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Adapting to Unfamiliar Studios

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #83 (July, 2008).

As a new papermaker who is unlikely to have a fancy studio set up, you may find yourself an itinerant papermaker, making paper wherever you can finagle access. If you’ve had the benefit of a couple of different papermaking teachers, you have discovered that there is no one right way to do things. Teacher A instructs you to do just what Teacher B announces is a bad habit. Likewise, each studio is different. What happens when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory, with a different beating system, or couching directly to felts instead of pellon, or with a loft rather than a restraint drying system?

A former professor (who, it must be said, was a great advocate of my work) drove me crazy when introducing the printmaking shop. This individual’s instructions were: “it’s just like cooking in a different kitchen.” The thing is, not all kitchens are created equal. If I am used to cooking in a tiny apartment kitchen, I might not know how to use an industrial-sized stand mixer. If I don’t have non-stick pans in my kitchen, I might not know that by using a metal spoon in your pan, I am ruining it.

By way of confession, I recently put some wear and tear on a stack drying system. Not all stack dryers are created alike, and the stack dryer to which I was accustomed would have my production run dry in absolutely no longer than two days. Well, here I was with a perpetually damp stack dryer as I exchanged the still damp paper for fresh wet sheets.

Second confession: my first impulse was a wish for my own studio, built the way I like it with vat tables that are low enough for my own meager height and stack dryers up to some serious production.
But as I rotated my way through my 300 sheets, stacked in posts of ten between felts, because there are only so many large wet felts I can heft around, I realized that I would not be learning much of anything pulling this run in the familiar studio I used in grad school. I would never see what it does to couch my sheets onto felts instead of pellon, nor would I learn anything about how to manage the wetness and surface texture of the felt-couched sheets. I wouldn’t have become good friends with the Valley beater through which I ran a good seventeen loads or so of pulp.

So don’t be afraid of cooking in different kitchens. A papermaker’s greatest strength is not a stellar shake at the vat, but rather superhuman problem-solving skills. The corollary is: don’t be afraid to ask questions. A person can get so accustomed to a familiar studio that one forgets that things can be done any other way. So: how do you clean your felts? How do you load your stack dryer? How long does it take for your paper to dry? How do you press your paper? A papermaker can answer these questions for a familiar studio. But different pressing procedures might work better for paper couched on felts, for example. You’ll never know until you try...or ask. Instead of bemoaning your lack of personal papermaking studio in your possibly non-existent garage, get out there and make paper promiscuously. Your studio knowledge will grow to comprehensive proportions and when you do get around to putting together that ideal studio, you’ll know exactly what works for you.

by Mary Tasillo