So You Want to Try Your Hand at Bookbinding?
There are already a variety of things like this online, but I just wanted to give people who want to take up this skill a bit of guidance through the basic process. It can be intimidating to start something new, but I think it'd be a real shame for someone to never learn this valuable skill as a result! I'll also share some tips & tricks and other things I've learned along the way.
And, as always, feel free to reach out with any questions or whatever else! My contact info is on the main page!
Table of Contents
- Frequently Asked Questions
- A Walk Through the Process of Making a Book
- Day One: Brainstorming & Decisions
- Day Two: Preparing & Arranging Insides
- Day Three: Sewing and Lining
- Day Four: Making the Case
- Additional Resources
Frequently Asked Questions
- a book awl (for poking holes)
- waxed linen thread (or linen thread and beeswax, separately)
- a bone folder
- acid-free PVA glue (SeaLemon has a video comparing different types and brands of glue)
- a large paint brush (for spreading glue evenly)
- leather / upholstery hooked needles (optional, but they make your life much easier!)
- chipboard, grey board, Davey board, etc
Q: What supplies will I need to get started?
A: It's actually pretty easy to use supplies that you likely already have laying around the house to see if you like bookbinding to begin with before trying to get more serious, like sewing thread and a needle, a push pin for poking holes, paper, cardboard, etc. If you wanted to step up from those simple supplies, though, I'd recommend:
You can easily find most of these supplies compiled in bookbinding kits online and they tend to be cheaper than trying to get everything separately. I bought mine from Amazon for $13USD.
There are lots of other big supplies, like book presses, sewing frames, laying presses, guillotine cutters, etc, but they aren't really necessary for every project. I've been getting by just fine setting a stack of textbooks on top of my books while they dry and manually holding everything in place as I sew. If you want to start getting into more advanced techniques, like leatherwork or rounded spines, then that's when you'll start to need more specialized tools. You can find DIYs or get arounds pretty easily on r/bookbinding, though.
Q: Please help, I can't get my pages to line up properly when folding! My book has uneven edges!
A: Yes, that happens. DAS Bookbinding has a couple videos on how to nicely trim a textblock without a guillotine or anything, but personally, I can't get them to work. Just a horrible jagged mess. An absolute massacre...
Instead, I use a fairly small number of sheets per signature (my usual is six or eight pages) and just live with the stepped edges. They aren't that bad and add a bit of character to your book. I don't think it's worth it to fight with them. You won't win...
A Walk Through the Process of Making a Book
As there are multiple steps requiring you to leave your work under a press overnight, I think it's easiest to break the bookmaking process down into "days" and a series of tasks to complete each "day." Obviously, you don't have to do all of this in one go, but I think this is just an easier way of looking at it.
Day One: Brainstorming & Decisions
- What exactly are you wanting to bind: a journal, sketchbook, fanfic, zine, etc?
- Consider what qualities you want your end product to have.
The cool thing about binding your own books is that they can be made to your exact specifications in a way that mass produced objects never could. Do you want a sketchbook made with your favorite kind of watercolor paper? A journal or sketchbook that lies flat? A book printed on pastel purple paper that's easier on the eyes?
You can go even further, like adding pockets and bookmarks or changing the page color of each section to make it easier to flip through. Look at some examples online to get ideas!
Research different types of bindings to see what would work best for your project. Here are some brief examples:
- Coptic bindings are pretty straightforward to make and attractive, so I think they're a good option for a beginner project to see if you want to persue this hobby further. They also lie flat, which is good for things like watercolor sketchbooks (but, as the spine isn't glued, they're a bit wobbly and probably not suitable for mediums like charcoal or graphite).
- Three-Piece Bradel bindings have a much more traditional look, with the spine hinge that is characteristic to case bindings (more commonly known as "hardcovers"). This specific variation makes it easier to line everything up properly by using a base piece of paper cut to size, rather than trying to glue all of your cover materials with no guidelines.
- Sewn Board bindings are like a happy medium between both of the previous options. They are bound using Coptic stitches, allowing them to lay flat nicely unlike most case bindings, but their spines aren't open and unglued like a traditional Coptic-style book, which helps them stay together stronger. As you'd expect from the name, the boards are sewn on, rather than glued, and you add the rest of the cover materials on top, which makes it much easier to line everything up.
- Also, if you're making a smaller book or zine, the Pamphlet stitch may be helpful. Rather than buying a specialized stapler for zine-making, this is a good alternative for small batches and, by sewing, you won't have to deal with the staples rusting and becoming brittle overtime.
What aesthetic are you going for? What covering materials are you going to use?
