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Cotton fibers for paper clay

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I tripped over using cotton linters that get used in paper making back in the day. The fibre is longer and stronger than the usual newsprint or t.p. for sure. The sheets break down easily in hot water too, because there’s no sizing or other things. No need for a blender: I put the roughly torn sheet in a 5 gallon bucket of water, let it soak over night and used the same paint mixing bit to make the pulp that I did making the paper clay slurry.

The stink they make when they break down  has a more mineral tang to it, and takes a day or two longer to develop, but it still gets gross. The linters fibre integrity holds up better under decay than the papers I used. I’d still take the usual precautions against rot though. 

I found it made the slabs a bit stiffer, and things dried out a bit quicker, but that last isn’t a big issue because paperclay. If you wanted to do things like carve it or do cutouts, your tools will dull quickly. Textures are easier to stamp in while the clay is still soft, so do that sort of thing early in the process. 

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I have made clay with news papers and with toilet paper,  both of them got pretty smelly pretty fast.  My local ceramics store started stocking paper clay so I gave it a try.  Loved it never spoiled and was nice to  make slab work with.   I had some left over after I finished my project and let it dry in a sheet so I could break a junk off and use it for repairs.   Denice

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Cactus pots

That's a nice link to supplies.  Their descriptions focus on paper making so I'm not sure how to translate that to pottery. Which of the two linters they offer do you find best for pottery. I'm wanting to mix a little of it into my thick glaze trailing to reduce cracking from shrinkage. I'm fascinated by what I see pastry chefs do. I'm working on a brew to make that possible for glaze trailing. I have it almost worked out except for occasional shrinkage cracks when I have long thick lines. Paper fiber seems to help but maybe cotton would be a bit better.

Below is the  document that got me interested in cotton linter.

Revised Paperclay Workshop Handout
Posted January 13, 2015 by Jerry Bennett
 Paper Clay Workshop Handout Paper clay Workshop by Jerry Bennett 

Jerry Bennett - red and blue vase

I have been thinking recently about the importance of working with ceramics and how, time after time, I have been influenced by old traditional techniques in the craft. I find it ironic that I have found major influence in the traditions of pit-firing, and recently the use of paperclay. Paperclay has many advantages for the modern clay artist including; increased pre-firing strength, reduction in warping, increased joining capacity in both wet-to-wet joints and dry-to-dry joining. Paperclay has made a whole array of techniques available to me that I could not have thought of even a year ago. Super thin building techniques, translucent porcelain, and a very fast working style are all of the opportunities I have experienced.

Here are some of the things I have learned along the way: 1st…

It’s important to be safe with materials…. The method described below uses handheld power tools and ceramic production equipment. Use caution when using all equipment in the studio. The mixer spins at high speed and you should always keep your hands out of the bucket when mixing clay. Follow directions printed on the tools and read the operation manual. When mixing dry ingredients such as the paper or clay, wear a dust mask. When firing paperclay in a kiln, make sure adequate ventilation is provided to prevent breathing kiln emissions. For your safety read all safety publications concerning materials you are using. Do not use moldy (Black) paper clay. It is important that you take these ideas and experiment with them. Test these techniques and materials prior to making large amounts of work.

The clay…. 
Paperclay can be made out of any clay an artist would want to use. Generally speaking, the more refined the clay the more benefit there is to adding paper fibers to the clay. The benefits to porcelain having paper fibers are very pronounced, lesser for stoneware and almost none for earthenware. Commercially paperclay is used to retard warping in clay, reduce weight of clay objects, and to lessen the cost of producing clay objects by replacing part of the clay with paper fibers which costs less. This is a common practice in the brick making industry. “Paper clay” or should we call it “fiber clay”: Paperclay is at its best when the paper fibers are equally disbursed into the clay mixture. Many commercial companies mix pug-milled clay with paper fibers. I feel this is not the optimum way to make paperclay. But, clay mixers such as Blue Bird and Soldner clay mixers can be used. 

