Adventures in Bookbinding: Working in the Spaces of Life

January 1, 2009


Above: 30 sheets of Nideggen torn down and waiting to be sewn and bound into books. 

A thrilling sight for a bookbinder: paper torn and folded and ready to be made into books. Thirty sheets might seem like a lot of paper (25 x 38 inch sheets) to tear down, but it went quickly (about 2 1/2 hours), much of it done while Dick was sitting nearby talking about his day.

Last week a friend asked me, "How fast can you make a book?" I didn't have a quick and ready answer for her. Years ago I kept some time sheets on the various structures I was working on, especially those that became staples I used or structures that I taught. (When you teach a structure you need to know how long a particular task takes you because you then have to extrapolate how long it takes you when you are talking, explaining; and finally how long it takes the students to do the same step—typically 2 to 4 times as long. If you don't get that equation right you'll have students leaving class without finished books and they won't be happy; and neither would I.)

In the past 7 years or so I haven't really thought about how long it takes me to make a book, because it is rare that I sit down and make one in one go. It is normal, instead, for me to tear down a lot of paper, fold up a lot of signatures, taking frequent breaks, over the course of a day. Then there will be a day when I'll start sewing, maybe three books one night, and three another, and so on until I have 12 textblocks all ready to case in.

On another day I might take time at lunch to spread out some newspapers and throw paint at some watercolor paper (for decorative paper for covering portions of the bookboard).

On another evening I'll take that paper, now dry, and cut it up into useful pieces, based on the measurements of the textblocks and my notes on making that structure.

Finally I'll start the casing in process. I'll start gluing the bookcloth and decorative paper to the boards and case in the book (attach the covers to the textblock); weight the book, and wait for the glue to dry!

For several days in a row the first thing I'll do in the morning is pull the new books I made the previous evening out from under the weights and do my happy new book dance. (It makes me very, very happy when I make a book, because I am already thinking about the relationship I or someone else is going to have with that book.)

So how long did it take me to make that book? Days and days? Nope, it took no time at all, because I made it during those spaces in the day when time just slips away from you, unless you have something at hand.

It doesn't matter if you work at home and have constant access to your studio, or if you work outside the home and have travel and office time interrupting your bookmaking. I've made books when I've worked outside the home and when I've had a studio at the home. It's the same thing, it takes no time at all, if you think of the following steps.

1. Take the process you'll be using and break it down into steps.

The first time you make a book structure you'll have to do it all the way through once, either because you are learning it and don't know what the steps will break into easily, or because you are developing the structure and the process is still fluid.

Either way, you want to take some notes. Then you want to find the natural breaks in the process. For instance, if you want to make your own decorative paper and keep the process rolling the decorative paper will have to be made early on in the process and sufficiently early on that it will be dry and ready to go when needed. Decorative paper manufacture is something you can do (depending on your method) in small moments during your day (and from here out I'm assuming that if you are working outside the home you read "your day" as that free-time you have when you arrive home at night, or before you leave in the a.m.: there's nothing wrong with getting a batch of paper painted before you leave in the morning, and in the evening you can cook up a batch of paste for tomorrow's paste paper!).

Once you've broken the steps down it might help you to make a little schedule or list to help you through the process. (But not everyone likes to cross items off a list as much as I do.)

2. Create a space where you can leave things out all the time, or put things away with minimal effort.

Now you'll need a place to work. Maybe you have a family room and can put a table in the corner, maybe you have a dining room table that never gets used (cover the table first to protect it). Perhaps there is a spare room where you can work? I have friends who have no space and still have a permanent space. One has created a desk/work area in a hallway closet. Another has a rolling cart type of cabinet with a work surface.

The point is don't dream and dawdle until you have the perfect space. It's a rare thing. I know one person with a perfect space and she never makes anything any more! Just look around and find a space you can use now. Maybe you have to use a puppy gate to keep the puppy away. Maybe you have to keep the budgie from free-flying in that room. They'll still be happy, because you'll be happy.

If you have very little space to work in, and really no table or shelves to leave things out on, consider purchasing some large plastic bins. I have some large Rubbermaid bins that slide under some of my studio tables. If I'm in the middle of something but for some reason it has to be all put away, I simply place the pieces into these bins and shove the bins under the table. That's what I mean by putting things away with minimal effort. You can get it all out and be busy again in about 60 seconds.

The more you work on a system like this the more ideas of how to refine your workspace and working methods will come to you. When you do finally find yourself talking to the builder about that perfect space you'll know exactly what to ask for.

3. Stop before you are tired.

When working in shifts like this don't tell yourself you're going to tear all the paper down at one go. I tore those 30 sheets down in two sessions.  I didn't bring the paper into the house until I knew I would have time to tear it because I didn't want to reorganize my flat file. I know from tearing down about 60 sheets of paper in one session that you can really do a number on your hands. I'm not talking about cramping and tightness. The time I tore those 60 sheets I actually rubbed the skin off my knuckles without realizing it until the next day! (Now when I have a lot of sheets to tear down I put bandaids on my right hand's knuckles before I start to tear, to protect them! Or I remember to put on thin cotton gloves with the fingertips cut out.)

Besides preventing injury to yourself, stopping before you are tired means you'll make fewer mistakes. When it comes to measuring boards and cutting decorative paper, I only do those tasks when I am feeling alert. The moment I stop feeling alert I quit.

Now this isn't an invitation to skip a work session. If you come home from work, or finish a day's work in your studio, have a meal, or a break. Then start working on one of the tasks from your list. You'll actually find that you have more energy if you don't put off what you had scheduled to do that evening. You'll get a sense of well-being and accomplishment too, as the project starts to grow around you.

