Tree=home made paper

final push 3 lo resDuring the recent felling of the second large Oregon Maple in the main square the Trinity College staff and the tree cutting contractors were very careful to cut the bark segments as large as possible. All sections of wood were carried away to be dried and used by the staff in strictly controlled projects throughout the college. I was therefore delighted to be able to get a large bag full of twigs, leaves and seeds prior to being made into chipping.


The team received a few small sections of wood for scientific and artistic investigations. Where David Taylor with the help of Peter O’Reilly started testing the wood’s compression capabilities parallel to the length of the branch (see image above, some samples post compression).  David will describe and discuss some of his findings in a later blog post.  Soon after I received the plant materials I began workshopping with them. 


I started off by dusting off some of my wood carving tools and proceeded to chip off some of the bark off a small section of a branch (roughly 10 inches in diameter) to reveal the hard wood underneath, See image below.

I also sanded and wire brushed another section before applying etching ink to its surface and using is as a wood print. See image

After some research I became especially interested in trying to make some home made paper making using the plant materials that I had collected. There are many online resources describing in various levels of detail, using basic and/ or specialist equipment, how to go about this. Before I describe how I made the paper and show you some images of the final results, which I will do in the next blog post, I thought it would be interesting to include some information about the paper making process as described in

TCT 18 hand made Paper-1

If you ask someone what paper is made of, most would immediately say trees. However, with the hand paper making process, you can use other plant fibers to make an incredible range of handmade papers.

Some plants are grown specifically for the hand paper making process, others can be sustainably harvested from the wild, and even more can be made from leftover fibers from the garden, kitchen, or even agricultural waste. To make strong paper, choose plants with a high cellulose fiber content.


To make paper, you’ll harvest your material, dry it, cut it into pieces for cooking, simmer it to break down the fibers, and then process it in a blender or by hand-beating until it disperses into water to form pulp.

But first, choose the type of plant fiber you’d like to use:

Not all plants make good pulp strong enough to hold together into a sheet of paper, and some plant fibers are usable but require many hours of beating by hand or with special machinery to break down the fibers. A good guideline for usable material: If the plant stands over 2 feet tall on its own, it most likely contains enough cellulose to make paper. To know for sure the practicality of processing any specific fiber into pulp, you’ll have to read other papermakers’ accounts or rely on your own trial and error.



You’ll need to collect at least 2 pounds of dry plant material to make it worth your while. A pound of dry grass material makes about ten 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheets, and 1 pound of dry leaf material makes about 15 sheets.

Be sure to harvest responsibly. Take only small amounts, allowing the plant to recover, and be aware of the effects you might cause by taking plant material (disrupting insects, for example). Make sure you have permission to forage on others’ property or on public land.

You can experiment with how your harvest affects the resulting paper. Plant fiber and paper often appear different when plants are harvested in fall than when they’re harvested in spring.

Grass. Paper made from grass is usually a bit weaker and more brittle than from leaf fiber, but it can be interesting in texture, it’s easy to find, and you can harvest grass in any season. You’ll use the whole stalk — all but the roots. After harvesting, dry grass completely and then bundle to avoid leaf mold. Usually, long leaves are the best source of fiber. Tear leaves against the grain; the more difficult they are to tear, the more likely they’ll be to make good paper. Iris leaves and lily leaves make strong paper and are easy to process. Thicker leaves, such as yucca and hemp, are more time-consuming or not practical to process by hand. Spring and summer harvest: Only cut individual outer leaves near the base of the plant to ensure continued growth. Fall harvest: Collect leaves as they fall from the plant or when they’re able to release gently. Dry leaves completely and then bundle to store them.

Making and Preparing Pulp:

To turn your harvested plant material into paper, you must first cook it — literally, in pots — and beat it by hand, with a blender, or with another machine to break down the fibers into pulp. Keep in mind that these instructions are for grass fibers or leaf fibers.

You’ll cook the plant material in an alkaline solution. Washing soda is the most available alkali — you can find it in supermarkets. It’s not as pure as soda ash, which most papermakers use, so it might leave residue on paper or cause it to decay more quickly, but it’s less expensive and works for most plant fibers.

