This isn't a blog post about how to make a book, or a post to people interested in making a book, but a post for people interested in making a book after book after book. This is a post for people who have the desire to become great at bookbinding, or even great bookbinders. So, listen up beginner bookbinders, I've got a lot to say to you. Also, I've listed some helpful resources in this post, too.
Lately I've received tons of messages from enthusiastic people new to bookbinding (and only one of them turned out to be a scammer in need of 900€, the rest have been nothing but sweet), so I decided to gather up some of the advice I've spent hours typing in reply. The usual issues with beginner bookbinders seem to be: a) lack of courses / study opportunities available, b) lack of tools and equipment, and c) lack of direction.
I graduated as a master bookbinder after an intense study program filled with knowledgeable teachers and long days, but I've also seen people become amazing bookbinders without formal training. Sure their skill base is usually much smaller, but let's be honest: not everyone's goal is to know all types of bookbinding! Thoroughly mastering a certain set of styles and techniques is always an accomplishment. While I greatly appreciate traditional bookbinding, gilding, fine binding, etc., and have the skills to do it (but I only do it once in a blue moon), I also appreciate other types of bookbinding. To me the key is in the quality of work you produce, not in the variety of skills you have in your back pocket. There's nothing wrong with starting out with the most basic bookbinding skills and sticking to those basic structures while honing them to perfection! Bookbinding isn't a competition to make as many different bindings as humanly possible (though that's also fun once you handle the basics!). In fact, it's not a competition at all. For a beginner it should be something you do for fun, and your goal should be to do better next time.
Be Your Own Teacher
Studying alone is not the same as attending a course, workshop, or bookbinding study program, but not everyone has the chance, or the desire, to attend live teaching events. I also happen to live in Finland, so my knowledge about study opportunities is preeetty unhelpful to 99% of you. So, I try to advice about teaching yourself more on your own instead.
I always say to people who want to improve their bookbinding skills: never stop studying the book! My mind works in a curious way, making my approach to bookbinding more engineer-like than most people's, but that approach has been my biggest strength. If you're willing to teach yourself WHY each step is done the way it's done, HOW you do it becomes a million times easier, and you also learn the basic boundaries inside which you're free to improvise without fear of massive failure.
The internet is full of bookbinding tutorials. Not all tutorials are good, but I still think I learn something about bookbinding when I'm reading a tutorial and I cringe because I disagree with some step or choice - that too helps me understand why I make the choices I make when I make books. So, teaching yourself bookbinding isn't all about practice, it's also a lot of thinking. You need to point out your mistakes to yourself so you can learn to avoid them. But don't start thinking all your work is bad work either! It's still always better than the work you made when you first started was! Compare yourself only to yourself, and strive for better. Cheesy, I know, but it's true.
The key to being able to teach yourself more on your own is first learning all you can about how books function. Analyze each book you make: What could be done better? What didn't work? How did changing some detail affect the way the book functions? Etc. You don't need to master all different bookbinding structures out there! You probably know about a few already, so start learning everything possible of those structures. Compare different ways to sew a case bound book (on tape vs. french link stitch / signatures, with holes punched with an awl or needle vs. cut or sawn/cut holes [I always go with punched holes], etc.), and see what works on thin books and what works on thick books. You can find lots of advice on these types of things scattered about online, but it's better if you also try and analyze things yourself. Failing is important for learning! It helps you understand why you do the things you do and why all the steps you need to take really matter. I think the above is true for pretty much any thing you want to learn in life. Study details, make adjustments, study the details again, repeat - and maybe later, add some more details, and repeat.
Please don't get discouraged by lack of confidence or equipment! Confidence is gained with practice, and so much can be done with little equipment. Having a press is handy, but a couple of wooden pressing boards (wood, mdf, just any kind of board that doesn't bend will do for starters - even some unimportant books will do in a pinch) and a few bricks wrapped in paper/dumbbells/weights/more books is fine, too. Adapt what you have available. People are clever and innovative by nature. You will find solutions. Start your bookbinding studies with projects that don't require lots of equipment and improvise what is not available. While I was at school I had all the equipment I could dream of, but after graduation I went years without much else than a press, steel ruler, bone folder, mat cutter knife, and a cutting mat. Now I have a plough for cutting book blocks, but I still cut my book boards with a ruler and a knife, and usually I tear paper into signatures because my paper cutter just doesn't cut straight enough (I'm super neurotic about stuff like that). So, a bindery full of tools and equipment is by no means a necessity for a bookbinder of any level.
You can get away with a bit less if you absolutely need to, but here's my basic kit of bookbinding tools:
- an awl for punching holes
- knives - a sturdy one for cutting board etc., a scalpel for detailed work, a bookbinder's knife for tearing large sheets into signatures
- a metal ruler - I have many rulers in regular use, but this kind goes a long way for most bookbinders
- curved needles for Coptic bound books
- straight needles for everything else
- beeswax for waxing linen thread
- bonefolders - one of them is bone - great for scoring - and the other is a teflon folder that doesn't leave marks on paper (I also have several bone folders in use most days, but I'm trying to show you the pared down version of my tool kit...)
- scissors - these are great ones by Fiskars, but honestly, barely any cutting in bookbinding is done with scissors, so pretty much anything goes
- glue brushes - various shapes and sizes for various purposes, but you can definitely get by with one large and one small
- not pictured, but you'll need something you can use for pressing - i.e. boards + weights
Where to Start
When it comes to lack of direction being an issue, I say: just start somewhere! You'll learn more as you go, so it doesn't really matter where you begin as long as you don't jump right into the deep end. I'm often asked about books on making books and about good tutorials, so here's a small list of both (don't want to paralyze you with too much choice - that's what Pinterest is for!):
Books on Making Books
- Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures & Forms, by Alisa Golden (If you plan to buy just one book, choose this one! There's so much information packed into one book, and the instructions are very clear.)
- Making Mini Books: Big Ideas for 30+ Little Projects, by Kathleen McCafferty (I'm biased - this is a book that features a Coptic binding tutorial by me! Still, it's a great book for beginners!)
- Little Book of Book Making: Timeless Techniques and Fresh Ideas for Beautiful Handmade Books, by Charlotte Rivers (Another book I'm featured in! This book features some tutorials, but I think it's more about inspiring stuff than the practical things - inspiration is important, too!)
- Keith Smith's books about bookbinding (Less flashy than the newer craft books, but perfect for you if you're not scared of diagrams!)
- Coptic binding (this one has good photos and also instructions for making your own curved needles - but of course I prefer to attach the covers using the technique I shared here - come back to it once you've tried the simpler version!)
- Long stitch binding (this one is great for beginners!)
- Japanese stab (if you want to try something more advanced, check out this site with amazing designs!)
- Case binding (a looong but very detailed one)
- 7 tips for more professional looking handmade books (yeah, this isn't a tutorial, it's just general tips, but they're good ones - and I wrote this one, so you should definitely read it...)
- want more? I save pretty much all bookbinding tutorials I come across online to this Pinterest board!
I also plan to create some simple bookbinding tutorials in 2017, so do keep an eye on Paperiaarre!
Thanks for reading all the way through this long post! I hope you found some advice helpful to you, and I hope you spend many more years enjoying bookbinding, always getting better, and learning more.