4. Be patient.

You might think that for a task like this the best thing to do is pick a weekend and work like hell on that weekend with no distractions.

You're wrong. Just like it is folly to think you can skip your journaling all week long and "catch up" on the weekend (first of all you can't catch up on something that is about being in the moment) it is unlikely a big weekend push will accomplish as much as you hope. And then you'll have to deal with the let down.

This isn't to say you shouldn't schedule a playdate with friends to make paste paper one weekend, or make your own bookbinding cloth by paper-backing your favorite fabrics. Those can be great and productive weekends.

What I'm saying is that when you start putting off your creative efforts until you have more time you'll quickly find you have less time for those efforts, because other things keep stealing from those plans.

Better to steal back those times that aren't used during the week and apply them to your creative tasks (in this example, to bookbinding).

And to do that you'll have to develop patience. But that's a good thing anyway. You'll feel better about a lot of things in general, but if you develop a little patience your creative projects will really benefit because you will find yourself working in a more mindful and determined way.

5. Be kind to yourself when you mess up.

So you've planned the whole week and you've made your decorative paper and you forgot to look at your note sheet and you miss-cut your boards. You can spend the rest of your evening swearing like a sailor or you can let it fall off your back with a sigh and move on to another task (or relax and read a book) until you can go out and get more board.

Guess which option I'm advocating. Drama doesn't do much but elevate your blood pressure. Being angry at yourself once you are past the 60 second analysis of the problem so you can avoid it in the future, doesn't do you any good. It stops you from doing what you need to be doing: creating stuff.

6. Have reasonable expectations.

If you are all thumbs and have never worked with small tools and needles and such, or if you are a "pig-pen" who gets more paint and glue on herself and project than the intended location, don't expect your first project to be perfect.

In fact, maybe you should never expect perfection, even when you are high on the learning curve. Maybe it's healthier to just stay open to the results and enjoy them for what they are, a point in your development. That way, when you are truly gifted and you make a flop you've still got a way back to point 5 (being kind to yourself when you mess up!).

7. Analyze what went on.

What is important, however, is that if your results don't work out analyze why. Look and see what is wrong about your book (which is what we are talking about now). Is the hinge space too tight for the book to open and close properly? Maybe you measured all the thicknesses that have to move in that space incorrectly, noting thiryseconds of an inch instead of sixteenths of an inch? Perhaps you are making a new structure and you need to look at it again and refine some point, and make another prototype?

You don't have to have access to creative friends (though if you do you can ask them what they think), you don't have to do more reading and research. You can look down at what is in your hand and observe what isn't working and then create a plan to change it. (This is where the patience comes in again.)

So Get Busy!

So there it is, a simple plan for stealing back the time that slips away in life; stealing it back so you can make something you value (in this case books, but it could be anything—my screenwriting instructor use to tell us to write 6 pages a day, because at the end of 20 days you'll have a script, a first draft perhaps, but still a script!).

And the next time a friend asks you how long it took to make something you can say, "no time at all."

Caveat: If you are going to make things to sell I suggest that you keep a time sheet for all your sessions so that you have a total number of hours divisible by the items you created and can then use that number along with a break down of studio expenses like heat and electricity and software upgrades, etc., to create an hourly and determine a price. But there's all sorts of math involved in that and that's not my point today. Just make something OK? And make a lot of somethings. It'll be fun.

  1. Reply

    What a yummy sight!
    I’ve never made a journal, but seeing those stacks of beautiful torn paper edges makes me want to.
    Ah, so many things I’d like to do …

    • Roz
    • January 1, 2009

    Anna Maria, just jump right in. Make some books in 2009!


  2. Reply

    Roz – I’m starting off my first day of the new year doing things I want to do more of during the year – just like you suggested yesterday. Started with cracking some of the black walnuts (then sketching them) that came off the tree in our yard (“harvest more wild foods this year…”). And to continue, I decided that I shouldn’t just read the blogs I like, but should also thank those who create them and share their ideas and inspirations. Perhaps it’ll get me off my duff and I might join in too, and share my sketchbook some day. So, thank you, thank you – for your lovely work, your creative sharing, and for loving MN like you do. Happy New Year. Consie

    • Roz
    • January 1, 2009

    Consie, thank you for your kind note. I love that you are aiming to harvest more wild foods this year. I think, besides today’s walnuts, they will make great subjects for drawing! I look forward to hearing about your adventures in sketching! Have a great 2009.

    As to loving Minnesota, well it isn’t really hard to do that isn’t! Look at today, about 25 (which for some is too cold) but for us it’s balmy, especially with that sunshine. What could be better?!


  3. Reply

    i love this, roz–wish we had room for it in The Book, as it’s PERFECT! but then, everything you told me for The Book was perfect, too–

    • Roz
    • January 3, 2009

    Thanks Ricë, I think I said some similar things when we were talking about your book, maybe not as specific?

    But thank you. I keep explaining this to my students. Bookbinding takes no time at all. (Well if you aren’t working in leather. Pity those folks!)


    • Andy
    • November 17, 2012

    Excellent advice about stopping when you’re tired. After working for a while one evening this past week making a case, I glued the spine title on crooked. That was my second mistake. Earlier I had spilled some water on the floor reaching for something else. That’s when to stop: after your first mistake.

    If you’re not aware enough to stop BEFORE your first mistake, definitely stop after your FIRST mistake.

  4. Reply

    Andy, yep, if one can’t stop before making a mistake, stopping right afterwards is a great time. I am sorry you spilt water on the floor. I hope you didn’t also slip. I keep all liquids (except the glue) out of the room I’m binding in otherwise I would have a great mess!

    I hope the rest of your binding this past week went well!


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