To get a better mix of the fibers within the clay, a wet (slurry) mixture of clay works best. I use bagged moist clay and mix the moist clay with additional water ( 1 to 2 gallons of hot water per 50 lbs.) until it is thick as yogurt. This clay can have lumps in it as long and they can be broken down during the mixing process. I use a standard five gallon plastic bucket to make 50 lbs. of clay. After filling the bucket with about 1 ½ gallons of water I add 25 lbs of clay to make the bucket half full of slip, I mix the clay very well with a paint mixer attached to a standard drill. Spiral mixer used with drill I then slowly add the second 25 lb block of clay and keep mixing the clay. I use a paint mixer or drywall plaster mixer that was purchased for $6 at a Home Depot and is a very heavy 3” spiral type mixer. This type of mixer has an enclosed mixing head with a spiral attachment on top that creates a heavy vortex flow within the bucket. 

It is important that the wet clay is well mixed and that all of the lumps are worked out of the clay prior to the addition of the paper fibers. Mix the clay until the mixture looks like thick yogurt or pancake batter. At this time, at your option, you can add a small amount of bleach (about one tablespoon) into the mixture to retard bacteria and reduce discoloration of the mixture. Adding bleach is not necessary when using cellulose insulation or cotton and may be omitted. Mix the clay and paper fibers together. The mixture will thicken or gel; this is a normal part of the process. Let the mixture set for a short time, and mix again. The final mixture should be very even in color and a smooth texture. At this point the mixture should be thick enough that you can remove the mixture from the bucket to a drying bat or rack with your hands. 

After drying to the desired consistency, the paperclay can be stored in airtight plastic buckets. If you use paper instead of cellulose, use the paperclay quickly, taking care not to make more than you can use in a week. Cellulose insulation based paperclay can be stored 3 to 5 weeks without spoilage. Store all paperclay in a cool, dark place. If mold does form on the surface of the clay, spray the surface of the clay with a spray bottle filled with water and a very small amount of bleach. 

Remember: Always wet fibers prior to adding them to the clay or you will find it hard to mix dry fibers into the clay. This is easy to do. Just prior to mixing the clay place the fibers in a bucket and add water. Paper or cotton fibers will soak up the water. 

Adding Cotton to the clay: Recently I have been working with the addition of cotton to the clay instead of paper. Cotton which is a form of cellulose is a good addition to clay because it lacks starch which forms rot in the clay and it is easy to add to the wet clay mixture. I use cotton linters which is the 2nd cutting of the cotton seed. This shorter fiber can be easily chopped. This type of cotton is sold for the papermaking craft and is quite inexpensive. I found a source on the internet by using Google and searching for “cotton linter” 
papermaking supplies. Most of the cotton is sold in sheet form and sold by the pound. I recently purchased ten pounds at $2.50 per pound. Cotton fibers float in the water it is mixed with. I have found that by adding a very small amount of dish detergent the fibers break down in the water better and faster. The cotton fibers will form a white raft on the top of the water which is easy to remove and add to the clay. One of the major advantages the cotton adds to the clay is that the fibers are natural and not colored with the addition of printing inks or other contaminates. I have also found that the cotton fibers are very stable in the clay and don’t rot as fast as paper cellulose. I have also found that because of the size of the fibers I can add a lot more cotton to the clay than paper. Although the cost of the cotton fibers is much more than paper, the overall benefit to the clay is great enough that it is well worth the additional cost to use the material. 

Paper: All types of paper can be used for paperclay. Many people use toilet paper because it is very fine milled paper and is easily broken down in the mixing process. There is a very good reason not to use this paper source. Toilet paper contains starch as a sizing material. When broken down in the clay mixture, toilet paper will begin the process of rotting almost immediately. Paperclay made from toilet paper will turn dark gray and start to stink in about ten days. The paperclay will work fine, and when it burns out in the kiln will return to the clay color without a change in the fired state. 

