Project Friday: Tearing Paper To Make Signatures for a Handbound Journal

February 24, 2012


If the embedded video doesn’t work please view “Tearing Paper” at

I finally had an opportunity to make a video demonstration of how to tear paper for your handmade journals. Even though we used lights it’s a little bit “orange.” Dick helped me out by hand-holding the camera so that he could zoom in at times. He was remarkably steady given the way I hop about.

Why tear paper to make pages for your journal?

It is important to me that people understand that anyone can make a journal without any special equipment except a needle, an awl, a bone folder, and a brush (for gluing). You don’t need fancy presses or weights (you can use heavy art books or encyclopedias, etc.). You don’t need a punching craddle. And you certainly don’t need a large board shears or guillotine cutter for cutting your paper. (A board shears, even a smaller one, is useful for cutting boards, but it isn’t essential.)

There’s no getting away from the fact that you will need some bookmaking supplies such as PVA, unwaxed Irish Linen thread (which you will lightly coat with beeswax), wax paper, waste paper, mull (or super), binder’s board, bookcloth, and tapes (if your structure calls for you to sew on them).

Don’t worry about seeking out lots of special equipment—this video shows you how to fold and tear even heavyweight art papers like 140 lb. watercolor paper, on any smooth surface in your home.

One additional word of caution which I always mention in my class demos but which I forgot to add to this video—even if the paper you are tearing is lightweight, resist the urge to tear through more than one thickness at a time. A group of 4th graders once double-dog dared me to do this, and I was successful, but I’m a professional (and for that reason shouldn’t have allowed the kids to goad me that way!). Just take it one sheet at a time and you’ll be happy.

Keep the following items in mind:

1. Have a clean workspace; grit on your table can mar your paper surface.

2. Make sure your bone folder is clean. If you have torn painted papers you may have paint on your bone folder and this can rub off on your “text” paper as you tear.

3. Do not tear or fold one sheet on top of anything else. The table should be clear. This includes other pieces of paper. You want nothing below the piece you’re working on because you don’t want to impress it with the shape of something else and you don’t want to mar another sheet below it with pressure from the bone folder or your hand.

4. Set up a work station that suits your flow. This will help you as you tear and stack and then start to tear again.

5. Don’t take a break or answer the phone or even talk to someone else when you start tearing a sheet of paper. It’s easy to lose your place. Yes I routinely tear paper and talk at the same time while I am teaching, but I do NOT recommend this.

6. Determine the grain direction of your sheet of paper.

7. Make a tear diagram of the sheet of paper that you are working with and have that diagram at your side to refer to if you become confused. (I have a tear diagram for every sheet of paper I have worked with so that I can duplicate journal sizes and know immediately how to divide up a sheet.) You can see a tear diagram for the old and the new Fabriano Artistico here.

8. Decide up front whether or not you will be matching paper surfaces across the spread, and if so read my related post on how to tear paper and keep organized so this happens.

9. Wash your hands. (Do not apply hand lotion.)

10. Remove your jewelry. (I once had a student in class who wore 5 huge rings and a heavy loose chain bracelet with large clunky charms. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get the right angle on the bone folder [the rings were in the way] and why she was getting odd dings in her paper surface [the bracelet charms were constantly scuffing and denting the paper surface as she worked with it]. Save yourself the frustration.)

11. Bandage your knuckles as I describe in the video if you are tearing more than 4 sheets of paper. (Trust me you really want to do this. I tore 50 sheets of paper one evening without doing this and it was a difficult next morning.)

Now if you haven’t already watched the video, take 11 minutes to do so. Then gather some of your favorite paper together and start tearing your paper down to make your signatures. Remember your final fold must be parallel with the grain of the paper.

If you don’t know which papers might be good choices for visual journals read my suggestions in my two-part post Paper: What Do Visual Journals Want? which starts at this link. Or you can read my paper-related blog posts (see “Paper” in the category list) for more recent papers with which I’ve been working.

Once you have your signatures folded and collated together you can measure them up. Note: because of the bulk at the spine fold the signature will actually be a little wider than one single page width. Once you have your signature width and height you can start cutting your boards and other materials based on your favorite book construction method.

Soon you’ll have a brand new, handmade journal, that is exactly the size you want, made with the paper you love to work on. Now that’s a great project for any weekend!

Update for February 26, 2012: See my new post “More on Tearing Paper for Bookbinding,” which continues this discussion of paper tearing by walking through examples of customizing the final size of your book page.

    • Lynn
    • February 24, 2012

    Excellent video Roz. Thank you! It is so helpful to be shown how to do this properly.
    Would you consider making follow up demos to show each step in making a bound journal?

