In1979 David Carruthers founded St. Armand Paper Mill in Montreal, Canada.1 Fairly unique inits approach, rooted in the ancient craft, and well established in the contemporary market, the mill processes rag to produce both handmade and machine-made papers. What follows is a self-portrait of sorts, in David Carruthers’ own voice, with a few prompts and observations of mine to frame this oral history.2 Tobegin, David tells us of his family’s association with paper going back two generations.
At my grandfather’s mill, they made toilet paper, lightweight laminated paper, and all kinds of wrapping papers. My father was the sales manager for this company. We used to ask him when he got home: “How many boxcars did you sell today, Dad?” “Ah, wasn’t so bad. I sold about eleven.”Eleven boxcars of paper! I was a kid. And when I finally got old enough to really get interested, they sold that mill.3 I was 20 and went into academic work. I taught and then ended up with the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association.4 It was a wonderful place to work. I worked there for ten years and then started my own mill, Papeterie St-Armand, just because I thought there’d be a place for it in the industry. And well, I can say yes, there has been. It’s been challenging to fit in because I see myself as part of the paper industry, but it’s so different from what Canada makes in pulp and paper.
The Carruthers family was engaged in papermaking, but in modern ways and mass production. David opted for traditional hand papermaking. Why?
I started with handmade paper because it was the cheapest way I could start a paper mill. I could have gone to work for an existing company, but I wanted to work for myself. That was important.
But before starting his mill, David had never made a sheet of paper! That’s correct. Well, no, I shouldn’t say that because there was one time, this was in 1975, Tim Barrett had come from Japan through Montreal.5 He did a demo at Stewart Hall. I went out to meet him and we had a good time.
But there was another thing too. My grandfather, in 1929, had the idea of starting a handmade paper mill in Toronto. This is at the beginning of the Depression, so it didn’t last very long. But I knew he had done that.
A couple of months ago, Denise and I were honored in Toronto.6 We decided to go to the University of Toronto Library to see if there was any record of that handmade paper produced in my grandfather’s mill in 1929. And we found a book! I was moved to see that paper. It was amazing to have it in my hands!
It was a huge enterprise to start a paper mill from scratch. During initial years of operation, budget restrictions and lack of adequate equipment had to be faced with determination, perseverance, and creativity.
I’ve always felt that as an artist, you have to be bold. You have to go through people’s doors. Just after I finished my first papers, I went right to New York City. At the time, all the artists went to New York Central Art Supply, which was the store in the world. There were two companies that I knew I had to sell: one was New York Central Art Supply, and the other was Daniel Smith, on the West Coast.
At the beginning, my paper was rough, but the guy in New York City, Steve Steinberg, he was very courageous. He didn’t want just good paper, he wanted to have every paper in the world. Until the day he died, he was one of our best customers.
And Daniel Smith, same thing. I went to see him. We got along and he would buy. But he was already very much of a print guy and my papers weren’t necessarily all that great for print. But I did start making the Old Master papers, which are the thin text-weight papers, to sell him.
After only one year of activity, David was forced to move the mill because neighbors were complaining of water leaks. Despite impediments, only three years after its foundation, St. Armand Paper Mill received two highly significant commissions.
Those were important. For the Proclamation of the Constitution Act (1982), they wanted a Canadian fiber, so I got Canadian flax pulp from Domtar. 7 It was a very highly refined linen pulp for cigarette paper to which they would add calcium carbonate to regulate the burn, also making this paper more archival. The calligrapher needed twelve sheets just to get two good copies. It was ao ne-page document, very elaborate, beautifully painted. The Queen came to Canada to sign it. This proclamation liberated Canada of the necessity of going through the British Parliament to change our Constitution. And the next year I made, with the same pulp, forty sheets for the Charte des droits et libertes du Quebec (1983). I was certainly proud of these papers. They are part of the fabric of a country or a province.
