Monthly Archives: October 2013

Inner Bark

Part of my apprenticeship at Eskulan involved investigation of plant fibres that none of us had ever made into paper. When I taught a class at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Managua, Nicaragua in 1986, we made small test batches of paper from gato tree seed fluff, breadfruit branches, pineapple leaves, coconut fibre, palm, plantation bark and several other sources abundant there. This got me interested in other potential fibres that could be made into paper, and inspired me to do a series of silkscreened plant papers in the early 1990s.

Last year I learned that Juan Barbé has been experimenting with various fibres for many years, documenting them in a marvelous hand bound book that notes each paper’s properties, the length of time the fibre boiled in lye, time in the beater, properties, etc.,  each with a sample attached. A life work at a professional level.

As a complementary business to Eskulan, he operates Paperlan, a paper and fibre supply. In addition to storing traditional paper fibres like kozo, gampi and abaca there, he stashes and dries new ones that he collects for use in trials when time permits.

image

image

image

image

image

image

So while my Curly Dock stalks were soaking, we started preparing two other plant fibres: Fresno (ash) and Adelfa (Nerium oleander). I had read about using inner bark for paper, but this was the first time I had worked with it from scratch. All very interesting to me, because my own previous plant paper making efforts had been crude by comparison, often using parts of the plants that contained little or no fibre. I had read about the use of inner bark with certain important species, so I was excited to be investigating these ones.

image

image

Juan had soaked a bundle of Fresno bark in water for a couple of days, not so much to loosen the outer bark as to
make it possible to flatten the curved, curled bark for scraping evenly.

image

It’s slow, finicky work, and we agreed that it’s the kind of meditative task to submit to, not to hurry, but to enjoy. Put on the radio or some music and start scraping.

I used a small, curved knife. Some segments were much easier to peel and scrape than others! I wished I had brought an Inuit ulu knife with me – scraping bark is not too much different from scraping hides.
Over the course of several days at Eskulan, I scraped all of the Fresno bark and a portion of the Adelfi, which wamore fragile and difficult to work with. Hand made papers, especially from plant fibres, are extremely labour intensive.
Short video clip: scraping Fresno bark.

At some point Juan will make them into paper and I’ll find out the results. Then we’ll each start our next tests…

The Nepalese Style

For their typical production runs, Juan and Javier use a classic western paper making technique which consists of scooping from a tank of pulp onto a screen with a deckle attached. This requires an excess of pulp and regular top-ups, as well as skill and acute awareness, in order to maintain sheet consistency.

At a certain point, though, there’s not enough pulp in the tank to dip a screen into, so they drain and strain the tank, then squeeze the remaining pulp into balls. Dried out, they can be rehydrated later and used again in another batch.

image

With the Nepalese style, it’s possible to use all the pulp, which offers an important advantage when working with a small test batch, especially a plant fibre that has required so many painstaking steps.

For our Rumex crispus test, Juan filled a small rectangular container with water beside our bucket of fresh-milled pulp. He placed a screen at the bottom and held a deep-walled deckle tightly to its upper surface.

image

With his free hand, he scooped a cup of pulp from the bucket and poured it into the deckle, which was 3/4 full of water. Then he lifted the screen and deckle straight up. The water poured out and the pulp remained on the screen, ready to be couched onto felts.

image

Each time he poured the same volume of pulp into the deep deckle, which ensured consistent sheet thickness. Very simple, very efficient.

image

Paper Test Batch: Rumex crispus (Curly Dock)

Before I left Wells in late September, I prepared a bunch of Curly Dock fibre. My neighbour Catherine, who has a fierce allergy to the plant, gave me several bags of it that she had cut down around her house.

image

Humans can eat Curly Dock leaves in small quantities, but it’s noxious to livestock and generally seen as a nuisance weed. For me, however, it’s a bit nostalgic: the very first paper I made back in 1981 in a studio on Beatty Street above Pulp Press (where the Stadium SkyTrain station is now) contained Curly Dock seeds! So I thought that making some 100% Curly Dock paper with Juan would bring me full circle, and he was enthusiastic about the idea.

I spent an afternoon in Wells trimming leaves from the stalks, and removing any seeds. Then I put the stalks on roofing tin to dry out in the sun.

Later, I cut it to bag-sized lengths and gave it a further drying in the oven before vaccum sealing it in plastic to eliminate any risk of contamination in travel.

image

At the Eskulan studio in Zizurkil, I cut all my dried Rumex crispus stalks into shorter pieces with a guillotine.  After soaking it in water for a few days, we started boiling the fibre in lye in a stainless pot on a gas burner.

image

Our goal is to break down the lignin that binds the fibre. But it turned out to be very hard: some plant fibres are ready in less than an hour; this was still a bit rigid after six! Finally after six and a half hours, we put a lid on the pot and left it to steep overnight.

image

After draining the pot, we rinsed the fibre thoroughly with cold water, and put it into a bucket of water. We used a large industrial blender stick to help break up the fibre.

image

Then we transferred this to a small, stainless Hollander Beater that Juan had filled with water.

image

It didn’t take very long to pulp the fibre. Juan tested it a few times by putting some in a clear bottle with water and shaking it to see if the fibre was hydrating and going into suspension. The process took about 20 minutes in total.

image

Juan made about a dozen sheets using the Nepalese style in order to be able to use all of the pulp and not waste a drop. (More on that process later.) They went into the press – at a lower pressure than the production cotton rag paper – then were peeled out and hung up to dry. By now it was getting late and time to clean up for the day.

image

Juan came into the studio on the weekend to use up the rest of the
Rumex c. pulp. A few days later we peeled off all the paper from the drying sheets, then gave it some compression time in the press for its final flattening.

image

The result: a gorgeous, caramel coloured paper. The short fibre of the Rumex doesn’t yield a strong paper, but it’s very pretty. Both of us are very happy with it.

