Field Notes

Field Trip:

FIELD TRIP: French Paper Co., Niles, MI

August 6th, 2009 by Bryan Bedell

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A FIELD NOTES memo book just isn’t the same without its Dur-O-Tone “Packing Brown Wrap” 80-pound cover, from French Paper Co. To date, all our FIELD NOTES, including the special editions, have featured French Paper covers.

French Paper, located on the St. Joseph River in Niles, Michigan, is a tiny mill by industry standards, but a big name in most designers’ hearts. French’s whole aesthetic (largely based on their long-standing relationship with CSA Design) and their always-up-to-date variety of papers and colors has made them very popular, and their environmental policies have brought them even more attention lately.

With a few generations of paper mill workers on my father’s side, and a designers’ lust for quality paper, I’d been hoping to visit French for years, and last week, while vacationing ten miles away with my in-laws, I decided to give them a call. I was immediately transferred to Brian French, who welcomed me to stop by the next day.

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Niles is just the sort of run-down midwest town I love. Like many other small cities in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, the end of the 20th century didn’t treat it well. Passing through the surrounding farmland, forests, and lakes into a buffer of Wal-Marts and fast-food joints, you fear the worst, but deeper downtown, you discover the majestic remnants of an early-century manufacturing boom. Patches of boarded-up houses remain, but you can see Main Street starting to fill with new shops and restaurants, and heartwarming pockets of lovingly-restored homes. You get the feeling that the worst is over for South Bend, Rockford, Moline, and Niles, too.

Once I find the French plant, at the end of a quiet residential street that bears their name, Brian welcomes me and tells me French was one of the first companies in Niles, dating back more than 100 years. The original plant was across the river and was sold to the City of Niles as a refuse dump in the early 1900s. The French family later bought the new mill when it fell on hard times, and they’ve owned and operated it for five generations.

Brian is quick to point out that recycling and the environment were important to French long before they became popular issues. Using power generated by the river, and reusing water and paper trimmings saved the plant money and made it more efficient. Today, all of French’s power is generated hydroelectrically, and the river water used in the manufacturing process is reused, then cleaned and returned to the river.

Recycled waste (left), pulp (center), and bundled scrap paper (right)

Recycled waste (left), pulp (center), and bundled scrap paper (right)

Depending on the paper and color, French’s paper is made from pulp (crushed up trees) and/or recycled waste. French’s mill is too small to manufacture their own pulp so it’s brought in from other manufacturers, and while they recycle all paper scraps from their factory, demand for recycled paper means they must buy waste paper from various sources.

The papermaking process isn’t rocket science, I guess, you basically mash up pulp, add color, squeeze out the water, dry it, and roll it up. Of course, in practice, there’s a lot more to it. Brian took a couple hours out of his day to show me through the factory and explain everything in great detail, but I’ll keep it simple, mostly because I forgot my FIELD NOTES notebook (oh, irony!) and I don’t remember the details.

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First, water is mixed with pulp and/or scrap paper in a series of giant vats where it’s stirred, agitated, and crushed until the proper consistency is reached. Color is added and the mixture is eventually thickened and drained. The water is reused for several batches, with each cycle making a darker color. While I was there, they were making “Chocolate Brown” Construction cover, so the water was probably about as dirty as it gets. The factory walls are stained with huge splashes of color, and the floor is wet with murky puddles, if you ever take the tour, don’t wear white canvas shoes!

Towards the end of the mixing process, other ingredients can be added to make French's famous Speckle-Tone papers. This is the actual gunk added to make the "Packing Brown Wrap" paper used for FIELD NOTES covers. Yum!
Towards the end of the mixing process, other ingredients can be added to make French\’s famous Speckle-Tone papers. This is the actual gunk added to make the “Packing Brown Wrap” paper used for FIELD NOTES covers. Yum!

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As the pulp (still mostly liquid) starts to thicken, it’s filtered and contaminants are removed, then it’s fed onto a series of conveyors that agitate it and remove water through absorption, gravity, suction, and heat. As the paper solidifies and dries, it passes under a “Dandy roller” that can add a watermark or subtle texture, though some textures are stamped onto the finished paper after it’s finished. Buffers swirling across the paper as it dries create the shiny highlights visible on some papers (such as the “Butcher Extra Blue” and “Butcher Orange” Dur-O-Tones used for our FIELD NOTES COLORS series). Many of these techniques that make French Paper interesting were developed from happy accidents over the years. When nature throws French Paper lemons, they make Pop-Tone “Lemon Drop” 70# Text. They’re resourceful people.

This color computer monitors imperceptible changes in color to ensure that there's no visible color variation between different batches of paper.

Towards the end of the process, color, thickness, strength, and texture are monitored by a computer. This unit monitors imperceptible changes in color to ensure that there's no visible color variation between different batches of paper. Note the barrels of pigment to the left.

The series of driers. I wonder how many missing socks they find in there?

Then the paper passes through this series of increasingly-hotter driers (I wonder how many lost socks they find in there?) and is rolled into a large roll like you’d see at an offset printing plant. The French mill produces about one roll of paper per hour.

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Some rolls are delivered as is, some are cut down to make smaller rolls, and some go off to be cut in another huge room with a series of machines that cut the paper down to standard sizes. The cut paper is then stacked on skids or packed into boxes for small-quantity orders.

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After the tour, I crossed the river to a large park that presumably sits on the site of the original paper mill. From the park, the whole plant was visible. Compared to the huge International Paper (formerly St. Regis) factory in Bucksport, Maine that employed my father and most of his family and friends, it doesn’t look like much, but it was an honor to meet Brian French and many of his very experienced and dedicated co-workers that stain their shoes and hands every day to bring us the amazing French line of papers. If you’re anywhere near Niles (it’s right off I-80/90 and not far off I-94), it’s certainly worth calling ahead to arrange a tour, and it’d make a great road trip for a group of dedicated designers from anywhere in the Midwest. There’s nothing I can say about their paper that hasn’t been said before, but after seeing it made in person, I have a whole new appreciation for the paper and the people who make it.