Bookbinding is an old art that is simultaneously useful as well as beautiful and creative.
If you want to get into bookbinding, we live in the glorious age of The Internet, and there are about a billion resources out there, from stitching tutorials to creative ideas, to tips on materials, to extensive information on leatherworking for covers…. the field is huge, and I am super impressed with the people who are really excellent at this craft.
Today, I’ll walk through how to make a simple handmade book, from scratch. It is not made with an existing book, and has a sewn/glued binding with no staples. I made this with materials lying around the house, because I have a lot of random craft things that have built up over the years. It took me about four hours of crafting time, not counting drying time or getting distracted by looking at other people’s projects. If this is your first time making a book, feel free to substitute materials as you see fit and as your budget allows. Where relevant, I’ve included notes about tools and materials that serious bookbinders would use, if you’re interested, but I got along just fine without them. Don’t let less-than-professional materials hold you back on doing a very fun and rewarding craft.
This little book is really just the beginning; experienced bookbinders will have many, many variations, and I encourage you to check out all the awesome stuff that people are doing.
- Paper for Pages (I used 32 sheets of 8.5″x11″ printer paper. Use whatever you like.)
- Thin Cardboard for Cover (I cut up a shoebox. Chipboard works well, or the back of a used notebook, or regular corrugated cardboard, for a thicker cover).
- White paste (I used ModPodge. Elmer’s or another craft glue works fine. Professional bookbinding glue is also available. I’ve noticed that sometimes Elmer’s can wrinkle paper easily, so you might also want a glue stick or spray adhesive, in addition to paste, if you are working with thinner paper.)
- Paper or Fabric for Cover. (1 sheet of Scrapbooking paper works well. Choose anything you want to look at.)
- Paper for Endpapers (1 sheet of Scrapbooking paper works well. Use anything you like.)
- Thick thread
- Bias Tape (Or bookbinder’s tape, if you’re going to get picky. You can use strips of ribbon instead, or pre-shrunk denim or canvas strips.)
- Thin Ribbon for Bookmark (optional)
- Additional Cover Embellishments (optional)
- Paper Slicer (or scissors, or X-acto knife, if you’re up for a lot of measuring and work)
- Small craft clamps (I suppose you could get by without these, if you’re careful)
- Craft-sized hacksaw (Optional; it’s just what I used.)
- Awl (or a thick, sharp needle)
- A big-ish sewing needle
- A foam brush for your glue
- Good ruler (I like metal rulers for precise measurements)
1. Choose and Cut paper
What size paper you want will depend on a) what you have or want to work with, and b) what size book you want. My finished book is just 3.5″ high x 4″ long, so it’s pocket-sized. I’ll show you what I did, and hopefully it’s enough information for you to extrapolate if you want to make a larger book. The techniques used here should be sound for any decently-sized journal or sketchbook.
Because I had a great deal of plain printer paper with holes punched in it for a binder that I took apart long ago, I wanted to use up this paper doing something productive. I have a nice paper slicer that can be found in the scrapbooking section of a craft store. If all you have are scissors, that’s fine, it’s just harder to get a straight line or consistent measurements, and it’s a lot more work.
First, I cut off an inch of the paper (where the holes were) from the side of the sheet.
Next, I folded it in half lengthwise, creating essentially two narrow pages. From the fold to the edge, my paper is now 3.75″ wide.
Next, I cut three even sections off of this folded sheet. Each section is 3.25″ wide along the fold. I choose this because I think the proportions look nice. There is some paper left over at the end of the strip; I toss this in the recycling bin.
My final page size is 3.24″ high x 3.75″ wide, and has a fold on it. Essentially, this one folded section makes four pages, front and back.
You are going to repeat this a lot to get all the pages you need. We’ll cover this in the next step.
Serious Bookbinders’ Note: Many people choose to cut the whole size of two pages, and THEN fold them in the middle for each two-page spread. If you are good at origami, you will make nice, precise folds with elegant creases. Serious bookbinders often use a bone folder, which helps make nice creases without crinkling or smudging the paper. I’ve never used one, but I hear they are indispensable for people who do this a lot.
2. Arrange your Signatures
If you open any hardcover book, you might notice that instead of having a bunch of individual sheets just glued in there, the pages are actually small bundles of folded-over sheets all sewn together. These small bundles are called “signatures”.
Each signature contains a multiple of 4 pages, because each individual piece of paper, folded over, can contribute four pages to the book. I decide to make each signature the size of eight sheets of paper, which seems pretty standard, but of course you can make them any thickness you want.
Go ahead and arrange your signatures as you finish cutting each sheet of paper to size; it helps keep track of your progress.
I cut enough paper to make 9 signatures, because a) it’s a multiple of three, so it uses up an even number of pieces of paper, and b) it gives me the thickness that I want for my book. This takes 32 sheets of paper, total, not counting any do-overs if I cut it wrong or tear the paper.
