Paper and papermaking
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: March 9, 2021.
If you weren't glued to your
computer screen right now, you might be reading this
article on paper from a book; for about 2000 years until the
appearance of the World Wide Web, virtually all written information
was distributed in printed form. The idea of getting information from
inked-up sheets of paper is starting to seem a little bit
old-fashioned, but that doesn't mean we're going to ditch paper
anytime soon. People have been predicting the arrival of the
"paperless society" for decades and it still seems no nearer; if
anything, we use more paper now than ever before—and not just for
printing. Huge amounts of paper and card are still used for product
packaging, in towels and diapers, and in a wide variety of building
materials. It's probably no exaggeration to say that paper is the
world's favorite material. Let's take a closer look and what it is
and how it's made!
Photo: Even in the computer age, we still use vast quantities of paper. This
photo could have been taken yesterday; in fact, it was shot in 1943 at the huge
Southland Paper Mills near Lufkin, Texas, and shows newsprint (paper for printing newspapers) made
from wood pulp using the Kraft process. Photo by
John Vachon for the
Office of War Information, courtesy of
US Library of Congress.
What is paper?
Paper is a dried, compressed mat of plant fibers—nothing more, nothing less. It's a bit
like clothing you can write on. No, really! Clothes are made
by weaving together yarns such as cotton and wool spun from natural
fibers. Paper is more like the fabric we call felt, made without the
weaving stage by pressing together cellulose fibers extracted from
plants and trees so they knit and fuse to form a strong, solid, but
still very flexible mat.
How is paper made?
Most paper pulp is made from trees (mainly fast-growing, evergreen conifers), though it
can also be made from bamboo, cotton, hemp, jute, and a wide range of
other plant materials. Smooth papers used for magazines or packaging
often have materials such as china clay added so they print with a
more colorful, glossy finish.
Photo: Paper can be made from lots of different materials. 1) Trees felled for papermaking.
Although many different tree species can be used, hardwoods provide the bulk of the fibers in paper,
while softwood fibers are used more for strength. 2) Stacks of hay waiting to be made into low-grade
paper in Hebei Province, China. China and the United States are the world's leading paper makers, each producing close to 80 million tons of paper per year. Photo by Simon Tsuo courtesy of US DOE/NREL (US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory).
Here's the basic idea: you take a plant, bash it
about to release the fibers, and mix it with water to get a soggy
suspension of fibers called pulp (or stock). Then spread the
pulp out on a wire mesh so the fibers knit and bond together, squeeze
the water away, dry out your pulp, and what you've got is paper!
Paper is really easy to make by hand (try it for yourself) but people use so much of it that most is now
made by giant machines. Whichever method is used, there are
essentially two stages: getting the pulp ready and then forming it
and drying it into finished sheets or rolls.
Chart: Recycled paper (green line) has now overtaken woodpulp (brown line) as the main source of raw materials. In Europe (EU plus Norway and Switzerland), about 72 percent of paper was recycled in 2019, compared to just 40 percent in 1991. Even so, very large amounts of wood are still consumed to make paper: roughly 154 million cubic meters of wood are used by the European paper industry each year (28 percent hardwood and 72 percent softwood), but only about 40 million cubic meters of that (less than a third) finds its way into papermills as usable pulp. Chart based on statistics from
Key Statistics: European Pulp and Paper Industry 2019, Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), 2020.
Papermaking by hand
The raw plant material is placed in a large vessel filled with water and literally
beaten to a pulp to make a thick suspension of fibers called
half-stuff. This is formed into sheets of paper using a very
basic frame made of two parts: a metal mesh called a mold that
sits inside a wooden frame known as a deckle (a bit like a
picture frame). The mold and deckle are dipped into the half stuff
and gently agitated so an even coating forms on top, with most of the
water (and some of the pulp) draining through. The deckle is then
removed from the mold and the soggy mat of paper is placed on a sheet
of felt. This process is repeated to make a number of interleaved
sheets of paper and felt, which are then placed inside a
screw-operated press and squeezed under immense pressure to squash
out virtually all the remaining water. After that, the sheets of paper
are taken out and hung up to dry.
Photo: Look really closely at almost any ordinary paper and you'll see just how fibrous
it is! The photo on the right is a closeup of the one on the left. It might look like a pile of folded
fluffy bathroom towels, but really it's sheets of paper! This is 100 percent recycled Evolve paper made by M-real.
