French printing aficionados have been playing with the techniques found in Rich Dana’s book. Here’s a look at how things turned out.
Something to print, check.
Ink pad made, check.
Stencil made and attached to header, check.
Ink on the ink pad, check.
And we have a functioning mimeograph machine.
I’m not super impressed with the quality of the stenciled image, but I’ll see what I can do to refine it a bit.
Single drum rotary and hand-printing mimeographs use ink pads to either convey the ink from a reservoir or hold applied ink in place (acting as a de facto reservoir), so that it feeds through the stencil onto the paper in a controlled manner. They’re of relatively basic construction – and my guess is that it’s for this reason that patent information about ink pads is relatively scarce. I was able to find two A. B. Dick patents, each referencing “improvements” to already existing patterns.
This second patent is interesting because in advancing its improvement it also explains the typical method for printing multiple colors without changing out the ink pad and cleaning out the reservoir. The method entails using a blocking sheet over the primary ink pad to “restrain” ink of the first color so that a second color, spot-applied to a second ink pad can be used temporarily. I’m not sure what the blocking sheet would have been made of (plastic or rubber or ??), but it’s an interesting technique that might be of use.
While every duplicator brand had its own ink pad specifications, I hope that the information I provide here will help you improvise an ink-pad pattern for your own machine even if its dimensions are different from what I post.
From what I’ve seen so far (on my three Heyer machines), flannel is the fabric of choice. I did see a passing reference in a 1937 issue of Popular Mechanics (I couldn’t figure out which exact issue, the search just pulled up a phrase by itself) that mentioned cambric used as an ink pad. Cambric is a densely woven cloth, initially made of linen. I don’t know if it was made of something else by 1937. But, cotton flannel is certainly easy to come by these days – if you have an old flannel shirt you’re willing to sacrifice, you can cut ink pad pieces from it, so I think it’s safe to just stick with that.
I am lucky enough to have unused pads for each of my machines, so before I gunk them up with ink, I’ll be measuring them and noting any construction techniques that seem relevant.
Since I already had flannel on hand and none of my household’s flannel shirts were in bad a enough a state to require upcycling, I am using the new flannel to make extra ink pads for my Heyer 60. In this post, all my photos and measurements relate to this machine’s ink pad.
To remove the ink pad, unscrew the bolt at the center of the handle. The handle serves to lock the inkpad in place with a small amount of tension generated by a metal bracket seated under the handle. Unscrewing the bolt and removing the handle releases this tension.
The bracket hinges on a pin that is inserted into a narrow “envelope” sewn into the ink pad. Release the wire clasp that serves to snug the stencil (not shown) to the pad and you can then lift the ink pad from the mimeograph. Remove the pin and set it aside.
Feed the ink pad through the slot on the opposite end of the mimeograph. The anchoring bar can then be removed from the ink pad.
Congratulations, you have loosened your ink pad.
A new one can be made following the measurements of the original. It consists of a rectangle of flannel that is a finished size of 5×5 inches (but see caveat below AND see the section on “sizing your ink pad” for other important considerations!). The sides are unhemmed but are finished with a backstitch to prevent fraying. The top and bottom are hemmed so as to provide “envelopes” to accommodate the pin and the bar.
The underside of the ink pad is lined with a 4.25×5″ rectangle of 3mm-thick felt.
The two pieces of fabric are joined together at the “envelope” seams (so, in constructing a new ink pad, you can sew the felt on and hem the “envelopes” at the same time.
To make a new ink pad, cut felt and flannel to correct sizes.
- The felt piece will not be hemmed or otherwise folded, so it should be cut to its finished size (4.25×5″). See photo “#1,” below.
2. The flannel should be cut larger than the finished size because two ends will be hemmed to create “envelopes” (so, it should be somewhere around 6.5×5 or 7×5 inches before sewing). Here’s the caveat: because my felt is thicker than 3mm, my finished flannel pad will need to be longer than the original (to accommodate the extra thickness of the felt). You may need to keep this in mind for yourself. (And you should still read the “sizing your ink pad section” before you start)
3. Stitch the “long” edges of the flannel piece (do not fold, just do a backstitch as near to the edge as you can) to prevent fraying. See photo “#3”, below. If your fabric is very prone to fraying, you might sew a blanket stitch along the edge, instead or in addition to the backstitch.
If your piece of fabric incorporates the selvage, the woven end of the fabric, there’s no need to backstitch that edge as a selvage will not fray. See photo “#3.1,” below.
