Thursday, April 21, 2011

Making Handmade Books - by Beckett

I've started making handcrafted journals for my little Etsy shop and for charitable organizations. I keep meaning to write down how I go about it and the whole process involved, so here goes.

I start on these with a bunch of scanned in sketches taken from my many sketchbooks; I wanted to create a lined journal illustrated with a sketch on each page. I've always liked the idea of illustrated journals, but most of the commercially available ones seem to use only a few actual pictures, then they repeat them through the pages. Seems kind of chintzy, so I wanted to make one that had a different drawing for almost every page. There are no repeats of images.
Egret sketch from a long time ago.
So I start by scanning in a bunch of my sketches, which is a trip down memory lane all by itself. I decided with this particular limited-edition journal to use just black and white sketches to keep a consistent look to the whole journal. I format them onto 8 1/2 x11 size pages, since I want to take a standard size page, fold it in half and have that sheet create a folded 2 page spread. I want the finished book be about 8 1/2 inches tall by about 5 1/2 wide, big enough to be easy to write a satisfyingly sized page, but small enough to be easily portable too. I place each sketch on a half-size page template I made and add light gray writing lines in Photoshop.
Max on a right-hand page layout
I then take my collection of sketches and try to place each on its page in a pleasing layout, with the figures looking in towards the rest of the page, for example. And then I have to figure out what order to put them all in, to try to make the whole book a pleasing stroll through the sketches as well as following a somewhat logical progression that isn't too jarring. I need to make the book up into signatures, or groups of 4 sheets each, in order to fold them together and stitch them together into book form. When finished, the final book can easily open flat and all the pages are securely sewn into the binding.
Pages laid out together for printing
To do that, I have to figure out the page order for each signature and then place the correct pages together on one full size sheet for printing. It gets complex with over 80 pages, multiple signatures of 4 sheets each. Each page is printed front and back, so 4 actual journal pages end up on one sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper, and the pages must be carefully laid out so that when 4 sheets are placed one on top of another and then folded in half, the numbered pages will appear in the right order. I end up making charts and a mock up book dummy to keep it all straight. ;)
diagram of signature page layouts
Once I have that all figured out I start printing (carefully, since my printer only prints one-sided and the paper is a 100% cotton heavyweight paper, so I don't want to waste any on mistakes!). I end up with several reams worth of pages that need to be assembled carefully into their proper order and stacked ready to drill the holes for the stitching to come later. Once I have the paper all set up I clamp the paper down with cardboard marked for drilling the holes, pull out the drill and use the smallest drill bit to get the holes made. Once holes are drilled, I carefully fold and crease each sheet and assemble them into their signatures and then in proper order for their book.
Book assembled into signatures and cover ready for stitching
For these books I make the covers of simple archival acid-free board, since they're going to have fabric covers custom made for each. And then stitching begins, using an ancient bookbinding method called coptic stitching. This type of stitched binding requires the pages to be folded, and the stitching goes through each page at the spine. It makes a nice looking binding that has the big advantage of allowing the book to open and lay flat for writing in. I use a heavy cotton thread coated with beeswax so it will ease through the paper without tearing it; the type of thread can make a huge difference in the success of the binding.
Starting stitching in the second signature
Stitching is pretty easy once you have the hang of it, and it's a fairly meditative process, though a bit time-consuming. :)
Finishing up by sewing on the back cover
And at the end of the process you have a lovely hand-bound book:
Stitching finished!
At this point you could leave it as is and consider the book done, but I also want to add one of my custom made fabric journal covers, so I pick out fabric I like, cut according to the pattern I made from one of these finished books, sew it all together (which is a long convoluted process all on its own; a post for another time, I think) and hey presto, you have a journal cover that lets you carry around other papers, pens and stuff with your fancy hand made journal.
Finished book with its custom fabric cover made
There are pockets front, back and inside the cover flap

Being able to carry a pen with it seems pretty essential

Picking the perfect button to complete the whole thing
Finished book with cover
Using different fabric and button can give the book a totally different feel


  1. Did you know there's a great way of noting signatures used by earlier printers? I bet it would make things easier for you. I'll try to find a good illustration and make a pdf for you tomorrow or early next week.

  2. Thanks, Jan, I'd really appreciate that!

  3. Really nice. Thanks for this.

  4. Beckett, how gorgeous!

    Can I link to this post from one in my own blog about the books that I made?

  5. Hi Stella- yes, of course, we'd be happy to have you link to it from your own blog, thanks! Let us know with a link, if you would. :)

  6. Annddd.... Done!

    Here's my handmade book post;

  7. just saw that great handmade books.have been searcing for 3 hours but still couldnt figure out how do u bind it?can u give some explanetion?

    1. Hi Luca-
      Here are some video how-to's for the stitching:

      Hope these help; sometimes being able to watch someone doing it is better than trying to write it!

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