TechnologyHow to Make Paper from Hemp

How to Make Paper from Hemp

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Although most people worldwide are used to using paper made from trees, there was once a time when hemp was the primary source of stationery. Here are two different methods you can use to take it back to the basics and make your own hemp paper at home. 

How is hemp turned into paper? 

One of the reasons why hemp is an attractive material for papermaking is that the process can be done at home. You don’t need any crazy machinery to harvest the resources and then process it all. Instead, you can do it all with your own two hands, no high-tech tools involved. 

People from different walks of life may have their own styles. Here are two examples to help you decide how you want to go about it. 

How to make hemp paper: Method 1

You won’t need much to make your hemp paper. In fact, you probably already have most of the essential items in your house. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • Pre-packaged hemp fiber (enough to fill a ~5-6 qt pot)
  • Pot with lid
  • Stove or another source of heat
  • Water
  • Baking soda
  • Papermaking mold and deckle

Once you have all the items above, follow the instructions below to make your paper:

  1. Place your hemp fiber in a pot and pour in enough water to cover the plant material.
  2. Place the pot over medium to high heat. 
  3. Add about 1 tsp of baking soda. Baking soda is a crucial part of this process, as it helps to dissolve the fiber. 
  4. After six hours, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool. 
    1. Note: You’ll need to heat the hemp fiber for six hours in total. It’s best to break this preparation period down into three phases. Boil the fiber continuously and add water every two hours since you’ll inevitably lose some of the moisture as vapor. Continue doing this until the six hours is up. 
  5. Pour the hemp fiber and water into a blender. The “Smoothie” or a similar setting will work just fine. 
  6. Blend the fibers for a few seconds until it looks like a very loose form of paper mache. It will have just enough structure to hold its shape when you squeeze the fibrous “soup.” 
  7. Pour the blended fiber into a wide, shallow bin. 
  8. Take your papermaking mold and submerge it just underneath the surface of the fibrous liquid. 
  9. Agitate the water with the mold frame to spread the hemp fiber evenly across the screen’s surface. 
  10. Press the water out of the mold frame and lay the sheet of hemp fiber out for drying. 
    1. Note: Specific instructions for this vary, depending on the type of papermaking kit you have. 

Making hemp paper at home: Method 2

This next method for making hemp paper at home is a bit more hands-on. It requires more intensive handling of the hemp plant material, including the leaves and stalks. (So, if you’re not interested in gathering the necessary fibers yourself directly from the plant, the above technique may be better suited for you.) Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Hemp stalks (They should be dead but still retain some moisture. If it’s too dry, it will be difficult to separate the bast fiber from the rest of the plant material.)
  • Washing soda
  • Stainless-steel pot
  • Water
  • Kitchen scale
  • Flat, impact-resistant surface
  • Tool for beating fiber (e.g., a mallet)
  • Boiled okra water

Now that you’ve gathered everything, you’re ready to get started with the second technique for making hemp flower:

  1. Take a hemp branch in your hand and grip separate handfuls of leaf stems.
  2. Pull the leaves apart so that you split the hemp stems. 
  3. When you pull the plant material apart, you’ll notice that the torn area has lots of string-like things sprawled out where the stalk once was. These are bast fibers, the fibrous material that you want. 
    1. Note: You can also get bast fiber by peeling the top layer of plant material from the hemp plant’s lateral limbs or the plant’s equivalent of branches, but that might be slower and more tedious. 
  4. There’s also bast fiber on the stalks’ interior. The stalk is made up of more woody material like a hardy shrub, so it’ll be harder to remove the fiber at this step. It’s easiest to cut the stalks up so that a cross-section of the fibrous material is exposed. You can take hold of the “bark” and peel it back, away from the stalk’s center. It’s the same as peeling malleable bark from a stick. 
  5. Ultimately, you’ll want to collect the fibers from about 3 stalks, along with their lateral limbs. There should be enough to make 200 g, which is enough to make 100 g of usable fiber. 
  6. Cook the fibrous material in a stainless-steel pot using the instructions above. 
  7. Measure out 100 g of washing soda. 
  8. Add the washing soda and bring the fibers to a boil once again.
  9. Pour the hemp fiber out onto your impact-resistant surface.
  10. Begin beating the hemp fiber with your tool of choice. Periodically fold the beaten layer of fiber over itself as you process it. At this point, you will start to see the stringy fibers more clearly. These will interlock to form the sheet of paper. 
  11. Pour the boiled okra water over a strainer. The chemicals in this water will help separate the hemp fibers. Add the strained okra water to a shallow basin, like the one used in Method 1. 
  12. Add the fibers into the basin. 
  13. Agitate the water, then scoop your papermaking mold and deckle underneath the surface. You should gather enough fiber to cover the entire sheet. 
  14. Get rid of the excess water and turn the hemp fibers directly onto a cloth or another flat, absorbent surface.  
  15. Press the back of the screen with a sponge to make it easier to separate the papermaking equipment from your hemp fibers. 
  16. Gently place a thin sheet of fabric or another absorbent material on top of the hemp fibers and place a weight on top. This will help dry the sheet and flatten it at the same time. 

Does hemp make good paper?

