This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #42 (April, 1998).

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What Paper Is, and Is Not

It has been said that the earliest papermaker was the common wasp, which rasps dry wood in its mouth to create a pulpy substance for nest building. Humans have also used paper pulp as a building material. Modern sculptors use paper pulp as well. Most people, though, still think of paper as a writing or drawing surface. But many such paper-like materials commonly used centuries ago, are not technically paper at all.

Probably the best known paper-like writing surface is papyrus, a Greek word from which our word "paper" derives. It hails from Egypt, of course, but was also used in Greece and Rome. The plant has a tall, thick stalk made up of layers. These layers are split apart, flattened, and placed side by side; then additional layers are placed on top of the first layer, crosswise. After pressing, drying, and dressing with flour paste, the papyrus is beaten flat and smooth, ready for inscription.

Another type of early writing surface used in the Mediterranean, and later in Europe, was parchment or vellum: the former made from sheepskin, the latter from calves, lambs, or goats. Stretched on frames, these animal skins were de-haired, de-fatted, and scraped smooth to make a luxurious surface for scribes, illuminators, and early printers.

So-called "rice paper" is a misnomer for the translucent papers made in Asia. It is made by spirally slicing, from outside to inside, the pith of a tree native to Taiwan. Beaten bark from plants like hemp, fig, and mulberry created the substrate of choice for original inhabitants of Central and South America, Polynesia, and Africa. Huun, amatl, tapa, and amate are all regional variations.

Despite their attractive qualities, the paper-like items outlined above are not paper. They are all created by working (beating, slicing, scraping, combining) the materials readily available in any particular region. But the bonding of elements that creates true paper happens on a microscopic level. Papermakers are a little like matchmakers. They create the proper atmosphere, the proper setting, and the proper chemistry to achieve this bonding.

Papermakers promote the bonding of cellulose: a carbohydrate which is the chief constituent of plant cell walls. Tasteless and odorless, cellulose is a type of polymer, a relatively weighty compound of similar molecules often grouped end-to-end to form a chain.

Plant fibers are thread-like accumulations of cellulose. Through soaking, beating, and sometimes chemically treating the plant materials, individual fibers can be separated and suspended in water. The fibers must also be bruised a bit to help the cellulose become hydrated. This hydration is ultimately responsible for the chemical bonding that happens once sheets are pulled, pressed, and dried.

The final word on this subject comes from Dard Hunter. "To be classed as true paper, the thin sheets must be made from fiber that has been macerated until each individual filament is a separate unit; the fibers are then intermixed with water, and, by the use of a sievelike screen, are lifted from the water in the form of a thin stratum, the water draining through the small openings of the screen leaving a sheet of matted fiber upon the screen's surface. This thin layer of intertwined fiber is paper."

Copyright 1998 Hand Papermaking, Inc.