4. Fold the short ends over so that the main section measures 5 inches. Pin or baste to hold. Basting is to be preferred because pins introduce folds – when you get to the point where you’re stitching the second side, you’ll want the ink pad partly loaded on the mimeograph to assure correct fit, and basting stitches will allow this more easily than pins. Baste or pin the felt to the side of the ink pad that hosts the folded-over flannel sides. See photos #4 and #4.1.
5. Stitch one side of the felt to the two layers of folded flannel using a backstitch (not a running stitch as in basting). Keep the basting stitches in place on the other side. Install the half-done ink pad to see if it will fit or if the flannel needs to be adjusted.
At this point, I found that the thick felt made reinstalling the ink pad inconvenient. I had to force my small flannel “envelope” into the space and almost couldn’t get the metal anchoring bar into what little fabric peeked through. There are adjustments that I can make to subsequent inkpads to assist reinstallation, but I did get this to work as is.
It became obvious, though, that in spite of keeping my measurements correct, the new ink pad will be ever so slightly too short (this is because the felt is thicker than the original), so I will increase my flannel’s finished length to compensate.
6. Make any adjustments you deem necessary, stitch the last edge, then reassemble your mimeograph.
Sizing your ink pad
This tutorial was based on an original, unused Heyer Lettergraph 60 ink pad. In preparing to use my first stencil, however, I found that the original design’s measurements would not allow ink to fill a standard postcard-sized piece of paper to its edges (in the US, commercially available postcards are 4.25×5.5 inches in size – conveniently, this is one quarter of a standard letter sized piece of paper [8.5×11 inches]). The mimeograph body can accommodate that size, but for some reason the original ink pad is narrower than the mimeograph body.
My first stencil is going to be a template for Lettergraph 60 stencil headers – the card header that allows the stencil to be mounted on the duplicator:
You’ll notice that it’s wider than the 5.5 inches I have available to print on. By making the templates a quarter inch narrower, I’ll be able to print them on postcard stock. Unfortunately, because my ink pad is only 5 inches across, there’s half an inch of my stencil that won’t receive ink:
In order to achieve ink placement across the entirety of a postcard, I’m going to have to make a larger ink pad. I’ll keep the ones I’ve already made to use with color inks when they’ll only appear in the interior of postcard images. My new ink pad will be designed to fit 5.5 inches of the width of the mimeograph (out of a total width of 6 inches). Since I’ll be applying ink manually to the ink pad, it won’t matter that the perforated ink-flow-through section is significantly smaller than the ink pad.
Here are photos to show the Heyer’s original ink pad in relation to its metal mimeograph frame. These will help you get a sense of the relationship between the perforated ink flow-through section and the felt layer so that you can experiment and come up with your own ink pad pattern. The felt layer extends from edge to edge (top to bottom) along the face of the mimeograph but is narrower than the metal frame (left to right). The felt and flannel extend about a quarter inch beyond the ink flow-through section in the other direction but do not extend the full 6 inches all the way across.
As I’ve not yet tested this mimeograph, I can only offer my theory that a felt layer will be useful in cases when you don’t want to fill the ink reservoir, because it allows the ink pad to hold more ink than it would if it were just a single layer of flannel. Since I’ll be making my first prints with unthinned Riso ink, I’ll be applying ink directly to my ink pad.
- A double layer of flannel can be used if no felt is available or desired.
- If your flannel has an obvious “nap” (with one side fulled [fluffed] more than the other), the fluffier side should be up for paste ink. The smooth side should be up for liquid ink.
Imagine for a moment (because this has to be imagined and is in no way connected to real events) that you’re a seventh-grade girl, a bit gangly and with legs up to your armpits, freckle-faced and with flyaway hair, and braces to boot. You’ve stepped out of your habitual fashion comfort zone, which is no fashion at all, and are wearing a jersey-knit red and white mini-skirt/t-shirt combo and white tights (why? because it’s 1983). You’ve ducked into the girls’ room in the middle of lunch period, have finished up, and are about to head back out to wander around a bit aimlessly before the next class because there isn’t exactly a group you hang out with, with whom you feel really comfortable.
You step out of the bathroom, make a sharp right toward the building’s corner, but before you round it, you hear a sudden chortle and look back to find two eighth-grade girls nearly doubled over in laughter.
At this juncture — before you’ve dashed around the corner and out of sight so you can, unseen by mocking schoolmates, run a hand down the back of your outfit to find that you’ve tucked your mini-skirt into your tights — you realize you could’ve really used a friend. That friend would’ve caught your fatal error before you’d made it public and most definitely would not have let news of that error leave private space; just as importantly, she wouldn’t have thought badly of you for not being aware of the mysteries of clothes-that-aren’t-pants.
