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Choosing a Journal Size

March 24, 2010

Considerations when deciding on the size to bind your journal.

Above: I have posted this photo on my blog before, but it is a handy example of today's topic. The 4 journals with an X on them are made from the same sheet size of paper. Of these four books the three taller books are the same size (despite photographic distortion). The smaller book in that group, at the right is actually 1/2 the size of the others, made with the same tear diagram (see discussion below) but taken additional steps to the half size, still with the grain in the same orientation: parallel to the spine. The other journals all use a different sheet, and represent five separate ways of tearing down such a sheet to get different square and portrait format journals.

I’m frequently asked how I arrive at the size (format and thickness) of journals that I bind for use as my visual journals. The simple answer is experimentation. Years of experimentation have led me to certain preferences. I make a book of a certain size and format and carry it about with me for the month or so it takes me to fill it and then think about what problems that size journal caused me (shoulder pain because it was large and heavy), inconvenience (because it was too large to fit in my backpack or shoulder bag or journal bag; or because it was too small and didn’t allow me to capture the larger images I wanted to create).

When you start binding your own books you’re going to have to do your own experimentation of this kind. You’ll have to work in books of different sizes and formats to determine which page size and orientation suits you the best—and perhaps, as in my case, you’ll find it’s more than one.

Melanie Testa wrote to me last week asking just this question:

“I wonder if you might talk about the manner in which you decide on the size of a book. I know this is a personal choice sort of an answer, but hearing your thoughts may give some perspective.…I figure the size of my back pack will play a part in my own decisions in final size. My backpack is a smaller size. Knowing my personality, I work on journals for extended periods of time. I work and rework pages to my liking and want my books to be works of art in themselves. For a very long time I have been working in Moleskines. The 5×8" size is nice, though perhaps I would like something a tad larger. I am about to finish a Watercolor style Moleskine Journal and have hated the landscape format from the start, so that is out. I don't yet have a favored paper. In school, I worked extensively with cold press paper. Now I need to shop with grain in mind, something I hadn't thought about in terms of paper before.”

She’s right that it is a personal choice, it depends a lot on one’s working methods and ability to lug things around. For some people a thick worn book is more satisfying than several thinner books, even though carrying the thinner book is easier on their shoulders. And yes, bookbinders do always have to consider grain.

Here is a list of items to consider when deciding what size and format you will bind your next journal.

1. Do you have an established preference for format?

Format refers to the shape and orientation of the page. Do you like portrait orientation (taller than it is wide), landscape orientation (wider than it is tall), or do you like a square page to work on?

The question is actually a bit more complicated than that because if you work with a casebound or sewn-on-the-spine book you are actually able to work across the spine. Your square page then becomes a rectangular spread. Your landscape page becomes an even more exaggerated horizontal space within which to work.

I have a personal preference for square (or nearly square) journals—though I will no longer work on square journal cards in my unbound journals (such as my State Fair Journals). Cards don’t expand to a full spread and I find working in a square can be frustrating.

2. How is the preference you have for format and size going to work with your working style?

If you stand up, which is what I mostly do, when you sketch and paint, how difficult will it be to hold the journal and your other sketching and painting paraphernalia? Let me clue you in, if you have a landscape journal, even one that is not excessively landscape in format dimensions, you’ll have great difficulty indeed when working on the spread that is opposite your non-dominant hand.

Add to that the possibility of juggling a landscape book and paint palette while standing in a bit of a wind. Well, good luck with that.

If you work in landscape format you are a member of the group of artists who really should use wirebound books—so you can fold your book back upon itself and have one page to concentrate on.

If you work seated, well then my rant will only make you laugh.

3. How is the preference you have for format and size going to work with your visual approach—beyond how you actually work? Here I’m getting at the way you like to compose on the page. Do you need that wide horizontal space? Do you work in columns that can easily be cut out of a portrait or square spread, leaving ample space for the image? Do you like to make your images bleed off all sides of your spread? If so you might want to have a smaller book that you can handle while standing, or a larger book you can have on your lap.

See how it goes? One condition leads to another consideration.

4. Do you like elaborately decorated volumes? If so how are you going to work while juggling all the beads and baubles? Can you apply them afterwards? Are you happy to juggle them?

Tip: I used to frequently put ribbon ties on my journals. I stopped this around 2001 because I found myself increasingly irritated with dealing with the hanging ribbons in windy conditions; packing them away quickly when traveling with friends; and the extra fuss needed to create the channels for the ribbons before casing in the book. I only use ribbon ties on artist books that are completed as they are bound, and not worked in afterwards.

