Making bamboo paper

I’ve made paper one time. It was fun and I’ve been wanting to do so again but it’s very time consuming. This is just to let you know before you get started! There are a huge number of raw materials you can use for making paper and the easiest is to re-cycle old paper. Using scrap paper to make new paper will save you a substantial amount of time. However, this article is about making paper from bamboo!

Paper has been made from bamboo for hundreds of years. The commercial process uses actual bamboo canes for pulp. You can too but it is very difficult as the bamboo fibers are very tough and need a lot of processing, including a long fermentation period. An easier way to make paper from bamboo is to use the sheaths from new bamboo culms.(canes) These are the outer coverings on new bamboo canes that drop to the ground (in most cases) as the canes mature. They have a texture that is very similar to dry corn husk. When I first began to investigate making paper I was discouraged to find how difficult it would be to process actual bamboo. I then got the idea of using the sheaths.

If you are still determined to make bamboo paper the first thing you will need are some basic tools. Two specialized tools that you can make (or buy at many art supply stores) are a mold and deckle. The mold is basically a frame (much like a picture frame) with fiberglass window screening attached. The deckle is another frame the same size but without the screen. I made mine from strips of wood, about one half-inch by three-quarter inch. You can also use an actual picture frame.

Here is a list of tools and supplies you will need

Soda ash – available from paper making suppliers. You can sometimes find at art supply stores that sell paper making
supplies.
Enamel or stainless steel container to boil the pulp material in
Rubber Gloves
Safety google
Blender
White felt cut into 12 inch squares
Approx 1 to 2 pounds of bamboo sheaths, cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces
Rubber tub, large enough for mold and deckle to fit down into. Rectangular and shallow is best.
Mold and deckle
(Optional) Several pieces of window glass or mirror. They need to be at least the size of the paper you intend to make.

Collecting and preparing the bamboo fibers

You’ll need to collect some sheaths to begin with. This will have to be done in the spring or early summer as this is when they are available and they deteriorate fairly quickly once they are on the ground. I used the sheaths from a large grove of Robert Young bamboo.
I used a paper cutter to cut them into 1 inch lengths. You should have enough to fill at least a gallon container. I used an 8 quart, stainless steel pot. I filled about half way with cut up bamboo sheaths, lightly pressed down.
Use about 1/2 ounce of soda ash for each quart of water. Ideally the ph value of the solution should be 10 to 11. You will need enough solution to cover the fibers. dissolve the required amount of soda ash in the water and bring to a boil. When it is boiling, add the fibers. Bring to a boil again and then reduce to a simmer. I did this outdoors on a gas grill. You will need to simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Stir about every 20 to 30 minutes. To check, remove a piece of sheath and rinse. Try to pull apart along the grain. If it separates easily, the fiber is ready. Let the solution cool and then strain off all the used liquid using a deep strainer with a piece of nylon hose as a strainer. You can also use a colander covered with a fine fabric mesh. You must remove all the traces of the chemicals. The easiest way is to repeatedly wash the drained fibers in a bucket of fresh water. Strain and rinse several times. A small amount of pulp added to a cup of distilled water should be neutral, with a ph of around 7.

The fibers must now be beaten in order to separate. Fill a blender about 3/4 full with water and add a handful of pulp. Run the blender for about 10 seconds. Start at low-speed and increase to medium. Don’t overdo it. Add a little of the bamboo pulp solution to a glass of clear water. Look through the glass and the fibers should be approx. the same length.

Now comes the fun part – making paper!

You will need to dilute the bamboo pulp solution. Try about one blender full of pulp solution to four equal parts of clean water. You may want to add more – trial and error will help you determine. Also, each time you make a sheet of paper this dilutes the fiber solution and you will need to replenish as the mixture becomes thinner. The pulp will tend to settle to the bottom so you will need to stir gently each time you make a sheet of paper. A small bamboo stick works well for this.

Wet your mold and deckle and place the mold on top of the deckle. Dip into the suspension of bamboo fibers. Raise the mold and deckle up out of the vat in a smooth horizontal motion. As the water drains through the screen, quickly shake the mold slightly, front to back and side to side. This will even out the fibers to make a sheet of consistent thickness. This also helps to interweave the fibers. When the water has drained from the mold you will transfer the freshly made paper to another surface. This is called “couching”.

Couching and Drying

Place the mold and deckle on the edge of the vat, mold side up. Remove the deckle being careful not to let any water drip on the wet sheet. You will need to couch on a firm surface. I had a marble cutting board that I used. The sheets of felt (couching cloths) should be 1 to 2 inches larger than the paper size around the edges. Place the felt on the smooth, firm surface. Place the mold upright on the side of the felt and couch from the longest edge. Using a firm rolling action lower the mold onto the felt, transferring the wet sheet to the felt. This is your first sheet. Cover with another piece of felt and couch another sheet on top. You can do several sheets this way. When you have several sheets in a stack place a piece of felt on top. Place a piece of plywood on top of stack. You will need to press the stack to remove as much of the water as possible and to help bond the fibers into a strong sheet of paper. I placed a couple of heavy concrete blocks on top of the stack and left for about 3o minutes to an hour. Remove the press, carefully peel off the top layer of felt and there is your first sheet of bamboo paper. The simplest way to dry is to slowly lift up each piece of felt with its attached paper sheet and place on a clean, flat surface. The felt will restrain the sheet from shrinking and wrinkling. However, this method leaves a textured surface. For a smooth surface, take each felt piece and place paper side down onto a piece of glass. Use a roller to gently press the paper to the glass then gently peel off the felt. You can peel the paper from the glass and place on another dry felt. Repeat with several more sheets, placing a clean, dry felt between each sheet. When you have another stack, place a piece of felt on top and return to the press. Gently press overnight. The next day, remove each piece of felt with its paper and place on a flat surface. Leave until completely dry. When completely dry you can peel each piece of paper from its felt. These can be stacked and stored in a box in a dry area.

Conclusion

Making paper from scratch is a pain. It takes a lot of preparation and time but I found it to be very rewarding. As I said, I’ve only done this once but it worked very well and I ended up with about a dozen sheets of nice bamboo paper. It was a very nice color and the sheets I dried on glass were slick and smooth. I fully intend to try this again in the future. If you want more information I suggest checking out some books on papermaking at your local library. The book I used for my first (and only) time was The Art and Craft of Paper-Making by Sophie Dawson

Leave a Reply