In short, that friend would’ve had your back.
Rich Dana is that friend to Mimeograph Revival. In fact, he’s that friend to all of us who want to learn old-school-style duplicating methods, play with print and copies and colors, and walk boldly into the world with what’s intended to show, showing, but with even our mistakes (perhaps even of the fashion sort) embraced with flair and energy and courage because they reveal something about our thumping-in-our-throats hearts.
Just a few minutes of browsing around is all it takes the astute Mimeograph Revival-reader to notice the site’s exposed … underbelly (shall we say). As of yet, I simply don’t have the practical experience with mimeographs to offer the full suite of helpful resources that you — as experimenters and tinkerers and down-home/low-tech publishing aficionados and hope-to-be’s — might need.
Yet, when I leaped out the door of my inner world onto the internet with a crazy idea and the gumption to just make it happen, the mimeo-enthusiasts like Rich, along with Sam Keller, Erwin Blok, and many others, met me with a warm welcome and hastened me around the corner where I could sort myself out and not be embarrassed by my own presence.
Cheap Copies!: The Obsolete! Press Guide to DIY Hectography, Mimoegraphy, and Spirit Duplication, self-published in late 2021 by Rich Dana, who has some nifty publishing credits and projects to his name, is a crowd-funded book that, to be honest, is exactly what I’d hoped Mimeograph Revival could grow up to be. I am nothing short of astounded that I lucked out enough to jump into this topic at exactly the moment Rich was about to put this book out, because he’s here to reassure, guide, applaud, and then kick the training wheels off my – and your – wobbly but gonna-be-great first ride toward a vast horizon of possibilities.
Cheap Copies! is THE perfect complement to (if it doesn’t succeed it altogether) the digital philosophizing and electronic archiving that goes on here. It’s a Big Top Tent of printing fun, with a DIY, how-to, and join-the-fun ethos that’s a fine representative of the zine-making and -sharing community at large.
There’s a very particular feeling generated when holding someone’s printed treasure in your hands, something that’s been drawn and written, laid out with care – or even with slapdash devil-may-care haste because the word needs to be gotten out pronto – then copied and stapled or otherwise bound together. It’s the feeling presaging surprises to come, a zine-tingle, if you will. This book delivers it in spades with its marriage of aesthetics and substance: bold line drawings, color reprints of hectograph illustrations, humor, and mix of historical documents (including well-researched biography highlights of duplication’s luminaries), helpful resources, reading list, and do-it-now! tutorials.
If you want to know how to make hectograph gel pads and inks, duplicating fluid for spirit duplicators, DIY mimeograph machines and stencils, as well as what to look for in used machines and basic troubleshooting, this book will get you set to go.
Multiple versions of Cheap Copies! were available for those who donated to the book’s Kickstarter campaign. A completely tech-correct version, made available to those who donated more, included interior pages that were mimeograph- and hectograph-printed, a digitally-printed color section, and a hand-printed cover. The option for mid-scale donations was a digitally-printed version of the same text, also in color, and with the hand-printed cover.
About the production process and the resulting product, Rich’s advice to dive in, embrace your mistakes, and say what you need to say sums it up perfectly:
The project hasn’t been without setbacks, of course. Some design ideas, after being printed, just didn’t work and needed to be re-worked. Geriatric machines have needed some time-consuming TLC. Conversely, there have been serendipitous moments as well, where experiments have yielded unexpected but beautiful results. In short, thanks to your support, I’ve had the ability to go deeper into these processes than ever before, and the result is, I believe, a book that functions well on several levels… a how-to manual, a history book, a fanzine. It’s my epic love poem to the analog underground.
You can order your own copy, here.
It’s been a little slow on the mimeo-front lately – mostly because the snafu with the fax machines took some of the wind out of my sails. A new tattoo-stencil printer has arrived, however, and I’m at the point where I’ve got a few things for which I’m ready to attempt stencil creation. I’m starting with postcards so I can use the Lettergraph Model 60 first. Speaking of the Model 60, I found a pristine and likely-unused machine. Its superb condition helped me figure out how to disassemble my gunked-up one. Pictures coming soon.
While I don’t have much to report on my own duplicating endeavors, a few things have been added to the website. First, two great new documents – both are detailed instructions for creating stencils and running them off on a mimeo-machine – are now available in the digital library, courtesy of Northwestern University Library’s special collections where they were scanned and offered to Mimeograph Revival for sharing with a wider audience. Both are to be found under the A. B. Dick heading in the manuals section.
