Friday, 4 May 2012

The Binding makes the Book! - Part Three - Tearing Handmade Paper Pages

I thought it was time to continue my posts about some of the bindings used in book-binding. I'm a bit amazed to realise that the second of the two posts so far, was last September! It's really time I added some more about bookbinding and techniques.
For the previous posts see Part One here and Part Two here

So far I have written a little about:
  • basic pamphlet-style books and variations on this binding,
  • the traditional "case binding" - multiple sections, stitched together and then glued into a hard or semi-hard case cover,
  • variations on back-stitched multi-section bindings - stitching over exposed cords, for example,
  • longstitch bindings, where the book sections are stitched directly to the cover,
  • chain-stitch binding, or Coptic style bindings, together with a little bit of bookbinding history.
I have planned a set of three posts, covering the creation of a set of pages - or Codex - made from a handmade paper, then turning these into a leather-covered book, with a Mediaeval style Longstitch Codex Binding.
* * *

Part One of Three: Tearing Handmade Paper into a Codex

I bought some very nice handmade paper on Sunday, made with cotton rags. It's white and made in a hand-held mould, so it has nice little lines on it, from the mould's mesh lining, plus rough "deckle" edges.
A4-sized (297mm x 210mm / 11.75" x 8.25") handmade white cotton-rag paper.  
 I wanted to make a small book with this paper, by cutting it in half and folding it into pages.  Each sheet would make 4 pages, in 2 sections ("folios"). 

However, I didn't want to just slice through the middle with a craft knife, or even use my usual paper-tearing knife, as the cut edges would be too neat/ smooth (especially if I used a craft knife).

This is how I tear handmade paper, to get a more natural-looking torn edge:

Fold each sheet in half, parallel to the short edge, making a light crease with your hand
Take the first folded sheet and open it out.  Use a paintbrush to apply plain water along the fold. Let it get reasonably wet.  Then re-fold (water side in) and run the wet brush down the outside of the fold too.
Set each piece of paper aside and work through all your pages in the same way.
The water soaks into the paper for a centimeter or so, softening and stretching the fibres, weakening the bonds formed when the paper pulp was put into the mould, forming a sheet of paper.

* * *

Paper Grain and Handmade Papers

(a short digression, for an information session!)

Handmade paper typically has no/little "grain" or "direction" of fibres.  Handmade paper is made by scooping pulp out of a vat of water, placing it on a thin screen/mesh in a frame, shaking it to make an even layer of pulp, then laying this sheet to dry.
Because of this method, the fibres in the pulp are distributed irregularly, lying in all directions and criss-crossing over each other.  This creates a firm and quite strong mesh of fibres.
As they dry, the fibres fuse together, forming paper. If you hold a sheet of thin handmade paper to the light, you will be able to see these fibres. Sometimes there is a "direction" to their structure, but because of the way the paper is made and dried, this creates less stresses within the paper, so the "grain" is less pronounced - usually so little that we say it has none at all (!) 

Do the same for machine-made paper, and you will not be able to see any sort of mesh of fibres. You may see faint lines, running parallel along the paper. This is from where the paper pulp was run through a machine, passed over rollers and pressed to remove water.  The fibres form into a regular pattern, running in the same direction. 
Also, as the paper is moved through the machine, from wet new-formed paper, to dry-on-the-roller, many other factors introduce stresses into the paper and cause changes in its structure.
This is what gives machine-made papers a "grain". 

This explains how to check for paper grain and this is a more technical explanation of how paper grain is formed.

This slide-show shows papermaker, Timothy Barrett at work on his Western-style handmade Lokta paper and this video shows the making of Lokta paper in Nepal  (you may notice in one of Timothy Barrett's slides, he is holding up a sheet of paper, which has distinct lines on it. This is still handmade paper, although it is strongly watermarked. I would expect that this paper still would have little "grain", despite the lines). 

* * *

Take the first sheet that you dampened, open out the sheet and lay it flat on the table.  You can see the puckering where the paper is damp.   You could tear the sheet down the middle, but you might get a very uneven tear, so I suggest you do this:
Fold the sheet over again, then run your finger down the fold, creating a good crease.
You can see here, that there is now a definite "line" down the centre of the sheet.  This is your "tear line".
This photo shows the result of my folding the paper, creasing and then tearing it with my paper-cutting knife (a long, flat, very sharp blade). It has produced a tear, but it's very crisp on the edge - almost a cut.  Not what I had in mind...
This is more like it.  I have torn the paper by hand - as shown below - producing a more irregular, "deckled" edge, similar to the natural edge of these handmade sheets.

So!  To tear the paper...

Lay the sheet flat on the table, with the crease inside. Lay your hand flat on top, next to the crease, then slowly pull the other side, in a horizontal direction, to create a slightly irregular tear.  Move your flat hand down the sheet as you go - also move the hand that's holding the other side, if you need to. 
The paper should tear quite easily, as the fibres will be softened by the water. So, you don't need to use a lot of force.  If it all starts to tear a bit wildly, first try slowing down, moving your hand to support the tear and pulling more gently. You may also need to re-make the crease line (try a bone folder or the back of your fingernail to help you).  If it's still a problem, you could dampen it a little more (and let it sit for a minute), or close the fold and try gently tearing with the edge of a flat ruler. 
You should hopefully have edges that look like this.  They will still be wrinkly from the water, but they'll shrink back a little as they dry.

I prefer to put these hand-torn edges at the bottom of the book, as I like the "raggedness" of the natural edges. You may prefer them at the top.  I don't think it matters, but suggest you choose one or the other and keep them all uniformly at top or bottom of the pages.
Fold the sheets in half again, to make pairs of pages; then tuck these pairs inside each other, as many as you want to have per section. I had forty pages (twenty pairs) and I used four pairs per codex (section), to make five sections of eight pages in my book 
Sit your pile of pages somewhere for a while, to let them dry out. At this point, if you feel they are too "thick and bouncy", you can place a board or large book on top, with something weighty, to compress the pages a bit and make everything a bit more dense. 

* * *

That's how I tear hand-made cotton-rag paper.  You can apply this same technique to other papers - especially other hand-made ones.  If you are tearing a very light paper, such as a mulberry tissue, you won't need to fold the pages and wait for the water to soak in. In fact, I suggest that you are careful not to make thin paper very wet - it tends to stick to the table and produce ragged, uncontrolled rips, rather than just a natural-looking torn edge.  You can always experiment with a few scraps, to see what effects you like. 


  1. I remember when i first learned this trick - it makes such a huge difference!

  2. you are so fab with all your paper tutorials and book binding lessons thanks Lizzie xxx ps any news about a Bloggers weekend???

  3. Thanks Ruth I love doing tutorials!

    Sorry, no bloggers weekend news. I simply haven't had/got time to organise anything just now!

  4. I remember learning this trick too. Because I suck with scissors I spent a lot of time tearing paper in various ways rather than risk my inept scissors skills on paper

  5. Oooh, very interesting! As someone whose medium is fabric, I am a fascinated outsider to the world of papercraft, so it's great to see what actually goes in to making your lovely books.

  6. Excellent tutorial, thank you for a in depth info and all the photos.

  7. Thanks everyone, for the appreciation - and for reading it all!

    Had to laugh at Stacey's reasons for learning paper-tearing... Maybe we should start a fund, to buy her a good paper-cutter next Christmas!

    Jennifer, as always, I am extra-appreciative of kind comments from fellow bookbinders; thanks for your attention and interest!


I love to read your comments!


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