Don’t use paperclay that has begun to turn black. There could be a health hazard associated with the use of this material. I recommend that you use other kinds of paper which is less expensive such as newspaper pulp. Soak newspaper in hot water for a short period of time then beat the fibers with a drill with a mixer attached. This breaking down of the fibers will take about five minutes at a high speed. To test the fibers take a clear glass of water and add some of the paper/water mixture. You can see through the glass of water and judge how broken down fibers are. If there are chunks of paper floating in the water just keep mixing until the fibers are well liberated. Strain the water and the fibers are ready to add to the clay. You can dry out “patties” of the fibers for later use. But remember to always add wet fibers to the clay. Cellulose insulation: Cellulose insulation is made from ground up newspapers and is available at most building suppliers and lumberyards. The advantage of this material is that it is comprised of ground up newspaper and chemicals to retard spoilage and fire. It doesn’t rot, turn black or smell when it is stored as wet clay. Cellulose is sold in 30 lb bags and costs about $6 per bag. One bag of insulation should be enough for almost any size studio. 

I recommend that you limit the amount of paper in clay (porcelain) to 200 grams or less per 50 lbs of clay. If you use cellulose insulation as your source of paper fiber, use a clay formula designed for a higher temperature for firing. I fire porcelain to cone 6. I use Standard porcelain #257 which is rated for cone 8-10. Cellulose, which is actually just ground up newspaper, contains borax and boron which is used to reduce the fire hazard for the installed cellulose ceiling insulation. The Borax acts as a flux in the fired clay and has a tendency to reduce the maturity point of the fired clay. I have found that this can be a problem in ultra thin porcelain, and tall small based vases, that result in slumping of the clay form. This is less of a problem if you use stoneware or earthenware clay. If you use cotton as your fiber source or paper fibers from newspaper you will not need to increase the firing temperature of the clay because you will be avoiding the use of borax in the fibers. The ratio I use of paper to clay is 100 grams of fibers to 50 lbs of clay. About 800 grams of paper to 50 lbs of clay is about the limit. Above this amount could be used for large hand-built forms but not recommended for general handbuilding. 

Resist the impulse to put a lot of paper fibers into the clay. A small amount of fibers in relation to the amount of clay works well. Too much paper and the clay will have problems in the fired state. (I use porcelain; too much paper causes the clay to be very translucent, hard, glass like, and tends to dunt in the glaze firing. Too many fibers in the clay and it actually begins to feel spongy and soft when you work with it.) When using red earthenware, or stoneware clay, you can use much more paper. Porcelain with cellulose insulation can’t take as much paper and will experiences excessive shrinking and warping, due to the borax, if you use more than 200g per50 lbs of clay. 

After you have added the paper fibers, mix the clay with your paint mixer for several minutes. I would also recommend the addition of one to two tablespoons of bleach to the mixture. (Recently several people have been using Spic and Span which is a dry powder floor cleaning product here in the United States. I’m not sure this is a good idea.) Make sure the mixture is even in color and all the material on the bottom of the bucket is well mixed into the paperclay. The mixture should be much ticker than when you started. It is a good idea to let this mixture set about fifteen minutes and then mix it again. The water in the clay will continue to soften the paper fiber and it will get ticker. Place this mixture on a drying bat to dry the material to a workable consistency. In my studio I place the wet clay on a piece of cloth on a concrete floor which dries the clay in about a day. 

Don’t store the wet (slurry) clay mixture for any length of time. It appears to me that the wetter the mixture, the more prone to rotting the mixture is. Store the clay in an air tight container and put the container is a cool place. During the summer, sun or heat will cause the clay to rot very rapidly. Don’t store the clay in a clear container (I have made this mistake.) When working with the clay, allow all scrap materials to dry out. When you want to recycle clay, wet the clay with warm water at the last moment and mix it into the batch of new clay. Paper clay slip, used to bond joints when hand building, has a tendency to rot because it is stored in a wet slurry state. This wet slip will need the addition of bleach from time to time to prevent rotting. 

