The most important thing I learned in binding my first hardbound sketchbook journal is that the process is very forgiving and not rocket science. In fact, despite making every possible mistake along the way, it still turned out as a quite usable little mutt of a book.
I took notes as I worked: reminders what NOT to do next time, which parts to skip, what really matters and what doesn’t. And now, using the medical school approach for teaching surgery (“See one, do one, teach one”) I’ll share what I’ve learned. Fortunately this isn’t brain surgery, since I’ve literally only seen one and done one.
UPDATE: I have refined the process described below; the most up-to-date version is always available as a download on the Resources page here. You may also find my more recent bookbinding posts by selecting “Bookbinding” from the Categories pull down menu on the right. Now, to continue on with the original post…
I will simply refer you to the resources I used and try to serve as a sort of docent on the journey through the process. If you are an experienced bookbinder PLEASE share any suggestions, advice or corrections and I will update this post with them.
I’ve divided the post here to hide the details since it’s long…
The first thing I did was buy and read several of the bookbinding books Roz lists here. While I gleaned some good information from those books, they didn’t provide what I wanted: simple, step-by-step directions for making a hardcover, casebound sketchbook journal with sewn signatures that will open flat for easy of use and for scanning the images.
So I asked questions of experienced artists who bind their own books, and they generously offered valuable guidance (thanks Kate, Roz, Shirley!). I considered taking a bookbinding class but ultimately decided to do what I usually do: try to learn on my own, with help from books, friends and the internet, and by using an inexpensive ($15) DVD that Kate recommended: Bookbinding: A Traditional Technique.
The advantage to this DVD is that it shows the full process, from beginning to end in detail. A good preview of this DVD is available on YouTube:
I printed out the supply list included on the DVD and went shopping for paper and the simple bookbinding tools and supplies.
- I chose Arches 90 lb cold-pressed watercolor paper. I’ve since learned about Fabriano Soft Press 140 pound paper which seems to be a favorite of some watercolor sketchbook binders as it’s smoother than cold press (helpful for ink drawing) and rougher than hot press (which has its own challenges) so I will try that next time. I think 90 lb paper is a little heavier than what is in Moleskines. Many artists swear by using 140 lb paper in their journals and just use fewer pages to prevent the book from getting too thick or heavy.
- I bought PVA adhesive instead of Elmer’s white glue. The PVA adhesive dries much more quickly which means you can skip many of the “Leave to dry overnight” steps in the video.
- The decorative end paper in the bookbinding section at Blick was expensive and the package only contained one sheet. I won’t buy that again. You can use any paper you want for the end papers, including the first and last pages of the book itself. They should be about the same weight as the paper in the book. Mine is much lighter, but worked fine anyway).
- The book board I bought is called “Binder’s Board” by Lineco and it is .082 in thick (.208 cm). It came in a pack of 4 sheets, 15 in by 20.5 in and says it is “warp-resisistant single layer, acid free with buffered alkaline reserve, strong dense board…prevents crushed corners and dents; grain runs in the long direction.”
- I bought the suggested clothespins but that was silly as office supply binder clips work better.
- The thread, bees wax, needles and “mull” were all available in the little bookbinding section at Blick, all made by Lineco and pretty standard stuff.
After watching the DVD all the way through once, I followed along with each step, pausing and replaying when necessary.
Here are the notes that I made during the bookbinding process and some additional resources, some of which I suggest using instead of parts of the DVD. My notes may not make a lot of sense unless you watch the DVD or have experimented with bookbinding before.
1. Most Important Rule of Bookbinding:
Make sure that all papers and boards are used so that the grain of the paper runs the same direction as the spine of the book. The DVD explains this and shows how to determine the grain. Or as Dave the Designer says in his excellent online bookbinding manual (which I highly recommend reading and printing out as a supplement to the above videos):
“There is only one rule. The grain direction must go from head to tail. This is the secret to a good book that stays open. If you have the grain going the wrong way the paper will ripple, the fold will not be clean and the book will want to close itself.”
2. Bonus to Rule #1: Match paper on spreads
If the two sides of the paper you are using are different (most watercolor paper has two sides, each with a slightly different texture) consider making sure that facing pages across the spread both have the same texture. Roz provides a detailed explanation of how to do this, but since the difference in my paper was easily discernible I took an easier (for me) approach. I just folded half of the papers with the rougher side on the inside of the fold and the other half with the rougher side on the outside. Then I assembled each signature so that alternating spreads both had the smoother back side of the paper and then the slightly rougher side.
3. Folding and Tearing the paper:
Since I’m mathematically challenged and since the size seemed just right for my needs, I tore a few 22×30″ sheets of watercolor paper down into a nice finished size of 7.5″ high and 5.5″ wide. Before folding they were 7.5″ high and 11″ wide, evenly fitting four across the 30″ side and two across the 22″ side, while still having the grain going the same direction as the spine. On the DVD he cuts the paper but I chose to tear it.
In case you’re not familiar with how to tear watercolor paper, you just fold it using a bone folder as demonstrated on the DVD and then fold it the opposite direction, going back and forth several times each way. Then you put a ruler or straightedge along the fold and tear against it. If it resists tearing do some more folding and smoothing with the bone folder.
4. Measuring and Marking Sewing Holes:
- To mark where you’re going to punch the sewing holes, the DVD says to measure in 1/2″ from each end and then “evenly space” three more spots where you will make sets of holes. I did it wrong (probably should have measured from outer edge of each set of holes instead of the center of each set?) but the difference in spacing doesn’t ‘t create any problems and it seems eyeballing it is good enough for most things in bookbinding.