For my book, I have nine bundles (signatures) of eight pieces of folded paper each. I stack them neatly, and it starts to feel something like a book.
Once I have all my signatures arranged and neatly stacked together like a book, I use my craft clamps to tightly clamp them all together, close to the folded edges, which will become the spine of the book.
Serious Bookbinders’ Note: Serious bookbinders use a book press for the clamping of the pages. It smashes all the pages down nicely, and even has a beveled, metal edge to help them properly form the spine. I don’t have a book press, but my tiny crafting clamps seem to work in a pinch. If you got really into the craft, you could make your own book press using supplies from the hardware store.
3. Cutting Sewing Holes in the Paper
Now that the spine is all clamped together, we’re going to measure and mark where the holes will go.
We are going to mark six lines across the spines.
The outer two lines will go about a quarter of an inch in from the ends. (That’s the measurement for this small book. A larger book might have a greater distance in from the edge.)
After that, get out your bias tape or ribbon, or bookbinder’s tape) and cut two lengths roughly 4″ long. Again, the exact length doesn’t matter. We are going to lay them perpendicularly across the spine of the pages. Space them evenly, as they will act as hinges when the book is finished. Mark the paper on both sides of the bias tape, which makes four more lines perpendicular to the spine.
Now, you should have six lines across the spine. It should look something like this:
Once the holes are all marked, I take my craft-sized hacksaw and cut straight across the spine, along the lines I just marked. I make sure that I go deep enough to go through all eight pieces of paper in the signature. Once cut, I take the signatures out of the clamps to check my work.
If you don’t have clamps and are making a book without any, you can measure each signature separately and punch holes in each signature six times instead of using a craft-sized hacksaw to do them all at once.
In reality, I need to “touch up” each signature by poking holes all the way through with my awl or big-ish sewing needle. If you don’t have a hacksaw, you may jump right to this step. Be careful going through the paper– I tore some of mine and had to re-cut a few sheets.
When you are done, you will have six holes along the folded edge of each signature.
4. Sewing the Spine
There are a lot of different ways to sew a book binding, just as there are many knitting stitches or embroidery stitches. I encourage you to Google them and go crazy. Some leave the stitching exposed. Some do complicated and beautiful stitching designs. We’re going to cover ours up.
For purposes of this tutorial, we’ll cover the kettle stitch, mostly because it’s what I learned in 8th grade when I first discovered bookbinding as a hobby, but also because it’s a basic stitch that will do well to hold our book together.
Cut a length of your thick thread. Since I have nine signatures in my book, I used ten spine lengths of thread. It’s just an estimate. I didn’t want to cut too short and run out halfway through. I used a thick, cream-colored upholstery thread, because it will hold up well and that’s what I had on hand. I used a large-ish sewing needle usually used for a thick chenille upholstery fabric.
Make a rather large knot in end of the thread that hopefully won’t pull through the holes in the paper. Starting with one signature, go in toward the center on the first hole. Come out again on the second hole, and go around the first strip of bias tape laying perpendicular to the spine. Go into the center again on the third hole. Come out and sew around the second strip of bias tape on the fourth and fifth hole. This might sound complicated in words, but you’re basically just sewing in and out with really big stitches into pre-stitched holes. On the sixth hole, come out again, and pull it taught. Don’t worry about getting it too tight; you don’t want to tear the paper. It’ll be fine.
Place the second signature next to the first. Repeat this entire sequence, going back the other direction, through the second signature. The bias tape should start looking firmly sewn into both signatures, and you might be getting an idea for where this is going.
The important part of this whole stitching is handling the stitch at the end.
With the thread that just came out of the most recent signature, go around the thread from the previous signature and loop it back through before it tightens, tying a knot.
Here, I didn’t get a picture of this part, and this person on CSparks.com has the easiest-to-follow pictures of a kettle stitch. Read their page. It’s way simpler and less verbose than mine. Here are their pictures on how to do the stitching at the ends:
On the first end, when you are finishing the second signature, make the stitch like this:
Then, when you’ve returned after sewing through the third signature, the stitch to connect it to the first and second will look like this:
Continue onward in this fashion until all of your signatures have been attached. Then tie it off, and cut your thread to a reasonable length. It’ll all get glued up together, so the exact length doesn’t matter too much.
Serious Bookbinders’ Note: Serious bookbinders sometimes use binding tape, which is also a strip of cloth. I’m not sure what makes it special, except that it is very strong and probably acid-free. I’ve also seen people use thicker strings, which give nice, leather-bound books those raised ridges on the spine. Serious bookbinders, especially for really large books, might also have a sewing frame, which sets the book up properly for sewing. You can make your own bookbinder’s sewing frame relatively inexpensively. For a small craft book like mine, I just do my best without one.
