Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Back to the Print, Hand-Made Books

Apart from attaching my pictures to my walls, I make books containing my pictures. These books take, in the broadest strokes, two forms. I hand-build books and book-like objects containing physical prints. I design and publish books using Print on Demand services ( is what I use, but there are many).

This post has some remarks on hand-built books and the issues I find there. There next will cover, briefly, my experiences with blurb. Then I will attempt to wrap up with some summation and a something perhaps resembling a coherent statement of philosophy, once I work out what that might be. This is not intended as a tutorial on book building, just a discussion of some of the issues and benefits of one structure and another. If you're deeply interested in details, contact me and I will see what I can pull together.

There are some common themes in all hand-built books of the sort I make. The first is that I am putting physical prints into them, and physical prints have a thickness. This means that any pages separated by a print, or by many prints, need to hinge in a way that allows for that space. I will refer to this extra space, this looseness or whatever you care to call it, as "slack" or "slackness" in the hinge/fold. This is largely a non-issue with one of the structures, an easily managed detail for another, and an almost incredible pain in the ass for what seems at first glance to be the simplest structure.

The second common issue is paper weight. If you're sticking a physical print to a piece of paper, that paper needs to be tolerably heavy. I use 140 pound watercolor paper, or mat board, generally. Heavy papers present their own issues in the standard western codex (an ordinary "book" book).

Board Books

Have you any familiarity with the heavy books made for under 2-year-old children? The books where the "pages" are in fact rigid chunks of cardboard? These are actually a wonderfully ingenious device, and are absolutely fantastic for containing small portfolios. They're also a remarkable pain in the ass to build. This thing is 8 inches by 8 inches, 12 photographs, 13 "pages" in all (1 extra for the cover).

The basic structure is a stack of identical squares of cardboard. Imagine a stack of cards, neatly stacked, edges all aligned. Now between each pair of cards, insert a hinge along one edge, connecting the two. Normally this hinge is a sheet of paper twice the size of the card, folded exactly in half. This creates a bifold exactly the size of the cards. Glue the outside "pages" of this bifold each to one of the cards, with the fold forming the hinge.

Your basic children's book is precisely this, with the content of the book printed onto the inside (non-glued-side) of the bifolds. Each page will open to completely flat, without any forcing whatsoever, and will usually open slightly past that before any resistance occurs. The heavy cardboard "page" provides a natural feeling substrate for the photograph.

I have been known to use a smaller hinge, but have come to the conclusion that this is harder and less attractive, ultimately. Depicted below we see the Edsel book hinged with a strip of mismatching mulberry paper. I had hoped the mismatch would look rustic, but it mostly looks dumb. Quite strong, but not very attractive, and it didn't help with the hinge slackness problem at all to use the small hinge:

There are a bunch of issues here for hand-building these things. First, exact alignment is absolutely required on the spine, the hinge side, otherwise the whole thing looks ridiculous and does not open properly. Second, the thickness of the inserted prints screws everything up unless you are careful. The hinges formed by the bifolded paper need to have sufficient "slack" to accomodate the thickness of prints. So, I have a system in which I align the spine carefully, and build the book up with shims between the pages to get the hinges properly slack. The bifolds are cut too big, and trimmed on the three non-spine edges, and then the whole thing is sanded to evenness on those same three edges.

Essentially, when building the book up, I get the spine as exact as possible and let the other three edges go where they want, and then "fix it in post". I embrace a little roughness in the final product. Then I reinforce the spine by gluing a sheet of bookcloth around the outside of the spine (this is not standard child's book technique, which relies entirely on the bifolds for strength, but with the "slack" I am forced to build in to accommodate print thickness, a little more support seems indicated.)

Finally, the cover is a glued-on sheet of heavier paper, creased just so, and glued on very very cleverly. Also, this is what it looks like when the shims are not right, and the hinges don't have enough slack, note how the "pages" at the spine bend together, as the spine is narrower than the main body of the book.

Hinged Foldouts

My second, and I think my favorite, structure is the hinged foldout. I cut identical squares (although any shape is possible, within certain broad limits) and fasten them together with hinges of mulberry paper. For these I design the folding-up pattern first, which tells me roughly how much slack I need in each hinge. Sometimes one hinge brings a page down flush onto another (so, no slack required) or over a print (some slack) or over a whole stack of folded pages and prints that have been folded in first (lots of slack).

The biggest design limitation here is that the folding pattern should never fold a print face-against another. With these sorts of physical prints pressing them face-to-face invites adhesion and ruined prints. So this book is designed to fold pictures against paper, always.

Then I glue up the structure, guessing at the degree of necessary slack in each hinge. Extra doesn't hurt in this design, it turns out, but not enough would be a problem. Then I attach prints, write in text as necessary, and finally glue on the cover.

This creates a compact book-like structure when folded up, but has the potential to unfold into a wall hanging, if you liked. Structure can follow the flow of the book, as you can build non-linear structures this way. The cover is a sort of big matchbook made of a single piece of heavy paper large enough to wrap around, with a slot and tab closure arrangement. Variations, endlessly, are possible. Manifesto is 6 inches by 6 inches, and contains 6 pictures and some text.

It may not be obvious, but one could make the sideways-foldout be many sections long, turn corners, and so on.

Here's a probably not very visible hinge detail. It looks very much like the not-very-pleasing hinges I used on the Edsel book above, but the paper match is better and it works a lot better as well:

A smaller version of this design (2x2) can be seen in this post from the past.

Sewn Codex

This is a basic hardbound book. I use 140 pound watercolor paper for the pages, almost exclusively, here. Covers are several layers of mat board (2 or 3) laminated and covered in the usual way shown in any number of internet tutorials. The issue of print thickness is least for this structure, I find, as the natural flex in the pages simply allows the prints to fit in. The spine of the hardcover does need to be sized properly for the finished book, with prints in it, and it doesn't hurt to sew the thing a trifle loosely.

This is a book I made as a memorial when my father died. Some basic documentary photos of things he owned or made, and some of my crummy calligraphy with little snippets of things I learned from Dad. It's roughly 8 inches by 8 inches.

Endpaper detail (that's the thin purple stuff), also showing the stiffness of the 140 pound paper pages.

The biggest problem I have discovered is with the sewn book is in the heaviness of the paper. These things really have to be "backed" to make the book work well, otherwise the turning the pages is always stiff, and the book won't open particularly well. (Backing is a process by when you literally hammer the spine of the sewn and glued block of pages into the classic mushroom shape you see looking down on the top of an older book). I am still working on my backing skills. The book works well, but the back doesn't look too great.

This is the very first photo book I ever made. The prints in it at 4 inches by 4 inches, for scale. Again, you can see the stiffness of the pages, and you can probably get a sense of how stiffly the book "opens" and lies from the fanned out pages just standing there. I did not "back" this volume, and it shows. I used a single layer of mat board in the hard covers, which isn't stiff enough. I do like the torn paper edges, still.

The most useful resource I have ever discovered is Conservation Book Repair by Artemis BonDea. A quick google search ought to turn up a downloadable copy from the Alaska State Library. It has a host of material on tools and techniques. I learned a great deal about simply handling paper from this book. While it does not actually tell you how to make a book, it gives you a lot of useful grounding. Then even the slapdash tutorials you find on the Internet for actually making a new book will be much more useful.

There are no actual rules of book-making. You can do anything you like. If you're thoughtful and make appropriate tests and prototypes as you go, you can build most anything you put your mind to. If you're clumsy, like me, it probably would serve you well to embrace a sort of rustic, rough-hewn, look!

1 comment:

  1. An excellent informative and very helpful article