In 1992, David decided to integrate a paper machine to better compete with low-priced imported papers. That year, David bough ta 1947 Fourdrinier machine as well as a 1903 one-thousand-pound Hollander beater. To install these two massive machines, he moved the mill to its fourth and current location, the vast basement of a former linoleum plant on the shores of the historic Lachine Canal.8 When I visited the mill in October 2020, David was working on replacing the long continuous brass wire on the paper machine. The Fourdrinier paper machine was built in Scotland, but bought from a research center in Ontario. To transport it to Montreal, it had to be cut into five parts. It is fascinating to examine this vintage machine and discover a variety of handcrafted modifications!
We started running this paper machine, in Hawkesbury, before it was transported here. The large beater came first. We would make the pulp here and put the pulp into barrels. And we drilled holes in the barrels so the pulp drained onto the highway along the way to Hawkesbury! Some of the water needed to drain out so that they could handle the barrels at the other end. The adjustments and changes to this Fourdrinier machine have been considerable. I used to have a boiler next door because it was originally designed to be heated by steam. I was sharing the boiler with a commercial laundry, but we couldn’t coordinate easily and it was costing me too much. In 2009, I found somebody to convert it to electric and that works well.
It’s frustrating sometimes because it is hard to operate. It’s tricky to get it right. And because it’s so slow, you have to wait to see what you’ve got. It takes ten minutes for the pulp to become paper at the end of the machine. You really need to train your eye to see what you got before you actually see it.
David has always been interested in developing new grades of paper. At 79 and after 42 years of running the mill, he still actively researches and constantly comes up with ideas.
I really wouldn’t want to leave what I’m doing. You keep going until you hit some kind of wall. And we haven’t hit that wall, we’ve always managed to make a deal. But one of the important points is that it’s more and more difficult to find cotton rag.
See, we get this rag from a company making polishing wheels. But feel it, see how stiff it is? We have to wash it. We soak it in the beater overnight and when we drain it, some of the starch goes down the drain. The problem with the starches is that they create bubbles and foam. Starch also plugs the felts on the paper machine. It’s not ideal, but we have to use it because it’s one of the few kinds of rag I can get. Few other companies around Montreal can supply us, but it’s hard, and more and more, we’re finding these poly cotton blends. You can’t make paper out of them. Well, you can, but polyester and nylon melt on the paper machine’s heated rolls. That’s no good for us. So, that’s a lot of what I do, just trying to find good raw material.
As we were ending our tour of the mill, David made me laugh when mentioning, very seriously, that he was drinking tumblers of the wastewater from the mill! He not only takes responsibility for the paper quality he produces, but also for the mill’s impact on the environment. Yeah, you’ve got to be able to drink the water. There’s really no harm downstream. You’re intervening, yes, but in a fairly light way. Any owner of a business should be able to drink a glass full of his effluent every day. That should be a given. I left St. Armand Paper Mill inspired. When most people would have given up, David managed to keep his mill afloat and even grow it. Thank you, David, and thank you, Denise, for your passionate work in the hand papermaking field. I am grateful for this very unique paper mill to exist in Montreal today.
1. Today, St. Armand Paper Mill collaborates with designers, conservators, artists, book binders, and publishers. Over 200 retailers are selling St.Armand paper products on four continents. For more, seehttp://www.st-armand.com/ (accessed November 2020).
2. I recorded David Carruthers’ stories on October 3, 2020, during my visit with him at St. ArmandPaper Mill. We had a long conversation as we walked around the facilities. His voice in this article is edited from a transcript of this conversation.
3. The mill was sold to Kimberly-Clark, an American company. David’s grandfather’s mill is still running today, but with no Carruthers involved.
4. The organization was founded in 1915 and incorporated in 1998 under the name ofPulp and Paper Technical Association of Canada (PAPTAC) as an independent not-for-profit association. Edited from http://www.paptac.ca/ (accessed November 2020).