- Honestly, this is like my favorite part of the process: picking out cute coordinating covers and endpapers! You can use basically anything, but there are a few things to keep in mind:
- It's best to cover the spine at least with bookcloth, because paper can easily rip or get worn out with use. You can buy large sheets of bookcloth online for pretty cheap or SeaLemon has a tutorial for making your own.
- I'd also recommend trying to stick with papers that are around cardstock thickness, if possible. Thinner papers may rip more easily or wrinkle when you apply glue.
Day Two: Preparing & Arranging Insides
Books (or the books we're concerned with today, at least) are broken up into a series of roughly equal-sized segments, referred to variously as sections, signatures, gatherings, etc. For the purposes of this guide, I'll be using "signatures," but be aware that other resources may have a different way of referring to the same thing.
The process of setting up your signatures is obviously going to be different based on what sort of project you're doing. If you're just making a blank book or sketchbook, you're basically home free. Otherwise, you'll need to compile your pages in a way that lets you bind them (this process is called imposition). Assuming you already have a fully typeset pdf, I'd recommend using momijizukamori's Bookbinder.js app to impose your document. It has lots of options, including paper size, signature size, and various formats like quartos, octavos, and other funky things going down to sixty pages per sheet.
Also, if you need help with typesetting, ArmoredSuperHeavy has a tutorial of how to do it in Microsoft Word, and they provide links to other tutorials using different programs. (Again, I think it's useful to look at examples of books you already have or others' work online to get ideas!)
Once your signatures are properly imposed and printed out, you can start folding them and poking the holes needed to bind them. Again, the number and arrangement of holes depends on personal preference and the specific project you're doing. Some sewing methods require an odd number of holes and some need an even number, so, again, it's important to know what you're doing ahead of time.
There are different methods of poking the holes: punching cradles (or a makeshift punch cradle using an old phone book) are pretty popular, and sometimes people use a saw to cut all the holes at once, etc. Personally, I align everything using a piece of cardstock that I marked the measurements on and stab the holes at an angle over a spare piece of cardboard, like DAS Bookbinding showed in a video once, but try out some different things to see what works for you.
- Then, leave your signatures under weight overnight to get them to lay flatter.
Day Three: Sewing and Lining
Again, the specifics depend on your chosen project. Common methods of sewing together a bookblock include: supported methods (where you sew around cloth tapes or cords) or unsupported methods (where you either only connect signatures with a kettle stitch at either end or linked stitches, like Coptic or French Link).
It's also important to remember to attach your endpapers. Most people recommend simply tipping them onto the first and last signature, but I prefer sewing them in. Besides that, there are many different types of endpaper constructions – DAS Bookbinding has a playlist describing their basic function and some variations.
Next, comes gluing up the spine (unless you're making a Coptic-style book, where this step is unnecessary). Put the book block under weight again, then glue the spine using acid-free PVA and line it. Traditionally, when lining the spine, you should use something called "mull," which is a netty fabric, but personally I've been using strips of old newspapers. You just need some kind of thin paper or fabric.
- Then, leave the bookblock under weight overnight to dry.
Day Four: Making the Case
- Just continue following the specific steps of your chosen tutorial. This day will generally involve gluing together your cover materials (boards, spine stiffener, bookcloth, decorative paper (optional)) and attaching them to the bookblock, via your endpapers.
- It's very tricky to get everything to line up perfectly and, if you're using PVA glue, it dries so fast that you only have one shot at it – attempting to separate the endpapers and cover will just make a horrible, unsalvageable mess of both! People recommend using wheat paste, a mixture of PVA and wheat paste, or adding some methyl cellulose to PVA to make it dry slower. Otherwise, it's one of those things that you get better at with time and practice…
- Again, when you're done, leave the book under weight overnight to dry. (Resist the urge to open it prematurely! You can and will ruin the endpapers and make them all wrinkly! Learn from my mistakes!)
- The Renegade Bindery's resource document has a list of all sorts of stuff, including typesetting tutorials for multiple programs, binding tutorials, and worldwide distributors of bookbinding supplies and decorative papers.
- Youtubers DAS Bookbinding and SeaLemon have a lot of great tutorials of different binding methods and related techniques.
- The Bookbinding subreddit has lots of good discussions, monthly question threads, and people showcasing their work. Also, their reference document is quite comprehensive, as well.
- I'd also recommend looking around at examples by other bookbinders. Some neat artists I'd like to give a shoutout are @simplysithel, who makes lots of miniature books and other funky little things like books with legs, and @spockandawe, who makes cool covers and typesetting designs.
Hope this was helpful!