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Professor, Students Turn Scrap Wood from USS Constitution to Paper

Historic Vessel Is World’s Oldest Commissioned Warship

From left, chemical engineering undergrads Molly Clay, Sara Ghadiyali, Pradeep Fernando and Andrew Bawn demonstrate the paper-making process to Michael Edgar, right.

08/25/2010
By Edwin L. Aguirre

The USS Constitution, berthed in Charlestown, is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. First launched in 1797 in Boston, the 2,200-ton frigate manned by an active-duty crew from the U.S. Navy has been undefeated in battle. During the War of 1812, cannonballs fired by a British ship bounced off her oak hull, earning her the nickname “Old Ironsides.”

Now imagine taking some of the wood material from that historic ship to make paper. That was what Chemical Engineering Prof. John Walkinshaw and his students were able to do this past spring. Walkinshaw is in charge of the department’s pulp and paper engineering program.

The group’s project was initiated by A. Michael Edgar, a retired Navy captain and woodworking hobbyist from Hampton, N.H. Since 2000, Edgar has been making pens using small pieces of scrap wood from the Constitution that he purchased from the ship’s museum. He presents the pens as gifts to retiring Navy chiefs and officers as well as Marine Corps officers and enlisted men, other service members, Department of Defense civilians and World War II veterans. His presentation typically consists of the pen and a Navy or Marine Corps award folder containing an official USS Constitution certificate signed by the ship’s commanding officer and a picture of the USS Constitution under sail.

“I carefully collected the sawdust as I made the pens to possibly make some paper from it for the certificates,” he says. “My brother-in-law, Ed Jahngen, is a chemistry professor at UMass Lowell, and after I showed him a bag with about two cubic feet of the Constitution’s sawdust, he thought that there might be some interest in it at the University. He talked to Prof. Walkinshaw and gave him the bag. Prof. Walkinshaw has been very helpful and instructive in showing me all the steps in the paper-making process.”

“Since we were dealing with wood from a historic ship, we wanted to make the paper the traditional way,” says Walkinshaw. “The Constitution’s main construction materials included white pine, yellow pine, white oak and southern live oak.”

To make the paper, the students first soaked the wood fibers in a solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide. They then collected the pulp using a mold (wire screen in a wooden frame), turned out the pulp onto a felt sheet and used a hand press to squeeze out the excess water. Finally, the paper was placed in an oven to dry out.

“The students were able to produce a batch of 6-by-9-inch papers from the material we received from Michael,” says Walkinshaw.

“It looks like old parchment with a nice light cream color with inclusions,” says Edgar. “I was told by Prof. Walkinshaw its surface had to be sealed somehow, possibly by a light coating of spray starch, so the ink would not bleed into the paper. Presently, the certificates are printed by the crew of the USS Constitution. I gave the ship’s executive officer a couple of pieces of the handmade paper to check out.”

Edgar says he especially enjoyed the opportunity to have the students actually explain and perform each stage of the paper-making process.

“In the future I hope to make some paper about 8.5 by 11 inches myself,” he says. “I must first make a mold that size and get some guidance from Prof. Walkinshaw.”

Prof. John Walkinshaw examines the finished paper.