5. Next you’ll have to consider what type of paper you like to work on. Do you work with mixed media? Do you work with watercolor only? Do you like to work also in pencil and pen? Do you have a penchant for heavy collage?

For each medium there are countless papers you’ll need to sample for suitability. For collage work you’ll need to stick with a heavier weight paper. I recommend staying with papers that are at least 130 gm2^ or 90 lb. watercolor paper. Thicker papers like 140 lb. watercolor paper (certain brands) and printmaking papers of similar weight are also good choices if you collage. Your experiments, once you select a weight of paper for collage, will center around how easily it takes the paste-up of your usual collage materials with the glue you most like to use! (Ah, more experimentation.)

6. Let’s say that you’ve answered all these questions and have even narrowed down the papers that you would like to use. You need to consider the tearing or cutting down of the smaller pool of papers you’re looking at. For this you will need to know the size of the sheet you can buy and the grain direction on that sheet.

I talk about some of the issues related to tearing down paper in Adventures in Bookbinding: Matching Paper Surfaces Across a Spread.

In that post I talk about the need for a tear (or cutting) diagram. I even show you one that I use when making books with Nideggen. (Sadly I just noticed that there is a horrible typo in the paper name on that diagram, but it wasn’t originally made for publication, so I’ll just live with it.)

What I show you in that diagram is a straight tear, with no paper waste.

7. BUT, let’s say you want a book of a final size that is not the same size as the straight tear down with no waste? Well you have to decide what size that is and work out how to get it out of the sheet size you have, with the grain direction you have. If you wanted an 8 x 10 inch journal made with Nideggen and the sheet is 38 x 25 with the grain going with the 38 inch side than simple math will tell you that you can get three 10 inch strips from that 38 inch width (10 inches being the height of the book and the direction the grain must go). That leaves you a strip of 8 inches on the 38 inch width which is waste. Then to get the 8 inch wide page that you want you need a spread of 16 inches and that must be divided into the 25 inch height of the paper. Sadly only one such spread will fit in each 10 inch strip. Essentially you will also have a 9 inch waste strip along the bottom of your sheet. I work all these things out first with thumbnail sketches. I draw the sheet, the grain direction, the spread size I need, etc. I mark off the waste on each side of the sheet. I double check that I’ve got the grain going correctly on my diagram and double check my math. Then I tear off the waste strips and tear down the sheet into spreads. (If you tear off the waste first you don’t have to do this in multiple steps which also might not be as exact.) Doing a diagram like this also tells me that if I want to have 16 pages in a signature I need 4 leaves (4 pages each) and I can get 3 leaves out of each sheet of Nideggen. So I’ll need 6 sheets of Nideggen to get enough leaves for a 4 signature book and I’ll have two leaves extra (you might want to check the math as I certainly would if I were going to buy paper—but it’s late, you get the idea).

Tip: If you plan your waste carefully you can often tear waste strips down to make small books perfect for putting in your pocket, or taking on day trips when traveling light is essential.

8. This leads us to yet another consideration—COST. Now you can have cost associated with the type of paper you have, obviously, but there is also the cost associated with the number of sheets you need and the amount of waste you have.

Because of this I know many binders who take 22 x 30 inch watercolor paper (in a brand where the grain runs with the 30 inch width) and tear it down without waste to get an even number of leaves yielding a roughly 5.5 x 7.5 inch page. I end up having to do that in some classes myself because of the need to expose students the lovely watercolor paper, but still keep the costs down. When I’m working on books for myself I tend to make square journals that fit into a 22 x 30 inch sheet with waste. That means I only end up getting 1 signature (of 4 leaves) per sheet instead of 2, thereby doubling the cost of paper for my book.

Tip: Here’s what I think when juggling cost and paper waste go for a size format that you are going to enjoy working in. The entire point of binding books for yourself is so that you can have the type of paper you want in the size and format you want. If it costs a little more, well find ways to budget on other things in your life. If you work for yourself, work more hours so that you can afford the extra expense. Find a way to make the book you want.

Tip: Please NEVER CUT YOUR BOARDS until you have torn down your paper and folded your signatures and are sure of your textblock measurement. Paper sheet sizes differ slightly from the advertised size. Depending on how you fold and collate your signatures and how thick the paper is, pages will stick out at the fore edge (unless you trim your book when the textblock is all sewn) and you’ll want to measure your textblock with from which to generate your cover measurements from, at the widest point, etc.

