John Purcell Paper—My Overseas Purchasing Adventure

June 3, 2011

Above: Three sewn journals from John Purcell Paper in London. Read below for details.

A couple months ago I got a bug in my brain to look again for sewn journals using lovely watercolor paper. Commercially available journals, that is. I make my own journals using whatever paper I like, but I'm always looking to see what is available.

Thanks to a helpful email from Katherine Tyrrell from Making a Mark (she lives in England) I tracked down John Purcell Paper (also in England) and started going through their online catalog of sketchbooks. There were no pictures, but that didn't matter, the journals I was interested in were made with Saunders  Waterford watercolor paper, which is a paper I've worked on for years and love. The journals were sewn and had "substantial grey board" covers. And they weren't expensive—under £12.

I had only one impediment—shipping. I'd long heard stories from readers in Europe about shipping costs for supplies from the US. Now I was on the paying end.

As I "thumbed" through the electronic catalog I was convinced that the best way to "beat" the shipping was to order everything I could possible want (and afford) at one time so that shipping was spread out amongst the most "pieces."

I was soon involved in an email correspondence with Julia at John Purcell Papers. She agreed to send me a shipping estimate on my order. (Actually pretty much politely insisted, because they probably get this type of request from people unaware of the shipping costs all the time.)

Well when you have more pieces your package weight also goes up. Let's just say that my "wish list" package would cost double the cost of the items to ship. That wasn't the "economy" for which I was hoping.

I culled my list down to three sketchbooks. I resubmitted my list. Julia supplied a new shipping quote email. I called her with my credit card number and an OK. About two weeks later I had my books.

I don't have my conversion measurements list in front of me any longer so I can't tell you which "size" I got from looking at the catalog. My books are 8.25 x 11-3/8 inches. I purchased a 90 lb. and a 140 lb. of the Hot Press. I also purchased a large square book (back of the photo) that is filled with blue paper that has a laid pattern to it and is a heavy weight. I don't know what type of paper it is, but I wanted to try it. It turned out to be a darker blue than I'd expected (don't know why I expected it to be lighter in color). It will be perfect for colored pencil sketches or with luck, some gouache. (I haven't tested any of these books. I got involved in IFJM and ran out of time. Now I'm playing catch up. The blue paper book might actually be my fake journal for 2012! We'll see.)

BookCorner3586 Left: Close up corner of one of the books.

The books arrived safely, with only a little scuffing on the spine fabric of one book, and some slight impressions on the back of another (impressions from the cardboard it was wrapped in, so it was probably stacked under something heavy during shipping).

I had wondered how they could turn out books like this for under £12. When I received them I was very happy with the books, but I could see how they keep their costs down. The cover boards have bare edges, as you can see in the detail photo. The covers and pages are cut flush. There is a protective covering on the outer surfaces of the board, but with the edges bare, the corners are going to take wear. For production, however, that means no folding of fabric, no cost of fabric etc. (The spines are fabric covered.)

I'm going to cover the corners with bookcloth before I use the books, just to minimize the wear at those points. It's a small thing and maybe, if I can get the better of "fussy Roz" I'll just let it go!

With shipping I think these books ended up costing me US$60.00 each. (Maybe it was US$70.00. It's sort of like what I've heard about childbirth—afterwards you forget the pain—so I can't give you an exact cost without digging out the receipts and that would defeat the purpose of my currently-in-progress-clear-out-the-studio-gambit).

So not a bargain by any means, but I knew that going in and I learned somethings: How they can keep their costs down (for locals) and still turn out sturdy books with great paper. How expensive shipping really is. And how, ultimately, since I know how to make books with any kind of paper that I really should just stop looking at commercially made books.

Were my hands to give out tomorrow I reckon I could still gut my way through binding a book or two every month (which is my current rate of consumption). Sure I like being efficient with batches of 10 to 15, but it's doing batches like that in the first place that has made me worry about "what ifs." Also Dick has said, if I teach him, he'll make books for me. He has a lot of skills, including fine motor skills, so that just might work. He comes from a genetic line of uncles who were woodworking at 102!