Papermaking by machine
Although some expensive papers are still crafted by hand, most are churned out
quickly, efficiently, and automatically by gigantic machines. Pulp is prepared
for papermaking machines either mechanically or chemically. The
mechanical method (generally used to make lower-grades of paper) is
called the groundwood process, because the pulp
was originally made by using huge stones to grind up logs. Nowadays, pulp is
prepared by giant machines that cut, wash, chop, beat, and blend
wood, rags, or other raw materials into a soggy mass of fibers. In
the chemical method, known as the Kraft process (from the
German word for "strength," because it produces strong paper),
plant materials are boiled up in strong alkalis such as sodium sulfide or
sodium hydroxide to produce fibers. At this point,
loading materials (surface coatings such as clays), dyes (to make
colored paper), and sizes (to strengthen and waterproof and prevent
inks from spreading) can be added to the mixture to change the
properties of the finished paper (sometimes they're added later).
Photo: A small papermaking machine from the early 20th century. Photo by
courtesy of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Photographic Collection.
Once the pulp has been prepared, it's turned into paper by an enormous roller machine.
The best known type of papermaking machine is called a Fourdrinier
machine (named for the two English brothers who invented it at
the start of the 19th century), though there are alternatives (including the
cylinder machine developed a few years afterward by John Dickinson).
Wet pulp enters the machine from a trough called a headbox at
one end and is spread over a moving, wire-mesh conveyor belt. The
belt is shaken, sucked, and blown to remove water from the mat of
fibers, before a watermark, texture, or other finish is pressed into
it by a patterned roller called the dandy roll. The paper is
then pressed further and fully dried, looping again and again around a series of rollers, before getting its final, very
smooth pressing by large, heavy, steel rollers called calenders.
The finished paper emerges as webs (very large sheets) or rolls (for
printing things like newspapers and magazines). The biggest
Fourdrinier machines produce paper at an astonishing rate of over 60km/h (40 mph)!
How does a Fourdrinier machine work?
Fourdrinier machines are large and complex, but I've simplified the process greatly and color-coded it so it's easier to understand. From wet pulp to finished roll, the paper passes through five key stages: it starts off in a large vat called the headbox (gray); begins to form into paper on the Fourdrinier table (blue); is pressed and dried by felt rollers (green); is further dried, shaped, and smoothed in the dryer (red); and is finally pressed and rolled into finished shape by the calenders (purple). The left side of the machine (as I've drawn it) is called the wet end; the right side is the dry end.
Photo: A detail of some of the rollers in a Fourdrinier machine. Photo by
Russell Lee for the
Office of War Information, courtesy of
US Library of Congress.
In a bit more detail:
- Headbox: The soggy wet mass of pulp starts off here. It could be a mixture of wood pulp and recycled paper fibers.
- Mesh: Sometimes called the Fourdrinier table or wire, this is where most of the water from the pulp is removed and the paper
slowly starts to form.
- Suction boxes: While some of the water simply drips through the mesh, more is removed by suction boxes (a bit like box-shaped vacuum cleaners designed to suck up water).
- Dandy roll: This large roller puts a watermark, pattern, or texture on the paper.
- Felt belt: The forming paper runs over a rotating felt belt that mops away further moisture.
- Dryer: The paper loops back and forth over more felt rollers and heated dryers.
- Calenders: The rollers at the very end smooth the paper so it's of completely uniform thickness.
- Paper roll: The paper is all finished and ready to use.
Photo: From logs to rolls of paper via wood pulp and the whistling wheels of a Fourdinier machine. Historic photos by Jack Delano and others,
U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, courtesy of
US Library of Congress.
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Find out more
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For older readers
- Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky. W.W. Norton, 2017. A sweeping history of paper and papermaking.
- Papermaking: the history and technique of an ancient craft by Dard Hunter, Courier Dover Publications, 1978. Originally produced in the 1940s, this classic book is still available today.
- Paper by Jeanette Bakker. Murdoch Books, 2006. A brief introduction to paper and its history, followed by a guide to making your own paper, and lots of craft projects you can use it for.
For younger readers
- The Story Behind Paper by Barbara A. Somervill. Raintree, 2012. A 32-page introduction for ages 6–8.
- Papermaking (Step-by-step) by David Watson. Search Press, 2000. Another short (32-page) guide for ages 6–8, based around simple activities. It opens with a history of paper, followed by nine easy-to-make paper-based projects, from birthday cards and picture frames to string books and lampshades.
- The Circular Economy of Recycled Paper by Christopher F. Schuetze. The New York Times, November 18, 2014. Is recycling the future of paper production?
- Is digital really greener than paper? by Alison Moodie, The Guardian, 24 February 2014. The paper industry is challenging assumptions that email and other forms of digital technology are automatically better for the environment.
- Burnham artist makes paper from organic materials: BBC News, 21 July 2010. How Charles Bran learned to make paper from environmental materials such as leaves and seaweed.
- China's recycling 'saves forests': BBC News, 13 July 2007. Extensive paper recycling in China is helping to save the world's forests, though much of the paper is imported from the US, Japan, and Europe and is shipped a considerable distance.