- I used the method shown on the DVD to punch the holes, but many ended up off-center from the fold. According to Michael Shannon in his guide, Make Your Own Moleskine, “Even if you’re careful and you’ve hit the mark on the outside of the signature when you look on the inside it can sometimes be a little off. While it won’t hurt the notebook, you might not like the way the thread shows on the inside of the pages when the book is finished. The more notebooks you make, the better you’ll get.”
- It looks to me like the BEST WAY to mark and punch the holes is using a quick and easy template, a towel and a Kemper clay pin tool as shown here on ROZ’S VIDEO DEMO.
- A similar way would be to make a template as Martha described here under “VI. Punching.” (FYI, she uses a fancier sewing technique called “Coptic binding” which is usually used when the stitching is going to be exposed rather than hidden by a cover).
- If you like making your own equipment you might want to build the handy cradle for doing so following the directions by Jacqueline Poutasse of TJBookArts in her “Guide to Making a Moleskine Knockoff“.
- UPDATE: Roz, Kate and Shirley all suggest using a phone book or thick catalog or just a towel instead of bothering with building a cradle).
UPDATE from Roz re: the following video: “I watched the Sage video on punching sigs (below) and while it works for him I wouldn’t recommend that. I use a template and put it inside the sigs and punch outward. That way all the holes are where they should be because alignment of holes is important (so you don’t sew through your tapes for one thing, but also so that you have a bookblock that is even at the head and tail).” In the video by Sage Reynolds that shows another way to mark and punch the holes. His sewing and knotting instructions on this video are also excellent.
5. Sewing the Signatures
- I followed the directions on the DVD, and made the quickie cardboard sewing frame from a piece of matboard, which worked fine, stapling it to the edge of the table. BUT….
- I was told by one artist who has been making and using her own watercolor sketchbooks for years that she never bothers with the sewing tapes and hence doesn’t need a sewing frame at all which she finds just gets in her way. I used only using two strips of the tape instead of three since my book is pretty small and some resources say two are enough. (UPDATE: Kate and Roz both said they don’t use the sewing tapes either. YAY! One less step!)
- Kettle stitches: I replayed this part of the DVD over and over and carefully examined the printed diagram that came with the DVD but still totally messed up the first kettle stitch that is meant to hold the whole thing together. There are better diagrams for the kettle stitches here and there is a great diagram for connecting a new piece of thread when you run out here.
- The video in #4 above has excellent instructions for making the knots and Kettle Stitches; all of his bookbinding videos on Sage Reynold’s YouTube channel are great.
- As you sew and knot one signature to the next, make sure to keep the signatures kind of pressed down and the thread fairly taught. Mine were too loosely sewn and as a result when they were pressed together for glueing the spine, the sewing tapes got all gathered and bunched up.
6. Trimming: I skipped this, happy with the deckled edges.
7. Gluing the Spine
- I put the sewn signatures between 2 boards and clamped them together like he does in the DVD (minus the table vise–I just set the boards on the table on end) but my hands weren’t strong enough to easily squeeze the stupid clamps so things kept slipping and I didn”t get them lined up perfectly. A better way to clamp would be to use C-Clamps with 4″ throats or to make the bookpress in#9 below and use that standing on end to do the gluing.
- Cover the boards with wax paper and be sure that all the signatures are still lined up just right and that only the edge of the spine is exposed or the glue will go where you don’t it and will cause problems.
8. Making the Case, Gluing End Papers, and Casing In
- Be sure you cut the book board so that the grain runs the direction of the spine. I used the book binder’s board that came in a package of 4 and it was not hard to cut it with a box cutter or mat knife and a straight edge.
- On the DVD he demonstrates marking the bookcloth and cutting the corners with “45 degree angles.” I stressed over how to measure a 45 degree angle and couldn’t figure it out, trying various tools and mathematical equations to no avail. Turns out that this is yet another step that doesn’t require precision at all. On one video I watched they just snip it off the corners without even marking them first.
- Forget about using the dowels and pieces of wood to make the hinge in the spine the way it shows in the DVD. The following video shows a better way.
- As a matter of fact, skip the DVD instructions for this entire portion and use the following video instead (or Shirley’s gluing method below the video). The video demonstrates a MUCH BETTER way than the DVD…especially the part about first gluing the boards and the spine to a piece of paper to keep them properly spaced. I didn’t see this until after I’d glued my boards to the cloth and my spacing between the boards and spine slipped off center (which again didn’t cause a serious problem).
Just do it like this:
- I had a really hard time applying glue to the bookcloth. It kept scooting around and I ended up with unattractive gluey spots on the outside of the cover. All the gluing instructions say to paste from the center outwards.
- UPDATE: a great way to glue the bookcloth to the boards from Shirley: “For the method I use to make a cover, there is a front board, a back board, and a spine board. I trace around each of them on the paper backing of the book cloth, making sure I know exactly how much spacing is needed between them and lining them all up along a straight line on the bottom. Then I apply the glue to each board, one at a time, and drop it into its place. Then I apply glue to one long edge of the book cloth and turn it in; then the other long edge and turn it in, and then each of the two sides sequentially. I still get an occasional small mark of glue but I actually like this part of the process because it isn’t too messy.”
- Use plenty of glue. The PVA gets sticky quickly so work fast.
- Since I was using a new brush it kept shedding bristles so I washed it and pulled and pulled at the bristles until it stopped shedding and then dried it a bit. The gluing seemed easier when working with a damp brush instead of a dry one.
- I made this simple and effective bookpress (instructions from the DVD) and it worked great for pressing the book. See my comments on my previous post about building it.
- You could also just use a stack of books and some handweights and/or bricks or big jugs filled with water or a sewing machine in a case.
So now I just have to finish up my current sketchbook so I can take this puppy for a joy ride!