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Drying Paper

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #75 (July, 2006).

There are many drying methods and most of them are fairly simple. Some things to consider when choosing a system are climate, space, and the look of your finished sheets. I recommend starting simply. There is no need to invest in an elaborate system--I have seen beautiful high-quality papers that were made using basic equipment.

The climate can affect how quickly your paper dries. The more humid or damp it is, the longer it will take to dry papers, unless you control the environment with an air conditioner or dehumidifier. Where you will dry your papers is another consideration. You can hang them on a clothes line, dry them in spurs (4-5 sheets pressed together), lay them out to dry on a table or on a rack, brush them onto boards or walls, or set up a drying system (see below). The method of drying you choose will affect the texture of your papers as well. Experiment with different techniques to see which you like. Take several sheets of paper and try drying each one with a different method and compare the results, noting differences in size, shape, surface, and texture.

In some countries in the Far East, papers are not pressed at all, but are dried directly on the moulds on which they were formed. The sheets stick to the screen surface as they dry. When dry, the sheets can be peeled off the moulds. This system requires many moulds and it is typically used in arid climates where the sun dries the sheets rapidly, so that the moulds can be reused. Although the system requires the use of many moulds, it does eliminate the need of a press and a drying set-up.

Another process I’ve seen that did not require a press or a drying set-up was developed by Nance O’Banion. She had a series of 4’ x 8’ wooden frames with silk-screen stretched across them. She couched freshly formed sheets of paper directly onto a screen which could be propped against the a wall. Many sheets could be couched onto one of these screens, and they were either left in the sun to dry or the water was sucked out of them from the back by running a wet-vac over the screen.

Another simple method of drying is air-drying--just let your sheets of paper dry on the surface upon which they were couched. I recommend couching onto interfacing if you are going to air-dry because it dries quickly. You can spread them out on screens or on a rack so that air circulates around them, or you can hang them on a clothesline to dry. You can also pin the interfacing to a wall or board, to hold it taut as it dries. When dry, just peel the sheets off of the interfacing. The sheets might cockle (curl) slightly--you can put them under clean, heavy books or boards to flatten. If they are still cockled, gently mist them with water to help them relax and put them under weight between blotters or newspaper. If you like the cockling, you can also try removing your damp papers from the interfacing before they dry--usually this will cause them to cockle even more.

You can get some interesting results with air drying paper. If you used a high-shrinkage pulp, such as abaca or flax and let it air dry, it would shrivel and wrinkle creating a highly textured sheet. You can also make paper, couch and sponge press the sheets and work sculpturally over an armature or cast the paper into a form.

You can also try exchange-drying: dry your sheets of paper between newspapers, cloths, or blotters--any absorbent material which will wick moisture from the paper. After they have been pressed, interleave the sheets between one of these materials and form a stack. Put a board on top and some heavy books or another heavy object to restrain the paper as it dries. Change the interleaving material daily until the sheets are dry (otherwise, they will mold instead of drying). This can take anywhere from a day to a week, depending on the humidity level, the fiber, and the paper’s thickness.

During the advent of papermaking in Europe, a system called loft-drying was developed. Sheets of paper were actually hung in lofts (top stories of buildings) to dry, where the air was considered the cleanest and the warmest. The sheets were first pressed into spurs, which prevented them from cockling very much as they dried.

To loft-dry your sheets, you must first press them. After pressing, separate them from their felts and pile them in stacks of four to six sheets (depending on the thickness of the sheets). Each pile is called a spur. Pile the sheets one on top of the other and line them up one exactly on top of the other, rotating every other sheet so that they are piled in a different fashion to even out any inequalities. Put a felt in between each spur and form a post of spurs.

Put this post in the press again and press a second time, this time pressing just until you see drops of water forming at the edges of the felts. More pressure could inhibit separating the sheets when they are dry. After pressing, each spur should be stuck together. You can hang the spurs on a clothesline with clothespins, or you can lay them flat on a rack or screens. (Make sure they get air from all sides so they dry evenly.) In Europe, they hung the sheets from wooden poles with clothespin-like clips that did not mar the surface of the sheet. Alternately, you can drape the spurs over plastic tubing or thick ropes (in Europe, the tradition was to hang the sheets over ropes woven from cow or horse hair coated with beeswax). Test the material you use to make sure it won’t stain your paper. Jana Pullman of Western Slope in Minneapolis makes a nifty drying rack system which is ideal for drying spurs.

