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Affordable Studio Equipment

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #89 (January, 2010).

Hand papermakers have improvised all manner of alternatives to traditional studio equipment, repurposing materials from the hardware store, the kitchen supply store, and the five-and-dime to build a studio to suit their liking and particular needs. Here are some of those alternatives.


In its essence, a vat is quite simply a receptacle for holding pulp, of sufficient size for forming sheets. What is a sufficient size? Allowing a three-inch margin on each side of the largest mould and deckle you will be using in the vat is a good rule of thumb for small-to-medium sized sheets. Thus, if you want your vat to accommodate an 11” x 14” mould, a vat of 17” x 20” will give you the space that you need to maneuver the mould within the vat. A five-to-six-inch vat depth is a good minimum at this size. As your mould size increases, a deeper vat and/or wider margin may be needed.

Common alternatives to the hand-built wooden vat are black plastic cement-mixing tubs from the hardware store, available for about $5.00 apiece, or commercial dish busing tubs available from a kitchen supply store for $7.00-$12.00 each.

Plastic tubs of these and other sorts are easy to come by. They are lightweight, and easy to tuck away for storage and pull out when needed. However, you may want to consider the environmental impact of this piece of equipment. Can you use wood rather than supporting the manufacture of plastics? What are your wood alternatives, and is the wood you would be using a more sustainable resource, or not? Is the plastic you are using recyclable? What if you spent a little more money on a sturdier plastic vat that will last longer than a cheaper one that is likely to spring a leak in two years rather than six?


Traditionally, in Western papermaking, freshly formed sheets of paper are couched directly onto wool felts. However, wool felts can be hard to come by, and take up a lot of space. Many papermakers have purchased used wool blankets from an Army Navy store, and cut these down for couching. Using a few of these felts as a base, you can build a post of wet sheets by interleaving a thinner, less absorbent material in between. Non-fusible interfacing can be acquired from a fabric or craft store for this purpose, or cut up cotton sheets or kitchen towels might be used instead.

A common alternative to wool felts is synthetic chamois, marketed for automotive body cleaning. These are small, lightweight, and very absorbent, but they are made of synthetic rather than natural materials. If you decide to go this route, shop around for the best price. Chamois can be quite affordable, but prices can vary widely.

Drying Systems

Traditionally, Western papers were assembled into groups of four, called a spur, in a second pressing, and hung in a loft to dry. Eastern papers were either transferred to a board to restraint dry, or dried directly on the mould. Contemporary papermakers, of course, are always experimenting and trying new methods. A common system for drying papers flat involves constructing a fan box, where papers are layered between corrugated board and blotters and left to dry under weight with a stream of air from the fan flowing through the corrugation. For more information on the drying box, the lower-tech version of exchange drying, loft drying, and board drying, see Helen Hiebert’s “Beginner Topics” column on drying paper in the July 2006 issue of the Hand Papermaking Newsletter (75:2), and the column on “Wet Sheet Handling/Drying” by Ted Snider in the October 2001 issue (56:3). For instructions on constructing such a drying box, see “Drying Box for Printers and Papermakers,” by Claire van Vliet, Hand Papermaking, vol. 2, no. 1 (Summer 1987): 26-28.

The April 2003 issue of Hand Papermaking Newsletter (62:2) has Marilyn Sward’s “Beginner Topics” instructions for drying your papers on pieces of fiberglass screening that are hung to dry. The same method might be used with wet sheets on interfacing. Another alternative is to dry papers on screening that is stretched over a frame. I have seen these screens sliding into a frame forming a drying rack with a couple of inches between each screen for air circulation. Women’s Studio Workshop uses tall baking racks on wheels to hold the boards onto which wet paper has been transferred to restraint dry. Other papermakers have made use of furniture designed to dry clothing, hanging their paper couched onto pellon from pant racks, or putting sheets on garment drying stations with mesh shelves, sometimes including a built-in fan. (Thanks to the Yahoo Papermaking List for these last tips.)

In other words, keep your eyes peeled, and keep your studio needs in the back of your mind, and you are bound to discover a new tool for your workspace, no matter what its intended use may have been.

by Mary Tasillo