I need to to learn about old paper.
June 21, 2007 10:49 PM   Subscribe

I need to learn about paper. Specifically, I need to know where, if you were trying to write a medieval-looking text (Like a prop Necronomicon for an amateur production of Army of Darkness), you would get that thin, wispy parchment type paper.

I'm not doing an Army of Darkness reproduction, sadly (it's high on my list!) but I do need to know what to call this as I don't understand anything about paper weights and types and Google and WikiPedia are confusing me.

I need to be able to describe your sort of standard 'ancient Codex' and I need to know what it was written on -- because I know nothing about ancient books, it's difficult to articulate exactly what I'm going for, beyond: that brittleness of carbon paper; the sort of vellum/parchment feel of early 20th century paper; the thinness of newsprint; the decayed yellow that my Pogo books have turned since their original 1951 run and my Bloom County books are fast approaching; Though those two example even have to heavy paperweight -- the unabridged OED is more what I was going for in that department.

Any thoughts?

Oh yes -- what modern writing instrument would one use for such paper? Quill pen? Would a standard BIC ballpoint work or would it tear right through? How about a high-quality Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine?
posted by spiderwire to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
We order lots of paper from Talas for all our book repair needs. Since you are unsure as to what you want, you could get one of their paper samplers, or call up the nice folks - they are very helpful. I would probably suggest some kind of fine Japanese paper, since a lot of them seem to fit your desire for wispyness - and I think you can get some of them in varying colors. Otherwise, I would try dying them with acrylics (then you can get a blotchy, uneven, aged look).
posted by ikahime at 11:03 PM on June 21, 2007

I won't even pretend to know if it's what you need, but the thinnest type of paper that's readily available is called "onion skin." Office supply or printer's supply stores have it. It's usually white, but maybe someone makes a parchment pattern or colors. Or maybe you could tea-stain it.
posted by The Deej at 11:04 PM on June 21, 2007

I've used tracing paper for stuff like this.

Very thin, decently sturdy.

If you want it to look old, standard aging techniques (tea, fire, etc) might help

Plus if you have a decent printer, you can run it through a laser printer to do the base black text, which looks fucking awesome in the right fonts :)
posted by Lord_Pall at 11:26 PM on June 21, 2007

Response by poster: the context is that i would like to make something like this as a prop at some point (so thank you all for your advice, i think i know what i need to do on that account now), but my other issue is that have a character in a story who's writing an extensive "Codex" -- like a zillion-page manifesto along the lines of the Principia Mathematica, bound only in a leather case, hand written, and I need to know what sort of material such a thing would be printed on.

Obviously I would like it to have the same sort of wispy fragility and yellowedness that one would expect of all sort of mystical texts, since that's its symbolic importance -- it's also supposed to encompass a great deal of information, so the thing pages and OED-size bindings will be critical.

What are the OED and most Bibles printed on?

Could you hand-write on that paper?
posted by spiderwire at 12:18 AM on June 22, 2007

I think you might be talking about vellum. It's not paper as we know it, but wiki has a good deal of info.

The study of old manuscripts and the surfaces upon which they were written is palaeography or papyrology. I once attended a great seminar in which people were discussing the importance of the manufacturing process in dating ancient manuscripts. Old paper tended to be quite thick and the wood pulp or whatever was rolled between things which looked like bamboo blinds - you know what I mean, where you have lots of very thin long slivers of wood held together by cotton. Anyway by investigating the "fingerprint" of these blinds you can determine if a book's pages all came from the same paper manufacturer, so can tell the provenance (sort of) of ancient books. One of the speakers at this seminar was making his own paper with the same techniques: it was very thick. Watermarks are a whole other problem.

