Felt & Wire
What is the difference between the top side and back side of art paper? How can I tell what side is the front? Is the performance the same on both sides?
The top side and back side of papers manufactured on Fourdrinier paper machines (the most common type), have different physical and visual properties. The differences can be barely discernible or significant depending on the type of paper, felt, chemistry and fibers used.
In papermaking, the top side is called the felt side and the back side is called the wire side. The felt side finish of a textured paper is traditionally produced by a Dandy Roll, which is a wire cylinder that imparts a pattern onto the surface, or by a Marking Felt which resembles a woven, felt blanket that presses against the wet paper pulp. The dandy roll and felt, which varies by paper type, is what gives paper its distinct texture. For example, the felt used on drawing paper has a fine, slight texture. Felts used on cold press watercolor papers have a coarse, heavily textured pattern.
The wire side is named after a mesh screen at the beginning of the Fourdrinier that the wet pulp travels along. Water drains through the wire mesh and helps form the wet paper pulp into paper. During this process, the paper “picks up” some of the wire pattern.
The surface finish and working properties such as surface strength and absorbency are engineered into the felt side of the paper. That’s not to say that the back (or wire side) of all papers will not perform well. Many artists use the back sides of paper, for example, when working in sketchbooks. But for many types of paper, the top-to-back-side differences may be more obvious and the artist will prefer to work on the felt side.
What if you are unsure what side is the top or felt side of the paper? The felt side of paper typically has a larger, more irregular pattern and the wire side has a finer, regular mesh pattern that is rectangular or diamond-shaped. Since there is greater variability in felt patterns, it’s easier to identify the wire marks.
We marked the felt and wire sides of our 400 Series Mixed Media paper with a carbon smudge to make the patterns visible.
Felt side: Larger and irregular pattern
Wire side: Finer, regular pattern of the wire mesh
It is also easier to see the pattern by holding the paper up to a light source with the light striking at a very low angle (less than 10°). If you’d like, you can fold the paper so that you can compare both sides together.
If you are still having difficulty seeing the wire mesh pattern, you can wet a piece of the paper in water. Then let it stand a few minutes and examine it as described above. Wetting the paper can make the patterns more pronounced. Again, look for a regular mesh pattern of rectangle or diamond shapes to identify the wire or back side of the paper.