But have you ever wondered how it is made? Wood I hear you say, which is true, but it’s a lengthy and complicated process.
Basically, paper is a thin sheet material produced from cellulose fibres derived from wood, rags, grasses or other vegetable sources being processed in water, then draining the water through fine mesh, with the resulting sheet then being pressed and dried. Nowadays, almost all is now made on large machines—some making reels 10 metres wide, running at 2,000 metres per minute and up to 600,000 tonnes a year.
The paper-making process was developed in east Asia, probably China, and it is believed that paper played a pivotal role in early Chinese written culture and had immense consequences for the book world.
Early ‘paper’ wasn’t paper at all, it was parchment or vellum which was made from the thinnest layer of animal skin you can imagine, and was used in medieval times. For example the Magna Carta is on genuine parchment, and although parchment is still used today, it is now made from plant material.
Another old ‘paper’ was Papyrus and was used in Ancient Egypt, probably pre-dating China. It was very strong, made of thin strips of papyrus, but uneven in texture especially at the edges, and repeated rolling and unrolling caused the strips to separate.
An early common fibre source was recycled fibres from used textiles, called rags, and were made of hemp, linen and cotton. It was not until the introduction of wood pulp in 1843 (which I thought was quite late) that paper production was not dependent on recycled materials from ragpickers. The term ‘rag’ in fact persisted, and is a somewhat derogatory term for a newspaper or magazine, especially one regarded as inferior or worthless.
A process for removing printing inks from recycled paper was invented by a German called Justus Claproth in 1774 and today this method is called deinking. But there is a limit to how often paper can be recycled, as after a relatively short time the fibres disintegrate and become useless.
With the advent of the steam driven rotary printing press, wood based paper caused a major transformation of the 19th-century economy and society in industrialized countries. With the introduction of cheaper paper, books and newspapers became gradually available by 1900 and can be treated or coated with various plastics nowadays to become a very durable material.
In an age where we are now becoming concerned about de-forestation, I personally wondered how much wood it takes to make a book, and tried to Google the question and had a variety of results. One estimate suggested an average tree provided approximately 8,333 sheets of copy-type paper.
Using this formula one tree can provide 16.6 copies of a 1,000-page book. This is not your average tree of course, so it was assumed that a tree used in paper production had a quarter of this. When you add in all the other uses for wood - for furniture, the building industry and even for fuel, it's an awful lot of wood.