In addition, several catalogs/advertising brochures were added to the digital library, here. Look for the PDFs under the brands Geha, Gestetner, and Multistamp.
In other mimeo-news, Rich Dana’s Kickstarter-funded book Cheap Copies, has started shipping. It’s a beaut and a must-have for anyone interested in old-timey and hybridized self-pub-printing. Find Rich’s contact info on his site.
I thought I had time (no pun intended).
Well, to be more accurate, I hadn’t thought as deeply of “the times” as I ought to have whenever I’d come across my dad’s broken stopwatch. I just carted it around, move through move, in a collection of memorabilia – the physical manifestations and prompters of memory that make their way with me physically and temporally.
I remember when the stopwatch worked – probably up through at least the 1980s or early 90s. I don’t recall when it stopped. The plastic has been cracked for a long time. I kept it because it had been my dads and it reminded me of his years as a pilot, and I remembered playing with it when I was a kid, timing how long I could hold my breath and how long it took me to skate around my elementary school on weekends.
One day, early this year, I came across it again and several things fell into my mind at once: one of the last remaining businesses in our dead mall is a watch-repair shop staffed by an older Vietnamese man. His business partner holds down the cash register-counter across from him, the two separated by a low bin of imported plastic “straw” hats, cheap white teddy bears, and plastic and chrome toy cars. The watch repairman gathers customers from those who need their watch batteries replaced, but he also fixes analog watches and clocks.
It occurred to me that he’s not getting any younger, the mall is not guaranteed to remain open to continue to host him, and who in the world younger than these men in their 60s is having anything to do with watch repair?
I hurried over with my small family treasure and he said he’d get it back to me in about six weeks. I felt relieved. I’d gotten there in time! On the downslope of our civilization and in spite of societal turbulence, something would be repaired and restored to be made available for the future – when there’d be no guarantee of finding someone with the requisite skills, knowledge, or network of learning, tools, or parts.
He didn’t call me, as I thought he would, so about eight weeks after dropping it off, I swung by and made my way through the cavernous, partially-lit, and echo-y mall. I handed him my claim check, explained what I was there for, and he said, “Ah,” and turned to the drawer where he extracted the small envelope containing my watch. He slid it out of the envelope and I saw that the plastic was still cracked. He said, “I could not find anyone who manufactures the mainspring anymore, I’m sorry.”
I may yet find a way to repair this stopwatch, but it’s absolutely not a guarantee. I have family in Germany, and Germans seem to be among those who repair small machines or practice old, skill-requiring crafts. Perhaps, if travel ends up in our cards, I could take it there. Or maybe I could look around in one of the big cities not far from where I am. That’s likely to be an expensive endeavor, but I might decide it’s worth it.
I don’t have any better reason for that than the one I give here – maybe it will be of use to someone some day. I think that’s as good a reason as any to do things, to think about the benefits we might convey to those who are to come, rather than thinking of all the ways we can amass more, now.
So, this vintage-stopwatch predicament probably sounds as familiar to you as it does to me: an older technology, a few people who know how to use/repair/maintain it, a few (hopefully) spare parts somewhere… and some sort of disruption/disjunction/discontinuity in connecting those things because we’ve moved a bit too far “into the future” and that future has cut off certain necessary tendrils of possibility, the connective “tissue” so to speak. And so we witness things falling apart and cannot wish them back together.
A while back, I posted about a fax machine I’d gotten to serve as a thermal-stencil printer. New, in-box, and never used, it seems to have suffered from a slow battery drain over the years (and there is some corrosion is visible outside that compartment) and that’s affected its memory. It seems to not remember its functions – the buttons beep and do little else. Now and again I can get a varied response from it if I try some secret-code combination of opening the paper compartment and pushing either the “stop” or “copy” buttons. Once I got a reduced copy of an original, but repeating the pattern afterward didn’t get a response.
I’ve called a few fax-repair shops and none of them have even heard of this model and they’re not sure what I should do. One did suggest a battery replacement, though it’s a bit complex and requires soldering parts in – and wouldn’t be a guaranteed fix.
There are a series of parallels here, just under the surface, that have to do with a degraded power source and the resource issues that direct our collective energy and our energy use, with the machine’s lost memory and the loss of collective memory around particular technologies and their repair, and with the soldered and corroded connections and the broken connections between last-of-their-kind repairmen and the parts they once could get.