5. Glue the spine
Now that the spine is all sewn up, I clamp it all together again. For this step, if you don’t have clamps, I recommend placing the book pages between something heavy, like bricks. If you use other books, I recommend protecting them with wax paper, aluminum, or plastic bags, because we are about to glue.
Brush your white paste glue over the entire spine with a foam brush. Let it settle in between the signatures. Let it soak into the bias tape and threads. This glue, in addition to the threads, will hold your book together. Be careful that your book spine is compressed tightly, or the glue will run in between the pages, and that it is set up in a stable location.
Serious Bookbinders’ Note: Serious bookbinders use a professional bookbinder’s paste. Again, I’m not sure what’s so special about it, although it’s probably acid-free. There are tutorials on the Internet to make your own bookbinder’s paste, but I am not an expert and can’t vouch for them. For my project here, I’m using ModPodge, which is a decoupage medium, kind of like a glue/varnish in one. It goes both under and over paper/fabric/crafting supplies. I chose ModPodge because a) it’s what I have on hand, and b) I haven’t used it much, so I’m experimenting with ways to be creative with it, and c) I’m going to use it all over the cover to stick extra embellishments on it and create a nice finish. It dries clear and is a lot of fun to use.
Ok, now that your spine is gluing together, we can set it aside to dry while we turn our attention to the cover!
6. Cut your Cover Boards
Now we are going to cut the boards used for the cover.
I cut up the bottom of a shoebox for my cover. The book is small, and the shoebox has the right amount of rigidity for its size. If you are using a thick scrapbooking paper to decorate the cover, it will cover up any ridges from corrugated cardboard, so consider that as well. If you’re using a thin fabric on your cover, the texture of the cardboard matters more. To make more books, I’d like to buy chipboard or matboard. Of course, you can get creative and use whatever you want.
Cut your cover boards slightly larger than your paper on the top and bottom, and roughly the same width as your pages. The covers will still hang over the edge when we’re done, but the spine of the book pages will stick out a little bit and we’ll do something different with them. Also cut a strip of cardboard that is the height of your cover boards and the width of the book spine.
I wanted my covers to hang over my pages by about 1/8″ all the way around. If you are making a larger book, you will likely want a larger overhang. Based on the size of my pages, that meant that my cover boards were each 3.5″ high x 3.75″ wide. The strip cut out for the spine is 3.5″ high x 1″ wide.
7. Glue your Cover Boards to your Cover Material
Next, we’re going to cut out the cover material. I am using a thick scrapbooking paper.
Cut out a rectangle from your cover paper that is big enough to lay flat underneath your cover boards, while having plenty to fold over on all sides. See the picture. Note: In this picture, the cover paper is pretty side down. (Both sides happen to have a red pattern; I’m using the other side.) This is important later, when we glue the boards down.
If you are using really thick cover boards, like a thick cardboard, you will need to take this thickness into account when you figure out how wide of an edge you need to leave for your papers.
The space between the cover boards and the board for the spine needs to be big enough so that it can comfortably curve over the spine of the book pages when it is all closed up. For comparison, I have here an extra page to use to check this. There should be room for the cover board to overhang the page paper on one side, and the page paper will overhang the cover board on the other side. See the photograph for spacing.
Of course, the spine needs to be an equal distance from both cover boards.
Once you have your spacing set, go ahead and measure it, since you’ll have to pick the boards up to glue them down.
Now we’re ready to paste the boards down. Using your foam brush, brush an even coating of paste on the board and glue it into place. Be sure that you have the pretty side of your cover paper facing your desk, and NOT facing you!
Once all three pieces of cardboard are glued in place, wrap the edges of the cover paper around the boards, and glue tightly in place.
It’s just like wrapping a present. If you’re using a rather thick paper or fabric, you might want to cut a little away in the corners to make folding easier.
Since I am using ModPodge, I can brush the glue right over the top of these folds and kind of “seal in” the edges. Fun stuff.
Once the glue has dried, your cover is basically finished if you want it to be. If you’re like me, however, you won’t be able to resist adding decorations!
8. Decorate your Cover
Maybe you are just fine with the cover material as-is. I decided that I wanted to embellish mine a little.
Here’s where the ModPodge becomes a great asset. I added a strip of hem facing lace along one side of the book cover. I folded the edges of the lace strip down onto the inside of the cover, so they will eventually be covered with the endpaper inside. With the ModPodge, I can glue it straight down on to the cover, and then cover it with glue, knowing it will dry to a clear finish.
I also added a contrasting piece of paper to the section that will become the spine of the book. I also folded the top and bottom edges of this piece down inside the cover to be covered later.
