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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

Before we start crafting all manner of flora and fauna to populate our upcoming show, PAPER PLANET, we've invited renowned paper scientist and longtime professor Dr. Michael Kocurek to teach us all about where paper comes from, and how to make it ourselves! Be sure to also check out our Family Activity for more at-home papercrafting fun.

Written by Dr. Michael Kocurek, Professor Emeritus of Paper Science & Engineering, NC State University

Can you guess who the first papermakers were? Here's a hint: they've been around for millions of years, and they use their paper to construct their homes. They're paper wasps!

These little insects break down wood in their mouths and mix it with their saliva to make pulp. Then they layer the pulp into tiny sheets to build the walls of their paper nests.

While we probably shouldn't start chewing on tree branches to make our own paper, we can learn a lot from the paper wasps. Their papermaking method is very similar to the methods we human papermakers use to make paper of all kinds.

Keep reading to learn more about how paper is made, and how you can follow the same steps the pros use to make your own paper at home! But first, let's talk about all the paper we use and what it’s made of.

How Many Kinds of Paper Do We Use?

Paper has played a vital role in the development of mankind. Globally, all the people on our planet use over one trillion pounds of paper products each year. That's the weight of ten football stadiums full of elephants! Note: Paper is not made from elephants!

Scale balanced with a pile of paper on one side and ten football stadiums full of elephants on the other.

There are thousands of different types of paper, each with different colors, weights, thicknesses and properties. Some are strong. Some are soft. Some absorb water. Some are waterproof.

We papermakers divide paper into four categories:
  • Printing and Writing: copy paper, book pages, magazine pages
  • Containers and Transporting: boxes, milk and juice cartons, food packaging
  • Absorbent and Lightweight: tissues, towels
  • Specialty Papers: filters, labels, tapes
There are different kinds of paper all around you! Make a list of all the types of paper products you see at home.

As you find paper products at home, ask yourself what category they fit in. Are they strong? Soft? Absorbent? Colorful?

Where Does Paper Come From?

You’ve probably heard that paper comes from trees, but that’s the zoomed out version. A closer look at paper shows that it’s made up of very small fibers. These same fibers are what make up the wood of a tree.
 
This is a picture of paper taken with an electron microscope. It shows the tiny wood fibers you would also find in a piece of wood.

Want to take a closer look at home? Take a sheet of paper, a cereal box, or another paper product, and tear it by hand. Do not use scissors. Look very carefully at the edges and the surface to see the tiny fibers. If you have a magnifying glass, it will really help. (Why do you think we didn’t use scissors?)

How big are these fibers? Take a ruler and count off three millimeters, or 1/8 of an inch. That’s about the length of the fibers you’re seeing, and many are even shorter. That’s all there is to paper!

Where Do These Fibers Come From?

Around the world, 25–50% of all paper comes from trees and plants. Some are grown by individual landowners, while others are grown in tree farms or plantations, just like food is on farms. In some parts of the world, where there are fewer trees, other plants like bamboo are used to produce fibers for paper.

We have learned to grow these trees very fast using environmentally friendly processes, with minimal use of other natural resources like water. And because all of us want to conserve resources, 50–75% of all paper products are recovered and recycled to make more paper!

Tree farms are full of fast-growing trees planted just for papermaking. And most paper (50–75%) is recovered for recycling. That much paper is heavy, so this papermaker is using a forklift.

Recovering used paper products is the first step in making your own paper. Fortunately, you won't need a forklift to carry your materials.

Start collecting pieces of scrap paper: newspaper, bathroom tissue, notebook paper, etc. Tear them up into pieces and collect them in a large bowl.
 
Turning Wood into Pulp

The next step is turning the wood into pulp. Remember the paper wasp? He nibbles on the wood to break it into little pieces, and then he digests it in his mouth to separate the fibers and create a workable pulp. When we make paper from wood, we do the same thing on a larger scale.