5. At the time of his meeting with David, Timothy Barrett was studying papermaking in Japan under a Fulbright fellowship. Ascertained from Barrett’s bio in https://www.northamericanhandpapermakers.org/ and https://book.grad.uiowa.edu/people/timothy-barrett (accessed November 2020).
6. At the beginning of the 1990s, Denise Lapointe, printer and artist, became highly invested in the mill. Her various responsibilities include accounting, marketing, communication, and quality control. When talking about Denise, his business partner and wife, David says: “I don’t know how it would have worked without her!” In 2017, David Carruthers andDenise Lapointe received the Robert R. Reid Medal recognizing lifetime achievement and extraordinary contributions to the book arts in Canada. In2020, they also received a medal from the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts.
7. What is now the Domtar company began in 1848 in England and expanded to Canada in 1903. From 1912 to 2004, the company operated a pulp and paper plant in Beauharnois (Quebec, Canada). Before purchasing his 1,000-pound Hollander beater, David got pulp and linter from them. They were making paper for Canadian currency at the time. They would occasionally get a batch that was not up to their standards and sell it to David.
8. Completed in 1825, the Lachine Canal is a navigable waterway running between the Montreal Old Port and Lake Saint-Louis. The canal was the port of entry for a canal network that linked the Atlantic to the heart of the continent. It was one of the factors that made Montreal the cradle of the Canadian manufacturing industry. Edited from https:// www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/qc/canallachine (accessed November 2020).
David Carruthers with handmade sheets, going to
a trade show.Photo: Bob McMurtry, 1982 or 1983.
All photos courtesy of David Carruthers and Denise
Lapointe, St.Armand Paper Mill, Montreal, unless
otherwise noted.below: The St. Armand Paper
Mill logo. It is an aldine (printer’s leaf ) used with
the company name set in Caslon old style.
David Carruthers at the beater, circa 1993.
David Carruthers, Ashley Miller, Anne Hamilton, and Bob McMurtry (from left to right)
showing off an unusual, shaped paper made for the artist Otis Tamasauskas. Photo: Bob
McMurtry, 1982 or 1983.
The hand-papermaking section at St. Armand Paper Mill. From right to left:
two vats and couching felts with hydraulic press in the back (green), and partial
view of a couching stand on wheels. Photo by and courtesy of Sarah Bertrand-
Denise Lapointe loading the press at St. Armand, 2011.
David Carruthers at the 1947 Fourdrinier in operation, making paper for artist
and book publisherMark Sarigianis. Photo taken on December 16, 2020.
Detail of the 1947 Fourdrinier machine at St. Armand, showing the adjustments
that David Carruthers made to the end of the machine where the roll of paper is
cut into sheets.Photo by and courtesy of Sarah Bertrand-Hamel, 2020.
In this detail photo of the 1947 Fourdrinier machine at St. Armand, you can
see one cut (out of a total of four) that was made to the machine in order to
transport it from Hawkesbury to Montreal. Photo by and courtesy of Sarah
David Carruthers atCODEX book fair, San Francisco. Photo: Elizabeth
Paper Sample: Old Master Laid
st. armand paper mill
text by david carruthers
& denise lapointe
The furnish for this paper is made of a mixed batch of locally sourced offcuts of white and cream cotton. The rag was beaten in our big Jones beater, and then the pulp was taken directly from the beater, not dried first as we usually do. We added a touch of yellow dye. We transferred the pulp to the vat and formed the sheets using an 18 x 24-inch laid paper mould. Bought in February 1979 and made by Lee McDonald, it is still in use. The cost of the mould and deckle was $311.00.
This laid mould has a distressed surface because of damage during a hailstorm that broke a glass skylight over the moulds in around 1985. We were able to fix the worst of the damage because the underwire is made of bronze, like the laid wire, and could be heated to remove most of the damage. For us the small dents are history. Aged paper is better; we wish we could always let it cure slowly, like this sheet, which was made around 5 years ago.