Think of bee wings as kites

Dr. Wendy Sue Universe

Dr. Universe,

How is paper made? I asked this question because there are different kinds of paper and I’m curious about how it is made.

— Sonakshi, 9, Michigan

We can make paper in lots of different ways. It often starts with trees. In fact, one of the first kinds of paper we know about was made in China using rags, plants, and bark from mulberry trees.

These kinds of materials are made up of parts called fibers. Fibers are what help give plants strength to stand up. Humans who eat plants like lettuce or celery have actually eaten some of these fibers. A lot of the clothes we wear come from plant fibers, too.

Plant fibers are called cellulose. Humans aren’t able to digest these fibers because they are really hard to break down. But strong fibers are great for making paper.

My friend Karen Adams, a Washington State University Master Gardener, is really curious about plants. Adams and her family have been missing seeing a lot of friends and family lately. They decided to make paper and write some letters. You can try making your own paper at home, too.

First, you will want to find a bin — something like an empty salad container or a large plastic tub. You will also want to make a deckle. This is a frame with a screen that will help you form the paper. To make a frame, you can glue together popsicle sticks or use an old picture frame.

Where you would normally put a picture, staple or tack on some mesh. This could be the mesh from a window screen or even the mesh from a bag of onions or oranges.

Once you have your bin and deckle, rip up old paper into one-inch pieces. Use about two cups of paper to one cup of water. Soak the pieces of paper in water for 30 minutes or even overnight. Next, get a grownup to help you blend up this mix to make a paper smoothie (but don’t drink it!).

The goal is to break down the old paper and create a fine pulp. In paper factories, humans sometimes create a soupy pulp of fibers from wood, lignin (which helps hold the fibers together), and a few chemicals. This helps everything break down into a mixture for paper.

After you blend the paper, you can add some small flower petals, tiny seeds or food coloring. Pour the pulpy mix into the bin filled with about three to four inches of water. Hint: More water will make thinner paper and less water will make thicker paper. You can experiment with this a bit.

Finally, slide the deckle into the water at an angle and lift it up evenly so the surface is horizontal and covered in the pulpy mix. Press the pulp down with a paper towel and then gently remove the towel. Peel off the paper from the mesh and let it dry for a day or so. When it’s ready, you can write a message or draw a picture for a friend.

Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

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