I recently took a fine arts course in bookmaking and had to go through the entire process of making a book, from start to finish: writing, layout, printing, and binding. I was able to produce a slightly larger book because I had access to the correct printing tools, but you can easily create a small book of your own on letter size paper.
I won’t go into the technical aspects of bookmaking (i.e., InDesign, how to print booklets, etc.), but I will go over the basic steps needed to bind your own books! You can use this technique to make homemade notebooks and journals as well — they look beautiful and are so much more fun to write in when you’ve produced them yourself. And you can go crazy with selecting the perfect papers and creating your own covers.
(NB: This is a pretty detailed post, and I tried to include as much information and helpful instructions as possible in case you want to make your own books, notebooks, or journals. Feel free to just browse through the photos if you’re interested in getting a feel for it!)
Before you begin, you will need the following items. All of these can be purchased at an art supply store:*
- Enough paper for your book, each sheet to be folded in half, of the proper grain direction
- 2 sheets of slightly thicker paper (card stock works perfectly) for your flyleaf
- Supplies for your cover: either a thick card stock if you want a softcover book, or book board and book cloth if you want to make a hardcover book.
- Bookbinding thread (or, if you want to save money, a really thick, coarse thread)
- Bookbinding needle (aka just a really heavy needle)
- An awl for hand-punching holes (this is the one I use)
- A bone folder (if you want to be a perfectionist; otherwise you could just use the edge of a pencil for folding and creasing)
- An X-Acto knife for cutting, with replacement blades
- A surface to cut on: a cutting mat is ideal, but a piece of cork board is an easy and cheap alternate
- A good ruler
- PVA glue
- Glue brush
- Waste paper to contain glueing
*I know some of the above items can seem daunting to find, and some of the terms confusing. They are really not! Binding a book is a very exact process, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly. You just need to pay attention to the details before you begin if you want the best results.
To make this a little less confusing, let’s discuss some basic terms for bookmaking.
- Signature: A signature is a booklet of “text” pages (which can be blank if you’re making a notebook) in your book. Each signature is folded, hole-punched with an awl, and sewn as one set — so you don’t need to sew each individual page, just each signature. If you look at spines of some books, you can see these page groupings (although not all books have them).
- Text block: All the signatures that make up the “text” pages of your book. Only two signatures are excluded from the text block: the flyleaves.
- Flyleaf: Fancy word for the first and last signatures of a book. The flyleaf doesn’t have writing on it, and its main function is to allow you to attach the cover (if a softcover, you the flyleaf is reinforced and becomes the cover; if a hardcover, the flyleaf is glued to the back of the cover). Generally, the flyleaf is a thicker paper, like a card stock. Open any hardcover book and you’ll see the flyleaves at the front at the back.
- Grain: All paper has a “grain direction” — one direction (long or short) will be weaker and easier to fold along than the other. I cannot stress how important grain direction is. If you want your book to lie flat and not pop open, you need to have proper grain direction. Most art papers will tell you the grain direction, otherwise you can test it for yourself: gently push against the long edge, and then short edge, of the paper as if you were going to fold it. Whichever edge gives you the least resistance is the way the grain runs — so make sure you cut your pages and structure your book so that you are folding along the grain at the center. The grain in your cover and flyleaves should also parallel the grain of the paper for the text block.
- Bookboard: A hardcover board used to make hard covers. You can find it in the bookmaking section of any art supply store. It looks tough, but you can hand cut it with an X-Acto knife by making lots of shallow cuts along the edge of a ruler.
- Bookcloth: Special cloth used to cover bookboard. Can be fabric or leather, and you can find many varieties online and in art supply stores. Also has a grain.
Here are some diagrams to explain all that (click to enlarge).
Basic grain direction:
Signatures (as viewed from the spine):
Flyleaf in a softcover book:
Flyleaf in a hardcover book:
Now that all the technical terms are explained, you can begin producing your notebook or journal. (Again, these same steps work for a printed book, but I won’t be covering them here.)
Above: I used a decorative flyleaf for my book.
