The modern age has accustomed us to paper with a uniform appearance, 90° corners, and edges so sharp that they can cause a nasty cut. However, prior to the 19th century, crisply cut, smooth edges were not common.
Perhaps you’ve seen an old book made of worn-looking pages with irregular edges. Maybe you’ve browsed through ribbon-clan stacks of handmade paper at a crafts fair and noticed the thin, feathery edges of each sheet.
You may not have been aware of this at the time, but you were actually admiring what is known as deckle edges.
What is deckle edge paper? Deckle edge paper refers to paper with an uneven, ragged, or feathered edge formed when pulp seeps between the mold and the deckle during the paper making process. Handmade paper naturally has deckle edges, but imitations can be made by tearing or cutting with a special tool.
Learning more about deckle edges will not only give you a deeper appreciation for those who make handmade paper, but it may inspire you to try out the hobby for yourself. (It’s easier than you might think!)
Deckle Edged Paper
Through the early 1800s, paper had ragged, uneven edges that were often, though not always, left untrimmed to save on production costs, even when used in books.
Those uneven edges are called deckle edges, with deckle referring to a device used in paper making.
However, old papers and books are not the only places one may find deckle edges. Anyone vaguely familiar with handmade paper knows that it too has lovely, uneven edges.
Many would agree that, in addition to the texture and added design elements, the feathery edges are what makes handmade paper so desirable and special.
What Causes Deckle Edges?
Deckle edges form as paper is dipped from the slurry.
Some of the pulp in the slurry seeps between the mold and deckle, thus eliminating the possibility of nice, straight edges.
If you’ve never made homemade paper before, this might not make much sense.
Let me quickly walk you through the steps of making paper by hand so that you’ll have a clear understanding of why deckle edges form.
The Paper Making Process
All handmade paper begins with pulp. Usually, a handful of torn bits of scrap paper is added to a household blender, although some people prefer to use cotton linters for this step.
Pulp and Slurry
Next, water is added to the blender until it’s about ⅔ full, and the machine whirls the mixture for a few minutes until it appears uniform in appearance.
This is what’s known as the slurry.
The slurry is poured into a shallow tub, and more water may be added, depending on how thin or thick the crafter wants the paper to be.
At this point, a dipping frame known as a mold and deckle is needed.
The mold is basically a wooden frame with a piece of screening on top. The deckle sits on top of the mold and looks nearly identical, but it does not have a screen.
The frame is inserted at an angle into the slurry until it lies flat on the bottom of the tub.
The crafter then lifts the frame straight up through the slurry and gently wiggles it back and forth to ensure that pulp is evenly distributed.
The deckle holds slurry in the frame long enough for the next step to occur. Excess water will drip out slowly through the screen, but pulp will be trapped on top.
It is this phase of the process that the deckle edges form.
You see, the deckle is held tightly to the mold, but does not form a complete seal, so some of the pulp oozes between them and is trapped.
This seepage accounts for the nonuniform edges we refer to as deckle edges.
Thinner slurries will often produce more pronounced feathering than thicker slurries will.
Transfer and Pressing
Once most of the water has drained from the frame, the paper is transferred to an absorbent material (most often felt) and remaining water is pressed out with a dry sponge.
The last phase is drying. Depending on the method used, drying times can be as short as a couple of minutes or as long as a few days.
You can learn more about the drying process in my article on drying times and methods.
What Are Faux Deckle Edges?
Faux, or imitation, deckle edges are often intentionally placed on commercially produced paper as an embellishment to lend the paper an old or handmade appearance.
In fact, if you have any books at home with edges that aren’t quite smooth, it is most likely that the edges have been faked.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with distressing the edges to give paper a certain look reminiscent of a simpler time.
However, it does seem odd that what was once viewed as an unfortunate imperfection in the paper-making process is now viewed as desirable and is deliberately replicated.
Believe it or not, many people who happen upon a deckle edge book, whether it is a true deckle edge or a faux effect, assume that it is a design flaw or publishing mistake and refuse to purchase it.
That shows just how detached we have become to the work that goes on behind the scenes to make many of the products we so often take for granted, like a good book.
It was common in the 1800s for two versions of the same book to be produced and advertised.
One version appeared modern with clean-cut edges, and the second, more expensive version had deckle edges.
This gave customers the impression that the book with deckle edges was of higher quality and therefore was more valuable. Don’t you just love marketing techniques?
How to Make Faux Deckle Edges on Ordinary Paper
The artificial deckle edges are added to commercially produced paper by machines, but home crafters can achieve the same, or better, effects using a few simple techniques.
You already know that ripping a piece of paper leaves behind a jagged edge, but perhaps you’ve never thought of using this to your advantage to produce a faux deckle edge.
All you need to do is sharply crease the paper where you would like the edge to be. Place a ruler right beside the crease.
Grasp the edge of the portion of the paper you wish to remove and pull upwards to tear along the crease.
Repeat this process for all sides you wish to have a deckle edge.
Another option is to use a dual edge ripper in place of the ruler. These devices have two sharp, jagged edges to help you control the appearance of the faux deckle edges.
Not all scissors cut a straight line. If the tearing method doesn’t produce the look you wanted, try using a pair of edging scissors to mimic a deckle edge.
Fiskars makes a few different deckle edge scissors, but I’ve found that paper edging sets designed for children’s crafts work just as well.
I recommend ECR4Kids Kraft Edgers because several of the 20 included scissors have uneven patterns to more closely replicate a true deckle edge.
Tip: After cutting the edges, lightly moisten each edge, and with your fingertips, gently rub the wet edges in various directions to tease out the paper’s fibers for a more genuine look.
Rotary Paper Trimmer
Most rotary paper trimmers have a solid metal base board and a sharp cutting wheel housed in a protective case that glides along a metal guide bar to produce perfectly straight cuts on paper.
However, there are numerous cutting wheels available, including a deckle edge blade that can be used instead of the straight blade.
If you choose to use this method to create imitation deckle edges, I recommend Carl’s Professional Rotary Paper Trimmer.
It can handle both thin and thick paper, and can even cut multiple sheets (up to 10, depending on thickness) at once.
The cutting grid on the metal base and the ruler on the side ensure that cutting precisely will not be a problem.