Paper drying at the Basel Paper Mill Museum, Switzerland

Make Your Own Paper at the Basel Paper Mill Museum

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Traveling bibliophiles will be excited to discover a rather unique attraction in Basel, Switzerland. It’s known as both the Basel Paper Mill Museum and the Basler Papiermühle in this German-speaking part of the country. Not your typical museum, the site houses a thorough selection of exhibits detailing the history of paper and bookmaking, as well as an active paper mill where visitors can make and even dye their own handmade paper. If you have a chance to visit this place, jump on it. It’s pretty fascinating.

There are paper museums and there are paper mills, but the Basel Paper Mill Museum is both. Stop in and learn how to make your own paper! Click to Tweet
Entrance to the Basel Paper Mill Museum entrance in Switzerland
A fast-moving, shallow stream runs past the Basel Paper Mill Museum. It provides enough energy to turn the massive waterwheel outside, which in turn powers the entire crank system on the ground floor.

The History of the Basel Paper Mill Museum

The Basler Papiermühle found its humble beginnings in the 12th century as one of 12 mills built by members of the St. Alban Monastery. As it was conveniently located just a stone’s throw from the Rhine River, they also built a series of canals to harness hydro energy for powering these mills.

The site operated as a corn mill for the Klingental Monastery until 1428. It was then briefly used as a hammer mill.

In 1453, Antonious Galician converted it into a paper mill and first began producing paper.

Though it hasn’t operated as a paper mill continuously since then, it was at the heart of the Swiss paper industry during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was later restored and turned into a museum in 1980.

The ground floor of the paper museum in Basel, Switzerland
The main entrance leads to the ground floor of the building where pulp is turned into paper.

The Process of Making Paper

As soon as I entered the front door, I felt transported back to a time when life moved more slowly. Before computers and technology, back to a time when every page and book was lovingly handmade by a master craftsman, sometimes taking days, weeks, or even years.

While the warmth seeped back into my chilled hands and feet, I browsed past a series of old metal screens once used for pressing paper and made my way to the ground floor.

There I met Carlos Poete, an Argentinian artist and paper artisan. He walked me through the relatively “simple” 18th-century process the museum still uses to make their paper.

First, remnants of clothing and cotton material are washed, dried, and then chopped up at a cutting table with a wicked-looking blade.

Cotton cloth chopped for making paper at the Basel Paper Mill in Switzerland
Old cotton sheets and clothing are sliced into smaller pieces for soaking.

The rags are dampened to assist in breaking down the cotton fibers naturally and are then thrown down into a deep stone pit.

Rotting cellar at the paper museum, Basel

The opening of the pit is marked by a round viewing window set inside an orange square on the floor.

There they’re left to rot for eight or nine days. This process allows the cotton fibers to be broken down into pulp for making paper.

Tubs of paper pulp at Basel's paper mill museum

Old cotton cloth is soaked in a water bath for several days, then pounded into pulp with metal-tipped timbers powered by the waterwheel.

More water is added to the pulp in a wooden tub.

A metal screen is dipped into the soupy mixture and then raised and tilted, allowing the water to drain. The piece of soupy paper is carefully peeled from the wooden screen and laid between pieces of felt, where it’s gently pressed to absorb some of the water.

Wooden blocks are placed on top of and below the felt sheets with the paper sandwiched in between. Much of the remaining water is then squeezed out with a hand-operated wet press.

The sheets are again carefully peeled from the felt and hung over lines to dry.

And voilá ! Paper!

Making Your Own Paper

After explaining the process, Carlos asked if I wanted to try my hand at it.

I definitely did!

Rolling up my sleeves, I plunged the metal screen elbow-deep in the tub of watery cotton pulp. After draining and pressing my page, I lifted it too quickly and the corner crumpled into folds.  

Carlos encouraged me to try again.

My second attempt left me with a soft, warm sheet of freshly pressed paper to proudly take home.

Paper I made at the Basler Papiermuehle in Switzerland by Two Small Potatoes Travel
What’s most astounding is that the ingredients are so simple. No glue, chemicals, additives, or dyes. Just cotton and water.

When I finished making my own handmade piece of paper, I set out to explore the other three floors of the museum.

Ancient Writing Exhibit

Folks interested in the ancient history of paper making are sure to like one particular room full of ancient artifacts on display.

