My First Handmade Book

August 03, 2015

When my Typography instructor told us that we were going to make our own books-- by hand-- the entire class started freaking out.

It seemed impossible.

There were two assignment options: create a handmade book celebrating typefaces, or create a book of The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.

Some of my friends created awesome design books about typefaces, but since my emphasis is in illustration in addition to design, I chose The Waste Land.

Some of my classmates looking through sample books from previous students. That day was OVERWHELMING.

Doing Eliot's book would give me an opportunity to create drawn illustrations. After a solid year of only design classes and no "artsy-art" classes, I relished the chance to sit down with a sketchbook, guilt-free, and have some fun. Plus, I studied The Waste Land in high school as part of my classical curriculum. I love returning to old high school assignments, as I inevitably get more out of my second read.

The Waste Land is a long, modernist poem that I think was purposefully made to have the most obscure and scattered references ever. Gah. Quite the challenge to illustrate.

To begin, we proofread the poem, set up a template in InDesign, and formatted the text.

The first step was actually the longest for me, although it's the hardest to make others appreciate. (My family, for instance, was easily impressed by the physical book looked at me in astonishment when I tried to explain that the digital part was hardest).

Fellow designers will commiserate, but for the rest of you, here is a sample of what went goes designing the "boring part" of a book:

  • Read several articles about book design and the "proper" way to set up a book
  • Get thoroughly confused about bastard titles and half titles, and where which one goes
  • Decide on the size, type, and weight of paper for the book
  • Create a template in InDesign
  • Set the margins, taking in both the most aesthetic ratios and the most practical margins for the type of binding you will use 
  • Decide on the typeface-- make sure it is a well-designed family with everything you will need (small caps, obscure punctations [get those hypens, en-dashes, and em-dashes straight, darn it!], etc) and ensure that the type family and "look" fits the feel of the text
  • Fix the bad kerning before the "W"
  • Get the running headers to actually center
  • Link chapter headers to the table of contents and set paragraph styles
  • Decide between 100,000,000 glyphs and colors to pick the perfect accents for the pages
  • Fiddle with a single-pica distance to get the glyph spacing just right
  • Fix that issue with the page numbers starting on the wrong page
  • What the heck is a colophon? Write one.
  • Edit the tracking so that the extra-long lines don't run into the margin!!!
  • Count the pages and make sure you have everything ready to make the signatures
  • Have a debate with your professor about whether you should follow the rule of always italicizing foreign languages, when the poet himself did not italicize

Then came the illustrations!

I developed the imagery and symbolism for the illustrations by reading through the full poem, reading through Kolbe Academy's analysis notes, and doing lots of doodles. Eventually I sketched everything on Bristol board, then drew it with a dip pen and india ink.

(Sidenote: I love my dip pen. I'm just getting started with actual calligraphy, but it's also great for drawing. The pressure changes makes the ink flow with such energy, and it does help to make quick illustrations much more lively).

I then watercolored the illustrations and scanned them in on high resolution. The rest was removing backgrounds in Photoshop, tweaking colors and spacing, and just fixing all those little technical details.

The Waste Land is really depressing, so I had a bit of a time trying to tone down my normally happy art style to use darker, creepier colors.

Oh! While I was working on this, something cool happened!

The girls who run Humans of Springfield, a photojournalism facebook page, ran into me while I was working outside and interviewed me! They were super sweet and it definitely made my day, as I was super stressed earlier that day.

You should check out their page and browse through their growing photo/interview collection.

In addition to these chapter illustrations and the tree frontispiece, I went into overkill-overachiever mode and calligraphied every title and header for the entire book.

Looking back at it now, a mere month later, I'm really not happy with the lettering. I've spent a couple of days practicing good pointed pen script, and I see a few problems here, but it was a learning experience and still looks cool!

After everything was laid out digitally, I took my book to the printer.

Big problem.

I had previously spoken to a local printer, who had the specialty paper my instructor had approved. But in the end, they messed up the print about three times and all of the colors were deadened. I couldn't get a refund, either!