I struck out with another fax machine. It would probably work as a sending-fax, but its thermal printer is only spotty (and that, only after it spent 24 hours with “wait a moment” on the LCD screen). Luckily I’m still within the return/refund window for this one, unlike the first one. I’m still waffling over the cheap tattoo stencil printers. The reviews online are mixed: “plugged it in and smoke poured out,” “it worked for about three stencils,” “great purchase.”
Until I decide something, I can’t move forward with any of my hoped-for projects. I’ll keep looking and evaluating, but in some ways, the clock is ticking.
This popped up in the mimeograph facebook-world a few weeks ago and Chris, the person making the offer, requested I post it here. If you’re in Southern California and looking for a free mimeograph machine, read on!
FREE TO A GOOD HOME in Southern California: A new old stock AB Dick 565f electric mimeograph that was made (probably) in the 80s, and was military surplus. The machine is assembled and working with caveats: 1) the rear panel (backof the machine) is cracked and falling off (the plastic became brittle with age and broke in the packing box.) Doesn’t affect function of the machine and you can jerry-rig something to keep the panel in place. 2) the connection mechanism from the drum to the rotating mechanism was also bent in shipping. I have bent it into position as best I can with pliers — it mostly stays put — but occasionally the drum will dislodge while running copies. If you are smarter and more mechanical than I am, I am sure you can figure out how to fine-tune it. 3) this particular model is a variant that only uses fluid ink — not paste ink. There is paste ink inside the drum because I didn’t know it was a fluid ink unit until I had already squeezed a tube of paste ink inside. So it will probably need to be hosed out and cleaned — and I have no idea how to do that. But when I ink up the ink pad manually, it makes great copies. Also — it is RIDICULOUSLY heavy. There is no shipping this thing — it barely survived the shipping to me in the first place. I hate to get rid of it but it takes up too much space. So if anyone in SoCal wants to drive to L.A. and pick it up, you can have it. Otherwise, sadly, it’s going to end up in the trash…
If this is something you’re interested in, please leave a comment below and I’ll pass your email address on to Chris.
Thanks to a lucky find — a stash of 1940s and 50s fanzines hidden in a trunk for safekeeping in a Riverside attic — donated to the University of Iowa library, instructions for making mimeography’s most stripped-down variation are now available. Rich Dana (UI graduate), prompted by Pete Balestrieri’s (Curator of Science Fiction and Popular Culture Collections at UI) discovery and mention of the information he found in a supplement to Science Fiction World, scanned the instructions for making a DIY mimeograph machine and they’re now available to all.
Here, Rich and Pete talk about the history of the main collection that yielded this gem, the fanzine-world in general, and the Tin-Can Wonder specifically. Rich also heads to his secret workshop to make and use the simple “machine” to print a version of the original instructions (digital copy of the original available below the video). Please download and distribute freely.
Yes, the elusive stencil is still required. In later posts I’ll continue discussing the options available to mimeographers (including making your own).
4PM GMT–9AM L.A.– 11AM Chicago – 12PM NYC – 5PM London – 6PM Amsterdam– 1AM(Fri.) Tokyo
This week we will hold our 3rd online meeting – I hope you will join us!
If you have a technical (or other) question, information to share or a project to showcase, please let us know asap. The agenda for this meeting will be flexible and focused on asking questions and working together to find answers.
A couple of items on the agenda so far:
A video report from Chisinau, Moldova — interview by Kalmia Strong with KOLXOZ, a Tiraspol-Prague samizdat (self-publishing) collective that uses thermal printing and other outdated technologies and creates autonomous self-production and community/social spaces.
Technical troubleshooting Q & A: Send questions or post them in the chat for Erwin and others to help.
Do you have questions? Feel free to email us!
See you on Thursday…
Rich & JS
This live, online forum will serve as part of the ongoing effort to raise awareness of the mimeograph and other pre-digital duplicators and their use in creating zines, prints, posters, chapbooks and other types of art. The name, “Duplicators Guild,” is a playful nod to the confraternal printer’s trade organizations of old, but is not meant to imply any official membership – only a willingness to engage in friendly conversation over our shared interests. We assert that while our cottage industry may be hyper-local, our networked community is increasingly global.
