Archives for category: Paper

The U. S. Treasury used to have  department which would refurbish bills which had gotten dirty (not we hope exclusively dirty money) using a custom-built laundry machine which would soap, scrub, disinfect and iron dollar bills, saving the Treasury  from the need to print about $250,000 of new bills each year. Naturally the printers’ unions didn’t like it. Atlas Obscura tells us the story, with a small gallery of photos.

As we learned at the Crane Museum of Papermaking dollar bills (almost exclusively single dollars — we seem to be able to remember to remove larger bills from our pockets — often inadvertently go into the wash. This has the effect of washing off the potato starch with which our currency is coated, an absence which can be detected with a fluoroscope. Of course we all have one of those lying around, don’t we?

Felt is a woolen fabric made by compacting fibers together: it is non-woven. We all know what it looks like, and because this look can be imparted to woven cloth by teaseling* it, which we call felting, there has arisen a tendency to think of felt as woven. Properly speaking though it is not. The website How products are made has a full description.

I recently received a query as to what printer’s felt might be. It was a blanket, a sort of padding used to soften the impression in letterpress printing which facilitated the transfer of the ink to the paper by making the contact less smash-bang rigid. The material used might at sometime have really been felt, but was more commonly something else: paper, cardboard, anything with a bit of give in it.

We come across the word more commonly in paper-making, where a piece of felt is used as a divider between sheets of paper as they were hand delivered by the vatman. The coucher (pronounced coocher) is the one who deploys the felt, as described in Paper making by hand 2.

The felt side is that side of a sheet of paper that has not been in contact with the Fourdrinier wire, and which therefore is the smoother side of the sheet. In modern commercially-made paper this distinction is hard to see, except in the case of a laid paper.


* A teasel is a thistle-like plant of the family Dipsacus. It has hooked prickles and when the flowers are dead the plants are harvested and used in the cloth trade to raise the nap on cloth. When I was a boy woolen mills had huge frames on which hundreds of teasles were mounted. No doubt we nowadays have some man-made cheaper equivalent.

This nanoparticle-coated paper, if it ever gets to commercial viability, will necessitate the development of new printing machines. Once a book is bound — or a magazine, newspaper, catalog, brochure etc.— you can’t take it apart and return it to its original state as a single large untrimmed sheet. So printers analogous to the non-destructive scanning machines will need to be developed so that the content can be changed by leafing through the book. As the material needs to be printed by light, new presses will in any case be a necessity.

The Digital Reader has the story about reprintable paper, written by the co-inventor, Yadong Yin. The video accompanying the story shows the paper being printed, but I’m not sure it tells you much.

Basically the system “prints” the background, converting a solid blue to white in the places where the type, carried on a mask, doesn’t shut out the light. This odd YouTube video makes big claims, but does confess that the image starts to fade after five days. They do not tell us how they plan to get back the old newspapers they seem to believe will be candidates for printing again via this technology.

(If you don’t see the video because you get this post via e-mail, click on the heading to view it in your browser.)

Whether this technology will ever prove economically viable seems highly unlikely to me. Assuming (a big assumption) they can scale up the operation so that the printing side is viable, the main problem appears to be the getting back of the first printing, so that it can be updated. This can only be low-tech and killingly expensive, plus most already-read newspapers are not exactly in an ideal state for being reprinted. Or are we all going to have to have little light presses in our homes and iron our newspapers after reading them?

What we really need is a paper coating which would permit a book’s being completely erased and reprinted at one pass while remaining closed. Thus if you’d printed way too many paperback copies of Tarzan of the Apes you could, instead of throwing them out, just put them on a conveyor belt and transform them into Star Wars Episode 196. Baby steps.

I’d never really thought about it, but even back in medieval times when paper was being made by hand there were standard sheet sizes. These were no doubt less formal and rigid than today’s, but sheet sizes turn out to have grouped around certain popular sizes which played the role of standard sizes. After all you had to have moulds and deckles: these were reused time and again. If your customers got used to paper in these sizes, neighboring paper makers would tend to conform to the same or closely similar sizes.


The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania has created the Needham Calculator, a tool for calculating sheet size of manuscripts. Enter a few details and bang, bang, there are the dimensions of the original sheet. The Penn Libraries blog describes the tool and its rationale.

Flying splice – which always sounded to me a bit like a pizza being thrown at your head, is actually a way of switching on press from one roll of paper about to come to an end to a new one. It is here explained by “As the main feeding roll nears its end, the roll stand is rotated to bring the next full roll of paper into running position. This is done with the press running at full or operating speed. Double-sided tape is applied to the leading edge of the new roll. The new roll is moved into contact with the running roll of paper. The taped edge of the full roll is pressed against and immediately adheres to the running roll.” Obviously this is a lot more efficient than stopping the press every time you get to the end of a roll of paper.