My First Attempts at Production Papermaking

Juan lets me try dipping some of the deluxe 6-up sheets, and I don a giant, waterproof apron and long rubber gloves. I had never made such a big set of sheets in my life, and my technique was pretty bad!

My first attempt was a total write-off and we had to rinse off the screen to start over. The next ones were marginally better, and luckily for me, the press compressed the flaws enough that they would be invisible to the untrained eye.

The trick is to plunge the screen & deckle vertically, quickly & deeply into the tank of pulp, until it’s immersed about 75%, then smoothly start pulling up to the surface, ending with a subtle rocking motion.

The deckle is made from a dark glue-lam with the sheet forming areas cut out and a narrow border of sponge crazy-glued around all perimeters. It’s fragile; another item to handle carefully and methidically.

We couch the wet sheets onto a table at waist height, and I manage to place the edge of the screen at its correct middle point on the edge of the table, then quickly tip it down, press firmly, rub each channel and snap it up to release. To do this without the wet paper falling off the screen takes skill and confidence. This part I can manage.

It’s very hard to teach the correct pulp dipping maneouver, however, because the tank of pulp is opaque – it’s impossible to see exactly what Juan’s hands or the screen are doing below the surface. Something to learn by hand with lots of practice. My next attempts are with a smaller screen and a single sheet deckle!

image

image

image

image

image

When the fresh paper has dried enough on its drying sheets that hang off lines upstairs, Javier peels them all off and piles them meticulously onto a heavy PVC sheet. These go back into the press for a final flattening at a lower pressure. When they emerge, he stacks and counts them, then packages all up for eventual shipping. But it will take days of production to fill this order.

image

image

The day ends with cleanup. The screens and deckles get hosed down to avoid any pulp drying on them – very hard to remove later. Like silkscreen printing, cleanliness preserves the investment in equipment, as well as making it possible to produce a quality product.

image

All photos of Bill in this post courtesy of Juan Barbé.

Thank-you

The exhibition Claire Kujundzic and I had at GKo Gallery in Tolosa, Gipuzkoa would not have been possible without the generous support of:
Charlie Roots and Mary Ann Annable, Whitehorse, Yukon; the Kujundzic clan; Gillian Walker, Alan Zisman and Linda Reid, Susan Madsen and Stephen Mitchell, Vancouver, BC; Nik Semenoff, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; Sophia Isajiw, Toronto, Ontario; Anne Fullerton in Kitchener, Ontario; Whitegold Adventures and Caroline Zinz, Wells, BC; Chris Harris and Rita Giesbrecht, 105 Mile House, BC; District of Wells: Murray Gudmundson at Tier One Travel, Victoria, BC.

Eta eskerrik asko -> Garikoitz Cuitlahuac Murua Fierro, Kizkitza Lasa Agirre, Box.A Arte Elkarte, Brian Cullen, Zuloaga Txiki, Juantxo Garmendia 😉
Forest carpet (yellow), cropped

The Rhythm of Work

Juan and Javier start very early each morning. They have a contract to supply a Michelin-rated restaurant with white, deckle edged paper for their menus. When I arrive, the studio is in production mode.

image

Javier has milled up a big batch of cotton rag pulp and periodically transfers it to a vat from which Juan can top up his main dipping tank as needed.

It’s a big order, so Juan is using a large screen and deckle that makes six sheets at once. Once he agitates the pulp to the proper level of suspension with a giant blender stick, he bends over the tank, and deftly, smoothly and quickly dips and pulls up.

Video clips here.
And here.
And here.

image

Then, after letting the excess water drip away, he “couches” the wet sheets onto felts and release material – another very smooth move – then covers with a heavy dampened drying sheet and repeats the process. Again and again, until he has a post of wet sheets between two heavy PVC sheets.

image

image

Juan shows me the most ergonomic way to help shuffle them over to his press. He had it custom-built at a machine and metal work shop down the street: super heavy-duty, set for >50 tons pressure. I learn how to operate it: power on, press down…wait for 50T pressure once water starts flowing out of the post of paper, then stop the press and power off.

image

The post sits under pressure for a short spell, then Juan and Javier raise the press, slide the fresh post out onto a barrel, and peel apart the damp drying sheets with the fresh paper stuck to them from all the felts and interleaving sheets.

image

They move the fresh paper up to a mezzanine level where Javier hangs them to dry. Then Juan moves all the felts and interleaving sheets back near the vat and starts another set.

image

It’s noisy, wet, steady work that demands continuous concentration and patience. At the same time, it’s also meditative.

Music and DJ chat on Radio 5 occasionally break through the buzz, hum and sloshing. Juan and Javier make very few mistakes, and I can tell by the tiny tweezers by the vat, used occasionally to extract a hair, that their standard is perfection.

My daily commute

On my first Monday morning I walked from the Zuloaga Txiki hostel at the north end of Tolosa about 5.5 km to Billabona along a series of small roads and paths that follow a section of the Camino of Santiago.

image

image

Juan had recommended this route, but he couldn’t show much of it on Friday, because cars are prohibited in most of it. It wiggles back forth along the RENFE train line and the Oria River with many farms on either side, especially the section between Anoeta and Billabona. It’s beautiful and I see lots of people out walking, jogging and biking.

image

image

image

Juan and his wife, artist Carmen Sevilla, live in Billabona; his paper & fibre warehouse is located off the town plaza. Eskulan is back across the river and another 1 km towards Zizurkil.

image

He procured a bike for me and I had brought my own helmet, reflector belt and pump. What a great way to get around, as well as starting and winding down my work/study days with a light workout.

image