Supplies for cooking:

Scissors; the alkali (20 percent of the dry fiber weight; 3-1/2 ounces of washing soda and 8 quarts of water per pound of dry fiber); a large, nonfood, nonreactive pot (stainless steel, glass, or enamel-coated); a scale; pot holders; nonfood, nonreactive stirring utensils; a mesh strainer; a bucket; and rubber gloves. For beating fiber, you’ll need a nonfood blender.

Safety notes. Besides using nonreactive utensils and pots, use separate paper making pots and utensils, and, if possible, don’t work in the kitchen. You’ll want to work somewhere you can splash water and get water on the ground. Some plants might give off harmful vapors when cooking, so be sure you know the qualities of the plant you’re using, and cook outside — or under a hooded vent as a last resort. Very important: Add alkali to the water before it boils. Do not add boiling water to alkali or vice versa — it could splatter or explode and burn you.

Wear rubber gloves, goggles, or a face mask when working with an alkali.


Cooking the fiber:

First, weigh your dry fiber before wetting it. Remember, you’ll want at least 2 pounds to make enough paper to make this whole task worthwhile.

With scissors, cut the fiber into 1/2-inch to 1-inch strips (if you’re going to hand-beat fibers, cut them into 2-inch pieces) to reduce cooking time and prevent tangling in the blender. As you work, sort out twigs or other foreign material.

Then, soak fiber in plain water overnight to fully hydrate before cooking and processing.

When you’re ready to cook, fill a pot with water to cover the fiber, about 2 gallons per pound — you’ll want enough so the fiber can move around while cooking.

Wearing gloves, measure the washing soda or other alkali, 20 percent of your dry weight, or about 3-1/2 ounces per pound of dry fiber.

Heat the pot of water and add the washing soda before it boils. As the washing soda dissolves, add the soaked fiber and stir. Bring to a

boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer.

Every half-hour while simmering, stir the fiber and test it for doneness. Take a piece of fiber, rinse it, and pull it in the direction of the plant’s growth. If the fiber pulls apart easily, it’s ready.

Turn off the heat and remove the pot from the stove. Pour the cooked fiber through a strainer into a bucket (not down the drain yet), and rinse the fiber until the water runs clear. Make sure you remove all the washing soda at this point.

If you’re not dumping the water into a water-treatment system, or you plan to dump the water outside, mix the plant juices with vinegar to neutralize the solution, or you’ll introduce a toxin into the environment.

Beating the fiber. After the fiber is cooked, you’ll have to beat it to further break down the material into the soft pulp that you’ll use to make sheets of paper. Papermakers often hand-beat fibers, which generally results in the strongest paper. Others use large equipment specifically for papermaking. The easiest and quickest method at home is to use a nonfood blender.

Add a handful of your cooked fiber to a blender (make sure it’s fully hydrated; soak overnight if using stored fiber) and fill the blender about three-quarters full with water. Put the lid on, and then beat at a medium or high speed. If the blender sounds strained, check to make sure fiber isn’t wrapped around the blades (which is why you’ll want to cut it into smaller pieces before cooking). The blender also might strain if you’ve added too much fiber. It’s better to err on the side of less fiber (and more blender batches) because if the fiber isn’t beaten enough into uniform pulp, you’ll pull less-uniform, clumpy sheets of paper. The length of blending time depends on the fiber. Try about 20 seconds at first and then increase in 20-second increments. You’ll know you have pulp when the fibers don’t clump and look very fine, almost cloud-like dispersed in the water. If you still see strings of fibers and they’re clumpy, you’ll need to blend a bit longer.

See the next section to set up your paper making studio. You’ll add pulp directly to your vat or pour it into a bucket and transfer it to the vat as needed. Follow the step-by-step instructions in the photos above to learn how to pull sheets of paper.

