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Vacuums for Papermaking

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #76 (October, 2006).

I’m always amazed when I stumble across yet another innovative use of a household tool in papermaking. The wet-vac is one such tool, and I’ve seen it used in a variety of ways.

The first time I saw a vacuum used for papermaking was at the Penland School in North Carolina, where, coincidentally, I am now teaching a 2-1/2 week workshop. I was taking a papermaking class and the instructor showed us how to couch sheets of paper directly onto a 4x4 foot silkscreen which was stretched over a wooden frame. After filling up the screen with several freshly made sheets of paper in various sizes and shapes, she got out the wet-vac and sucked the water out of the sheets from the back side of the silkscreen, which simulated pressing. I couldn’t believe it! This eliminated several pieces of papermaking equipment. No need for felts, a press, or a restraint drying system. We left the sheets of the screen to dry in the sun, and when they were dry, we peeled them off and they had a smooth surface (the texture of the silkscreen) on the back. I think this technique can be credited to Nance O’Banion, who set it up for Penland many years ago. At this session, I tried it out again on various silkscreens, ranging from course to fine (180 mesh), and they all worked. As with any new technique, I had a couple of sheets rip, and one peeled off the screen while drying, but I had success with all types of fibers, ranging from kozo to cotton to overbeaten flax and abaca. I found that having the screen horizontal while couching worked best (afterwards, I stood the screens up vertically for drying). I also used a sponge and pressed through the back of the mould while couching.

Another use which is perhaps more common is the vacuum table, which can be used for pressing dimensional sheets of paper. There are many types of vacuum tables, but I won’t go into detail here, because you can find instructions on building your own vacuum table in the Summer 1991 issue of Hand Papermaking magazine.

At a recent Guild of Bookworkers conference though, which I attended in the Fall of 2005 because it was held in Portland, Oregon where I live, I saw a nifty vacuum bag developed by Nicholas Yeager, which was devised to be used in tandem with a special type of blotter to remove water from paper during book repair. This got me to thinking about those large resealable bags you can buy to store clothes in--aka space bags. You put your clothing in and then hook a household vacuum nozzle to suck the extra air out of the bag. At some point in my life I actually purchased some of these for clothing, and luckily I found one and it was empty when I decided to do my papermaking experiment. I thought I could hook up a wet-vac to one of these bags to suck water out of a dimensional sheet of paper. It would act just like a vacuum table, and since I don’t have one, it seemed like a worthy experiment. And besides that, I could transport this bag easily for teaching and we could use this method in studios without vacuum tables. Once again, all we’d need was the wet vac. So I tried it, and it worked pretty well!

If you have a wet vac and a space bag, here’s what you do. You need something rigid to set your paper on to keep your sheet of paper from just curling up completely. You can drill small holes in a board that fits into the bag (waterproof the board, too, if you will use it repeatedly), or rig up something simple by taping a piece of fluorescent lighting grid with a piece of wire window mesh over the top. It is important that the surface have holes in it, so the water can move easily when the vacuum is on. Next, place a piece of pellon on top, followed by the item you’d like to press: a relief type object, which can’t be completely 3D. And finally, place a piece of freshly made wet paper which has been lightly pressed on top of the object. You can cover your sheet of paper with a thin pellon, but it isn’t necessary. Seal the bag and place the vacuum attachment on the bag.

Depending on the fit of the vacuum nozzle, you might need to duct tape it to seal it. Turn on the vacuum and your bag should deflate as water is sucked out, pressing your sheet of paper. Remove everything from the bag, keeping it all intact, and leave it to dry. Your paper needs to remain in contact with the relief object until the sheet is completely dry, which could take 12-48 hours.

by Helen Hiebert