I was 14 the first time I made a book. Using directions in my sister’s Girl Scout handbook, I assembled sheets of construction paper, sewed them into signatures and bound them between cardboard. After covering this with calico fabric leftover from Home Ec, I had my own handmade journal. More bookworm than crafty teenager—I wasn’t into macramé plant holders or Simplicity patterns—I simply wanted to hold my own book in my hands. It survives today, filled with handwritten confessions of crushes, phone calls, and first kisses.
As idea, the handmade journal also survives, only today we have more sophisticated tools at our disposal. Recently I hosted a party with a few friends to make journals, but instead of construction paper and cardboard we used recycled, vintage texts. By starting with an already bound book, you have a sound foundation— sewn signatures, glossy paper, stitched bindings—and limitless ways to put your unique stamp on it.
To those who might look askance at the repurposed book, consider its alternate fate. The books I used came from a book shack at our local transfer station; my friends brought books they were no longer using or they felt appropriate for the project. Rather than discarding an old book, why not give it a new life, where it can serve as a repository for lists, journal entries, photographs or memorabilia?
Some crafters take book projects to great lengths, turning them into handbags or birdfeeders. My talents do not lie in that area (see macramé, above). Directions for such projects can be found online at sites such as Pinterest. Our repurposing here is simple, requiring only a few supplies and within the range of any beginner. The goal is not only to have a fun afternoon with like-minded friends, but to leave with a book that you will use.
In selecting your vintage volume, consider size and condition, particularly of the binding. You want a book that will lie flat when opened, and pages should be of thick enough paper stock to accept glued-on accoutrements or be stiffened with the crafting product known as Gesso. I find textbooks particularly useful; the older the text, the more well made it will be, and hardcover schoolbooks are manufactured to take heavy use. For my party, I found a Latin textbook, an illustrated history of the 19th century, and a compact volume on British serial killers called “Murder for Profit.”
A quick guide to how books are put together: In the printing process, pages are assembled in sections known as signatures. These are either stitched or glued together. For this project, stitched binding is preferable to perfect binding, where the signatures are glued, because the sewn binding is sturdier. Most older hardcovers contain stitched signatures; look for the threads in the gutter between pages.
In selecting your book, consider also the purpose to which it will be put. My friend Andrea, a music teacher, arrived at our party with a large volume of sheet music. She ended up painting over most of the text, but keeping the song titles, many of which resonated with her. An old botany textbook could be converted to a birder’s journal, for example, or an old date book can be made current by substituting new numbers.
When your friends arrive, have workstations set up in cozy groups. If you’re using your dining room table, make sure to cover it with table pads, an old tablecloth or sheet with no sentimental value, and newspapers for added protection. For this type of party, you might want to stick to a small invitation list, 10 people or fewer, so you can work around the same table.
If you prepare a journal ahead of time, your guests will find an example helpful and inspiring. A demonstration of some techniques discussed here also will help get them started.
To begin you must prepare the pages. First, remove some so that the book lies flatter and is easier to work with. You can cover the book’s text in two ways. Gesso, a canvas primer, can be found in any art supply store. Swathed over paper, it covers print and stiffens the paper (which also makes the book bulkier, hence a reason to weed out pages). Once dry, the pages will present a new canvas that can be written on or painted. We found that ballpoint pen does not work well on Gesso-prepared pages, but Sharpie and Flair pens do.
A quicker alternative to Gesso is simply to cut white paper to size and glue it on your pages. If you anticipate writing a lot of text, you might prefer lined paper for this purpose.
Gesso covers in varying degrees. You can create special effects with a light wash, or by taping over text or illustrations you want to preserve. Remove the tape, and the line or artwork remains.
Another tactic is to create a pocket for tucking in tickets, notes, or other items you’d like to hide or save. Using thick paper such as oak tag (available at any office supply store), cut out an oblong shape, staple or glue it to the book’s edge, vertically or horizontally, and voila—you have a side pocket. Tea bag slips, cut open at the top, also make good smaller pockets. I found the Twinings brand an appropriate size for this.
Other interesting details to add include borders from leftover wrapping paper; strips of words from the dictionary (I trash-picked an old one to cut up), and decorative art such as postcards, old stamps, or greeting cards. You might want to supply partygoers with a pile of old magazines and scrap paper, or suggest each person bring some images they like. Glossy art magazines, which you can find at library book sales, are a great source of classic paintings.
Once you’ve given your guests a quick tutorial on how to use Gesso or cover their pages with paper, they soon will be busy clipping, pasting, sorting and smoothing. Sometimes they will be so absorbed in their task a quiet will descend over the room. At times, they will be excited to share the result of an experiment or a Eureka! moment. You’ll want to keep the journal-makers plied with finger food and beverages (We enjoyed some Seaport White from Stonington Vineyards.)
Don’t forget to take pictures of your creations and post them on Facebook or Pinterest so others can be inspired by your efforts.
As the party winds down, send your guests home with some extra supplies so they can finish their book or start a new one. Gesso poured into a small Tupperware or yogurt container, an extra brush and some clippings make for an appropriate goody bag.
Now all that remains is to use your new journal!
• Gesso, a canvas primer, available where art supplies are sold
• Artist’s brushes (1-inch or
• Yogurt cups of water
(for rinsing brushes)
• Elmer’s glue
• Blank paper – notebook sheets, printer paper, and the like
• Consumer magazines, seed catalogs, or art magazines for clipping
• Rulers, useful for ripping out pages and measuring pockets
• Oak tag
• Miscellaneous scrap paper, such as greeting cards, stamps, tea bag slips, food labels, wrapping paper, maps, or junk mail