Monday, February 15, 2016

Step 2: Making Pulp

I cut off the roots and seed heads at the collection site, if possible, and bag them for disposal in the public trash. If the collection site is not conducive to hanging out for a bit, then I do this back in my garage and carefully gather any stray material for disposal in the public trash. No part of these plants should ever be composted. I then cut the remaining leaves, stems and stalks into 1/2-inch to one-inch pieces. They can be cut fresh or placed in a paper bag to dry for later cutting.

If you're working with tough plants such as phragmites, it helps to soak the cuttings in water for several weeks. This helps to break down the plant material before boiling.

The next step is to boil the cuttings (outside, due to the odor) for 3-4 hours with soda ash, which separates the lignin, sugars, starches, waxes, and gums from the cellulose fiber, making the paper strong and archival. Boil the plant material until it is soft enough to bend, but isn't mushy. In my experience, phragmites can take up to 3-4 separate boiling sessions before it's ready to be beaten in a blender.

After boiling, I rinse the plants thoroughly using paint strainer bags. 

Then the beating begins! This process would be quick and easy if I had an $8,000 Hollander Beater!

However, I have more time than money, so I use my sturdy KitchenAid blender in the laundry room. It can take 4 days to beat one bucket of pulp because the blender can handle only one cup of cuttings at a time. I beat each cup for 30-60 seconds and give my blender plenty of breaks so that it doesn't overheat. (Phragmites usually requires 3-4 rounds through the blender.) It's a sloooow process, but it allows for ample time to read, listen to music, and laundry.

The cuttings are beaten until the pulp is soft and silky as pictured below. The pulp pictured below was processed with a Hollander beater that I rented. However, sometimes I prefer my paper to have a bit more texture, as well as a deckled edge, so I'm beating my pulp a little less and leaving a few more visible pieces to add to the texture of the paper. Figuring out the best consistency of pulp is simply through trial and error.

There are two invasive plant species that didn't work well for paper-making. One was Dame's rocket which never broke down enough to beat, even after several boilings. The second was common buckthorn which was extremely time-consuming to prep and resulted in brittle paper.

This summer, I'm anxious to try making paper with spotted knapweed, purple loosestrife, black and pale swallow-wort, narrow-leaf cattail, eurasian water milfoil, baby's breath, and any other herbaceous or aquatic invasive plant species I can get my hands on!