I was so overzealous in my gluing that I accidentally rubbed off a bit of my cover paper in a conspicuous spot. Not to worry! I have a butterfly hole punch and artistically arranged it over the rubbed-off spot. I used the ModPodge to cover the entire exterior of the book, creating a shiny, slightly textured finish that ensures all of my paper (and lace) are very firmly affixed to the cover. It would also work on fabrics or photographs; anything you want to use to cover your book. You could print out famous artwork to cover your book! You could create a collage! You could cover it with newsprint, or book pages, or wrapping paper, or comic book pages, or sheet music. With ModPodge, it will all layer nicely into a single, protected surface. Note: ModPodge is a name brand and they are NOT paying me in any way. There are plenty of other brands of decoupage glue. Some people even make their own! I’m sure they are all equally awesome.
As I mentioned before, using ModPodge on a book this way is not necessary, and is more about my joy in using a new technique than a recommendation. I think my book turned out pretty well, and I’ll be making more of them. But if you have other ideas, go for it. Leather, embroidery, denim (with or without pockets!), newspaper, other fabrics, handmade or specialty papers, motherboards– these all have beautiful and unique textures on their own, and could make amazing book covers. You would still need to glue them down or affix them to the boards somehow, but maybe there are better products than ModPodge for these variations.
As a finishing touch, I glued a red ribbon into the center of the book cover spine to be used as a bookmark.
9. Putting your Book Together
Once the glue has dried (again), your cover is ready. By now, the spine of the pages has also probably dried thoroughly.
Now we can insert the guts of the book into the cover.
Lay the book spine into the spine of the cover. Do not glue the spine down. There will be a gap between the spine of the pages and the spine of the cover; this lets the pages move freely.
Instead, open the first page of your book. You are going to glue this first page, and the bias tape with it, flat to the inside of the cover.
Do the same to the other side.
Your book is now put together. Just a few more finishing touches!
Serious Bookbinders’ Note: You might have noticed that your pages are all different lengths. This is because as they are folded into signatures, some papers have farther to go to reach the edge of the book. Serious bookbinders will often trim all the page edges to the same length once the spine is glued together. They might use a bookbinder’s plough for this. Other people might use a commercial print shop to cut the edges evenly, or attempt it on their own with a sharp chisel while clamped very tightly between boards. For our purposes, we’ll skip this step, because it is difficult and unnecessary. I’m ok with the varied edges, especially in a little afternoon craft like this.
10. Adding Endpapers and Finishing Touches
If you open pretty hardcover books, leatherbound books, or collectors’ editions, you might notice that just inside the cover before you get to the actual pages, the endpapers of the book are often of a pretty, contrasting paper.
Cut your contrasting paper for endpapers to the size of one double spread page.
Cut two of these: one for inside the front of the book, one for the back. I made mine just a smidgen larger than the other pages, to cover up any mistakes.
If the paper has a printed pattern with a distinct up/down direction, make sure you orient the papers to the up/down direction of the cover. It won’t be easy to fix later.
Carefully paint glue on the back of one side of and endpaper. Line this up with the first of the rest of the pages in the book, so that it is overlapping completely with that first page, with the fold toward the spine. Glue it down smoothly.
With the ModPodge, I choose to NOT glue over the top of my endpapers. I like the paper texture too much, and reserve the shellaced-over texture and look for the outside of the cover only.
Once this side is reasonably dry, I paint glue on the back of the other half of the paper.
Starting from the fold in the spine, I carefully line it up to lay flat against the inside cover. If I’ve cut everything right, it should neatly cover up any of the folded-over edges from the outside of the cover. I smooth this down and wipe away any extra glue.
As a finishing touch, I wrap a string around the spine, and twist a screwdriver in it to tighten it. This crimps the little section between the cover boards and the spine, giving more of that iconic “book” shape than a box shape.
I don’t know that this is the best method of doing this, however. I think I used too much yarn, so the crimp wasn’t focused enough. I almost smudged my cover again, and there didn’t seem to be enough pressure on the sides of the book instead of just the corners. I’m sure there’s a better way. but for my purposes, this seems to work just fine. Or, you could skip the step and it would probably also work fine.
Aaaaaand you’re done! The only thing left to do is let it dry!
The Sky’s the Limit
Now you have a neat little book that you can use for any number of things! Handmade books make great personalized gifts. They can be used as photo albums, or for scrapbooking, or journaling. You can make it a sketchbook, or use it to collect recipes. Larger books make wonderful keepsake albums, like wedding guestbooks, cabin mementos, or family trees. Smaller books can be address books, autograph books, stocking stuffers, idea books, or even for more mundane tasks like grocery lists or phone messages. Very tiny books can be made for dolls or even into jewelry!
Now that you have a starting point, play around with the basic concept and make whatever you like. I encourage you to see what other artisans are doing, because my little tutorial only briefly touches on the vast and wonderful craft of making books by hand. The possibilities are endless!