The Papermaker’s Hand Mould

Figure 1

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. IV no. 4, October 1951

By Harrison Elliott

A somewhat simple and ingenious contrivance is the paper mould used in forming each sheet separately by the hand process for making handmade paper. This mould is essentially a hand tool which, in one form or another, but basically the same in construction, has been in use since papermaking began in China in 105 A.D. It still continues to be used commercially in Europe for the making of fine handmade papers, and for the making of paper of various kinds in the Orient.

Making paper with a hand mould was the only mode of manufacture employed until the papermaking ma­chine was invented in France in 1798. The patent was taken to England and the idea worked out there so that in 1810 the machine was developed sufficiently to begin commercial operation. The object of the invention was primarily to overcome a strike in France by the hand papermakers, but it went far beyond that in effect. It speeded up production by producing paper in a con­tinuous web and lessened the number of employees re­quired. Paper in rolls enabled printing to be produced in greater quantity at lower cost, and eventually made possible the huge rotary printing press with its enor­mous output.

The earliest Oriental papermaking moulds had a woven cloth as a cover, or screen, on which the sheet was formed. One method of forming the sheet was to pour the liquid pulp into the mould, and spread it evenly over the screen and permit the pulp sheet to dry in the mould in the sun. When dry the sheet was stripped from the screen and came away intact. This method still prevails to some extent, particularly in Siam and Tibet. Later the screen was made of bamboo splints closely paralleled and sewn across at equal in­tervals with horse hair, silk or linen thread. This sewing held the splints together and allowed sufficient spac­ing between the filaments for proper and uniform drain­age. The screen was flexible and removable from the wooden framework base, the foundation of the mould.

I have a Japanese mould with a removable and flexible screen. It is a fine bit of craftsmanship. One side of the screen has a “laid” pattern made of fine bamboo filaments sewn together transversely, and equal­ly spaced, with horse hair. The other side consists of finely woven horse-hair cloth and produces a sheet with a “wove” or smooth surface. The laid screen with its closely parelleled lines and transverse “chain” lines, leaves its impression in the wet pulp sheet and gives an all-over watermark pattern to the finished sheet of paper, and the name of “laid” to that type of paper.

The rigid or “transfer” mould with a screen con­structed of finely drawn wire and attached to the wooden framework, was invented in Persia. The Euro­peans adopted this type of mould, which is the same as that shown in the illustrations. It was an advancement in mould design, permitting one mould to be used for making successive sheets. The wire screen afforded a firm base for sewing on the watermark device worked in outline in wire, and gave rise to that mode of deco­rating and identifying paper.

The first maker of paper moulds in North America was Isaac Langle who established his trade about 1740 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, not far from the Ritten­house mill, the first paper mill to be erected in this country. Nathan Sellers of Darby, Pennsylvania is generally regarded as the second and more important mould maker. His career was more dramatic than that of Langle. Prior to the Revolutionary War moulds used in the Colonies were mostly of English make. Such moulds had suffered from hard usage and were badly in need of repair when the war shut off imports from England. When the war broke out Sellers enlisted in the army and forfeited his membership in the Society of Friends. So great was the need of papermakers and mould makers that Sellers was recalled from the army and put to work at his craft. The Willcox paper mill at Chester, Pennsylvania, at that time was making paper for the government with badly worn English moulds, and Sellers with his special skill was employed to repair them and to make others.

An interesting mould maker’s advertisement appeared in the Connecticut Courant, Hartford, April 4, 1820. This advertisement is of interest as it is informative and somewhat detailed. I have a copy of the newspaper and the advertisement reads as follows:

The subscriber makes all kinds of Paper Moulds, after the newest and most approved English patterns, and ofthe very best materials, both superfine and common, and  with a late improvement in the deckle, cuttmg the sheet well and the mould doing more service. Those who may want moulds are invited to call and see for themselves. All orders will be care­fully attended to. Also, all kinds of Cabinet work, and Vene­tian Blinds as usual. – AARON COLTON

FIGURE 1. Shows the mould after having been dipped into the vat and brought up with the liquid pulp evenly distributed over the screen and of the required consistency and quantity necessary to form a sheet of paper of the desired bulk. While the pulp is still in a liquid state, before much of the water has drained away, the mould is given a two-way oscillating movement or “shake” to intertwine the fibers and soli­dify the sheet. The mould depicted was made in England and is about the smallest size used commer­cially. It yields a laid sheet 12 x 16 inches which is large enough for small books. The largest European single mould has a screen for forming a sheet 48 x 72 inches; the size is known as Emperor, and a size smal­ler, Antiquarian, has a sheet size of 31 x 5 3 inches.

Figure 2

FIGURE 2. The mould is shown with the deckle frame removed before “couching,” that is, placing the mould face down on a “felt” (really a woven woolen material) so as to deposit the wet pulp sheet on it, and thus remove it from the screen. In the lower left-hand corner of the screen is the watermark design outlined in wire. The pulp having formed thinner over the raised design, the bulk there being thinner than the rest of the sheet, and consequently more translucent, when the finished paper is held up to the light the watermark will be apparent. The design shown here is a reproduction of George Washington’s own water­mark. It is in this position on the screen so that when a sheet of paper is made with this mould and given a quarto fold, the watermark will appear in its entirety on the last leaf of an eight-page folder.

In confining the pulp to the screen the deckle frame, if it does not fit snugly, will permit the pulp to seep under it to a limited extent, and that is how the selvage or “deckle edge” is formed. This rather ragged edge used to be considered a defect and was trimmed off, now it has a decorative function.

A pile of the couched sheets, with the interleaving felts, is put in a press to squeeze the moisture. The still damp sheets are carefully parted from the felts and piled sheet upon sheet and undergo further press­ing; after which they” are laid out to dry. If a paper that will resist ink penetration is desired, the sheets are dipped in a hot solution of animal glue or sizing, and undergo another drying. Finally, the sheets are pressed between plates of burnished metal to give the desired smoothness or gloss of finish.

The above is a very brief description of papermaking in its essential steps as I do it for a handicraft more in the nature of a hobby. I have been doing it for many years from the raw material (usually clean new cotton and linen rags) to the finished paper, with a small-scale equipment. My output is limited and not conducted on a commercial scale. In that way I get a certain amount of enjoyment from it. Someone uttered a truism when it was said that a hobby is hard work one would not like to do for a living.

In the Dard Hunter Paper Museum in the Massachu­setts Institute of Technology at Cambridge, Massachu­setts, is a collection of papermaking moulds unique in variety and number. Here are gathered old and modern moulds from all over the world.