Situated on the banks of the River Axe in the southwest of England, St Cuthberts Mill has been making paper since the 1700s. St Cuthberts specialise in artist papers, making three of the most popular watercolour papers used by artists today; Bockingford, Saunders Waterford and Millford, as well as Botanical Ultra Smooth paper and Somerset printmaking paper.
Last year we visited St Cuthberts Mill to find out how their watercolour paper is made, how they test every batch by hand, and their commitment to protecting the environment.
St Cuthberts have one of only few cylinder mould machines in the world that is dedicated to making watercolour paper, and they use it to make all of their artist papers.
The cylinder mould machine combines the consistency of machine-made papers with the stability of handmade paper. Today, most paper is made on a Fourdrinier machine, a large, industrial machine designed to produce vast amounts of paper very quickly. While a Fourdrinier machine makes consistent batches of paper at high speed, the finest watercolour papers are made using a cylinder mould machine. One of the key differences is that in Fourdrinier-made paper, the paper fibres uniformly line up in the machine-direction (this is why a sheet of copier paper is easily torn in one direction, but less easily torn in the other). Cylinder mould-made paper is more similar to handmade paper in that the paper fibres have a random orientation, facing in all directions. This improves the stability of the paper and decreases the amount that it buckles when wet, making cylinder mould-made paper suitable for watercolour painting.
The Cylinder Mould Machine Process
The process of making cylinder mould-made paper has barely changed since its invention in the 19th Century. The production begins with the paper pulp. St Cuthberts’ Saunders Waterford, Millford, and Somerset papers are made using 100% cotton linters, while Bockingford is made with woodfree chemical pulp (wood-pulp with acidic ‘woody’ components, such as lignin, removed).
The paper pulp is picked up from the vat by a slowly rotating cylinder mould. The cylinder is covered with a wire mesh and, as it rotates, the water flows through the mesh and the pulp forms a web on the outside of the cylinder.
The fibrous sheet is transferred onto a continuously moving felt-lined belt and further processed through sections of the machine to dry, create texture and add external sizing, depending on the requirements of each paper.
Far from being an entirely mechanised process, the skilled papermakers at St Cuthberts need to work in tandem with the machine, making adjustments according to the natural variation in the organic materials used in the process, as well as the weight, content, and surface texture of paper that is being made. At the dry end of the cylinder mould machine, the paper is wound onto a reel and taken to their finishing department (known as ‘The Salle’). All paper is hand finished, whether it’s embossing, creating a deckle edge, counting sheets, or wrapping.
Testing by Hand
A sample from each batch is tested by hand for a number of different requirements, including weight, surface texture, porosity, wet strength, surface strength, and absorbency. Each paper has a different set of specifications which have to be taken into consideration. For example, Somerset printmaking paper is designed to be absorbent to accept layers of printmaking ink, so the results of the tests will be very different to Millford watercolour paper, which is deliberately created to have a high resistance to water.
Here are three of the many tests carried out on every batch of St Cuthberts paper:
Dilute washes of watercolour are applied to a paper sample to check for faults in the surface or sizing of the sheet, which would show up in the wash as mottling or patchiness.
Pen and Ink
Lines of ink are inspected for feathering (a sign of low sizing), or skipping (where the ink has not been absorbed fully into the sheet, forming a broken line).
Wax Pick Test
Sealing waxes of different adhesive strengths are pressed onto the paper and, once cool, pulled off to test the surface strength of the paper.
St Cuthberts choose their raw materials with the environment in mind. Their wood-free pulp, which is used to make their Bockingford watercolour paper, is sourced from managed forests which plant new trees to replace the ones they use. Saunders Waterford, Milford and Somerset papers are made using cotton linters, a by-product of the textile industry.
Paper making requires a supply of clean water and all paper mills are located on or near a water source. The River Axe begins in the Mendip Hills, and its waters are filtered naturally through limestone.
Maintaining the river’s cleanliness is important not only for the production of paper at St Cuthberts, but also for the biodiversity of the Somerset countryside. The River Axe and the surrounding area is home to a variety of wildlife including trout (a known sign of a healthy river), deer, rabbits, foxes, badgers, herons, woodpeckers, and kingfishers. No hazardous chemicals are released into the river, and all materials used are chosen to ensure that the mill does not harm the surrounding environment. The mill returns the water it uses to the river, free from any papermaking additives.
Watch our On Location film to see paper being made at the St Cuthberts paper mill:
Papers from St Cuthberts Mill available at Jackson’s:
We also offer a sample pack of Saunders Waterford, Bockingford, and Millford papers.
More Watercolour Articles on the Jackson’s Blog: