If you’re like me, you like to try to do things yourself before paying someone else to do them. It saves money, you pick up new skills, and you maintain control of the process. So here’s a simple method of do-it-yourself bookbinding that I stumbled upon and have refined over the years. It’s not going to appeal to everyone – you probably want to spend your time writing your next book, rather than physically producing it. So do I. But if, like me, you live in a city where there is a lively small press and independent publishing scene, with opportunities to do face-to-face book marketing at small press fairs, etc., you’re going to want physical copies of your book to sell, give away, or distribute. And this is the cheapest, most practical method I have found, that still produces a professional-looking book that you can be proud of.
(Producing them in small batches will also allow you to continue editing and improving the book, as opposed to being stuck with, say 100 copies that you paid a printer anywhere from $5 to $15 a copy to print, only to realize you need to make significant changes.)
It's up to you whether you want to try to design the cover yourself or hire someone to do it, but once it has been designed, print your covers in colour on 11 x 17 inch cardstock at the cheapest location you can find. Near university campuses there are always discount printers that will undercut larger chains by half or more. You need a 0.5 inch bleed – an area that extends beyond the ultimate edge of your book on all sides – so that when you trim it, the cover image will extend right to the edge. (For more detailed info, click here: formatting your book, guts, and cover.)
PAGE LAYOUT (THE "GUTS" OF YOUR BOOK)
You can do your page layout in Microsoft Word – using headers and footers for page numbers, chapter headings, etc. Format it on a half-sheet (8 ½ inches by 5 ½ inches) by using custom page dimensions under ‘Page Setup’, and – when it is spell-checked, edited and formatted to your satisfaction – save a new copy of each file as a PDF (Adobe portable document format). This will allow you to print four pages on one sheet of standard letter-sized paper using the ‘Print as Booklet’ function in Adobe Acrobat. And then you just chop or cut the pages in half, glue them together, put a cover on it, and you’ve got your book. The rest of this post explains how to do that, assuming you’ve already got your pages and covers printed and ready to go.
Tools and Materials:
- 2 pairs of Scissors (one sharp, one just a little more dull)
- 2 Xacto knives or box-cutters (again, one sharp, one dull)
- 2 C-clamps (normal, woodworking style)
- 2 plastic clamps (low pressure, quick-release)
- High-grade white glue (not the school glue stuff, which I think is watered down)
- High-grade multipurpose craft glue (I like Aleene’s Original Tacky Glue)
- mechanical pencil
- 9 to 11 inch lengths of wood wrapped in black electrical tape (you will use these to compress your pages when gluing the spine; the tape creates a slick surface that white glue won’t stick to)
- 8 bear clips (of a size that will wrap around the spine of your book without putting excessive pressure on your cover; depends on how many pages are in your book)
- Some wide strips of white Bristol board (or poster board) for making ‘sleeves’ and ‘masks’ (to protect your pages, guts and covers from the clamps used at various stages of the process)
- A clean toothbrush or small paintbrush (for applying glue)
Not pictured here: You will also need some strips of canvas or other light but durable fabric for the spine. (You can often find suitable fabric at Dollar Stores in the form of plain white dishcloths.)
We only need a few special terms. The BOOKBLOCK is the stack of pages that make up your books (also called ‘guts’). The FORE EDGE is the right-side edge of a completed book where you can flip the pages. The TOP EDGE or HEAD is (obviously) the top of the finished bookblock, and the TAIL is the bottom.
Stack all your pages together to make one BOOKBLOCK - (1a) and double-check that your pages are in the correct order, and no pages are missing. Then stand them on the FORE EDGE. Tapping the pages down gently on the table until they are all flush with each other.
Use a wooden ruler or similar object to tap the ends to make sure that the pages are flush at the top and bottom of the bookblock as well (1b). Note that even reams of machine-cut paper have tiny differences in size, and when the paper is cut in half to make a book – whether by hand or by machine – you introduce further tiny discrepancies. But with this method, you are hiding them in the spine. Clamp the stack together with the low-pressure plastic clamps, using a strip of Bristol board to protect the pages (1c).
You are now ready to glue the spine. Apply white glue to the spine and use a paintbrush or toothbrush to work it into the pages (2a). Work quickly, as you don’t want the pages to get too warped by the glue before you compress them with the wooden slats and clamps. (That compression will flatten out most of the warping.)
Fanning the pages at the top and bottom as you work in the glue (2b) will help to ensure that all pages receive some of the glue. If you think of the spine as a tabletop, you want to apply the wooden slats to each side of the spine so that the top edges of the slats come up level with that table top, and clamp them (2c). If they’re too low they won’t compress the pages properly, allowing a ‘lip’ of the spine to bulge out, which is serious. (It won’t make for a good book.) If the wooden slats come up a little above the tabletop, it’s less serious, but you won’t get a nice flat application of the canvas material for the spine, and you may end up with a slightly concave spine.
Also, be careful that as you are tightening the clamps you don’t shear the block of pages on a diagonal. Keep an eye on the fore edge, head and tail to see if this diagonal shearing is occurring. If it does, just release the clamps and try again. The glue will hold the pages together, and still be pliable enough to allow for small adjustments.
Once compressed, some of the glue will be squished out of the spine (2c). This is good. Add some more glue and then add one of the canvas strips (3a), pressing it down into the glue (the back of the toothbrush, if that’s what you are using, works well for this) (3b). The glue should soak through the fabric and make a nice seal all the way along.
You can now set your BOOKBLOCK aside to dry for 4 to 6 hours (3c), depending on climate and other conditions. Obviously working in a dry environment – houses with central heating or A/C tend to have dryer air – will help to speed drying and prevent warping.
Parts 4 (5, 6 - includes extra steps for multiple book production)
Removing the clamps from your dry bookblock, you are now going to take your sharper pair of scissors and trim off the excess fabric (4a). It will be rigid now and easy to cut because it is impregnated with dry glue. You now have a perfectly trimmed bookblock ready for its cover (4b).
(If you are not making multiple books simultaneously, skip to step 7)
If, like mine, your book is under 200 pages, you can save a great deal of time and labour by making 3 books at a time. Simply follow steps 1a-c to make 3 bookblocks and stack them one on top of the other. I put 2 half-sheets of scrap paper between each of the 3 copies (4c), to make it easier to separate them later. Then follow steps 2a-3c.
Once you have a dry, trimmed bookblock (4b), take a ruler and divide the spine evenly into thirds (if you have made 3 books) by drawing a pencil guideline alone the spine where you are going to divide it into the 3 books (not pictured). Take the sharper Xacto knife or box-cutter and cut the spine along this pencil line (5b). (You don’t have to – and may not be able to – cut all the way through the spine, but a good deep groove will make it easier to ‘break’ the spine in the next step).
Then flip the bookblock over and find the corresponding scrap pages between the 3 different bookblocks (4c) and open the book there. Holding the two parts firm in each hand, break the spine by bending the two parts away from each other at a 90-degree angle. (You can run the blunt edge of the scissors along that 90-degree angle to help the two books separate cleanly - 5a.)
If you made a good deep cut into the spine (in step 5b), the bookblock should separate easily. If not, of if there are any fibres in the spine that remain stuck, simply cut the spine with scissors at this point to separate the books (5c). Run your finger along the sides of the new spine to find rough spots and trim them with sharp scissors (6a). Then peel off the scrap pages (6b).
Hold the cover up the light (7a) and using a pencil make some markings to indicate where you are going to fold it along the front or back edge of the spine (it doesn’t matter which). I had my cover designed so that there was a strong contrasting colour change at the back edge of the spine, to help me get this line ‘correct’.
Now, take a ruler, and run the LESS SHARP Xacto knife or box-cutter very lightly along this line (7b). All you are doing is ‘scoring’ the paper (making a very light groove that will will fold nicely along). Now lift up the cardstock to the right of the ruler and create a nice fold by raising it 90 degrees while pressing down on the ruler (7c).
You now have a cover with one 90-degree fold. Take your bookblock and place nestle it right into that fold (8a). Take your pencil and draw a second line along the other edge of the spine, making sure the bookblock is nice and snug in that 90-degree fold. Remove the bookblock and now score the cardstock along this new line the same way you did before, very lightly (7b, 8b). And fold it while pressing down with the ruler (7c).
Your cover should now snugly wrap around your bookblock (8c). And you’re almost done!
This would be a good time to prepare a piece of white cardstock, Bristol board or poster board that will act as a protective sleeve when you clamp your finished book with the bear clips. You can use the same method of scoring the inside edges of the paper and folding them. The sleeve should be just a tiny bit bigger than your finished spine, because it is going to wrap around the outside of it.
Apply some of the Aleene’s Tacky Glue to the spine. Just enough to cover it an a light even coat of glue (you can smooth it out with a scrap piece of paper or cardstock), and – just as important – run a line of glue down the inside edge of each of those two folds in your cover. Insert the bookblock into the cover, being careful not to smear glue along the inside of the cover, and press it firmly into the spine. (Be careful that your bookblock is not upside down! If it is, it’s not too late to pull it out and correct it.)
Fit one of the Bristol board sleeves around the outside of your spine, and use the bear clips to hold everything firmly in place (9a). Press the bookblock firmly into the cover as you are putting on the clips to ensure a good bond with your cover.
Allow this to dry for a few hours. Remove the clips and trim around the edges with the duller of the two scissors (9b). The bookblock gives you nice straight edges to cut along on all sides. Use the sharper scissors when you get to the spine, as the glue makes it stiffer and slightly harder to cut through (9c). If there are tiny air-holes or small gaps at the head and tail of the spine once it is cut (see 6c, for example), you can touch it up with a little bit of glue (smoothed out and made square with a finger or piece of scrap paper).
And that’s it. You’re done! You’ve got beautiful books, and you can be happy that this produces a lot less waste paper than other methods, because there is almost no trimming necessary – except for the cover.
Click on image to advance to next slide.