Learning the Art and Dance of Papermaking at Twinrocker

Have you ever made handmade paper for an artist who’s sold paintings for millions?

I can now say that I have.

About a week ago I received a call from Travis Becker, the owner and master papermaker at Twinrocker Handmade Paper.  He was calling to ask if I would come help him make paper because Gerald, the only other papermaker at Twinrocker, was unable to make paper due to an injury. They had an important order to fill for a custom paper that required two people to make.  This particular order happened to be for one of the most important living American artists who has sold original paintings for millions and has work in the permanent collections of almost every major metropolitan museum in the country.  I quickly said yes as I was very honored to have this opportunity.

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On Tuesday morning as I was driving up to the paper mill in Brookston, the closer I got, the more nervous I became.  This was not my first papermaking experience at Twinrocker but it was my first time making paper for anyone other than myself.  I’ve been working with Twinrocker for almost 6 months now and one of the most difficult things to communicate to people is how hard it is to make paper at the level that Twinrocker is making it.  This is probably because making paper in and of itself is not a difficult task.  In fact, with a soup can, a screen, and some pulp, you can have kindergarteners making paper within minutes.  But to learn how to make paper of the finest quality, it is at least a two year apprenticeship with Twinrocker.  As I go on to describe my experience making paper with Travis, it is my hope that I am able to articulate how much work and care is put into every sheet of Twinrocker paper.

When I arrived at Twinrocker, the air was crisp but the sun was shinning.  I walked in and Travis was already there prepping the pulp as he wanted to be making paper by 8:30.  With all the water involved in paper making, it is standard to wear rubber boots and apron, so I suited up.  Ready to go, Travis and I stood by the vat of pulp and he started to explain to me the process that was about to take place.  He informed me that every time we pull the mould out of the vat it would weigh in the neighborhood of 60 lbs. and in order to successfully make the paper, the process would have to be like a dance, with him as the leader and me as the follower.  This could not have been a more true statement.

paper making at Twinrocker

I think my favorite part of both mornings was the first time I put my arms in the vat to mix it. This sensation can be compared to the refreshing feeling of jumping into a cold lake in the morning.  As we made the first few sheets, I quickly understood what Travis meant by the dance. Making consistent sheets of paper by yourself is an art, but to be in perfect sync with the person across the vat from you to make consistent sheets of paper requires both focus and rhythm.  It is important at every stage in the process to do everything perfectly in sync or else you will end up with an unsellable sheet of paper, at least by Twinrocker standards.

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If you don’t hold the mould level when lifting it out, after many days of drying when you can finally measure the thickness, one side may spec out on the micrometer at .13 mm and the other at .15 rendering the paper unsellable.

Twinrocker Handmade Paper

When you pull the deckle off, if it drips anywhere on the paper, it is unsellable.

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If you allow the paper to drip for too short or too long, it could slip off the mould.

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If any amount of dirt, dust or debris gets into the vat, you will be spending time hand picking each particle out of the paper as if it is not perfectly white, it is unsellable.

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If you do not couch it properly on the the felt, a corner could flip, the edge could become unstable, any unpredictable number of things could happen. Unsellable.

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If you do not place one sheet directly on top of the other in the stack of felts, when you press it, the edges will explode. Unsellable.

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After days and days of drying when you are finally able to put the paper on the micrometer, if it does not spec within the .02 mm window of the order, unsellable.  Travis once told me that the difference between .15 and .16, is “thinking lighter” because when you are pulling the paper out of the vat there is no way to gauge thickness other than the feeling of the pulp through your hands when you mix. When you really let that notion sit in, it makes sense why a two year apprenticeship is necessary. Travis has told me stories about where he has made 2-3 days of paper, hundreds of sheets only to find out days later when it is finally dry he made the whole order too heavy perhaps .01 mm too thick and cannot use this paper for that order and will have to remake the whole thing. With this kind of quality assurance, it becomes easy for me to understand why some of the most accomplished artists in the world choose to use Twinrocker paper.

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But all of this context describing the difficulty of the mechanical process of making paper does not even begin to describe the complexity of the chemistry that goes in to making their archival, watercolor paper. Through 41 years of experimenting, over 50 different recipes of watercolor paper, and with the help of professional artists from across the country, Twinrocker has found a recipe with the proper chemical make-up to allow pigment to sit right at the surface of the paper, which makes it one of the highest performing watercolor papers on the market.

In the end, I walked away feeling very lucky to have had this experience and thankful that with Travis’s lead, we were able to successfully make the paper for the order.