Making books by hand: part 1

Hello, everyone. It’s Tom here – popping in to the KDD blog to share my latest obsession – making books by hand. . .

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work at Kate Davies Designs is the making of books. I’ve talked about the creative choices involved in making a book with a commercial printer here previously, in relation to our celebration of the distinctive local industry of Shetland wool – Shetland Oo.

I’m very proud of this book, both as a photographic documentary account and as a book-object. It’s a collection which has garnered some acclaim; one of the photos was displayed in the House of Commons after being shortlisted for the EEF Photography Awards . . .

. . . and Shetland Oo was later chosen as one of the photography books of the year on the Art of Photography’s channel (Thank you Ted Forbes!). I loved the process of creating Shetland Oo, but have become increasingly interested in exploring creative possibilities beyond those offered by commercial printing. So, for the past 6 months or so, I have been learning how to make books by hand.

This all began on our last visit to the Hebrides, where I came across a little coptic bookbinding kit, produced by Sollas Books. I was immediately drawn to the wonderful decorative paper, and to the rounded piece of Hebridean stone the kit contained, so I immediately snapped it up. Once we got home, I set to work and quickly found that I absolutely loved the process of binding from start to finish. I liked the way my hands found their way around the tools I had to work with and the way that the process required a very careful, precise and methodical approach (which, I think, probably plays to my strengths . . . )

. . . but best of all, I was overjoyed with my finished little book.

Sure, it was a little wonky – but it was handmade – by me! I loved the beautiful braided stitches, the undulating “waves” at the untrimmed fore-edge, the wonderfully graphic decorative paper and the obvious handmade-ness of the thing.

After this initial experience, the hand making of books quickly became a bit of an obsession. I made tiny saddle stitch pamphlets, Japanese stab-bound booklets, and hardback single section books. Kate’s pile of handmade stationery grew ever bigger; my father-in-law, Wal, got a notebook in which to write his magnum opus; our four-year-old neighbour Emily received a “Little Book of Pictures of Bobby” (her favourite wee canine friend). I was hooked.

To learn more advanced techniques I enrolled on a course with an amazing traditional bookbinders local to us in Glasgow — Downie Allison Downie. There I learnt how to round and joint a book, and how to make a cloth-bound paper case.

I produced a wonderful (ahem) journal for Kate and small leather bound one for myself.

I continued making books, in all styles, shapes and sizes. But I kept returning to the coptic bound technique because I so enjoyed its earthy, handmade appearance. Might I be able to combine my new coptic-bound book-making obsession with my other love – photographic print-making? Could I produce a collection of photographic prints and coptic-bind them into a beautiful book object?

As well as having a deeply satisfying aesthetic, I felt this ancient style of binding would probably be ideal for a photography collection and, as I experimented, I discovered how true this was. Once the printed photographs are bound together, the stitched spine of the finished book lies flat, allowing you to easily see the whole image. The exposed spine also means there is less messy glue to deal with.

The hardback cover protects the precious photos inside. I love the balance in stitching the spine; there must be enough tension in the thread to hold the spine in place, but not so much that the paper is damaged. There’s a slight looseness and mobility in the spine which just “feels right”. The photos inside aren’t being unduly crushed together, almost as if they have room to breathe.

I now knew that this kind of book, this made object, was how I wanted to present the photographic project I was currently working on. And, with the decision made on the style of book I wanted to produce, my next task was to decide on the materials I wanted to use for the project. I’ll tell you more about this in my next post . . .