Basic Equipment for the Paper making Process:

You probably already own most of the equipment you need, could improvise with what you have, or could find inexpensive items at a local thrift store. You’ll need a flat work surface that can get wet and can be easily dried and cleaned. Water will splash onto the floor and on surrounding surfaces, so setting up in a garage or outside is ideal.

download 2

Mould and deckle: This is the screen and frame that holds the sheet of paper you’ll pull out of the vat. Many professional ones are made from hardwood (which resists warping from water), but you can make your own out of cheaper wood, such as pine, or even staple a screen to an old picture frame. Instructions for making a mould and deckle are easily found online.


Vat: This is a tub larger than your mould and deckle. You’ll fill it with water and pulp and pull up sheets of paper from it. Use a large storage tub, dish tub, a freestanding plastic vat with a drain and plug on the bottom, or even an old secondhand sink.

Felts: Not actually felt, these materials are what you’ll lay, or couch, your wet, formed paper onto after you pull it from the vat. Any quality wool material would work — old blankets, nonfusible pellon from a fabric store, or papermakers’ felts. These must be cut approximately 2 inches wider than all sides of your paper (or your mould and deckle).

Plastic buckets with handles: These will hold pulp and help in draining vats. Paper making uses a lot of water. Because you’ll be working with natural plant fibers and few other elements, you can set up a water-collection system to use the water for other purposes around your garden or homestead.

A press or sponges and brayer: You can use sponges to remove excess water from your pulled paper, or you can assemble a simple press to squeeze out much more water and reduce drying time. Search online for examples; people have found creative solutions. A brayer or similar rolling tool is helpful for smoothing paper and releasing more water.

Drying equipment: This could be sheets of Plexiglas or even a clothesline, depending on how you’d like to finish your paper and leave it to dry. You may want to experiment. Drying on Plexiglas will make one side of the paper very smooth; drying on a line will be easier to set up but could lead to more rippling in the paper, though this can be smoothed with a bit of water later. You could also dry between sheets of corrugated cardboard with a fan nearby. The corrugations in the cardboard will allow air to flow.

Storing pulp: Drain the vat through a mesh strainer lined with a fine mesh bag (such as a “brewer’s bag” used by homebrewers) into a bucket, squeezing out as much water as you can. Form pulp into a ball. The pulp will last in the refrigerator in a container until it begins to mold. You can also dry it completely and store it in a cupboard.

After you practice, experiment; try blending different plant fibers together, or add tea leaves, oatmeal, or other inclusions into the vat before you pull paper. As you watch plants transform from their original color to the hues and textures they’ll take on after cooking, then into pulp, and finally to the look and feel of the final paper, you’ll see your plants anew

For further reading:

  • Paper making with Garden Plants and Weeds by Helen Hiebert is a great studio guide for those interested in experimenting with botanical paper making.

  • Hand Paper making Magazine’s Beginner Articles has a wealth of articles from various authors about finding, harvesting, and processing different plant fibers.

  • A fantastic table of plant fibers that can be processed by hand, by artist and hand papermaker Catherine Nash.

Bioplastic test: Day 3

On the third day of testing I decided to embed various types of fabrics into further test using the 2ml glycerol agar recipe.

To date I had been using the green coloured agarose so I decided to see what the material would work by using the clear agarose. It would also give me an opportunity to add some yellow food colouring to the mix. I decided that because the 4ml was interesting but too sticky I would also try to do a selection of samples using a 3ml glycerol agar recipe.

Again I added and stretched different types of fabric to the petri dishes.  See images below of the different tests undertaken.  Image directly below tests using the 2ml glycerol recipe. Image below that using the 3ml glycerol recipe. 



20180524_103342Image above of clear bioplastic with embedded fabric samples.


Above image of clear (left dish) and yellow food dyed (right dish) bioplastic.

Image above 2ml glycerol bioplastic sample brushed onto cotton netting.

Image above 2ml glycerol bioplastic sample  brushed onto cotton netting.  Artist stretching fabric to check capacity to stretch.  2ml glycerol sample quite brittle.  

Samples above 3ml glycerol sample, which was much more robust.  