Rich Dana, Publisher, OBSOLETE! Press, Adjunct Instructor, University of Iowa Center for the Book email@example.com
JS Makkos, Founder, Intelligent Archives, Doctoral Candidate, Louisiana State University School of Art & Design firstname.lastname@example.org
Patents for mimeograph stencils frequently describe the paper used and the qualities that made it ideal for the duplicating process: it had to be strong enough to handle repetitive stresses, have fibers that allowed an even coating of an ink-proof material to be applied, and tolerate precise perforations or disruptions in that coating for the ink to seep through only in a specified area and at a rate conducive to ongoing printmaking.
“I then take sheets of an open lace like material, such as Japanese Yoshino paper, for example….”
“This invention relates generally to type impressible stencil sheets suitable for use on the mimeograph… in which is employed an open porous base, such as yoshino, provided with a normally impervious coating….”
In carrying out the invention, I employ a base of open, porous material, such as the bibulous* Japanese paper commonly known as “yoshino.”
My invention relates to stencil-sheets of the type commonly used for autographic and typewriting duplication and particularly to stencil-sheets consisting of a fibrous and porous base (such as Japanese paper)….
Beginning with David Gestetner’s 1885 patent that utilized Japanese paper made from bamboo or gampi (Diplomorpha sikokiana, a shrub endemic to mountainous regions of Japan that is resistant to cultivation), mimeograph stencil-sheet patents frequently mention using Japanese paper as a base. Gampi is less frequently used because of its relative scarcity, while another plant intimately tied to Japanese papermaking, mitsumata (Edgeworthia chrysantha, also alternative spelling mitzumata) saw its use limited to banknote-paper and, nowadays, to document conservation. Still, gampi’s and mitsumata’s use is of interest and so some details are provided below.
Kozo (Broussonetia papyrifera or, in some resources B. kazinoki Siebold) will be the focus of discussion here, though the others have some relevance. for example, Gampi, mitsumata, and kozo are mentioned in patents filed by the Ricoh Corporation for the creation of heat-sensitive stencils used in the electronic stencil duplicating processes of Ricoh and quite possibly Risograph machines, though the latter, along with tattoo-stencil paper might be synthetic. As stencils coated in thermoplastic resin are not the focus of this post, I will not consider them beyond this brief mention. The patents are available here, here, and here (may be duplicates presented in different countries).Back to the plant-fiber papers of relevance here.
Below are some documents that introduce them in a basic way and in the context of papermaking. [Note that the first document attached below has two misspellings: Diplomorphs should be Diplomorpha, and Wikstreomia should be Wikstroemia. All three documents from this set included here were not well edited and contain typos and wording errors. I still leave them here in case they are of use in any way.]
W. B. Proudfoot (1972, 57) reports that Gestetner learned of Japanese paper some years prior to the date of his patent application when he was employed selling Japanese kites that were made with traditional paper, and indicates what made these papers suitable for Gestetner’s forays into stencil-making:
Its special characteristics as a stencil base were the long, fine but strong fibres forming a sheet of relatively open texture. It was thus that the teeth of the wheel pen after piercing the wax could easily perforate this special tissue without breaking any of the fibres. (57)
Paper made from kozo fibers is by far the most common type of what the patents frequently referred to as “Japanese paper.”
Now known by the general term washi, the types of kozo, gampi, and mitsumata-fiber papers that are of concern to mimeograph enthusiasts were traditionally products of cottage industries by which craftsmen developed much sought-after and extremely versatile products. A perfectly acceptable series of Wikipedia entries provide information on the types of products for which paper-mulberry-derived washi is traditionally manufactured and well-suited. More is available under the term “Japanese tissue,” and this page lists the more than eighty varieties or classifications of washi paper as found in Japan today.
Meanwhile, it is the “cottage industry” detail that will be supremely important in years to come.
From here on out, I’ll be talking about and featuring the production of solely kozo paper for two reasons. First, it’s the only fiber that was ultimately widely used in the production of mimeograph stencils; second, kozo is found growing “feral” in parts of the world it’s not endemic to and is a prolific self-propagator (clonally and by seed), making it a prime candidate for local community use in many parts of the world.
Broussonetia papyrifera, commonly known as paper mulberry, is native to Asia. The website http://www.efloras.org/ (Flora of China) lists its range as the following Chinese provinces and other countries. China: Anhui, Fujian, Gansu, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, SE Xizang (Tibet Autonomous Prefecture), Yunnan, and Zhejiang. Other countries: Cambodia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sikkim, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam; various Pacific Islands. A history of the plant’s introduction to Europe and subsequent taxonomic debates/decisions can be found here. The full text is unavailable, but perhaps it explains why the plant is no longer considered a true mulberry (genus Morus). Other scholars have studied the plant’s translocation out of Asia to greater Oceania where it found use in the making of tapa cloth (see bottom of article for more information).