1. Cut your paper, and assemble your signatures. Decide what size you want your book to be and make sure you account for the fold. For example, if you want each page to be 8×9″, each sheet of paper will be 16×9″. I would recommend no more than four large sheets per signature (so 16 pages in a finished book). If you are using thicker paper, you can do two or three sheets to make sewing easier. You should aim to have at least three signatures in your text block, in addition to your flyleaves — otherwise the book will look weird. Make sure your grain direction runs along the fold (as pictured in the first diagram for an 8×9″ book). Also cut your flyleaves at this point (the equivalent of two 16×9″ sheets if your book is 8×9″), and make sure the grain for those matches. Fold each group of signatures (and your flyleaves, separately) and cement the crease using your bone folder (or the edge of a pencil, but a bone folder is better).
2. Create a transfer paper. The transfer paper is a sheet of paper that shows you where to punch your holes for sewing, so that the holes align between signatures. The transfer sheet should be the height of your book . Fold in half lengthwise and keep folded. Widthwise, fold in half, then fold the ends in about 1/2-3/4 of an inch, then fold in half again. Unfold, and mark “holes” with a pencil as indicated. Lie your transfer paper flat on your cutting surface so that one long half is against the surface, and the other is perpendicular. Using your awl at a 45 degree angle (just estimate it), punch holes using the guide marks on the transfer paper. Unfolded, your transfer sheet should look like this, with the Xs indicating approximately where to punch holes:
3. Punch holes in your signatures. Use your transfer paper to do this: align the transfer paper inside each signature, making sure either the top or bottom is always aligned. Use your awl to punch through the transfer paper and all the pages of your signature at a 45 degree angle. Make sure you punch all the pages per signature at one time. Repeat for each signature and the flyleaves.
4. Measure your thread. Measure the amount of thread you need using this count: the height of your book (generous), times the number of signatures (including flyleaves), plus two. You can thread your needle by flattening some of the thread near one end with your bone folder, threading the needle, pushing the needle through the flattened area, and tightening.
5. You are reading to begin sewing! This is where it gets a little tricky, but the stitches are easy and completely manageable. First, you’ll be sewing on your cutting surface. Assemble your signatures in the correct order (the way you want your book/notebook to read), and then place your book, front cover side down, with the page edges facing towards you. Flip the top signature towards you, so that you are looking at the spine (note: this should be the last signature in the completed book — the back cover flyleaf). Always start with the back of the book and work your way to the front. In all of the following diagrams, you are looking directly at the spine of the book — which is what you should see while you are sewing.
6. Start from outside the signature on the right side and always pull the thread in the direction you are sewing. Push the needle through the first hole, then out through the second, and so on, until you reach the end. Pull the entire thread through, leaving a loose tail (about 3-4 inches) at the right side of the book. Flatten the signature with your bone folder.
7. Place the next signature on top of the first. This will be the second-to-last signature in your completed book, or the last signature of your text block. Now you will be sewing in the the opposite direction, back towards the beginning. Go through the first hole on the left, and out the second. Then, loop the needle under the section of thread that remains on the outside of the first signature you threaded. Go through the third hole, out the fourth, and repeat this process until you reach the right end of the second signature.
8. Tie a square knot to secure the first two signatures. This is pretty straightforward: right over left, then left over right. (So you’re basically just tying two regular knots.) Be sure to tighten the thread as much as possible and flattening the book with your bone folder before securing with the knot. Always work on on a flat surface while sewing, and try and keep the book as flat as possible, with the spine aligned (preferably at the edge of a table).
9. Add the third signature. For this signature, you will be sewing right to left again, as with the first signature. Go through the first hole on the left, out the second, and loop under the thread segment for the second signature only. Always, always, only loop under the thread for the signature directly under the one you are currently sewing. Repeat until you reach the left end of the signature, then tie a kettle stitch: push the needle towards the back of the book, going between the previous two signatures and before the final hole, and pull the needle out in the direction you are sewing (in this case, to the left). Pull the thread through to create a small loop. Loop the needle under the loop and pull straight up to tighten. (Again, remember to tighten all your thread and flatten your book with a bone folder before this.) Repeat this step (with mild differences, depending on whether you are sewing to the right or the left) for all the remaining signatures. Here’s a slightly more detailed diagram of the kettle stitch:
10. Finish the last signature with two kettle stitches. Essentially, the last signature (which will be your front cover flyleaf) is added the same way as all the other text block signatures, except you will secure it twice with the kettle stitch. Trim the excess thread to about 1 inch, but no further (if having it stick out bothers you, carefully secure each bit of excess thread to the spine with a dab of PVA glue).