Bioplastic testing: Day 2


After drying the bioplastic tests overnight it was clear that the starch based one was really interesting and much more transparent than I was able to create on my own at home during last year’s experiments. I still felt though that I would have a problem trying to get in onto my fabrics in a controlled way. (see image above – starch bioplastic is the clear/ white material in the lower petri dish.  The top dish contains the (green coloured) agar bioplastic.)


So we decided that we should focus our attention solely on the algae based bioplastics. The samples that we had created the day before had a lovely translucency; like looking through the see through coloured plastic sweet wrappers (see image above). Unfortunately the agarose mix without the glycerol was very fine and delicate after drying out. It was brittle, prone to tearing easily and very hard to scrape off the bottom of the Petri dish. So our final experiment yesterday was to test what would happen if we added glycerol to the algarose mix. To heighten the effect Conor decided to add 4ml of glycerol to the mix.

After drying in the oven at 65degrees from 12 until 6pm and being left on the bench overnight both algae samples were dry. However as earlier stated the algarose without the glycerol was deemed unsuitable as a material for this project. The sample with added glycerol was much more interesting and when pulled slightly had a little give or stretch in the material. It was however a little sticky to the touch though.


So on day two of our sampling programe Conor decided to work with the algarose recipe and by adding 1, 2 and 4ml of glycerol test to see which if any had more workable properties.

So we made up 3 sample batches. Before I poured the solubulised liquid into the Petri dishes I added small strips of different types of fabric to the bottom of the Petri dish. The fabric samples were a nylon fixed gauze used in screen printing, a nylon lycra.  (see image below – left hand petri dish)


It was decided before continuing any further testing of the bioplastic with the various sculptural fabrics that it was best to see which if the recipes would work best.

Two other tests were undertaken as well on this day.

To simulate the way the fabric would be working in a sculpture lycra mesh netting was stretched over the petri dish and held in place by an elastic band. The warm (4ml glycerol) liquid painted onto the stretched fabric and set pretty quickly. As I was hoping to eventually layer up the material onto the fabric we decided to test this out by painting a second layer on top of the first. (see image above – right hand petri dish)

Finally as we had talked about the lack of flexibility with the normal algarose mix Conor suggested that if we could add bubbles to the liquid mix before it set the bubbles would create a cushion and matrix inside the material that could allow it to flex better. He suggested working with Alka selzer could give us the effect we were looking for.


So Conor crushed some of the tablet and put it on the Petri dish and pouring the slightly cooled down liquid algarose without the glycerol onto the powder. See image for result. He did something similar when he carefully added the remaining crushed tablet to the beaker of plain algarose over the sink. As he expected it bubbled and frothed up. Both samples were put into the oven to dry.


Results from bioplastic testing: day 2:

Tests with basic agar bioplastic recipe with 1ml glycerol – too brittle and inflexible

Tests with agar bioplastic recipe with 2ml glycerol – a little bit of give

Tests with agar biopastic recipe with 4ml glycerol – stretchy but a bit sticky

Bioplastic testing – Day one


Conor Buckley started our bioplastic journey to develop an art material for use in the Trinity Trees Project by explaining about the cellular make up of the different base materials we would be using. This was a great help for me to understand how the material would act and react depending on what you added to it.

We stared by talking about how one would make a starch based bioplastic.

Starch bioplastic: the recipe:

9.95grams of corn starch

60ml distilled water

5ml Acetic acid (vinegar) 5% solution

5ml glycerol (a light sensitive animal fat)

Cornstarch is a complex carbohydrate called a polysaccharide. It has a polymer chain with branches. When we add vinegar to the starch and water solution it cleaves the branches from the polymer chain separating them into whats called an amalose mix i.e. the starch and vinegar solubalise in water. When you add glycerol (the plasticiser), which is like an oil, it allows the chains to slide over each other. The stiffness or flexibility of the final product depends on the amount of glycerol we add to it. The more glycerol the more plasticised it becomes.

Starch bioplastic: the method:

Add water and corn starch to a graduated beaker. Add vinegar to create amalose. Add glycerol to plasticise. Put the beaker with all the ingredients over the heat and gradually increase the temperature from 100 to 140 and up to 160 degrees over about 10-15 minutes all the time stirring the mixture.