  1. Reply

    Thank you for this beautifully clear instruction. I heartily second Lynn’s wish for more!

  2. Reply

    Glad you liked the video Lynn. I hope to publish the Roz Method and a bunch of other things I teach in a book someday, and as part of that book there will be videos to support it, but for right now I’ll just be doing all that in my in-person classes.

    Since I’m teaching less and less because of time constraints I’ll think more and more about the other and eventually the two points will converge. I’m a hands on teacher (as you can tell in this video when I say, “I’m not watching you so…” That’s the problem with video teaching for me. I can’t give the students immediate feedback. Also video teaching isn’t fun for me. I like interacting with people and seeing the aha moments on their faces.

  3. Reply

    Margaret, thanks. I am glad you found this useful.

    • Miss T
    • February 24, 2012

    Nice refresher, Roz, thank you. I love that I learned to tear down paper in your class — it’s a great skill to have.

  4. Reply

    Thanks Miss T, yours was not the “problem” class.

  5. Reply

    Well done video. I will keep these tips in mind!

    • Karen
    • February 24, 2012

    Really great! Bravo to you and Dick.

    • Caroline
    • February 24, 2012

    Great video, as always! You are an excellent teacher, even at a distance, and I have learned so much from reading your blog. An interactive book would be wonderful, the next best thing to actually being in a live class, and you can always scold us in the videos, just like in this one, lol!

  6. Reply

    Thanks Karen. And he didn’t interrupt any takes!

  7. Reply

    Caroline, thanks. The other trouble with the videos is that I’m a lot funnier in person. When I tape a video I don’t joke at all or tell any of my stories because I want the video to be a short as possible. And if we have to interrupt a take I want to have continuity and not be in the middle of a story. So video is really a rather far distant thing from taking a class from me in person. I don’t think it captures any of my enthusiasm. Or my bossiness.

  8. Reply

    Roz, thank you so much for creating and posting this video. All I know about sheet tearing & book binding I’ve learned from other books, and I learned tons from your 11-minute clip here that I had never known (how to tear with the bone folder being a primary item). Since you are way up there in the frozen north and I am down here in central Texas where it was 92 yesterday, the chances of my getting to take a class from you anytime soon are slim to none, so the video makes up for that a little. And the music is great–Leo Kottke, right?

  9. Reply

    Elizabeth, thanks, I’m glad you found the video helpful. It’s something I think is much easier to see and to describe it well can be done but just takes so much longer!

    As for the music I don’t know who it is. iMovie comes with a bunch of music for use copyright free so I doubt it’s Leo Kottke or they would have names and copyright information on it. They also have lots of fun sound effects which I try to figure out how to get into my videos (like the frog croaking in my Zombie Frog video).

    I’m on the lookout for other copyright free music though because I’ve used my “favorites” pretty much over and over.

    • ambal
    • March 1, 2012

    Thank you for such clear directions. Look forward to your next video.

  10. Reply

    Ambal, I’m glad it’s helpful. I hope you have some fun tearing down paper for a project! Thanks for writing.

    • Sarah
    • March 15, 2012

    Roz, you are so right about not needing a bunch of “professional” supplies. I’m pretty new to the game and don’t have much spare money to invest in this kind of project. However, I do get pretty good results with the materials I have.
    I went to the Home Depot and the guy in the wood department helped me pick out inexpensive sturdy board that won’t get damaged if it gets wet (with glue or paint) and he cut it down to size. Those two boards and a couple of 3″ C-clamps work well as a press. When I punch holes in my signatures I use a thick phone book for a cradle. And up until yesterday I used a tapestry needle and hammer for punching holes. I finally went to Blick and picked up a decent awl. If I want my paper to have cleaner cuts I use one of those knives with the blades that snap off. I have substitutes for just about everything.

  11. Reply

    Sarah, I’m glad that you are finding creative solutions for how to do the various steps in binding. (I have lots of friends who use the phone book as a craddle as well.)

    Just a note, though you have a good awl now, I would like to point out that you can also get a Kemper Clay Tool for about $2.00 that is better than most book awls. (In fact I saw some at Blick that had blonde wood handles and different lettering on them and they were selling them as awls for $4.50!) What I like about the Kemper Clay Tool with the wooden handle is that the needle is the same dimension down the shaft (after the point).

    You can see the awl I like to use in my little video here

    • Xue
    • June 24, 2014

    Hi, thanks for all this info! May I know what you would recommend for the covers of the journals?

  12. Reply

    Xue, see the Pages list in the left column for an “Essential bookshelf for bookbinders” click there to find books on making bookstructures. For any book you can use this method of tearing down paper, whether you’re making a pamphlet or soft covered book or a hardbound book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Cookmode

Pin It on Pinterest