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Paper Casting with Sand

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #77 (January, 2007).

I was first introduced to the idea of using sand as a casting medium at the 2000 Paper & Book Intensive held in Oxbow, Michigan. I was teaching a workshop, and one of my perks was getting to take a workshop during the second half of the session with Amanda Degener, who has worked sculpturally with paper in many ways. (Amanda was introduced to this idea by Winifred Lutz, an innovative paper sculptor in her own right, when she studied with her at Yale. Although Amanda didn’t actually demonstrate the technique (she showed slides of work created using it), I was intrigued.

Here’s the basic idea: First, you cast an object in paper as you normally would, by tamping paper pulp or sheets of paper over or into a relief form. Next, you pour heated sand over the top of the object, which provides weight, keeping the object in contact with the paper. The sand also wicks moisture from the paper. This technique is ideal for high shrinkage pulps (like abaca, flax, and hemp) which would pop off of the mold if not weighted down by the sand.

In the summer of 2005, I attended the International Association of Hand Papermaker’s Congress in Banff, Canada, and was reminded about sand when I saw a video produced by Italian paper artist Roberto Mannino. His video showed footage of using a metal tray on top of a printmaking hot plate to heat sand. And here’s his really ingenious idea. He took pressed, still wet sheets of paper to the beach and used the plentiful hot sand heated by mother nature to cast his forms. Through his experiments, Mannino has noticed that darker sands (containing iron) heat up faster and hold heat longer than sands containing pumice (which are lighter in color and weight).

Now for some how-to details. When choosing the item to cast, pick a rigid form made of ceramic, metal, glass, or plaster--basically anything you would normally cast paper onto or into. As with any mold, you need to be aware of undercuts, and you may need to apply a barrier, like a release agent, to prevent the paper from sticking to the mold. When setting up to cast, choose a flat-bottomed heat-proof glass, enamel, or metal tray or pan to set your object to be cast in (the heat of the sand can melt plastic--I speak from experience!). Make sure that it is deep enough to hold your object and the sand which will be poured on top of it. You might need more sand than you’d think, to provide enough weight and so that you can continually change the sand until the paper is dry.

When you cast with sand directly on high shrinkage pulps, you don’t tend to see the texture of the sand on the paper. However, some sand might stick to the sheets, particularly if you have lots of little crevices, and you might get some discoloration on the paper. If this is a concern, you should put something, like a thin layer of toilet paper or a piece of thin cotton (like a bedsheet), between the paper and sand.

When casting the paper or pulp, apply it to the form as you normally would. Heat your sand on a heat-proof tray, pot, or pan on a hot table or stove, in the oven or in a microwave. After you have all of your paper on the mold, use a heat-proof cup or scoop (along with heat-proof gloves, if necessary) to pour the hot sand over the object. The sand closest to the paper will get the wettest and it will also cool off, so repeatedly changing the sand is necessary and will speed up the drying time. You will need to experiment with how much sand you need to apply enough weight, too, so that the paper doesn’t shrink from the mold as it dries. Another tactic Mannino uses is to place a metal grating or tray with holes in it on top of the object covered with sand to add weight and prevent the paper from warping. Once the paper is dry, you can remove it from the mold.

I’d love to hear about your innovative papermaking techniques, if you’d like me to consider them for my column. In the meantime, I’ll be trying out some sand casting at the beach.