Jana Bouc, Artist

Bookbinding a Watercolor Sketchbook Journal: Learning from My Mistakes


The Mutt: My first casebound sketchbook

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.

Inside the Mutt

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…

Side view

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.

Open, not perfect, but ready to play

I’ve divided the post here to hide the details since it’s long…

Learning steps:

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:

Getting started:

I printed out the supply list included on the DVD and went shopping for paper and the simple bookbinding tools and supplies.

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:

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

6. Trimming: I skipped this, happy with the deckled edges.

7. Gluing the Spine

8. Making the Case, Gluing End Papers, and Casing In

Just do it like this:

9. Press

So now I just have to finish up my current sketchbook so I can take this puppy for a joy ride!