Monday, June 10, 2013

Easter Weekend Willow Paper Late this Year

For the past few years my friend Carol and I have been making paper out of willow bark over Easter weekend.  We take the whole weekend and eat peeps and hot cross buns while we work.  This year, however,  the cool weather here through early spring meant that the willow trees that we usually harvest hadn't begun to sprout or show any signs of rising sap, causing us to delay gathering bark until April.  So this year Easter weekend paper became first weekend of June paper, and our supply of willow was about half of what we usually have.  Hot cross buns and peeps gave way to a leisurely walk to a local restaurant for burritos.

Last week we began soaking the dried bark, which we had peeled back in April,  in preparation for cooking it on Friday.  Since we had a smaller amount, we had decided to use both the bark and the inner bark (the bast fiber);  this decision also saved us the work of peeling the inner bark from the outer bark.  On Thursday I simmered the cut up bark in water with baking soda for around 7 hours.  Cooking willow is interesting:  the water turns a beautiful maroon color, and the smell is fresh, almost like newly-mown hay.  

Here's a page from my studio notebook.  At this point we had discovered that the ketene dimer sizing that we usually use was missing from the paper studio, and there was none to be had in Asheville.  We noticed some methylcellulose solution in a refrigerator in the studio, so we Googled methylcellulose as a sizing for paper and learned that it could be used;  but we were unable to find details regarding how much to use per gallon of pulp, nor could we uncover the "different properties" that the article alluded to when methylcellulose was used instead of the preferred ketene dimer sizing. 

We used a small amount of our pulp to test different amounts of sizing, finally deciding to quadruple the amount we started out with when our initial test showed quite a bit of bleeding when we tested the paper with water media.

The image below shows a sample page, half of which is pasted into the notebook with test results.  To its left is a half sheet of the finished paper.  We mixed the willow pulp with some abaca (manilla hemp) to give the paper strength.  Willow fiber is relatively short and therefore weak, whereas abaca has relatively long fibers and good strength.  We were pleased with the feel of the paper and especially with its beautiful pinkish color.  The dark specks are from the outer bark.  They're so small and flat that they don't cause a problem with writing or painting on the paper, although they might interfere with letterpress printing on it.  We made around 75 sheets on a smallish rectangular mould so that the sheets could be folded in half and sewn into books that have three deckled edges.  The other 26 sheets are around 12 x 18", good for relief prints or silkscreen.

We're already planning our next raid on willow trees.  No waiting for spring next year;  we plan to have it all gathered and peeled within the next few weeks.  Then next Easter week we can pull out our supply of dried willow, soak it for a few days, and have a proper Easter week papermaking.  We're thinking of hand-beating next year and of mixing the willow with hand-beaten kozo for strength.


  1. Wow that sounds like great fun. Does it damage the trees or does the bark grow back? I have 4 large willow tress in my garden and would love to have a go.

  2. No damage to the trees at all. Actually you prune off a dozen or so broomstick-diameter branches and peel them. You can then use the peeled sticks for garden stakes. One year my grandson and I made a small boat, a Welsh coracle-- out of the branches. You don't want mature bark but smooth bark that hasn't gotten tough yet, about one or two year-old branches. You can use smaller branches but it takes a lot more and it's harder to peel and there isn't much inner bark. Broomstick size are best in my experience.

  3. ah, reminds me a little bit of my love affair with slippery elm bark... but it's strong enough all by itself without abaca. if you have it in your neck of the woods, give it a try. you'll be tickled pink (in more ways than one)

  4. Hi Gwen,

    I wanted to thank you so much for your realistic, creative and resourceful approach to journaling. I discovered you just this week during a serendipitous perusal of some scrapbook 'books' (I really don't like today's scrapbooks - everything is just bought and stuck-on) and there was your book The Decorated Page - exactly what I was looking for! Love it. I shall look for your other journaling book(s) - they are exactly what I love - truly reflect the owner and use genuine creativity (love cork stamps). I suggest you try reading the book "The Cure for Death by Lightening" - a wonderful book about a World War II scrapbooking mother (and it has some magic in it too). It really made me want to keep a 'scrapbook' but of the old style.

    Thanks so much!

    Lynn :-)

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lynn. I'm happy that my approach resonates with you! I have two other books about journaling: The Decorated Journal, and Real Life Journals. The two Decorateds were bound up into a single edition with some extra material and titled The Complete Decorated Journal. This book has the entire contents of the Decorateds, so you don't need it if you already have them. Then recently my publisher issued Real Life Journals in paperback, but for some odd reason decided to re-title it Journal Your Way. Don't be confused! The paperback is exactly the same as Real Life Journals and should NOT be bought in addition to RLJ. I wish publishers would consult with authors before changing titles and doing other confusing -to-the-reader things.

    2. ANd thanks for the recommendation. I will look for that book!