When the mixture changes from opaque to clear it is the time to scoop it out and spread it out on the chosen dish to dry. In our case we used petri dishes. Then the dish was placed in an oven set at 65 degrees to dry. For this starch how you dry it is important. If you leave it on bench to dry over a long period of time the top layer will dry faster and form a skin. Drying in the oven in @65 would allow for the material to dry more evenly.

Conor and I were delighted with the result, which was much more opaque than the samples I had created the year before. As most of last years samples ended up white in colour when I tried to add colour I ended up with varying shades of pastel colours. I had also tried many different ways of adding colour to this bioplastic. But now thanks to Conor’s knowledge I realise that what I thought was a good idea, adding acrylic (plastic based) paint to the mix, was in fact reacting with the cellular chains and making the material more brittle.

On the down side this and last years cornstarch bioplastics were very thick, lumpy and hard to spread evenly. If I were to use it to cover elements of my sculptures we would have to spread it when it was at its most liquid form when it was really hot and sticky As it looses heat quite quickly cools and becomes more unworkable it would be a tall order to use it as a material. A really fantastic matieral but unfortunately not one that I could use.

Two handy pieces of information that Conor imparted to me that I thought useful to share are:

1. When you are trying to optimise the mechanical properties of a material change one thing at a time. You don’t change the base amount of starch, water and vinegar components only the glycerol.

2. If you want to colour a bioplastic materials it is best to use three drops of food colouring and only after all the ingredients have been solubalised. If you add the colour earlier you might not be able to see the point at which the material changes from opaque to clear indicating that it is ready to use.

The second type of bioplastic we said we would explore was an Agar based one. 

Agar is a generic term for seaweed and alginate is a made by processing a type of seaweed. The algae base material that we are using is called agarose. This is a thermoreversable material i.e. it melts in water when you heat it up, sets when cool and can be reheated to liquid form again. It is important to note that the more times one heats and cools the material the weaker the material becomes. Conor explained what happens when the agarose is heated up in water. As it is made of nano scale helical shaped chains, they unravel when heated and straighten out and then return to the helical shape when they cool down.

In our initial experiment we just used the pure agarose.

Agar bioplastic: recipe 1:


1.5 grams agar

50 ml of water


Agar bioplastic: recipe 2: agarose and glycerol version

1.5 grams agar

50ml of distilled water

4ml of glycerol


Agar bioplastic: the method:

Measure out the 1.5 grams of agarose. Boil distilled water. Add agarose. Stir continuously over heat for 10-15 minutes until all the agarose strands have disappeared. Pour solubalised agrose into petri dish and leave to set. If glycerol is to be added do this after the agar has solubalised and before pouring into the petri dish.

Interestingly after describing what I was looking for from a bioplastic Conor suggested that by using a paint brush when this material was hot we could paint the bioplastic onto the fabric, which would then set and dry over time.

I also wondered if this material would be flexible enough to be able to move with the fabrics i use or would it be too brittle and tear. Conor decided to try and add some gylcerol to the mixture to act like a plastisier. He decided to start off with 2ml of glycerol, which we added to the solubalised mix. We planned to leave it over night to dry to see how that would look and work.

Another really interesting idea that Conor suggested on this first day is that he wanted to try adding bubbles to the mix. By adding bubbles to the recipe without glycerol he hoped to add an extra element of flexibility. So I was asked to bring in some alka selser for our next batch of experiments.

Sister tree felled today

I am saddened to say but due to safety concerns the second sister Oregon Maple tree was felled in Trinity College Dublin today.  Many tree specialists and contractors were on hand in a six hour mammoth task of felling the second tree. It was an eventful day full of much sadness, reverence and surprises.

I will post more photographs documenting the process over the coming days.

Belated farewell to 170 year old Maple


Image taken of the Oregon Maple

One of the oldest trees in Trinity College Dublin collapsed early on the 2nd of June 2018.


The large Oregon Maple was and it’s sister tree opposite is one of the largest specimens of Oregon Maples to be found in Ireland or Britain. Both Maples graced the front square in Trinity College Dublin since the 1840’s.

