Ever thought about how paper is made?

A world without paper is hard to imagine. We would have no books, no cardboard and no newspapers or magazines. The word paper comes from the term papyrus which was invented by the ancient Egyptians but paper as we know it today actually came from another source – China.

In 105 AD the chief eunuch of the Emperor, T’sai Lun experimented with a wide variety of materials. He refined the process of separating the fiber filaments of plants. He put these individual fibers into a large vat, boiled them in water, beat them and stirred them. Next, he submerged a screen in the vat and caught the fibers on its surface. When the sieve was taken out, a layer of pulp rested on top of it. When it was pressed and dried, it formed a thin, flexible yet strong paper.

For many years paper was created manually, using different materials from hemp and straw to rags. However, wood pulp was found to be the most suitable source. In time paper progressed from being produced manually to being made in large paper mills. The growing demand worldwide forced increased automation of the process and today facilities are full of impressive machines used for production.

Wood pulp is still the most important source for paper making. Trees are cut down and the logs are transported to the factory. At the mill the bark is removed from the logs in a big, revolving drum. The logs knock together causing the bark to come off. The wood is then chipped into small pieces in a chipper consisting of knife blades on a rotating disc.

The next step is the cooking process where the chips are cooked in steam and chemicals. This is done in a machine called a digester which is like a giant pressure cooker. The cooking process separates the wood fiber from the lignin which is the glue holding the wood fibers together. After the pulp has been cooked, it needs to be washed to collect spent chemicals and remove contaminants. It is also bleached to create brightness.

The actual paper making machine is large and wide, usually consisting of several parts. At this stage the pulp is still more than 99% water. Additives may be mixed in, depending on the properties required for the grade of paper being produced. The highly diluted solution is then forced out through a small slit onto a rapidly moving fine mesh belt. It is on this mesh that most of the water is drained out.

After this, the paper still goes through several rotating steel cylinders with steam inside help to dry it out and other heavy rollers press it. When it comes out of the paper machine, it is rolled onto huge spools which are then cut and rewound into smaller rolls.

Paper making is is essence a fairly simple process, as demonstrated by T’Sai Lun in ancient China. With the process becoming so automated, many of us do not even know how it is made. It is with great delight that many people are discovering how easy it is for them to make paper themselves. Whether using recycled materials or fresh organic matter, the process is basically the same as that used all those years ago – pulping, cooking, straining, drying and pressing. Papers made in this way are flexible, durable and versatile. They can be used for painting, drawing, writing, wrapping gifts and many other creative pursuits.