Rotting Problems…. 
Store all paperclay in a cool, dark place. If mold does form on the surface of the clay, spray the surface of the clay with a spray bottle filled with water and a very small amount of bleach. Paper clay when stored in a warm place or for extended time will form mold on the inside of the clay. If this rot forms the clay should not be used. The paper clay can be used again by allowing the clay to dry and then putting the dry clay in water with a small amount of bleach in the water. Add this slurry mixture to your next batch of paper clay. People have made the recommendation on Clayart and other internet locations that a way to prevent rotting of paper clay is to add Thymol to the clay. I do not recommend that you add this chemical to the clay. Thymol can be absorbed through the skin and is an irritant, especially to the eyes. Read the safety information about the chemical prior to any use at http://website.lineone.net/~dave.cushman/thymolsafety.html. Thymol is used by adding the crystals to rubbing alcohol. A very small amount of this alcohol (cap full) is then added to the clay mixture. Thymol has a very distinctive odor. Once added to the clay it can’t be removed. Thymol remains in dry clay that may be reprocessed and could contaminate future batches of your clay. 

Commercial Paper clay: If you purchase paper clay from your clay supplier make sure you review the printed safety sheet that is available from the supplier. Often you will not know the material added to the clay to prevent spoilage although they will list the chemical names. I have elected to make paper clay rather than have these materials in contact with my skin.

 I dry my paperclay on bread racks that I got at a local store. These bread racks are about four inches high and 30’ square. They are made out of the same plastic that the five gallon bucket is made of and used to deliver bread to the local store without crushing the bread during delivery. They are made so that they stack on their corners without touching the bread. I spread a cloth mat on the bottom or the rack and spread a two-inch thick layer of the paperclay on top of it. I then stack the bread racks up and the clay can dry rapidly because of the airflow around the racks. This method of drying clay works very well for all types of clay and is a better way than using plaster bats. When the clay is dry to the consistency I like, I remove the cloth backing and store the clay in large plastic containers. Remember to store the clay in a dark cool place. Try not to use a clear storage container. 
 Properties of paperclay: 
 You can make paperclay out of any clay body that you are currently using. Paperclay increased the dry strength of the body so that moving large pieces is less of a problem. Paper in the clay “opens” up the clay body so that you could work with much thicker walls for sculptural forms. Water vapor will escape the walls because of the paper; the threat of exploding walls is reduced. Using cotton or flax fibers will greatly increase the raw/dry clay strength. Remember, the most fragile time for paper clay is when the fibers have been burned out in the bisque state. When working on sculptural forms, you can add multi-layers of clay. These additions can be added at any point in the forming process. You can add wet-to-wet, wet-to-dry, or wet-to-bisque. (Yes, you can add wet clay to bisque and re-fire the piece.) Paperclay will withstand multiple re-dampening to make changes in the form. Paperclay will withstand forced drying. Paperclay allows for late stage additions to a piece. Even when dry, paperclay will stick to the form and allow changes. It is easy to cut a handle off a piece and reattach a better handle. The fired results of paperclay are the same as regular clay. Ash from the paper and borax in the cellulose will act as a slight flux in the clay body. Use a cone 10 porcelain body and fire to cone 6 to correct for the flux problem. No change in formulation is necessary for stoneware or earthenware. No change is necessary if you make your own paper fibers or use cotton since they don’t contain borax. 