Tucked away in a cozy side room are some of the earliest known samples of Chinese and Arabic writing on ancient papyrus, along with a piece of parchment on display.

Ancient writing on papyrus at a museum in Basel, Switzerland
Ancient writing sample
Papyrus scroll on display at the paper museum in Basel
Papyrus scroll

The Evolution of Print

The second and third floors of the museum are dedicated to illustrating the progression of different methods of writing and printing and techniques for creating images in printed materials.

One of the more interesting rooms holds several wall-mounted displays with an impressive variety of old tools.

Book binding tools in Basel
A wall exhibit displays historical book-binding tools.

Cold Needle Etching

The room also includes a video demo, samples, and machinery that was used in cold-needle etching. The style was popular with Picasso and Van Gogh.

Cold needle etching at the Basel Paper Mill Museum, Switzerland
Cold-needle etching creates art samples such as this, with distinctive hatch marks.

Book Binding

For some time, I watched a short video of a bookbinder painstakingly stitching together a book, one page at a time. 

It gave me a new appreciation for the work that must have gone into a single partially bound book on display.

Partially bound book in Basel at the paper mill museum
Thick strings are ratcheted tight in a frame for a partially bound book.

Read the World’s Smallest Book

Do you love tiny things? Don’t miss the world’s smallest book!

Or at least it was the smallest book in the world in 1962. Any idea what book it is?

I’m pretty sure I left my nose print on the exhibit glass in an attempt to read the tiny writing.

The smallest book in the world, Basel
Not even a centimeter across, the Lord’s Prayer was the smallest book in the world in 1962.

Printing

The third floor of the Basel Paper Mill Museum is dedicated to printing. 

It’s home to a family of old printing presses and thousands of typeset letters which are still in use for making printed materials.

Historic printing presses at Basel's paper mill museum
The printing presses on the third floor are hulking metal machines that still smell like fresh ink.

Dying Your Own Paper

The last floor to visit is the 4th floor. 

Tucked away in a corner under the eaves is where I found my very favorite exhibit – designing your own paper. This means designing as in coloring or dying, not just making regular white pressed paper. If you love being creative, this is where you’ll find your groove.

After a friendly demo from the resident artist, she set me free.

Artist doing an exhibit on dying paper at the Basel Paper Mill Museum, Switzerland

An artist dyes paper on the 4th floor of the Basel Paper Mill Museum, encouraging visitors to design their own paper and have fun!

Starting with a blank “palette” of clear glue in a large rectangular tub, I chose several colors and shook drops of yellow, blue, and white ink into the clear glue. With a wooden stick, I swirled the colors together the way cake makers do with vanilla and chocolate frosting.

Then I laid my piece of paper directly in the glue bath and pressed all over gently until I could see the dye being absorbed by the paper.

After slowly peeling the page up, I squeegeed it off with a special scraper, hosed it off with a water sprayer, and waited for it to dry.

I could have stayed all day long experimenting with different colors and patterns!

Yellow and blue paper I dyed at the Basel Paper Mill Museum, Switzerland

I plan to frame my sample paper from the museum.

After whiling away hours at the museum, I finally meandered back down through the rooms of neatly laid out exhibits.

Before leaving, I stood in this room for a few minutes, breathing deeply and letting the smell of old wood, ink, and fresh paper take me back to my childhood love of books.  

One of the rooms at the paper mill museum in Basel, Switzerland
There is just something about the smell of paper and books that makes me feel at home.

In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.

Mark Twain

Through years excitedly wading through summer reading lists, browsing rows of tattered paperbacks at our tiny town library, and greeting the sunrise after many an all-nighter with a particularly good novel, the Basel Paper Mill Museum holds the soft smell of nostalgia.

Here are some other experiences in Switzerland we think you shouldn’t miss.

Know Before You Go
  • The museum is closed on Mondays.
  • Standard hours of operation are Tuesday – Friday and Sunday from 1100 to 1700 (11 am to 5 pm). Opening hours for Saturday are 1300-1700 (1-5 pm).
  • The cost of an adult ticket as of April 2021 is 15 CHF. A student ticket costs 13 CHF. Children under age 16 cost 9 CHF.
  • As of 2018, those staying overnight in Basel will receive a Basel Card from your host. The card allows a discounted price for the museum of 7.50, 6.50, and 4.50, respectively.
  • More information about the Basel Card and what it offers
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