Paper mulberry (kozo) in the US
According to many, many sources, paper mulberry is quite invasive – it favors disturbed soil and is capable of reproducing quickly. While early plants that were brought over to the US for horticultural uses were all male, eventually female plants made it here, with concomitant issues: the pollen is incredibly allergenic (Islamabad, Pakistan seems to consider it an allergenic scourge), and the results of sexual reproduction are easily spread even more widely than the clonally-reproduced versions.
If you don’t live in the US and are thinking of bringing paper mulberry to your region, it’s highly suggested that you only use rooted cuttings from male plants to avoid the “problem” being faced in some parts of the southeastern United States. I put “problem” in quotes because 1) I’m not a plant-purist, but most importantly, 2) this is an opportunity masquerading as a problem though I urge folks to not be cause a problem while searching for opportunity.
A quick look at the maps below will reveal to you the distinct opportunity presented by the free-for-the-harvesting papermaking-cornucopia that now exists in the US. Each of these shows some version of the supposed distribution of paper mulberry (see later in this post for information on another washi raw-material, tororo aoi or sunset muskmallow). With careful attention, paper mulberry can be found and cultivated by coppicing to allow for the more favorably-sized shoots to take precedence.
The process of using paper mulberry to make washi
The making of paper-mulberry paper (an awkwardly worded phrase if ever there was one, so henceforth to be referred to as simply washi paper) was developed in China and reached a high degree of sophistication there, as well as in Korea and Japan. While most of the video sources provided here have a focus on the Japanese tradition, Korean papermaking techniques and products, though less widely known, are of value.
Aimee Lee offers this beautiful write-up of the work of Jang Seong Woo, featured in the video above, who continues the traditional art of Korean papermaking. She details the process’s basic steps in a video here, and several more videos are linked from her website.
What follows is a series of videos that explain or explore the washi-making process. A written extrapolation will be provided below all the embedded videos in this section.
The first video is a brief walk through the Japanese process that provides no explanation but that will give you an understanding of what’s entailed.
This next video provides a few more details about a specific company’s process for making extremely thin paper that is used by artifact conservators worldwide.
For an embedded video that shows the Hidakawashi company’s process in more detail (including the automated portions), see their site here. Also, see their facebook page for updated videos and information.
The most extensive and detailed video in this post shows the majority of the steps required, all undertaken in the traditional way.
Here we are shown the steps:
- Harvest kozo when stalks are about the thickness of one’s forefinger in December/January, when the plant is dormant and all the leaves have been shed. Wikipedia asserts (without citation) that washi-making “is often undertaken in the cold weather of winter, as pure, cold running water is essential to the production of washi. Cold inhibits bacteria, preventing the decomposition of the fibres. Cold also makes the fibres contract, producing a crisp feel to the paper. It is traditionally the winter work of farmers, a task that supplemented a farmer’s income.”
As you can see, these plants are coppiced, meaning that they are completely pruned every year so that no dominant leader overshadows the rest. Cut to the ground (or rather, leave a “knob” of the parent plant just above ground level), the plants are long-lived and able to regenerate each spring. Cutting the stalks when they are this size and not much thicker results in fibers of higher quality and cutting on the diagonal makes peeling easier.
- Trim the switches to fit the inner dimensions of the steamer (1 meter/ 1 yard). This allows for even stacking and easy peeling.
- Steam the switches. Some sources suggest they should be steamed for 30 minutes, and others say 3 hours. Steaming facilitates peeling, however Chinese traditional-lifeways YouTuber Li Ziqi’s method has her peeling the bark (from significantly more mature saplings) without steaming it, then soaking or retting it in a pond.
- Pound the thicker ends of the switches to loosen the bark.
- Strip the bark from the wood. Once started, one’s foot may be used as leverage to complete the stripping process.
- Bundle the strips together and then hang them up to air dry. When dried, they can be stored until a sufficient quantity has been gathered to begin the next step in the process. An Israeli papermaker skips ahead to step 8 without drying the strips.
- Soak the dried strips for at least 12 hours to soften them.
- Using a knife as a scraper (or, as Aimee Lee suggests, an oyster shucking knife), scrape the dark outer bark (the epidermis) from the softer, pale inner bark (the cambium). I’m uncertain if the “endocarp” the narrator refers to is still part of the cambium. Essentially, you remove the dark bark, and keep intact the soft inner layer and the next, slightly more fibrous layer that’s attached to it. In the video above, these are cut to half their original length.