Given your description though, I'm fairly sure you're talking of vellum.
posted by handee at 12:25 AM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I had a suspicion that I was talking about vellum. I will investigate. Until then, I have another side question: If you did have access to all types of modern papers (I'm looking at you, ikahime), then what would you use to preserve your great, world changing, too-far-ahead-of-its-time-to-recognized manuscript? (In story mode here, obviously.)
posted by spiderwire at 12:30 AM on June 22, 2007

Vellum again. British acts of parliament are written on it. You can get "Paper Vellum" which is an imitation (cheaper, not made of dead animals).
posted by handee at 12:34 AM on June 22, 2007

A low-budget solution that I used once for a school project in my younger days.

-Write on a plain sheet of paper
-then use a lighter to slightly singe the edges. Depending on how antique you want it to look, you can burn a few holes in it as well
-then soak the paper overnight in a tray of tea

It yields pretty decent results and costs virtually nothing.

posted by Alabaster at 6:15 AM on June 22, 2007

To age regular paper, brush it with dilute lemon juice and hold it over a stove burner. This can also be used as invisible ink.
posted by RussHy at 6:23 AM on June 22, 2007

Here's a list of methods on how to make paper look old.
posted by desjardins at 6:35 AM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have to tell you about the Paper Museum at the Georgia Tech Institute of Paper Science.

I don't know where you are, but if you can visit, it's, well, it's an entire small museum devoted to paper, the history of paper, the making of paper, paper manufacturing, watermarks, fibers... I wandered in when I was a student and was amazed that I'd never known the museum was there.

You might find their web pages on the history of paper interesting.
posted by amtho at 7:29 AM on June 22, 2007

I think you're looking for something like sheepskin vellum, like this.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:00 AM on June 22, 2007

Response by poster: i'm not being clear -- i don't need to make or acquire old paper, or make paper look old: i need to understand the different types of paper and how to tell them apart, if that makes sense. it sounds like vellum is what i'm describing.
posted by spiderwire at 10:49 AM on June 22, 2007

Best answer: Check out this amazing history of bookbinding and the evolution of paper, posted in the comments at Making Light. It's really amazing, and especially the first two parts should be useful background for your project.

History of Bookbinding Part 1: bookbinding materials
History of Bookbinding Part 2: sewing, paper, glue
History of Bookbinding Part 3: myth of the ideal binding
History of Bookbinding Part 4: filthy lucre and the middle classes
History of Bookbinding Part 5: let them read books
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:06 PM on June 22, 2007

Response by poster: OK, guys 'n' gals -- I can see how my original question might have been confusing, but I'm not trying to learn how to bind books! I'm writing a story in which one integral point regards paper and printed materials, so I need to be able to differentiate between, say, vellum and parchment, and to be able to describe them.

That said, LobsterKitten's links are actually very valuable to that end. I did a little more independent research and I think I'm starting to learn what the problem is -- one of my initial points of confusion was pound-weight (trying to figure out what the thin types of paper are called) and it turns out that some of that stuff's kind of idiosyncratic. I'll post a link in a moment.
posted by spiderwire at 1:04 PM on June 22, 2007

Response by poster: Here, I'll give a specific hypothetical (this isn't the situation I was trying to describe, but it's close enough): Assume that you were going to go on a twenty-year trek through an inhospitable part of the world and your intent is to write an encyclopedia as you do so, cataloguing your trip. But you don't expect to be able to get new paper or pens after you leave. So (a) you have to take all your writing materials with you, (b) carry them around for twenty years (weight is at a premium), and (c) everything has to survive the trip (so you need to compromise between durability and weight).

The first question is: what paper (and what writing tool) is most appropriate to this situation?

The second question is: how do you describe this paper and what are its special qualities? (I've never had the opportunity to feel vellum, for example.) For example: How survivable is it? Are there any specific concerns about keeping it intact, etc?
posted by spiderwire at 1:13 PM on June 22, 2007

Response by poster: On third thought, I guess I was being clear, but I asked two questions -- (1) how to make a prop and (2) the more hypothetical question, and people answered both. Sorry about that. What I should have said is that I think I have the prop issue dealt with, so I'm more curious about the hypothetical question.
posted by spiderwire at 1:16 PM on June 22, 2007

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