Many people believe that hemp makes a better paper source than traditional tree wood. Various reasons contribute to that perspective, mainly relating to the environmental return on investment, or ROI. 

People from ancient times knew this better than the modern human population, considering that hemp was the first-ever paper ever made. (Of course, this is aside from the lack of contemporary logging equipment.) The only reason the world left hemp paper behind was that the demand began to outweigh the supply. 

The easier and seemingly more cost-effective option then became more appealing: making paper from razed forests. Now, humans are seeing the error of their ways and making a U-turn back to the hemp plant. Here’s why.

Less environmental impact for a higher ROI

Currently, paper made from hemp is one of the world’s small handful of paper types made from annual plants. Annual plants are the species that live an entire life cycle in only one growing season. So, instead of living from year to year, it grows and dies in only a few months. To reproduce, the plant releases many seeds before its death, ensuring that the next generation will germinate the next year and continue the species existence.

This life cycle trait can come in handy for farmers tasked with the responsibility of growing hemp. This means that its need for resources is manageable and scalable since it only grows seasonally, not enduring year to year. Plus, hemp doesn’t just take from the environment but gives back. It’s been shown to sequester about 11,000 lbs of CO2 throughout its growth cycle, helping to cleanse the atmosphere of greenhouse gases.

Additionally, hemp doesn’t require any harmful chemicals, such as harsh pesticides and herbicides, to grow healthy and strong. These types of products can contaminate water, soil, and plant life. In this way, hemp helps to ease the burden of human activity on the earth’s atmosphere.  

Variations of hemp paper

Speaking directly to the hemp plant’s versatility, you can make more than one variation of hemp paper. Each offers its own benefits and drawbacks, depending on your needs and preferences. 

On the one hand, you can make hemp paper from the fibers alone. This type tends to be quite thin, plus it’s not very durable. Some describe it as “brittle,” so it may not be the best to write on as a replacement for tree-derived paper. 

The other option is pulp paper. Admittedly, it’s structurally weaker than the fiber alternative. However, here’s the main difference: Pulp paper is softer, which is why people most often prefer this over fiber, especially for day-to-day writing. 

Some believe that, no matter what the type, hemp paper’s quality is better than wood. This is because of the two plants’ physiological structures. 

Why do we not use hemp for paper? 

Currently, only a sliver of the world’s paper supply comes from annual plants, including hemp. The closest the average person will get to real hemp paper – at least, from most manufacturers – is having it blended with wood pulp to make paper. 

Its purer form is much more challenging to find, as there are currently only 23 mills in the entire world that produce hemp paper. 

Despite how sustainable and high-quality hemp paper production could be relative to trees, the world still seems hesitant to return to this plant as the main resource for papermaking. Perhaps the following explanations are behind the global resistance.

Political barriers to using hemp for paper

Of course, one reason why the world’s populations make less hemp paper than they once did is because of a little thing called “prohibition.” During the 1800s, hemp was one of the world’s most important crops, produced and traded for fiber, food, and much more. 

Unfortunately, once the 1900s rolled around, political disdain for the cannabis plant began to proliferate, leading to the world leaving hemp crops in the dust. Lobbyists put the nail in hemp cultivation’s coffin back in the 1930s especially, when the owners of prominent synthetic textile manufacturers wanted to stamp out hemp production nationwide. 

Hemp’s close relation to marijuana didn’t help either, around the time of the Mexican Revolution. Around this time, US political leaders began leveraging their power, turning social prejudice against the neighbors south of the border, ultimately demonizing the cannabis plant and tying it to fear-mongering related to Mexican immigration. 

Plus, industrial hemp was only legalized in 2018 with the release of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Bill, with new legislative adjustments having been announced in January of 2021. Before then, the crop being outlawed eliminated any hope of hemp paper being produced on a large scale.  

Commercial interests shifted away from hemp

All these political and social issues occurred alongside the economic and capitalist incentive to leave hemp behind in favor of the potential for increased profits. 

The industry shift away from hemp began alongside the rise of rag paper, a type of stationery that fulfilled and stirred up consumer demand like nothing else before it. Producers could make rag paper using high-speed machines, which led to paper prices ballooning by more than 50% by 1850. 

Thanks to the invention of the “rag refiner” years later, this paper type persisted, and prices fell again. Yet, the Civil War caused the cost to soar once again, sending papermaking companies to the forests for cheaper material. The industrial consumption of trees for paper took off, and hemp paper has since been reduced to a “specialty” stationery alternative.

Hemp & Paper

Although hemp paper would clearly be the greener, more cost-effective option for producing paper throughout the world – especially considering the present threat of worsening climate change – commercial and political figures still display significant resistance to the idea. 

Despite hemp’s position as the superior paper resource, historical economic opportunism and political tensions appear to be keeping this transition in the future just out of reach. Fortunately, with this guide, you can make it yourself at home with relatively little effort. Make your own ream of hemp paper, even if the big corporations don’t want to join you! 

Jazmin Murphy
Jazmin Murphy is a trained science writer & reporter who has covered a breadth of topics. She is also a strong supporter and advocate of cannabis for recreational, wellness, and medical purposes.

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