If you can control the air circulation, you should try to direct it to come in contact with the breadth of the sheets and not the edges for the least amount of cockling. When dry, separate the spurs by starting at one corner and peeling the sheets of each spur apart in one fluid motion. Separate the spurs in halves: if you have a spur of four, first divide it into pairs, then separate the pairs into single sheets. Your sheets will probably cockle to some degree, but they can be flattened with another pressing. Make a stack of individual sheets, rotating them again and press them again to flatten. If the sheets cockle a lot, you may need to gently moisten them to relax them. You can do this with a spray mister before pressing.

At Taos Paperworks in New Mexico, I saw an innovative loft-drying system. A long wooden pole that was approximately 6” in diameter was rigged to the ceiling on a pulley system. It was lowered and spurs of papers were draped over it before it was hoisted to the ceiling, out of the way as the sheets dried. Then the pole was lowered again and the dry sheets were removed.

In China, Japan, and other Eastern countries, wet sheets of paper are brushed onto boards or walls for drying. The sheets stick to the boards and then are peeled off when dry. The paper takes on the finish of the board or wall, showing the grain or texture on the side of the sheet that was stuck to the surface. You can use almost any smooth surface for drying papers, such as wood, metal, glass, Plexiglas, or Formica. You can even brush your sheets onto plaster walls, as is common in India, where the walls are heated by the sun and the sheets dry quickly.

To board dry, press your sheets--they should not be quite fully pressed, or they won’t stick to the boards. Lift one sheet from its felt and lay it on the drying surface. Use a rubber brayer or wide paint brush to fix the sheet to the surface. If brushing onto a vertical surface, there is a technique you can use to adhere it while keeping it from falling to the ground. Start by brushing diagonally from the center towards the upper right corner of the sheet. While holding the upper left corner with your fingers, brush from the upper right corner to the bottom left corner. Next brush the from the center to the upper left corner and then continue brushing from the center out to adhere the rest of the sheet. Cover the entire surface of the sheet, brushing with firm, even strokes. If the sheets were pressed correctly, you should be able to brush firmly without damaging the sheet’s surface. The edges must be well adhered because they will dry the fastest and could pop off the drying surface. If the edges curl before the sheets are dry, they will shrink more than the rest of the sheet and will be difficult to flatten.

Some fibers shrink a lot when drying and will pop off of boards before they are dry. You can try applying methyl cellulose to the edges of the sheets as you apply them to the boards to help them stay adhered until dry. If you are drying your sheets outside, you might try starting them in the shade and then moving them into the sun after they are somewhat dry. This allows them to dry slowly and might prevent them from popping off.
When dry, peel the sheets of paper off the boards. Start at one corner and peel in one fluid motion. If you have a problem releasing the corner, try using a razor blade to lift it, but be careful not to damage the drying surface.

A drying box is the highest-tech system I’ve seen, and all it requires is some cotton printing blotters, bi-wall or tri-wall cardboard (two or three layers of cardboard laminated together), plastic sheeting, and a box fan. The laminated cardboard is a bit costly, but this system is very efficient, yielding flat and dry papers in about 24 hours. This system can dry many sheets at a time and is designed for production papermaking. I wouldn’t bother with it if you are not planning to make paper on a regular basis.

The system works as follows. Your paper sits on blotters, which are absorbent and act as a barrier between the cardboard and the paper. The air from the fan blows through the channels in the cardboard, which dries the blotters and subsequently, the papers. When purchasing cardboard to make your own drying box, make sure that the channels run in the direction of the length of the system (not the width of the fan). I suggest getting the cardboard as wide as the fan and no longer than one-and-a-half times the width. You will need one piece of bi-wall or tri-wall and four blotters per layer, and you can stack the drying system up to the height of your fan. You will have to do a bit of calculating to figure out how many blotters and how many pieces of cardboard you need.
David Reina manufactures and sells a nicely-designed drying box based on this type of system, with a built in screw press on top to ensure that the papers dry flat. This is also nice because you don’t have to lift weights onto the system each time. (See David’s display ad in the newsletter.) you can also build your own drying box with the help of an article and plans by Claire Van Vliet in the Summer 1987 issue of Hand Papermaking magazine.

Portions excerpted from The Papermaker’s Companion, c 2000, with permission from Storey Publishing <>.

by Helen Hiebert