11. Once the text block and flyleaves have been bound with thread, add the covers to your book. There are many ways to do the covers, and you can get creative with them. Here, I’ll go over two very basic ways to do covers: softcover and hardcover, both with exposed spines (although it is fairly easy to modify so that the spines are covered). The initial diagrams I used to explain the role of the flyleaf can also be helpful in visualizing these two alternatives.
Notice that each flyleaf creates four pages within your book, and that the interior two pages of each flyleaf can be glued together to create a thicker cover. While you can elect to glue them directly together, it is more prudent to glue a piece of card stock between them as reinforcement, so measure out a piece the size of your book (slightly smaller so that the edges don’t stick out), keeping proper grain direction in mind. Slip a sheet of waste paper between your flyleaf and text block to catch runoff glue, and keep it from ruining your book. Then, apply glue directly to the entire card stock insert (not the flyleaf paper) on one side, and attach to the interior flyleaf page on the right (the left if you are doing the back cover). Smooth with your bone folder to avoid bubbles, and repeat with the other side of the card stock to create a softcover. Then, you’re free to decorate the cover however you like — applying a label usually looks nice.
This is a bit more complicated because you need more materials, so I’ve drawn out the key steps (click to enlarge):
Essentially, you need to measure the size cover you would like out of the book board (again, be conscious of the grain). Remember to add a little extra length and height so that the cover hangs over the edge of the text block a bit — I recommend 1/8 of an inch per side. Don’t forget that you don’t want overhang on the edge with the spine — so you’ll add 1/8″ to the width, and 1/4″ total to the height of the book. Next, spread glue directly on the bookboard, and place on the cloth cover you would like for the book, keeping the grain lined up. Be sure to smooth out immediately with your bone folder. Cut about a 3/4″ around the edge of the bookboard, and then cut off the corners as marked in the diagram. Before measure the 45 degree angle, leave a bit of edge the thickness of the bookboard (you can use a piece of scrap bookboard to do this). Glue each edge of excess cloth onto the back of the bookboard — place glue directly onto the back of the cloth and stand the bookboard up to press the edge in before folding the cloth over. Secure with a bone folder. Do two opposite edges first, then the next set, being carefully to glue the corners in. Repeat to create the back cover. Secure the hard cover to the flyleaf by applying glue directly to the first page of the flyleaf (remember to use waste paper) and pressing the cover onto it. Smooth out imperfections with your bone folder, and repeat for the back cover. Add a label to your front cover (or not), and you’re good to go!
Congratulations, you’ve just made a book!
Whew, okay — I think that’s it in terms of the technical process. To expedite the process of hand making gorgeous notebooks, journals, and personal books (all of which make great gifts, by the way), here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind:
- Be precise. Try not to skip the little steps — these are what truly make your book look well done. Specifically: pay attention to cutting precisely, grain direction, tightening your thread constantly, pulling in the direction you are sewing, and ALWAYS using your bone folder to flatten paper.
- Be creative! Above is the basic formula for bookbinding, but experimentation makes it great. Use an art paper for your flyleaf (or, if you’re doing a hardcover, cut art paper to the size of your flyleaf, place it inside the flyleaf, sew it into the book, and glue to the interior pages of the flyleaf). Experiment with different ways to design your cover — labels, collage, etc.
- Learn how to cut properly. When you’re hand cutting anything, always, always cut towards yourself. Stand up to give yourself leverage, and hold your ruler firmly in place as you cut against it.
- Take your time. Sure, bookbinding can take a while. But its kind of like knitting (or, at least I assume so) — its relaxing as a result. This goes hand-in-hand with being precise.
- When it comes to glue, thinly and quickly cover the entire surface you are applying glue to. Start at the center of the surface and work your way out with a brush to get an even coating.
- Quality of materials will make a big difference in the final product — especially the paper you use.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out to me in the comments if you have any specific questions!