In 2017 this tree was one of eight that were chosen to be investigated by the Trinity College Trees Team. The Oregon Maple not only formed part of the subsequent exhibition in October 2017 but was the subject matter of my performance during the exhibition opening night, which also formed part of the TCD and Science Gallery organised PROBE event.

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Images taken during the installation of the Oregon Maple artwork, part of the Trinity College Trees Exhibition October 2017.

I was informed of the demise of the Maple beside the Henry Moore sculpture while boarding a plane to South Africa via London. There was scant information at this point as to why this tree had fallen that night. Both trees had weathered Ireland’s recent storm Emma and hurricane Ophelia in 2017.

In fact there were numerous ongoing tests and safety assessments done by the diligent grounds staff and specialist contractors to asses both trees’ viability, the most recent taken about two months prior to the tree collapse. The surveys did show that both trees were diseased, the one that still stands more so than the one that fell. The tree experts estimated that the tree would definitely not be around in forty years time and regular testing of the trees was recommended.

It was a shock to all students, staff and the general public when the news of the tree’s collapse became known to all. None more to me as I boarded numerous planes to South Africa only returning a week ago. Numerous times I thought and spoke of the fallen tree to my family. I felt a deep sadness that such a majestic enormous seemingly invincible tree had collapsed under it’s own weight.

As I was incommunicado for such a long time I was unable to visit Trinity College until the middle of last week. I heard there had been a huge outpouring on social media and I visited the twitter page, which was alight for days after the collapse with numerous comments of sadness, many past students, staff and the general public sharing photographs and memories relating to the tree. Numerous articles also appeared online and in the newspapers.

During my visit to Trinity College last week it really brought it home to me how huge this tree was and the enormity of the empty void where the tree had stood for so long. See below an image of the tree stump surrounded by patchy damaged grass. In the background it’s sister tree stands alone now. All are aware that this tree is now in a very precarious position, especially due to Ireland’s ongoing drought making the less flexible due to a low water content. I decided to take a photo of the remaining Oregon Maple as I know a decision on it’s fate will be taken soon.


As to the future direction of the 2018 Trinity College Trees project who’s focus is solely on these two Oregon Maples it is a little up in the air at the moment. The scientific and artistic premises for the project still remain valid but the resultant artwork concepts must now be revisited, revised and be flexible enough to respond to the fragility and shifting nature of the stories of these two trees and their place in this world.

Bioplastics with Conor Buckley; an Introduction


On embarking on the 2018 Trinity Trees project I knew I wanted to explore in detail more about bioplastics.  I was and still am really interested to see if a specific version can be used successfully as an art material in the upcoming 2018 Trinity College Trees Exhibition. Having spent a few frustrating weeks compiling lots of samples and not quite understanding what and how much of each ingredient to add into the mix I decide to enlist the help of Conor Buckley of TCD. Conor very kindly agreed to guide me in the development of a bioplastic material for the 2018 Exhibition.

Prof. Conor Buckley

During May 2018 we met in the biochemistry lab in the Parsons building as it had all the equipment we would need to experiment and make the bioplastic material. On this first day on our journey of bioplastic experimentation Conor and I talked a lot about these exciting materials called bioplastics.

Bioplastic is a layman’s’ term for using natural materials to make plastic. Bioplastics can be starch, algae or gelatin based to name the most common forms. In science terms the final bioplastic material is called a hydrogel.

Conor’s told me a little about his area of expertise, which is in making hydrogels into specific shapes and then implanting cells into these shape. The cells grow in this medium and form a matrix within the shape creating new living tissue. This is commonly know as cell tissue engineering.

Conor is not new to working with artists on unusual projects. He was involved in the Science Gallery’s exhibition called Victimless Leather in 2008 and 2011. Victimless Leather created by artist Oran Catts was a prototype of a stitch-less jacket, grown from cell cultures into a layer of tissue supported by a coat shaped polymer layer.  See image below.  

In the next blog on Bioplastics I will outline some of the tests Conor and I undertook in May 2018.