Getting my two copies of the book printed was, overall, a three-day ordeal in the middle of studying for all of my other finals.

In the end, I got a copy printed at the cheap on-campus print shop that all of the professors say not to use because they screw up your prints. But they actually printed it really well, on regular thick stock, and for half the price!

Sewing the book. My practice signature is visible on the right, and the half-finished covers are at the top of the image.

Next was the bookbinding, which I had expected to be ridiculously difficult, and which turned out to be very enjoyable.

I used a mix of Coptic stitch and Japanese stab binding to sew the book together.

The book used 8-page signatures, which means that I take four sheets of paper, fold it in half, punch in the holes, and then use cotton cord threaded onto a rounded needle to attach the signatures to one another.

Once the text was bound, I cut the book with a utility knife and prepared to attach it to the covers with a Japanese style stitch.

The cover itself is made from two layers of matboard glued together with a sturdy blue linen stretched across. The title is a piece of stamped brass.

As part of this project, we had to develop endpapers for the book.

Endpapers are used to help the cover and the paper stick to one another, and they also really help to set the visual tone of the book.

I wanted to try paper marbling (I'd given it some attempts two or three years ago) and my first attempt, done at school during a spare half hour, really didn't work.

The weekend before the book was due, I drove home (ostenably to work on my Photo 1 project, but really to hang out with my family) and my little sister liked the idea of a craft day. We spent an entire afternoon perfecting the process. (I am planning a tutorial!)

And I think the endpapers turned out really well!

I did produce two books for this project. One was with the first, bad print (it is really expensive to print in color, and they didn't refund the bad print, so that and a couple other long stories all considered, I went ahead and kept the bad print for one copy).

The differences, to say the least, are drastic. That dull, weird yellow page just doesn't cut it.

The one thing that I was really upset about with this project is that the school keeps the good copy. I understood why we made two copies-- it is a huge learning curve-- and I like that she graded the good copy. But now my book is going to go in a summer exhibit in the school library (I think it's there!) and then it will get stored in a box in a back room, to be pulled out once every year for new students to look at.

I spent so much time and money on this book, and now I've only got the second-best copy for my portfolio!

My classmates also made some beautiful pieces-- I wish I could share them with you!

By the time finals came around (both this book and several PDF portfolios were due the day we took our exam) we were all dead with homework exhaustion!

But despite the overwhelming workload, this book is tied for the best project of my entire sophomore year. :) Projects are always the best when they are over and your hard work has paid off!

(This post is the latest in my blogging adventure about college classes. I'll be writing a short post about the rest of my Typography class shortly. You can see all the related blog posts right here.)

You Might Also Like


  1. *flips out because homemade book* THAT'S BEAUTIFUL, AND YOUR ILLUSTRATIONS ARE BEAUTIFUL! Ugh. You're awesome, just so you know.

    Okay, fangirling done.


  2. Okay, I have followed for a while but I just wanted to say that I absolutely love all these art posts. It really looks like your university has an awesome art program. My sister started out as an art major, but she did not have as interesting classes and assignments. My sisters and I have all various levels of talent, but some of us are a bit lazy. These posts are inspiring.

  3. Treskie-- haha, we'll fangirl over each other's art! :) Thank you!

    Livia Rachelle-- thank you for commenting! I always love hearing when someone new is following (and that you enjoy hearing about my college adventures). :) In some ways, it is an absolutely fantastic program. I've had a couple issues with things (don't we always?) but if you really take ownership of the projects and have a go at it, most all the professors and GAs are great. Haha, laziness is the thing to try to overcome, it's my biggest struggle when I'm just exhausted at the end of a day of classes! Good luck to you and your sisters!

  4. THIS WAS STUNNING!!!!! I am so sorry they kept the beautiful copy you worked so hard on. I am certainly looking forward to that tutorial! This is so cool, it's inspiring to want to try my hand at this.


Like us on Facebook


Flickr Images