Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sketchbook Binding Finally Done

Barcelona/Spain travel sketchbook.
We’ve been back from our European travels for three weeks now, and I finally finished binding the loose signatures of my sketchbook. I don’t like leaving projects unfinished, so it’s nice to have a sense of closure on a memorable, meaningful trip.

You may recall my hemming and hawing about whether to bind all the signatures into a single volume, or separate the symposium workshop exercises into a separate book. On the one hand, the Urban Sketching symposium was the impetus for the trip, so sketches done in the workshops seemed like they should be integrated with the rest of the sketches. On the other hand, most of the work done in workshops were incomplete or mechanical exercises, and the subject matter were often gesture sketches of people or value studies of cafĂ© umbrellas – content that doesn’t indicate the location. They don’t seem to fit in with the rest of my travel sketches.

Symposium workshop exercise sketchbook.
In the end, I decided to bind the workshop exercises separately, partly because of the reasons stated above, and also because the book would have been quite thick if I put all the signatures into a single volume, and I was concerned that the binding would be compromised.

The front cover of the workshop sketchbook is a collage of a small poster we received and the symposium logo. The back cover is a map of Barcelona. The thicker travel sketchbook’s covers are also made of maps and a collage of postcards and other ephemera. I used a few blank pages in both sketchbooks to hold more postcards, cards I traded with symposium participants and other keepsakes.

One excellent feature of the Coptic binding stitch I used is that the signatures do not have to be exactly the same size to be bound together. I removed the staples from the symposium program (which is slightly smaller than the signatures), punched holes to match the sketchbook signatures, and bound the program right into the back of the sketchbook as a keepsake (a much better place for it than a file folder or bookshelf, where I’d never find or look at it again).

Symposium program bound into the sketchbook.
Now that I’ve completed the entire process of my first handbound sketchbooks (which began with my “Stefano” sketchbook cover and temporarily binding the signatures that I took with me on my travels), what do I think about it? And will I continue to use it for my day-to-day, non-travel sketches?

I love the Stefano cover, especially the flexibility it enables of using any kind of paper (as well as the potential to use a variety of papers while still maintaining chronological continuity). I enjoy temporarily pamphlet-stitching the signatures before the trip as well as the Coptic stitching afterwards, which is such an elegant binding mechanism. Making the collages for the book covers was also fun. And overall, it was highly satisfying to make my first travel sketchbooks entirely by hand. (The latter feeling is residual from when I first began sketching. At that time, I idealistically considered making all of my own sketchbooks for the rest of my sketching life because it seemed like such a perfect integration of media and message – hand-drawn images kept in handbound books. But idealism gave way to convenience, and other than a few greeting card sketchbooks, I’ve purchased all of my sketchbooks ever since.)

The parts about bookbinding that I didn’t care for were cutting the cover boards (not to mention measuring them accurately, which unfortunately didn’t happen), punching the pages, drilling the cover holes, and the relatively time-consuming process of applying and waiting for acrylic medium on the covers to dry, and then applying and waiting for the final acrylic varnish coat to dry (though I now really like the result of the strong, thoroughly protected covers). 

There’s also the matter of discovering – after I had completely finished binding the larger, more time-consuming volume – that I had inadvertently bound two signatures out of sequence, so I had to cut it all apart and start over! Oh, well – it was a recoverable error, and the thread tension of my second attempt is more consistent, so the spine looks better anyway.

Coptic-bound spine, which I unfortunately had to stitch twice.
I currently fill Stillman & Birn sketchbooks at a rate of about one every couple months. That means I’ll be going through the binding process about that often. If I streamline the cover-making process to be less time-consuming, I think the Stefano system would be ideal for regular, daily use. And I’m excited about the potential for using a variety of paper types. When I finish off the Stillman & Birn volumes I’m currently working in (one Alpha and one Beta), I’ll give it a try.

I suppose I could store away completed, unbound signatures during the good sketching months, and do all the binding during the winter doldrums, which would be more productive than complaining about the weather.

(Edited 10/20/13: See my post "The Hand Bookbinding Groove" to read about how I streamlined the cover-making process and how I'm now hooked on bookbinding.)


  1. These look like such TREASURES!!! I really like the way they look neat and compact. I've made sketchbooks using the Japanese stab method, but haven't used any of them yet. I've given a few away as gifts and sold a few. I'd like to try this method too.

    1. Thank you, Joan -- I'm pleased with the way they came out! I've made a couple of Coptic-bound books in the past that I intended to use as sketchbooks, but I found them to be too thick to carry easily (and I was concerned that the binding wouldn't be durable for daily hauling around). Sketching FIRST and binding AFTERWARDS is the answer (for me, anyway)!

  2. Your review of your process was very interesting reading. I'm going through sketchbooks at about the same rate. I'm still thinking about this process.

  3. You are a total sketching trendsetter and superstar, Tina!

    First, the sketch bag feature in the magazine, next the Stefano (who named a model of leather sketchbook cover after you), now you've got us all thinking about how we can adopt your system to bind our own sketchbooks.... Plus, you've motivated me to go out in the world and sketch for real... no small feat. :0)

    What will be next?

  4. Thanks, Kate and Janine! It's an ongoing, evolutionary process for me, so who knows what's next?! :-)

  5. I've been following your 'signatures' journey and I hope you'll continue to discuss further developments. What I saw in it was not a replacement for my S&B sketchbooks but a way to augment them with signatures made of colored papers, probably using Canson Mi-Teintes papers. I may give it a try.

    Cheers --- Larry

    1. I think making signatures of tinted papers is an ideal use for a handbound sketchbook! I'm thinking of making some myself, as I really like using tinted papers for life drawing. Glad to hear my exploration is of interest -- thanks for stopping by, Larry.


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