Papermaking at Tuckenhay Mill

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Phillpotts - vat

Reference: [4] Storm in a Teacup by Eden Phillpotts (1919) - Chapter X

In the vat house there took place the transformation from liquid to solid, from pulp to paper, from a gruel-like, tenuous compound to a substance strong enough to stand strain of many pounds and last for centuries. Here was the largest building in the Mill a very lofty, brightly lighted, airy hall, from whose open roof descended electric lights hanging above each vat. A steady whirr and throb of noisy engines made a din here, but the vat- men and their couchers were used to it and could hear themselves speak through the familiar riot.

To the right, elevated under the roof, stood the range of chests huge, round vessels, like little gasometers, into which the pulp descended from Ned Dingle when he had perfected it. There were eight of these fat monsters ranged in a row, and from them flowed the material to the vats as it was needed. The vats stood on the floor of the chamber large, wide-mouthed troughs heated by steam from within. For the pulp is warm for the vatman, and some of the finest and most enduring papers demand such a high temperature that an operative's hands are blistered and boiled at his work. Beside each vat is a hand-box of cold water, to dip and refresh the vatman's fingers when the need arises.Within the vat revolves the "hog," a toothed roller, which keeps the heavy pulp mixed and moving, and prevents any settlement of the fibre.

On stages before the breasts of the vats stood the paper makers, and the wooden bands against which they leaned were polished with the friction of their aprons. Their tools were two the mould a flat, rectangular tray, or sieve, of copper wire as fine as gauze, with the water-mark let in upon it to tell the story of the future paper, and the deckle a light wood and metal frame of four sides which fitted exactly over the mould and lifted an edge all round it to hold the pulp. The moulds varied from the size of two open sheets of notepaper, to great squares of "double elephant," the noblest stuff the Mill produced. Moulds for these immense pieces once immersed in the pulp, called for great physical power to draw them cleanly and steadily back from the clinging fluid with their weight of material spread upon them.

Kellock was making "double elephant" in a mighty mould. With his thumbs firmly set on the deckle edge, he lowered the tray into the snow-white pulp, sloping it towards him as he did so. He put it in, sank it flat under the pulp and drew it out again with one beautiful, rhythmic movement.The pulp sucked hard at the great mould, to drag it to the depths, but the man's strength brought it steadily forth; and then he made his "stroke" a complicated gesture, which levelled and settled the pulp on the mould and let the liquid escape through the gauze. Kellock gave a little jog to the right and to the left and ended with an indescribable, subtle, quivering movement which completed the task. It was the work of two seconds, and in his case a beautiful accomplishment full of grace and charm. He stood easily and firmly while every muscle of breast and arm, back and loins played its appointed part in the "stroke." Mr. Trood often stood and watched Jordan for the pleasure of the sight. It was the most perfect style he had ever seen. He was a theorist and calculated that Kellock produced the very greatest amount of physical power for the least possible expenditure of muscular loss; while others, who made as good paper as he, squandered thousands of pounds of dynamical energy by a stroke full of superfluous gesture.

But the stroke is never the same in any two vatmen. It develops, with each artificer's knowledge of the craft, to produce that highly co-ordinated effort embraced in the operation of making a sheet of paper. Mr. Knox operated at the next vat and offered an object lesson. He did the same things that Kellock did; dipped his mould, drew it to him, brought it squarely out, jogged to right and left and gave that subtle, complex touch of completion; yet in his achievement a wholly different display met the observer. It seemed that he performed a piece of elaborate ritual before the altar of the vat. He bowed his head to right and left; he moved his tongue and his knees; he jerked his elbows and bent his back over the trough as a priest consecrating the elements of some sacramental mass. Then he bowed and nodded once more and the created sheet emerged from his mould. The effect was grotesque, and seen at a little distance a stranger had supposed that Mr. Knox was simply playing the fool for the amusement of his coucher and layer; but in reality he was working hard and making as fine and perfect paper as Kellock himself. His muscles were tuned to his task; he had lifted his sheer weight of forty tons or more by the end of the day and was none the worse for it. Nor could he have omitted one gesture from his elaborate style without upsetting everything and losing his stroke.

So the transformation became accomplished and the millions of linen and cotton fibres scooped on to the mould ran into a thin mat or wad, which was a piece of paper. Why all these fragile and microscopic atoms should become so inter-twisted and mingled that they produce an integral fabric, it is difficult to understand; but this was the result of the former processes; and those to come would change the slab of wet, newly created stuff now no more than a piece of soaked blotting-paper to the perfected sheet.

His stroke accomplished and the sediment levelled on the mould, Kellock brought his mould to the "stay" a brass-bound ledge on his left hand. He lifted the deckle from it as he did so and the full mould was drawn up the stay to the "asp," where his coucher stood. Then Kellock clasped the deckle on to his second mould, now returned from the coucher, and dipped again, while his assistant, taking the full mould from the asp, turned it over on to the accumulating pile of sheets rising on his plank. Then he ran the empty mould back along the bridge to Kellock's hand and drew to himself the next full mould now waiting for him on the stay.

So the process was endlessly repeated, and when the coucher's pile of paper, with woollen welts between each new sheet, had grown large enough, it was removed, drawn away on a little trolley, which ran upon rails down the centre of the vat house, and taken to a press. Here the mass under a steady strain showed that the new sheets were still half water, for a fountain poured and spurted away on every side as the lever was turned.

From this initial pressing each pile came back to the place of its creation and the layer, the third worker in the trinity at each vat, separated the paper from the woollens between the sheets and handed the felts back to the coucher as he needed them for his own task. The three men worked together like a machine with rhythmic action and wonderful swiftness. Then came the interval; the din of the machinery ceased for a while and the vatmen washed their hands.