9. How strong and injury free is your body? Even if you are young and don’t have an ache in your body I don’t recommend carting heavy journals around. You will find yourself leaving your journal behind more and more. Size it so you can have it with you always.

10. What size is your pack? Your journal should fit easily into whatever purse, pack, case, etc. you carry. If you have to fumble horribly with it every time you take it out or put it away you’ll miss great opportunities to sketch. This is a great time to look at what you carry around on a daily basis—do you need all that stuff?

11. Items 9 and 10 are especially important when considering travel journals.

Tip: I made a lovely little slip case for my travel journal when I went to France in 2006. After I pulled it out for the third time, juggling the pack zipper and other contents of my pack I tossed the slip case in a nearby garbage can. Dead weight.

12. Consider the number of signatures you want in your journal. Do you want many months of work in your journal? If so you’ll have many signatures—but are all those signatures practical with your paper selection? (Thicker papers make thicker signatures, and result in thicker books.) I don’t mind finishing several journals in a year. For me it’s about keeping pack weight down. I tend to make journals with 5 or 6 signatures when using thicker papers (140 lb. watercolor and such). When using thinner papers (like Arches Text Wove/Velin Arches) I make journals with 6 to 8 signatures, which still end up being thinner at the spine than books made with thicker paper and fewer signatures.

13. Which leads me to mention an additional condition of travel journals—how many pages or spreads will you need on your trip? The book should correspond to this projection with some extra pages for wiggle room. Or you might want to take two books or more, for a very long or drawing-intensive trip.

A baker’s dozen of considerations has probably made your eyes glaze over, but one thing is clear, all these decisions are interdependent. You won’t know what sizes you like until you work in several formats, several times, under several conditions. You won’t know how thick to make a travel journal for 10 days of travel until you know how you journal under travel conditions. You won’t know which paper to use until you try several papers in journals of different sizes. You won’t know how to tear a paper until you determine the grain, make some decisions about size, and make some diagrams.

The really wonderful thing about all this is that each of these cascading questions and conditions means more experimentation and discovery—learning what you don’t just like, but what you love. This is one of the perquisites of binding your own visual journals. Savor every minute of it. Even the moments of frustration lead to luscious adventures.

    • Holly Waldrop
    • March 24, 2010

    WONDERFUL!! Thanks, Roz, for this wealth of information and things to ponder. And all right before I have a FREE WEEKEND!
    You’re the best.

  1. Reply

    Whew, Roz! What a lot of information. Thanks for this.

    • Roz
    • March 24, 2010

    Whew is right Maggie, I was going to just write a short little post and it kept growing. All these things may seem obvious yet it always strikes me how new journal users and makers don’t consider half of these points (and suffer problems in the field because of it) and then it strikes me that I think WAY TOO MUCH about these things (or have done in the past). At which point I stop writing and go draw something.

    Hope the info is helpful.

    • Miriam
    • March 24, 2010

    Thank you Roz, this is awesome! So many things to think about before making your own sketchbook! (And by the way, I haven’t had time to watch District 9 yet)

    • Jenny K
    • March 25, 2010

    Your posts in which you explain how you make decisions about your materials and processes are so helpful. Thanks!

    • Roz
    • March 25, 2010

    Miriam and Jenny, I’m so glad the post is helpful to you. And Miriam I hope you get to see “District 9” soon.

    • March 26, 2010

    Roz, How do you find which way the grain runs in a new paper you have never used before?

    • Roz
    • March 26, 2010

    Catchoen, I think I may have written about this before but I’m not sure what it’s “under” but if I haven’t I’ll do a post on this next week as there are a number of ways and it deserves a post of its own.

  2. Reply

    Roz! Thank you! Wow. I am amazed at the detail of your mind set. I promise I won’t ask questions like this too often. I value your time and am thankful for your efforts! I will be coming back to read and reread this post.

  3. Reply

    Hi Roz, I’m currently taking your Strathmore Online Journal class, and was just perusing your site. I found this page, and wish I’d found it several years ago. Lots of experimenting and $$, I’m still working on my “perfect” journal size. But, I’m also looking for the perfect purse, pair of shoes…….. 😀

  4. Reply

    Sherri, thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m glad this post was useful. Just one more tip—when you find that perfect pair of shoes buy TWO pair! Trust me, when the first wears out you’ll wish you had!

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