 Short paper fibers are better than long fibers. Long fibers or even other materials such as nylon or fiberglass do not add advantages to the clay. They are hard to cut and decrease workability. Don’t use glossy or color papers in paperclay. Ink used on newsprint will not add color to the fired clay. When using newsprint for your paper source, add a very small amount of dishwashing detergent to the water used in breaking down the fibers. Paperclay reduces the weight of the clay body because the paper replaces part of the clay with the lighter paper fibers. Paperclay can be used on the wheel. But, a better idea is to use the regular clay on the wheel and use paperclay if you attach any handbuilt additions to the form. Handles made out of paperclay are less likely to crack and the paper helps bind them to the surface. 
 Paperclay slip is very good joining glue when handbuilding forms. The paper fibers in the clay increase the strength of the dry bond. Casting slip can be an excellent source of clay to make paper clay. Just add damp fibers to the slip and dry it out using the techniques listed in this paper. You can add the fibers to the slip and then use the slip as a dipping material for any organic material. Try dipping rope, seed pods, twigs and branches, leaves etc. Dry them out and then take some slip and stick them together or add them to pots. Paper clay can be used a repair material for cracked pots. (It’s usually better to discard a broken pot and spend your time making a better one!) The clay, along with paper slip can be forced into the crack for a repair. The paper helps to hold the patch in place and increased the bond of the repair. 
 Hint: You can repair a bisque pot…Soak the pot in water for about ten minutes. While the pot is still dripping wet force paper clay into the crack, dense pack if you can. Don’t worry about the surface just get as much clay into the crack as you can. Let the piece dry and then smooth the surface with a wet sponge. Bisque the pot. If the crack is still there repeat the process until the pot is free of the crack. This process will fix almost anything! 
 You can build hollow armatures to support large sculptural forms very quickly. Force dry the armature and then work with soft clay on the surface. Make sure all joints have water in between them to assure adhesion of the joint. Paper clay reduces the amount of shrinkage and warping. 
 Title makers would benefit from using paper clay to make tiles or any flat object. Because of the fibers in the clay which transport moisture and hold the clay from moving during drying paper clay makes the process of drying tiles much easier. You could even force dry the work. Graham Hay was one of the first paper clay artists to use dry clay to dry clay assembly. 
 Dry to Dry Assembly: 
 You can pre make elements to assemble into a sculpture by using paper clay and letting the elements dry out. Make a thick paste out of the same paper clay and then dip the elements into the paste where you want to attach the elements. At the International Ceramic Center in Hungary Graham demonstrated this technique by dipping cotton rope in paper clay slip. He strung the rope between two trees and allowed the rope to dry completely. He then cut the rope into 5” sections and then used these sections to assemble his sculpture. He dipped the ends of the rope sections into the thick slip and attached them together. Allowing the sections of the tower to set a short time before adding another level. He built a 6’ tower in about 30 minutes! 
 Paper clay allows for a single fire: 
 Because paper clay is very hard when bone dry and absorbs about the same amount of water as bisque there is almost no advantage of bisqueing pots that are made of paper clay. You can use the same techniques as you currently use but omit the first firing. Paper when added to clay in the amounts listed in this paper will not cause damage to an electric kiln. Increased amounts of cellulose, fired in a bisque kiln at a fast rate could cause a small amount of smoke in the kiln room. If this is a problem, reduce the amount of paper fiber in the clay, or fire the kiln at a slower rate for the first 1/3 of the firing. Adequate ventilation is important in all kiln firings. In most cases, the addition of pieces containing paper will not make any noticeable difference in the firing process.
 Sources of cellulose insulation can be obtained through local insulation distributors. Look in your local phone directory yellow pages under insulation. Call local insulation installers and ask to purchase a bag of insulation. Of the large building materials sellers in the Philadelphia area only Lows sells cellulose insulation. One bag of insulation will last you a very long time! (At the Clay Studio in Philadelphia, one bag of cellulose lasted over a year with several people using it.)

If you have questions or comments please contact me through the “Contact” above.