9780393239614_198Mark Kurlansky’s book Paper: Paging through history (W. W. Norton, $27.95) is the sort of book I should love. I’m interested in the subject; it’s a good-looking bit of production; I know a little about paper and should be a sucker for dollops of recondite information about the subject. So why did I find it so hard to read?

This is a busy book in which we learn a little bit about a lot of things. The author tells us too much about a few things and too little about too many. — Scouring around for topics to write about? Here’s one: hanji.* OK, two paragraphs’ll do — now off to China. In a book about paper where the uses for paper other than as “communication paper” get virtually no mention (though to be fair, some such uses do occasionally get mentioned and then mentioned again, just rarely discussed in any depth) we should not perhaps be surprised that something as omnipresent as the toilet roll only gets a single glancing reference. Well one’s better than none, which is what many uses of paper get. We do get several separate references to the paper required for bullets, but we are never told what distinguishes this paper from say, tissue paper (which isn’t mentioned at all) and what characteristics it requires. I suppose origami is relevant in a work about paper: but relevant enough to get more attention that the difference between coated and uncoated papers, or wood-free as against groundwood (which I can’t remember ever being directly referenced here)? Marbled paper is dealt with as if it were a distinct form of paper: surely it’s not — it’s a method of printing on paper, which, surprise surprise, is actually paper. I did learn that those leather-look labels on jeans are in fact made of paper! The irresistible diversion is rarely resisted: we are told much more about the origins of the French national anthem than we are to learn about calender rolls. I have to concede that the mechanics of making paper by hand gets a decent amount of attention, if only cumulatively, here and there.

Now this bittiness may actually be intentional. The trick of following an apparently unimportant item wherever it takes you does of course constitute Mr Kurlansky’s schtick. He did it with Cod, which I remember enjoying, and with Salt. Trouble is, paper is a bit more unfocussed than these basic items. Cellulose might have been a better title for Mr Kurlansky’s bent, except that nobody would have bought such a book. Or Wood. He should probably write about fairly straightforward things with an interesting variety of uses, rather than a complex product, available in a dizzying variety of forms, with correspondingly myriad uses. His tour d’horizon technique breaks down here: he starts his survey historically and then slides into a sort of regional tour of the world.

The main cleverness in quoting Eden Phillpotts’ novel Storm in a Teacup may reside in actually having located a novel about paper making. Surely one could come up with references to labor issues in the paper industry as it transitioned from a hand craft to a machine industry which were not fictional.

There is a book to be written here. Take time to make it clear, with step-by-step description and diagrams and pictures how paper is made and what it’s made of. Then take a variety of products and tell us something meaningful about them. I bet there’s a story, more interesting that Mr Kurlansky’s single mention, behind wallpaper. We could be told more about cartridge paper — I mean paper used in cartridges, not the smooth opaque sheet of paper made in Britain (which isn’t mentioned here at all). Paper in building might be nice to know about. The humble paper bag probably has more to it than meets the eye. The one I’m looking at now, a plain white bag which holds a loaf from our local supermarket, tells me it was made by Novolex in Florence, Kentucky. Why? They have a plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Is there a story here? If so, Mr Kurlansky doesn’t tell it. Certainly paper as used by artists could be an interesting chapter — here it’s dealt with piecemeal, now here, now a few chapters on, and then again near the end of the book.

However one should not review the book the author didn’t write: this is the one he did come up with. Maybe I care too much about the subject. When you notice small errors of fact about something you know, you inevitably begin to suspect error lurking behind every statement. But that’s not even the main problem I had: the book needs to be thoroughly shaken into focus. It has lots of good little bits spread about. It’s organization and editing that are desperately needed. The book has the feel of a suggestion leaped upon by a writer flailing about for an idea for his next project. But Mr Kurlansky has already written 28 books: surely ideas are not what he’s lacking. Sad to say, the book gives the impression it was written as a pile of good ideas each drafted separately on a bunch of 4″ x 6″ index cards which were then dropped on the floor and reassembled in slightly random order. I found it hard to read, and was disappointed.