Still, I love having these books from England. Everything about the experience (except the shipping costs) was wonderful. If I go to England I'm going to stop by in person. I hope to pick up more. Then I'll just have to deal with customs!

The reality is I'm not going to stop looking at and testing commercially bound books or stop binding my own, any time soon. As with all the best adventures, you learn something about yourself when it's over!

  1. Reply

    Very interesting story, Roz. The books sound very cool, especially the paper inside.
    I’ve often wondered about shipping from overseas, so this was very helpful.
    Enjoy your journals!
    PS Two journals a month, huh? I think I should set some kind of personal goal to try to fill a journal every two months to start. 🙂

    • Zoe
    • June 3, 2011

    Great story. I love Saunders Waterford paper myself so I was getting my cheque book ready until the final count of USD60.00 or more per book.

    However, as I am not a very good bookbinder, shabby chic only goes so far, I will have to continue to use only satisfactory, not excellent journals.

    And Roz, do you remember the handbound journals Michael Roger Press did? I can’t see them anywhere anymore, and I did like that book.

  2. Reply

    Briana, The “two a month” is a rough guide. Since I started keeping “statistics” in the 90s I’ve consistently done 3 page spreads a day (some days I don’t do anything, and other days I might do 5 spreads, and so it goes, but it evens out at the end of the year to about 3 spreads a day).

    I think that is probably a more useful number than volumes in a year, because as you know the size of my journals varies a lot. (But it’s hard to stop and explain something in the middle of a post.) Typically they are 4 to 6 signatures, but there are times when I do a 2 signature book and there are other times when I keep journal cards.

    I think the most important thing (and you are probably sick of hearing me say this) is to do something every day. Even a little something.

    I remember all your journals as being on the thick side so you’re going to have longer time to completion. Another plus of making one’s own journals—it’s fun to see the finished journals on the shelf!

    As for these journals, the paper is lovely so I right now am a little leery about starting one until I’m in a watercolor mode! I don’t want to fill the pages with newspaper clippings. We’ll see. I need to shake myself a bit. I probably won’t use them until next year, because I have sort of planned out which journals I’ll be working in this year.


  3. Reply

    Jeanette, The “covering” on the boards is applied before the case is made, so the books would have to be marbled fully made. It would be doable if you taped the covers, except the edges, to protect them during dipping. But I don’t marble (I took a workshop at MCBA and it was fabulous, but I find that I prefer watching truly great marblers working, to marbling myself—in fact I would be quite happy with the cable company if they instituted a 24-hr marbling station—I find it quite relaxing to watch, especially when they do the ripply wave thing which always fascinates me).

  4. Reply

    Zoe, for the first two years or so of my Daily Dots project I used Michael Rogers hardcover, sewn books with lovely linen fabric. However, the books had a medium to heavyweight DRAWING paper in them and weren’t suitable for mixed media. Those are the only books of his I have ever used. And they were lovely for the purpose (as I drew mostly in graphite, black pencil, or pen on the paper with great fun and success).

    I know for awhile his company put out a WIRE BOUND book that had watercolor paper in it, but I never tried them so I don’t know how they were. By the time they were drawn to my attention by a paper store owner I was already using 140 lb. watercolor paper in books that I make myself.

    I would encourage you, if you can’t find books that you like to work in such as the MR books, that you continue working on making your own journals with papers that you love.

    Perhaps there are book classes where you live. Even if they aren’t making the exact structure you want to make you can participate, practice and learn the skills that your note indicates you are looking for.

    Also, check out my page “Essential Bookshelf for Bookbinders” under “PAGES” in the left column. I list a bunch of books that have great instructions on making books. The more you do it the better they will become, the more suited to what you want to do in your journals.

    To my mind a journal that is handmade, with all the beauty of being a one of a kind thing, which also has the paper that you love to work on, is far superior to any commercially bound journal. I’ve written a post about journal sizes (don’t remember what it’s under) in which I talk about the ability to change things up by using the various papers that I use, which dictate to some extent (because I’m always working to minimize paper waste) because of the parent sheet size, the size of the books.

