is a high-risk activity.

As usual, if you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

To the book manufacturing operative paper splitting sounds hair-splittingly close to paper slitting. Paper slitting is the cutting of a single roll of paper into two or more ribbons as it races through the rollers at the back end of the press, or in the mill where it has been made in a continuous roll as wide as the Fourdrinier machine it comes from.


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. 

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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.


Is it depressing that a Google search for papyrus will return a page filled with links to the chain of stationery stores, Papyrus? Maybe not; after all what right do we have to assume that the internet isn’t all about business and retailing stuff?

Papyrus is of course the precursor of paper (and indeed the word’s origin).  Cyperus papyrus is an aquatic plant native to Africa. Its pith, cut into strips, would be woven into flat flexible sheets by ancient Egyptians (and others more recent) on which one could write. After the woven sheet had dried out under a weight it would be burnished with a stone to make it smoother. As you can see from this video, the stem has a triangular cross section which almost demands this sort of treatment.

Papyrus “books” were formed of several sheets of papyrus, joined together and rolled up to form a book roll. Writing on papyrus, which although its surface is pretty smooth (the lady in the video tells us its derivation is from the word for baby’s skin), demands different techniques than writing on paper — brush rather than pen. The Wikipedia article is comprehensive. Oddly, papyrus was called wadj, tjufy, or djet in the ancient Egyptian language. I guess this means the Greeks named the paper after the plant.

Papyrus is also a rather over-ornamental typeface designed in 1982 by Chris Costello. It’s the typeface, used, as Ryan Gosling’s character in this Saturday Night Live video is unable to get over, for the title sequence of the film Avatar.

(Link thanks to Lois Billig.)

A Hollander is a machine used to beat bits of fiber (here probably cotton rags) into a pulp, breaking the fibers down into small enough pieces to form a sheet of paper.

gif from Paperslurry

The name implies a Dutch origin, and indeed the machine was developed in the Netherlands in the late seventeenth century to replace the stamping mills which had previously performed this function, much more slowly.

Rotating metal blades within that black housing rotate like a mill wheel in the flow of slurry (just water and fiber) which circulates in the race, getting broken down more and more as time passes.

Here’s an unusually gigantic Hollander in operation at Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal.

Bear in mind that the materials used in paper making in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were primarily cotton and linen rags, so don’t think of a Hollander as chomping up bits of trees! The earliest recorded use of wood for paper making (apart from the action of wasps, which Réaumur hypothesized in 1719 might be adapted for our purposes) was in 1800 when Matthias Koops, an English papermaker, published a book part of which was printed on “paper made from wood alone”. It wasn’t till 1844 that Friedrich Gottlob Keller patented the first practical wood-grinding machine, thus enabling the development of the groundwood paper industry.

Adriaen van de Velde:
A Farm with a Dead Tree

We don’t hear this slur any more do we? In the early days of ebooks the enthusiasts promoting digital access used to use the term to try to persuade even more people of the wickedness of print publishers, initially newspaper and magazine publishers, but subsequently book publishers too. Defiantly the blog Dead Tree Edition, a blog focussed on the periodical business, celebrated its seventh anniversary a couple of years ago with a discussion of the term “dead tree edition” pointing out that things haven’t worked out as the skeptics expected.

Who knows where we are going, but where we are seems pretty unambiguous: ebook sales have settled around 20-25% of total book sales —yes, yes, you who are always so quick to object, I refer to book sales from traditional publishing. Sales figures for self-published books, which we assume are mainly ebook sales, are unsurprisingly rather hard to come by. We know they are large (or we think we know this) but what implication that’d have for the overall total of books sold is hard to know for sure. After all the value of sales of print books remains immense whatever the picture. Emphasising once again that these sales numbers are not really available by anything other than extrapolation, one suspects that they are not as large as the total sales of traditional publishers. I showed suggestions in a post last year that in 2015 self-publishing sales at $1.25 billion were in fact less than 5% of traditional publishing sales, in other words only about 20% of traditional publishing ebook sales. Now I am perfectly willing to be proved wrong on these detailed numbers — I suggest however that whatever the numbers the discussion is irrelevant. Who cares whether the source of people’s reading is Messrs Indie Publisher or Random House? That they read is the important bit. Certainly nowadays many people seem content to continue reading on paper. Maybe they won’t in the future. Maybe they will. It doesn’t matter — publishers (self or trad) will still be there to provide materials whatever the preferred format may be.

The dead tree slur of course refers to the need to chop down trees to make paper. US paper makers are energetic in their commitment to sustainability. You may dislike managed forests, but the industry aims to plant one tree for every tree cut down. Printing overseas may expose you to more ambiguous fiber sources, as I suggested a few years ago.

Paper artist Ray Tomasso from Denver tells you in this YouTube video all about the history of paper making while making several sheets of paper in front of you.

This video is almost an hour long, but well worth watching. (If you don’t see the video above this paragraph, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)