The publisher manages to get in on the pervasive imprecision, selectiveness and softness of focus in their colophon† — nice that they have one of course. Here they tell us “This book was printed on Sebago paper, an acid-free sheet manufactured by Glatfelter, a prominent American paper maker founded in 1864.” None of this is wrong: it’s just slightly misleadingly put together, and omits certain (to me anyway) important details. What basis weight was the paper, how many ppi, what shade? Sebago is actually a sheet supplied by Lindenmeryr Paper Company, a paper merchant. They do get it made in Spring Grove, but could make it elsewhere — I remember its being made for them in Maine at the S. D. Warren plant. Glatfelter could sell you a sheet which matches it closely, but they couldn’t sell you Sebago; only Lindenmeyr can do that. Not that important, I agree; but too trivial to get wrong surely.

Mark Kurlansky will be addressing the April 11th meeting of The Book Industry Guild of New York.


* Literally “Korean paper. It’s made of the bark of the paper mulberry, or sometimes Broussonetia kazinoki — the same bark as is used for washi. The book is full of facts.

† I used this colophon as an illustration to my recent post on Dante, the typeface in which this book is set, so you can read it there.

Yesterday evening I attended The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This is an interactive performance in a pub setting, and before the start the five actors went around the tables at which we sat asking us if we’d tear up paper napkins into little bits so we could assist them in portraying a snowstorm by throwing the pieces up in the air when called upon.

Naturally everyone got to work eagerly: even adults delight in being allowed to make a mess. I was struck by how many people commented on how hard it was to tear the fluffy tissue in one direction, while the other direction was dead easy. My assumption that people mostly know about grain direction may be exaggerated. I did a post about it a couple of  years ago. It can be found here.

This trailer, which features different actors, some of whom I saw doing the show a couple of years ago, does give a glimpse of our snow blizzard.

You’ll know it when you see it. Laid paper has that little ridge and furrow pattern built in to it.

Here’s an extreme version of it offered by Gee Bothers of London for your wedding invitations:laidsample

Those furrows are made artificially nowadays, but the origin of the pattern goes back to the early days of papermaking, before we had invented machines to do the job. They weren’t as they now are a design feature; they were inherent to the process. Hand-made paper involves dipping a wire-bottomed sieve into a basin of water and pulp, pulling it out, and allowing the water to drain through leaving a sheet of (wet) paper behind. When you take the paper out of the mold, the pattern of the wires remains on the underside of the sheet: it’s a necessary consequence of the manufacturing process.

Nowadays so much of what we do in book manufacturing harks back to the old hand-work days: headbands, raised hubs on the spine, deckle edges, even the groove at each side of the spine, the half-title page, and lots of typesetting conventions. Nostalgia is alive and well in the book publishing business. When we decide to make a laid paper nowadays we do so for aesthetic reasons, and we have use a dandy roll, a light roller which carries the pattern and has no function other than to make an impression on one side of the web of paper. This pattern may include a watermark too: a laid paper doesn’t have to come with a watermark, just as a watermark can also be used with a wove (non laid, regular) paper.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t really do justice to this term (this entry is unrevised since 1901). They include three paper-related quotations in a general definition of “laid”,  all dating from the 19th century. Like so many of the terms we use now as if they were ancient, the descriptor only became a word once we had developed to a point where we could have alternative choices. They cop out in giving the meaning only as “Deliberately framed” which doesn’t really work for paper (or indeed corn, ice, stitches and many of the other instances they reference)!

This will only be of interest to me I dare say (though it’s the sort of fact my mother would have delighted in), but they also explain the origin of what I always thought of as “the mill lade”, a contained stream, a sort of mini-canal which ran through the middle of the ancient wool town in which I grew up and was once used to power all the mills built over it. A laid drain is apparently a channel lined with stones — an exact description of the mis-spelled lade.

I did post a video of this process before, but one can (I can) never get enough of this sort of thing — so here’s one from Florence.

The jaunty musical sound track may be a bit too much, but the end result, the peacock design, is worth waiting for. I can’t figure out how it is that the printed design doesn’t get smeared when it is dragged off at the end — maybe we are just not seeing exactly what’s happening.

Wikipedia tells us that the wa means Japanese, and shi means paper. Washi was traditionally used to make shoji screens, paper lanterns and some items of clothing. Its long fibers makes it very strong, and it is often used in origami.

Here’s Keith Houston’s account of learning to make a washi paper at Chrissie Heughan’s studio in Edinburgh from his Shady Characters blog. She uses kobo bark mixed with some linen fibers.

In this post from Open Culture you’ll find a somewhat lyrical impression of making washi. However I think the video below, from the Sekishu-Banshi Craftsmen’s Association, gives a clearer impression of what’s going on.

One surprising feature is the way they stack the wet sheets and dry them off in one pile without absorbent separators. You’d think the individual sheets would stick together, but they obviously don’t. I guess the bark fibers are long and tough enough to keep their formation.