First we chop the wood into little chips. Then we cook it in very, very large “digesters” full of water and other chemicals.

Chemicals are added to the digesters to help separate the wood fibers. All these chemicals are recovered and used over again for the next batch of pulp. The pulp is then washed, and some of it may be bleached to make white paper.

How can you make your own pulp? Have an adult place the small pieces of scrap paper you tore up earlier into a blender or food processor that's been filled about halfway with water. Don't use too much paper.

Don’t forget to put the cover on the blender! Blend until all the paper is broken up into small, fibery bits. This mixture is pulp!

If you don't have a blender, take some bathroom tissue and tear it into small pieces. Mix it with water in a jar and shake, breaking up the tissue pieces until all the fibers are dispersed.

Turning Pulp into Paper

Now that we have pulp, how do we get paper? The fibers in the pulp are all suspended in water. To flatten them into paper, we need to scoop them up and then squeeze the water out.

When water is allowed to flow through the pulp, the fibers settle into an even layer. Our new sheet of paper is coming along!

In large-scale papermaking, our paper machines use giant, moving screens to filter the pulp fibers. 90% of the water that flows through the screens is captured and recycled for making the next batch of pulp.

The water drains through the screen, leaving us with an enormous sheet of wet paper. The paper sheet is then pressed and dried using hot steam heated dryer rollers.
These draining and drying steps are similar for our homemade paper. Transfer your pulp to a large tray, basin or tub and dilute it with more water. Stir slowly by hand or with a big spoon to disperse the fibers.

It's best to use a stiff screen or screen mold for scooping and draining the pulp. Screens like this are usually available at art supply stores, or as part of larger papermaking kits. Sometimes they come in two pieces, called a mold and deckle. Different screens will have different sets of instructions, but we can cover the bases here, so that you're prepared. And, in a pinch, you can use a kitchen strainer.
 
With your screen or strainer, scoop up a hefty layer of pulp from your tub. Let it drain over the basin for a minute. If your screen has an outer frame or deckle, remove it. You'll now have a nice layer of semi-drained pulp on top of your screen—it's almost paper!

The next step is to squeeze or blot the water out of the paper using towels, felt, and a rolling pin. Depending on the shape of your screen, the way you do this may vary (follow the instructions that come with your screen). If you used a kitchen strainer, you will need to shape your lump of pulp into a flat pulp pancake and roll it out a bit more aggressively.

Generally speaking, though, you'll be sandwiching your paper between two pieces of felt and using the rolling pin to squeeze the remaining water into a towel underneath. You will need to do this a few times, so grab a second towel and some extra felt! If you're feltless, lightweight non-terrycloth dish towels also work well.

Once you've squeezed out all the water you can, place your sheet between two pieces of aluminum foil. Then place a book on top of it and allow it to dry overnight. The next morning, awake to a new sheet of handmade paper!

At the end of a long day of papermaking, step back and admire your handiwork. Don't worry if it didn't turn out all right—it's paper! You can just tear it up and start all over again.
With your screen, scoop up a hefty layer of pulp from your tub.
Squeeze or blot the water out of the paper using towels, felt, and a rolling pin.
Place the damp sheet between two pieces of aluminum foil.
A giant roll of industrial paper.
Be sure to bring your little ones to PAPER PLANET, running through June 7th at The Duke on 42nd Street, just down the block from The New Victory. And if you snap a photo of your crafty creations, don't forget to tag @newvictorytheater on Instagram. #NoPapercuts!


Dr. Michael Kocurek, Professor Emeritus of Paper Science & Engineering at North Carolina State University, is one of the world’s most recognized educators in the pulp and paper industry. In addition to teaching university students since 1970, Mike has also taught courses at over 60 organizations, including the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, and has taught over 5,000 industry operators and professionals through the Technical Association of the Pulp & Paper Industry (TAPPI). In 2005, he was inducted into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame!
 
Posted by Zack Ramadan
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