Thank You! I would like to thank the Clay Studio in Philadelphia (www.theclaystudio.org) , The International Ceramic Studio in Kecskemet Hungary (www.icshu.org) and Canada’s Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta Canada for providing help and support. By supplying me with residencies these valuable artist organizations have given me the opportunity to develop this work. I would also like to thank Rosette Gault and Graham Hay for their pioneering work in paper clay. Rosette Gault http://www.paperclayart.com/ (Books and information) Graham Hay http://www.grahamhay.com.au/paperclay.html (Very good information) Banff Center for the Arts http://www.banffcentre.ca/ (Great Place for a residency) The Clay Studio, Philadelphia http://www.theclaystudio.org/ (The center of the Universe) Graham Hay has a wonderful listing of Paper Clay artists from around the world at: http://www.grahamhay.com.au/paperclayartists.html

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We were advised not to use cellulose insulation because the fire retardant may or may not have things in addition to borax,  and could cause issues on burnout. Other than that, your handout covers everything I ever learned from Gary Williams or Trudy Golley on paper clay. Reclaim slip was never scarce in a college, so his method of mixing the clay slurry seems a bit convoluted. If your clay supplier sells your clay in dry bags, that's an even easier method than what he describes. Since you're looking to use this technique with stiff glaze, starting from dry ingredients is easily done.

Definitely  mix the pulp into the clay thoroughly, and be careful not to add too much to your formula if you're going to be piping it. I'd keep an eye on the tips getting clogged, and if you have too much pulp in the final product (>20% by volume), the end product can be friable. You'll probably have to do a little testing to get your ideal mix.

Keep us posted!

edited to add: if you order your linters from CactusPot's most excellent link, don't get any other fibre than cotton linters in your mix. Abaca and the others are a longer fibre, and will likely give you grief in the piping bag. If they sell it in dry sheets, it might save on shipping costs.

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I've only used the cotton linters #29.  I'm going to make an order next month and at least get a sample of the #87.  I'm using about a 25-30% mix, but only mixed by eye.  They ship the fiber wet.  It does not mold or go funky at all.  With as much fiber as I have in the mix, the slip itself will show texture after the fiber burns out.  Paper slip is definitely magic for fixing stuff you would otherwise chuck.   (I still chuck rim cracks)

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I learned about paper clay from Jerry in about 2003 but stopped using insulation because I was finding black specks from it in my clay. And they didn't burn out and the discoloration seeped into the glaze. I've been using cotton for years but I just get it at Michael's.  I store small amounts in the freezer and that seems to work as well as the fresh made stuff. 

orchid lace close up.jpg

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Hi there,

Can one also use cotton that they sell at the drugstore in rolls, to make the pulp and then mix in with the clay slurry? They do not sell cotton linters as they sell in the US in the Dominican Republic.  Would this be better than toilet paper? 


Many thanks,


Edited by Gusf
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On 8/20/2021 at 8:23 AM, Gusf said:

Would this be better than toilet paper? 

First, there’s nothing at all wrong with using toilet paper or newsprint pulp. Cotton linters is an ideal, best case scenario material, but that doesn’t mean bog roll or grocery flyers don’t do the job. I used cotton linters because I was at an art college that had a bookstore with a pretty wide range of fun supplies to play around with, and one of my classes had a paper making project. I found cotton linters had a longer fibre than the newsprint I’d been using in my paper clay, and it broke down in the clay slurry slower. I needed to use less of it to get similar working properties to newsprint. But you can get around most of the issues that cotton linters fixes by storing your paper clay in thin dry sheets that you re-wet as you need them. Use what you have readily available.

I don’t think that drugstore cotton would work better, no.  Cotton linters has a longer fibre than toilet paper or newsprint, but it’s still a much shorter fibre than cotton rolls or cotton balls. The really long fibre of cotton rolls would be more difficult to incorporate into clay slurry, although not impossible. However if the fibre you use is too long, it almost reinforces it too much, and it dries out more quickly and there’s less flexibility in clay sheets made with it. It’s not that it’s wrong, it just gives a different set of working properties. If that difference works for what you’re making, that’s a good thing,  a more medium length fibre like the linters is ideal, and the newsprint still works pretty good. Toilet paper, especially the soft stuff, is great for some instant gratification, but care needs to be taken  to not let it rot.


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