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Printing Technologies and Handmade Paper 101

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #82 (April, 2008).

In the last issue, I discussed a method for using computer and laser printing technologies with handmade paper in order to work large. In this issue, we will take a step back and cover some basic tips and ideas for using printing technologies on our handmade paper.

Handmade paper being an old technology, we take it for granted that we can apply other old technologies to it—letterpress, drawing, writing. What about new technologies? You can print on your paper via inkjet printer, photocopier, or laser printer.

What kind of handmade paper can I use with these more recent printing technologies?

A crisp rather than soft sheet of paper will feed best through your printer. You may have a little more leeway with an inkjet printer, as the way it feeds makes it possible to back a soft or tissue-thin paper with a sheet of conventional printer paper for printing. How is a crisper sheet achieved? Generally, a pulp that has been Hollander-beaten rather than blender-processed will be crisper. Longer beating times produce a paper with more rattle. Fibers such as abaca and flax produce a crisper paper than cotton does.

The surface smoothness of your paper affects the print quality and the ease with which your machine handles the paper. The surface quality is affected by the way you dry your paper, as well as by the material onto which you couch your wet sheets, and the surface of your mould. Some papermakers add calcium carbonate to pulp to achieve a smoother surface. Couching onto pellon as opposed to felts creates a smoother paper. Restraint drying processes tend to produce a less textured surface than does air drying. Drying on glass produces a much slicker surface than drying on varnished wood. Then again, you might like some texture in your paper surface. The aesthetic quality of both the printing and the paper is affected by all of these variables.

I have run wrinkly sheets of very sturdy abaca/flax through the inkjet printer, and was surprised to find how well the printer handled it. It seems to iron those wrinkles right out for the printing process. However, you are more likely to get renegade ink smudges where the paper is raised. The printing process may also be less forgiving when printing detailed images and larger uninterrupted areas, than when printing text or line-based images.

What about the deckle edge?

A deckle edge is no barrier to running your paper through a photocopier or printer. The primary concern when retaining the deckle edge is registration and alignment, which may not be quite as tight as it could be with a straight edge. This is of course true whether you are printing via letterpress, etching press, or inkjet. If registration and alignment are of concern, mind how you feed the paper into your printer since the deckled paper corners are not precisely square. It may take some experimentation to figure out which edge you need to line up primarily to achieve the best results, but once you settle on lining up your paper at the right edge of the paper feed tray, keep lining up at that right edge. I have also found that, when printing an edition, it is best to feed fewer sheets at a time than I would with a cut edge and a commercial paper.

I suggest allowing a greater margin for error by printing more extras than you usually would, since your machine may have trouble handling a few of the handmade paper sheets. I also recommend using the manual feed tray on a laser printer or photocopier rather than feeding from a drawer.

What print settings should I use?

The answer: well, that depends. Printers are all different, and print differently when set to different paper types. Obviously none of those pre-settings reads “Mary’s Flax-Hemp 2008.” So it behooves you to run test prints at different settings to see which results you might like best—and the presetting that achieves this might be counterintuitive. If I pull heavyweight sheets from my Flax-Hemp recipe, this does not necessarily mean that the cardstock setting will produce the best results.

What about paper coatings?

Some people recommend the product Ink Aid, which is designed to coat papers for inkjet printing. Anything you coat your paper with is going to affect the paper quality, and your coating method will affect the surface as well. Did you use a brush or a sponge? Did you dip it? Roll it out with a rubber roller?

Anything else?

A few words on inclusions. You wouldn’t want to damage your printing technology of choice by using paper with dimensional inclusions such as hard plant materials. Of course, the print quality over these areas is going to be uneven anyway.

Also, to reiterate a point from my last column, anything printed on an inkjet printer with a conventional cartridge will bleed if it gets wet, so when choosing a printing technology, take into consideration how you will be using these prints. Do you plan to incorporate the print into a wet collage? Will you be mounting it with a wet wheat starch paste? Laser and photocopy prints are more stable in regard to moisture, and using pigment and archival ink cartridges in your inkjet printer will also produce a more stable print.

Experiment. Test before committing yourself to fifty copies of something. And don’t be afraid of sending the deckle edge off through new technologies.

Mary Tasillo