    Together with having the papers I love to use really makes my journaling a happy adventure every day. Even those days when I try a new paper and bind it up into the journal from hell!

    • Miss T
    • June 3, 2011

    Roz, aside from all the good information about these journals, you just said something important in the comments: “…the paper is lovely so I right now am a little leery about starting one until I’m in a watercolor mode! I don’t want to fill the pages with newspaper clippings.”

    That’s a great reminder that journals are about keeping a record of our lives and what we’re thinking about, and that every page we make doesn’t have to be an Attempt At Art.

  5. Reply

    Miss T. I always try to take my own advice. But I also know that since these are probably a once in a life-time purchase I want to be sure to at least use some pages in them for watercolor. Lately my visual journals are filled with lots of notes and clippings and such. I can fill any book with those.

    The real impediment to my using these books right now is their size. They are far larger in page size than anything I normally use—making it difficult for me to hold them and stand and work.

    Believe me, when I do crack these puppies open to work in them nothing inside will resemble Art!

    • Miss T
    • June 3, 2011

    Absolutely, Roz. I think your plan to use the paper in these books to its best advantage is a good one.

    I just really liked the reminder that journals serve multiple purposes, and all those purposes are worthwhile — I sometimes lose sight of that!

  6. Reply

    Re shipping INTO the US. The Obama administration suddenly last year decided that all parcels to the US that weigh more than 1 lb or 450 grams are subject to a $9 surcharge. This caught everyone by surprise as there was no warning. Many of us who used to supply craft items on Ebay to the US no longer do so, unless our items are very lightweight.
    When ordering from the UK any parcel that weighs 2 Kg or over when packed gets sent by courier, not normal airmail, so you would have been hit by a double whammy as far as postage goes. The difference between a 2 Kg parcel and a 3 Kg parcel is something like $30.00 or $40.00!
    As someone who buys a lot from the US, particularly books, I avoid people who do not use the prepaid media envelopes or standard international airmail services where possible because then I end up paying more for postage than for the books I buy! First class or Express mail can be double or nearly triple the cost of regular airmail and is not always faster. It really pays to check up on postage rates into your country before going on a spending spree, because you can have some rather nasty surprises. Hope this helps explain a few things.

    • Zoe
    • June 4, 2011

    Thank, Roz, for your enthusiasm and encouragement on bookbinding. Unfortunately, I think I am one of those people unable to make my own books. I have taken many classes and was a member of the NY Center for Book Arts. But after taking classes and coming away, unsatisfied with my outcome, I gave up the idea of being a binder. The single book I made that I was thrilled with was the Secret Belgian binding, and it was not really a good fit for a sketchbook or a journal.

    However, the only book I didn’t make is a casebound, and I might yet give that a try with some hot press paper.

    I appreciate all your sharing and recommendations on this and other art issues.

  7. Reply

    Caroline, happily, working with the John Purcell Paper people there wasn’t a nasty surprise, as I knew what was happening going into it.

    I really appreciate the background you have provided, however, to mailing overseas! Thank you. I’m even more grateful that most of what I need can be found in the U.S.

  8. Reply

    Zoe, I’m sorry to hear you’ve given up on binding, especially since you can do a Secret Belgian binding, which I consider kind of fussy (you’re right they don’t make good journals).

    Since you write that you haven’t made a casebound I would encourage you one last time. Keith Smith’s book (on the list I quoted before) on “Bookbinding for Artists” or something like that, has a step by step instruction for binding a really wonderful structure for this purpose. I’m rather fond of Watson’s approach to casebinding.

    If you’re using 140 lb. paper I’d recommend that you keep your signatures to 16 pages (or less), which would be four sheets folded to create the 16 pages.

    Anything more than that starts to cause some structural issues at the spine because the sigs get so thick. I have friends who only make 8-page signatures with 140 lb. paper, but that’s more signatures to sew so I always go for the 16-pages.

