Paper clay – an introduction

Paper clay is a confusing term. When you google “paper clay” you often get images of and references to papier mache and similar non-ceramic media. When I talk about paper clay I mean something very specific – a ceramic firing clay impregnated with cellulose fibres from thoroughly pulped paper. The fibres combine with the clay particles to make a stronger building medium than clay alone. Here is a simple guide to making a paper clay in your own studio.

Requirements:

  • 10kg+ bag of ceramic clay. I am using Abbot’s Red, a common clay in New Zealand.
  • at least one roll of toilet paper
  • c. one litre hot water
  • a hand blender
  • large bucket
  • strainer

DSCF0158

Step one:

Unravel an entire roll of toilet paper into your bucket.


DSCF0161

DSCF0163Step two:

Pour hot water over the paper. At this point I like to give the paper a good stir with a fork, to start breaking up the fibres and to make sure there’s enough water to slightly cover the paper.


DSCF0166Step three:

Blend the wet paper with your hand blender until it forms a cluster-y dough. Spend at least five minutes blending, and move about the mixture to ensure you’re blending consistently.


DSCF0167Step four:

Strain the pulped paper for a few hours. You want a mass of pulp that is not too soppy, but not too dry and clumped together. I tend to depend on intuition at this step, but a good rule of thumb is that you want to the pulp to be just *slightly* more damp than the clay you’re combining it with.


10672036_10204002070024759_7031157312573965415_nStep five:

Cut a slab of clay roughly three times the size of your pulped paper. I try to make my batches 1 part pulp to 3 parts clay, but there are more optimal combinations if you’re willing to do the work researching them. Too much pulp tends to make crumbly, weak works, and the ratio I use has worked well for me so far. Pinch out tabs from our mound of clay, and gradually mix them into the bucket of pulp until you have a rough dough. Don’t worry that they are not thoroughly combined yet, that comes next.


10616513_10203714943566777_3995507789924950321_nDSCF0133Step six:

Using clean hands and a knife, slice and wedge the mixture together on an absorbent table until clay and pulp thoroughly combined. If the mixture is too soppy, you did not let the paper strain long enough, and should let it sit for a while. The end produce should look normal clay, but you will see the fibrousness when cutting it or pulling pieces apart. The fibres lend the clay a surprising amount of tensile strength, allowing you to build thinner and more delicate works. Unlike standard clay, you can also join paper clay pieces safely when they are bone dry. Paper clay generally fires to the same kiln temperature (or “cone”) as whichever clay you chose as a base.

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