Paste Papers

As a first year at NBSS, we make many, many simple book structures in a given week. Plain paper coverings get old rather quickly, so as you can imagine we go through a huge amount of decorative paper. A couple of weeks ago the entire bookbinding department spent the day making paste papers. These papers are created with a paste and paint mixture and are common board covering and endsheet materials for books in the 16th-18th century. If you would care to get an idea of some traditional paste paper patterns, the University of Washington Library has a small collection of digital images available online (found here). Of course modern book artists and crafty individuals love paste papers because of their ease of production and versatility; I’d also wager that their popularity stems from the fact that they are kind of like finger painting in their execution. Case in point, Martha Stewart has even done a segment on paste papers with Sage Reynolds.

I approached this work day as an opportunity to experiment with materials, and, therefore, didn’t really study up on historical patterns and colors – so my papers are kind of all over the place. There is a lot of literature out there on decorative paper for books, so I plan on being a little more focused the next time I do this.  I’ll briefly describe how we went about making these papers and then share some of my results.

First off, we all rummaged through our respective basements, attics, and closets or went down to the local dollar store, drug store, etc. and grabbed any small object that we thought might make an interesting pattern. Combs, forks, potatoes, brushes, legos, toy trucks – you name it, we brought it in.

Then we made paste. There are literally hundreds of recipes out there for paste papers – Richard Miller put out a long list in 1995 on the Book Arts Listserv (found here)  – but basically the paste is made by cooking starch and water. You can use wheat starch, corn starch, or even cake flower.

Everyone seems to have a different opinion about which starches and starch to water ratios produce the best results. Some individuals advocate using methyl cellulose instead of paste. Having made few paste papers in my life, I have no real opinion one way or another. Rather than pick and choose, we went ahead and made 6 to 10 different mixtures to see how they compared.

After straining the paste and letting it cool, we divided it up into small bowls and added acrylic paint.

The result is a nice, thickly colored paste.

This process can be messy, so everyone cut a large sheet of mylar to protect their bench.

We used 1/2 sheets of Mohawk Superfine for all our paste papers. This type of paper is economical,  good quality, and a 15″ x 20″ sheet will provide more than enough material for a few of our model-sized books. When the work space is ready, the sheet is wet out with a damp sponge. This allows the fibers of the paper to relax in preparation for receiving the paste. The moisture also keeps the sheet stuck to the mylar during the patterning.  The colored paste is then evenly brushed out onto the page and a tool is drawn across it to make patterns in the paste.  I started off with a small square that would give me evenly spaced lines.

After dragging it across the page in several directions, I got this pattern.

This is pretty rough-looking  because it was done free-hand. To make it look nicer, I really should have constructed a tool as wide as the entire sheet and set up the space with a guide on one side so that my lines are really straight and even all the way across. When the patterning is accomplished, the wet sheet is put in a drying rack for a bit.

With so many people working at once, we quickly ran out of racks – so after each sheet had some time to firm up, we moved them to a clothesline to finish drying.

Below are some examples of the papers that I made. The first was made with that same plastic square.

This one was done with an “afro pick“.

I made a few calm ones with sponges.

I also made a few that had a little too much going on…

During the course of this, I tried to make a few papers that can be used for an upcoming project – the German paper binding or “pappband”. To get the appropriate pattern, one either sticks the freshly pasted paper together and pulls it apart or uses a sponge. In keeping with the historical examples that I’ve seen (like the one below), I tried to go with dreary, sort of ugly colors.

Below are some of those that I produced.

I confess that I’m not very good at the whole choosing sympathetic colors and patterns thing. I’m pretty jealous of a lot of paste papers that my classmates came up with. But the advantage of paste papers is that they are cheap and easy to produce – so I have plenty of opportunities to practice. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for specific examples in library collections to copy.

Next time, I’ll be sharing a recent production project that made use of these paste papers!

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