    • Zoe
    • June 4, 2011

    You are remarkably generous, Roz, with your blog and posts.

    I will give it a try, and appreciate knowing to keep the signatures to a reasonable number. I might have otherwise tried to over-do it.

    I have a few bookbinding books here, still, and will look through them to see what seems do-able for my arthritic hands. As I recall, Gwen Diehn has some very readable instructions, and I may have one of hers close at hand.

    And big thanks and more.

  9. Reply

    Zoe, just to clarify I was suggesting you keep the pages in a signature below 16 pages. As for the number of signatures, well that’s going to depend on how thick a book you want to carry around. Obviously with the thicker paper the book will be thicker than any book with the same signatures but thinner paper. But things bulk up really quickly when you’re dealing with 140 lb. paper. I made a 9-signature book (16 pages per)for a trip to France (I wanted to have enough pages for the trip and worked it out based on my travel output records). I wouldn’t want to go higher than that personally as the book becomes heavy to hold at that thickness. But if you’re one of those folks who sits when you sketch then that might not be an issue.

    Fold a bunch of signatures up and then hold them in a stack, 5, then 6, then 7 etc. To see what looks and feels good to you. Then go through the process of making the textblock and cutting the materials for the case based on your decision.

    Arthritis is a toughie. It’s slowing down the output of many of my friends. I’m worried as I go into the future about my own hard-used hands. I am trying to learn “pacing” and that might work for you as well, doing little bits at a time, like tearing one sheet down and then walking away until the next day, and so on. It will be a slow pace but you’ll end up with a book and you won’t wear your hands out.

    I don’t know what Diehn has for book structures but I know she journals so looking on your own shelf first would be good.

    Oh, I just thought of something. Because of the arthritis you might want to forego the bookbinding and simply make a single signature book. They are called pamphlets and every book on binding I know of seems to have a chapter on them.

    I taught a class last year on making a 6-pocket cover to cover a single signature (we prepainted the pages as well) and suggested that the students consider doing this on a long term basis, a signature a month or whatever, and when they get 6 they could take of the covers and sew them all together as a hardcover book, OR simply leave their covers on and make a simple slip case for them (I have instructions for the slip case on the blog if you look through the search engine for “slip case”). So all your hands would have to do is fold and tear (or cut) the paper for one signature (you could go up to 6 sheets or 24 pages in this situation with 140 lb. paper) and fold and cut a cover. Then sew on the cover with a simple pamphlet stitch. Carry it around with you everywhere and make another before you fill the first up, and so it goes. Very quickly you could have a whole shelf of these lovely gems! And your hands would be happy.

    (If you’re going to do a slip case I suggest that you make all the pamphlets the same size, it’s easier to fit the case.)

    • Miss T
    • June 4, 2011

    Roz, I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who thinks the Secret Belgian binding is fussy! I thought Coptic was easy, but S.B. is rather confusing, and I have a half-done book taunting me from across the room as we speak.

    • Zoe
    • June 4, 2011

    Roz, thanks for the clarification on the signatures and all the additional information and great advice.

    I think I will clear the decks, pull out instructions and see if I can, as you suggest, take baby steps in making a journal I’d like to hold and use.

    I am disinclined to do a pamphlet as I really like the feel of a hard back whether it is in book form or on a surface, although your suggestion has appeal for ease of design.

    But I probably have enough paper, hot and cold press, to play around and make mistakes, and I have my kit for bookbinding laid away with all the thread, bone folder, etc.

    What I am probably lacking is davey board and a sturdy but beautiful book cloth.

    Roz, you are an inspiration!

  10. Reply

    Miss T. I hope you got over to that book! I’ve done a lot of coptic books, in fact I used to use them for journals (but gave them up because I don’t like the exposed spines). I’ve done then simple and I’ve done them with really involved double stitchings that end up looking incredibly intense to make, but they were all straightforward. I think with the Beligian, since it isn’t suitable for the type of journaling I do, I’m not motivated to stick with it and improve my construction speed and ease.

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