- Boil the bundles of pale inner bark in a 12% alkali solution, according to the video above that does not indicate what is used to achieve that exact percentage of alkalinity. Wood ash or soda ash (sodium carbonate – a product generated when baking soda [sodium bicarbonate] is heated to release carbon dioxide – tutorials are to be found online) are two possible options. Other sources do not give specific chemicals or measurements and Li Ziqi shows only that handfuls of ash are added to the cauldron.
- Boil the bark in the solution for two hours, turning the mass every 30 minutes to allow for even immersion.
- Remove the boiled bark to a container of water and inspect for impurities when it is cool enough to handle.
- Beat the fibers with a squared-off hardwood stick or wooden mallets to loosen and separate them. The video above states that the fibers are beaten in passes to the left and right, six times each, then top to bottom, six times each. It seems that between each pass, the lump is recombined after it’s been flattened.
- In a vat, add the pulp to a water and neri mixture. Neri is made from a plant called tararo-aoi or sunset (musk)mallow in English (Latin: Abelmoschus manihot). Abelmoschus manihot is in the marshmallow family and is in the same genus a okra, which is sometimes substituted for it. The neri acts as an antiflocculant or dispersant (Aimee Lee calls it a formation aid in the video posted above in the “hanji section”) and as such, it discourages the formation of lumps and assists in the even distribution of the kozo fibers in the water. See the section below for information on neri.
- Stir the mixture then prepare the screen that will be used to mold the sheets of paper. In Japan and Korea, these screens are mats made of thin bamboo splints that are woven together. Hanji-maker Aimee Lee, who oversaw the construction of the first hanji-papermaking-studio in the US shows, in this video, the process by which she and several interns designed long-lasting screens made with metal rods woven together in the traditional way. Korea’s last screenmaker demonstrates his process in Lee’s short video, here.
- Use the screen to swish the solution (there are specific techniques and of course terms relative to each phase of swishing), gathering up the desired amount of fiber to make paper of the desired thickness
- Drain the water and lift the screen off its rack. The paper is then couched (pronounced “cooched”) which entails aligning it very precisely and releasing the fibers onto the stack of already released sheets.
- Leave the stack of sheets overnight, then press them to remove excess water.
- After pressing, each sheet is peeled off the stack, then laid on a board and brushed to smooth out bubbles and wrinkles.
- Take the boards outdoors to sun-dry, or, alternatively, a “drying wall” is used, as in the case of the hanji-making process..
- Inspect all sheets for discoloration, holes, or uneven thickness and discard any that have such imperfections.
To understand more about neri, the additive in the washi-making process that assures uniform fiber dispersion and therefore allows for a more refined end-product (and one that can be made consistently), I cannot recommend Paul Denhoed’s explanation highly enough.
Produced by pounding and soaking the roots of Abelmoschus manihot, also known by its English common names, sunset hibiscus (no longer classified as a hibiscus, but the name remains) or muskmallow. This plant is in the same family as hollyhocks and marshmallow, though it’s more closely related to okra. Like okra, it produces a mucilaginous ooze. Its roots are pulverized and the mucilage is collected, mixed in water. Reportedly, the winter-harvested roots contain more effective neri.
This perennial, with its big showy flowers seems to be available commercially and is known to be adapted to the southeast (as is the paper mulberry, so all your raw materials are available and waiting for any of you who live there and want to start making washi!).
In fact, here’s someone in South Carolina doing exactly that (though she’s not using neri and so has to rely on a commercial product).
Additional uses for paper mulberry
Other uses for the very useful and versatile paper mulberry include tapa cloth (used extensively in Polynesia)
As a fire-starter
*bibulous adj. 1: highly absorbent 2a: fond of alcoholic beverages 2b: of, relating to, or marked by the consumption of alcoholic beverages. [we can safely assume that the patent above is using the term in its first definition].
Proudfoot, W. B. 1972. The Origin of Stencil Duplicating. London: Hutchinson & Co. To locate a library copy, see https://www.worldcat.org/title/origin-of-stencil-duplicating/oclc/878220446&referer=brief_results.
See also Hughes, Sukey. 1978. Washi: The World of Japanese Paper. Tokyo: Kodansha. To locate a library copy, see https://www.worldcat.org/title/washi-the-world-of-japanese-paper/oclc/4003748
For additional information and images of paper mulberry, see the Royal Botanic Garden/Kew’s Plants of the World site, here: http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:850861-1.
For a one-page write-up on the main raw materials used in washi making, see this document: