Tutorial on Rust and Plant Printed Artist Book


Here is a quick post to let you know my article about eco printing paper for an Artist’s Book appears in the July issue of Somerset Studio. Today I am posting (below) the unedited version of my original text  for readers of Somerset Studio and for readers of my blog.

The edited version appearing in the magazine contains incorrect instructions about the use of PVA as adhesive to attach plants and metals for eco printing. I was not given the opportunity to see the article, post-editing. If readers followed the instructions as published under my name by Somerset Studio, I believe they would be disappointed and would fail to produce a useable print on a useable substrate.

As you perhaps know from reading these pages, I have not so far glued plants or metal bits onto substrates for eco prints and have never recommended this strategy.  Were I to use glues for attaching leaves etc, I would try a water soluble adhesive like  wheat paste, methyl cellulose, corn starch paste, etc, but never PVA. PVA can be used successfully to attach textiles or paper to the cover boards of books and was, in fact,  used for the covers of the book in my article; still, I prefer to use reversible glues such as wheat paste for the pages in most of my Artist Books.

So let me try to snatch Victory from the jaws of Defeat (a famous Churchillian quote): maybe I will next try some experiments with glueing plants to substrates and thank Somerset Studio for the inspiration as well as for publishing my work. Tout set Providence: Everything is Providence.

For images of the book, see tags Rust Print, Artist Books on this blog. BTW, the book is on exhibition in Calgary this month at the national show for the Canadian Book Artists and Book Binders Guild.


Eco Printing with Rust and Plants


My artist book “Botanica: New World Scroll 1” is made from papers eco printed with rust and plant dyes as a contemporary take on traditions of natural dyeing and bookmaking. Object and process both invite us to slow down and savor making, handling and viewing a beautiful book, to appreciate a book’s tactile and visual pleasures as well as its intellectual ones. Historically, the first books were scrolls, sometimes pleated or slatted, objects of reverence treasured for both content and form. My book’s accordion and pamphlet-stitched structure printed in contemporary style on watercolor paper creates living links to a rich past.

To make my book, stacks of papers were layered with leaves and metals, sprayed with vinegar and water to rust the metals, then steamed over boiling water to extract the “eco” prints. Plant pigments combined with rust to deposit prints directly on the paper in a range of greys, charcoals and blacks as well as natural rust and plant colors.

The process of eco printing papers offers artists many creative options. For eco printing projects other than bookmaking, try stacking papers six sheets high and sized to fit your steamer, and then follow directions for processing an eco printed book.

Tools and Materials to Make an Eco Printed Book  

For the book pages

  • 6 pieces of 140 lb. watercolor paper, 4” x 8”, folded in half to make a section 4” x 4”


For the book’s spine

  • 1 piece of 80 lb. or 90 lb. artist paper, 4” x 24” folded into an accordion with 16 panels, each 4” x 1 ½”

To print the papers

For the spine:

  • Loose black or Rooibos tea leaves (dry)
  • Flat, scrap metal pieces

For the pages:

  • Tannin-rich leaves such as maple, chokecherry oak, sumac, walnut, etc. (“Botanica: New World Scroll 1” is printed with fall-gathered Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).
  • Flat metal pieces

To develop the rust

  • Spray bottle filled with 50-50 mixture of white vinegar (5% acid) and water

To stitch the book sections

  • Linen or other strong thread

To steam the prints

  • Covered cooking vessel (e.g. an old meat roaster) filled with three inches of water and fitted with a raised rack, large enough to hold the papers (Safety note: Do not use for food preparation)

To enclose the papers

  • Four pieces of cardboard, each 4” x 4”, two per stack of papers

To weight the papers

  • Bricks, rocks, heavy ceramic dishes (to ensure close contact between paper and printing materials)

Source of heat

  • Kitchen stove, portable hot plate, camping stove, etc.

Tongs and gloves for handling hot materials


To print the papers

  1. Make two stacks of papers each with three sections folded 4” x 4”
  2. Insert two or more tannin-rich leaves and a small flat piece of metal inside the fold of each section and also between each of the sections in the stack (I used maple and chokecherry leaves for their contrasting shapes)
  3. Spray –soak the stacks with the vinegar-water mixture.
  4. Place one piece of the 4” x 4” cardboard under and one on top of each stack.
  5. Wrap the stacks around with cotton string and tie securely.
  6. Place the two stacks side by side on the steaming rack
  7. Place the weights on top of the stacks
  8. Bring the water in the pot to a boil and steam for 60 – 90 minutes
  9. Turn the bundles every thirty minutes. Steam longer if the desired print is faint, shorter if too strong.

10. When complete, turn off the heat and allow the bundles to rest in the pot until cool or overnight

11. Unwrap the bundles, discard the plants but reserve the metal pieces for other prints.

12. Spread the papers out to dry. Remove stuck-on plant material

13. Once dry, flatten papers under weights.

To print the accordion spine

  1. Insert dry tea leaves between all the folds of the accordion; insert pieces of metal also inside a few of the folds.
  2. Spray-soak the spine with vinegar-water
  3. Tie with cotton string and steam as for book papers

To assemble the book

Write the names of the plants in English and Latin on the spine with black and/or gold archival pens

  1. Insert one 4” x 4” folded section into the second “valley” fold from one end of the accordion
  2. Stitch the section into the spine using linen thread and a pamphlet stitch
  3. Repeat with the other five sections
  4. Make two book covers (front and back) using 4” x4” eco printed end papers, textile and bookboard

6. Using PVA glue, encase each end portion of the accordion spine between an end paper and a textile-covered book board. (See image for ideas)

For more information, see the Resources section.



  • To help fix the colors, pre-soak papers for two hours or overnight in a solution of one teaspoon of alum acetate or potassium alum sulphate to four cups of water.
  • Rusted metals alone print colors in the orange-rust-brown range on papers.
  • Leaves may be layered on top of rust printed papers and processed a second time. This method tends to print tannin-rich leaves as black on top of rust.
  • Leaves printed alone without metals tend to print colors depending in their growth season: greens, blues, purples, yellows, browns are common
  • Natural dye powders can be sprinkled onto papers or diluted and painted on selectively, as can plant inks such as walnut
  • Dye assistants such as ammonia, cream of tartar, iron or copper sulphate can be painted on selectively to induce color shifts.
  • Spray papers with a deacidifier on completion of the project.

Resources for bookmaking and natural dyes

  • Alisa Golden: “Creating Handmade Books”
  • Shereen Laplantz: “Cover to Cover: Creative Techniques for Making Beautiful Books, Journals and Albums”
  • For a complete line of supplies and information related to natural dyes, dye assistants and reference materials, see www.maiwa.com
  • Jenny Dean (with Karen Diadick Casselman, consultant): “Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes










12 thoughts on “Tutorial on Rust and Plant Printed Artist Book

  1. it looks like you have a positive take on the instructions gone wrong in the somerset publication! Congratulations on the piece in any event and also on the one in FiberArts now if I haven’t said anything about that. I am in the middle of a lot fo projects and about to look at postings of yours and others for tips on various things. (I won’t use PVA!)

  2. Hi Wendy, Under Tips you say to ‘spray papers with a deacidifier on completion of the project’. Before or after the papers have dried? And what would you use?

    As ever, thanks for your blog and information.

    1. After the papers have dried OR before. The deacidifer puts a layer of calcium on the paper, I understand. Actually, I use straight calcium carbonate, (pure chalk podwer from the pharmacist – used in pill-making, very finely ground – “dissolves” easily) in a bath of water-I soak the papers in it. Presumably it acts as a buffer to all the acids one throws at it when eco printing, perhaps retarding decomposition of the paper, long-term. I cannot guarantee the effectiveness of this strategy but it makes me feel better if I do it… conservators do use deacidifiers based on calcium …Placebo effect? …BTW Celia, I am gearing up to try soils as colour sources! Another fascinating detour?



      http://www.wendyfeldberg.ca http://www.wendyfe.wordpress.com

      1. Ah, I will have a go! I wonder if the calcium will alter the colour? I find that the acid free copy paper I use in my laser printer gives lovely prints, by the way.

        A friend suggested using borax because she felt plants dried in borax did not lose their colour. I thought I would test a soak in borax after steaming and leave it in the light.

        Good luck with the earth colours. I find that the earth colours are not affected by steaming – they do not wash away that is – not yet. I have not tried it properly so far. I’ve got a paint making from local pigments workshop next weekend. There are too may detours to take, as you say!

        Many thanks, and great plant printing!


      2. I do not expect the calcium to alter the colour, long term. In my article for Somerset Studio, I recommend a spray deacidifier – as used sometimes by paper conservators. I felt that suggesting that extra step of using pure chalk etc might be a little over the top for a hobbyist…Paper manufacturiers add calcium as a buffer against acidification which can occur as a result of ingredients in the paper but anyway occurs simply as a result of exposure to the air over time. Conservators at the Smithsonian have found that papers enclosed in the middle of books in a stack show less sign of acid damage. The acid damage to paper began to show up in a major way only after wood pulp began to be used extensively in paper making. Since we do not use wood pulp in our humble little efforts to make paper, I am not really worried. Besides, I tend to think that we the papermakers will decompose long before the paper will, ha ha. But it is important to find out the things that might seriously compromise our art so that we can weigh up the pluses and minuses and to let people know so they can decide for themselves how far they wish to go with the processes for eco dyeing, printing, etc. Some people never use alum at all which is an acidifier – but then, so are plants. Rust also hastens decomposition. Thus, thank you for these question and comments, Celia!


      3. PS Thank you for the tips on paper to use plus borax. I think I have read somewhere to avoid borax but cannot recall the details – will try to find out.

        I am trying different papers, too, for eco dyes so will definitely have a go with the one you suggest.

  3. Thank you for the lovely photos and instructions.
    I have been reading your blog for a while and want to start printing with leaves etc on paper.
    You mention spraying with de-acicifier after all the dyeing or printing.
    What is this please?
    Many thanks, Gloria in the UK

    1. Thanks, Gloria.

      A deacidifier can be used – does not have to be. It is a spray containing calcium which may or may not retard the effects of acids on the paper. Just a precaution. Otherwise, soak your papers in Tums! I soak my papers in pure calcium carbonate that my pharmacy sells me for a few pennies. Pharmacists make their pills with it. What works in your tummy…



  4. hi,
    I just love your web and read and always reread every word you write. thank you for sharing and giving information and offering help for any who asks you.
    I wanted to subscribe to your web but I failed.
    Thank you again. I will follow your work an check daily for any new.
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    1. Thank you, Zappa! Sorry you are having trouble subscribing to the blog. Try again – sometimes the internet is reluctant to move – like a donkey…

      Best to you


      1. I should add that I have not made any new entries on my blog for over year but am hoping to begin again later this fall when my personal situation becomes more favourable

        Meantime, I do answer questions here! Thank you again


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