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The House Journal   | November 1902

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The Art & Mystery of Making Wallpaper

There are few objects more familiar to us than wallpaper, yet it is probable not many, even of those who handle this important article of domestic comfort in the way of business, are familiar with the various methods by which it is produced. The processes are of the greatest interest, and are worth study by all interested in the House Beautiful because a judicious selection of wallpapers depends upon, or, at any rate, is much assisted by a knowledge of the process of manufacture.

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Visiting The Manufactory of MESSRS. CHAS. KNOWLES & CO., LTD., of Chelsea

First we come to a long room where tinted paper without pattern is produced by machines in which revolving brushes play the most prominent part. As the paper is coloured it is taken and hung in long folds in a tall room where special hanging arrangements enable it to dry evenly and well. So much for tinted paper. Now we come to the special pattern work produced by hand—the papers which are called block-printed. Here we find a man wearing the old-fashioned paper stainers hat, and standing before a quaint-looking wooden machine which supplies the power for the work he directs. In front of him is a soft felt pad of considerable area, and at his side a pad covered with felt-blanket containing the colour he is using. Over the printing table his assistant is helping him to pass a long strip of the wallpaper which is there being manufactured. Most wallpapers have two or three colours in them, but chintz designs often have twelve or fifteen colours, and each of these colours is put on by a separate printing.

The work is done by blocks made of deal boards in the same style as drawing boards to prevent them warping out of shape, and on the face of these the pattern is fixed, and consists of pieces of pear-wood or some similar hard material very accurately carved. The fine work is, however, produced by copper prints.

1902 wallpaper decoration with floral pattern

Suppose, for instance, the design consists of red roses, green leaves, and yellow ribbons. One of these blocks, as they are called, we shall have for each tint of roses, another set for the green leaves, as well as for the yellow ribbons. The operative commences at one end of the long roll of paper which is to pass over the pad. He takes the block in his hand and dips on the blanket, so that the surface is evenly covered with, for instance, yellow for the ribbons: he then places the block on the paper and by bringing over it a wooden arm, and pressing a treadle he applies an even pressure. So he works till he has got to the end of the piece, and as he applies the pattern his assistant pulls the paper along, and it is hung over iron rods near the ceiling where it soon becomes dry. The red pigment is next prepared for the blocks showing the roses and the paper again passes over the felt pad; and so on for each separate printing required.

The difficulty which one foresees is that of getting the various parts of the design to fit precisely one to the other, especially when the work is done by hand. This obstacle is surmounted as follows: Each block has on the corners pins, so that when the first is pressed down it pierces holes in the paper. When the next block is imposed the four pins it carries are fitted to the holes already existing, so that perfect accuracy of register is ensured. The paper, when it comes out finished, is extremely artistic and, of course, a great deal of skilful craftsmanship is demanded of the stainers in their queer paper hats and many coloured aprons.

If the stainers require skill, more still is needed by the stencillers who produce designs in several colours with their large zinc stencilled plates. The method here is much the same as that employed by amateurs. Several plates are used, one for each colour. A daub of pigment fairly consistent is stuck on one corner of the plate and worked on with a circular brush of short stiff hairs, in shape not unlike the one used for blacking grates, but made of shorter and superior fibre. This work may appear simple enough to anyone who know's nothing about it, but the clever way in which the colours are blended when still wet to produce shaded effects can only come of long practice.

We now pass on through several rooms in which men are busy block printing, many of them are experts in the mixing of colour, one of the most important branches of the art. Here is one for instance, busy printing a most effective paper, which, on examination, turns out to be a fleur-de-lys in dark red on a red paper.

This operative has carried out his fleur-de-lys pattern in another very effective way with flock printing. The method of working is as follows: The paper is printed with a block, but instead of paint they use gum or some other adhesive. Flock, in the form of a light powder and dyed to the requisite colour is dusted over the paper. This flock sticks where the pattern is, and produces a wonderful, soft appearance in a very low relief. The light on the flock-printed paper gives a pretty blush and the whole effect is admirable.

Side by side with wallpaper of this description is a ceiling paper, in which undyed flock has been worked in three successful layers so that the pattern stands out conspicuously from the background. The paper is for the ceiling and will take colouring as usually employed The wear in this is enormous, and to say that it will last a lifetime is more truthful here than in most cases.

Leaving the hand-printing side of the factory we now pass into one of the machine rooms. Here we see the machines, the central part of which is a great drum. Round this drum are a number of rollers each bearing one part of the pattern, the pattern being put on in felt with copper outlines. The colour is put on by strips of flannel constantly passing over rollers -and dipping in a tray.

The paper in long strips passes round the drum which is some 8ft. in circumference, and as it does so, it receives one colour after another till as many as twelve have been applied.

These are some of the methods employed in the manufacture of that every-day article—wallpaper. It is not often that one finds such true artistic ability as is displayed in the paper, combined with such ingenious mechanical skill, and I feel sure that the readers of the House will endorse the thanks I expressed to Messrs. Charles Knowles & Co., Limited, for the opportunity of making so interesting and instructive a study.


1902 wallpaper decoration with geometric pattern
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