Before going to Bhutan, I made a blank book to use for my journal, notes, sketches, and watercolors. The binding was my first major bookbinding - a nice limp vellum bookbinding - almost exactly as described in that writeup. 160 pages, 7 x 9, Rives BFK paper... really gorgeous, perfect for drawing or whatever.

Then, in Bhutan, the notebook started filling up much more quickly than I had guessed it would - I would run out of pages long before the end of the trip. The choice to me seemed obvious - I had to make another notebook, so that I might continue documenting at this rapid pace.

Bhutan is not the United States. The massive selection of commercial goods just isn't there. You can't buy art supplies like you can here. Maybe some pens or watercolors or crayons, a little bit of oil paint, some film... but good luck finding anything so like bookbinding materials in a country that historically used unbound books.

The Book

The design of the notebook I was to make is similar to what is described in limp bookbinding, except that there is a pocket inside the back cover, and there is no paper stiffening the covers or spine. The square is much larger than normal, about three quarters of an inch, so that it hangs over the edge of the book block, affording it some protection.

The factor separating the two notebooks the most was my utter lack of bookbinding tools. I had accidentially left a bookbinding needle in my wallet, so I had that, but otherwise, I had nothing. No rulers, straight edges, bone folders, nothing. Yet I still was able to create a decent book - a bit more rough looking than usual, but certainly functional.

First, in Thimphu, I bought the paper... a nice, handmade Bhutanese paper, rough deckle edge, about 8.5 x 11 in, 100 sheets. Designed to be stationery, probably, but would fit the needs of this book - whitish, heavy, and the right size. I didn't want to try to fold down a huge sheet of paper on the flat surface that I didn't have to work with. A piece of heavy brown handmade paper would serve the function of the cover.

I folded the stationery in half, as a folio, and made signatures of four sheets (sixteen pages). Lacking a bone folder, I found the closed Leatherman SuperTool to be a reasonably good substitute - heavy, with a smooth edge, surprisingly right for the job. I made as many signatures as looked right... enough so that the proportions of the size to the thickness appeared correct. The stack of signatures, to become the book block, was about 8.5 x 6 x 1.5 inches.

The cover was cut in the same aproximate pattern as the one in limp bookbinding. Without a ruler or straight-edge to score, I just folded the paper instead, using the Leatherman where I would have used a bone folder. I acertained that the lines were at right angles using the corner of a hardcover book I had with me.

Signatures. A cover. Now to turn them into a book. A process that took much longer than planned.

I used another sheet of paper as my guide and punched the holes for the thread in the signatures with the needle I had been fortunate enough to bring with me. This is much more difficult than just using a bookbinding awl - the holes are smaller and it is much more work. Then to find thread...

A few days later, I asked my tour guide, who took me to the woman weaving a tapestry outside, who kindly gave me a bit of blue handmade thread, made from silk, I think. It didn't look as though it would work, but I took it, and tried using it, because it would be impolite to reject it. It was too weak, and I didn't have tapes to sew the signatures to, yet, anyway.

The perfect tape would be something durable and flexible - the handmade paper was simply too weak to support the weight of the signatures - I tried. Then, a day or two later, bouncing along in the back of the bus, I noticed the plastic straps around the cases of bottled water. Plastic, strong, flexible, about half an inch wide. Perfect!

The next day, I managed to find a spool of heavy duty thread, just the right weight, in a store. The next night, after a bit of rum or brandy or whatever it was (damn cheap), I sewed the signatures to the tapes. They were easy to sew onto, because they were so rigid. Beeswax would have helped a lot with the sewing, to lubricate the thread, but none was available.

I guesstimated the positions for the tapes on the cover, using the book block and a pencil, and cut the slits using the Leatherman. The tapes went through the slits relatively easily, at first... but they really didn't bend as much as expected, and had to be pulled through with the needlenose pliers of the Leatherman - finished book!

The Result

I made a nicely bound book that fit my needs well without any of the comforts of the workshop! It can be done! The result won't be perfect, but it is possible to get surprisingly good results without the fancy tools if there is motivation and know-how. Lessons learned:

  • Always carry a bookbinding needle... you really should have some sort of sewing needle with you when you travel anyway, why not a bookbinding needle instead?
  • When you realize that you are running out of space in a notebook, start working on the next one immediately - it can take quite a while to assemble the materials - though there was only an evening's worth of work in the book, it took about a week to get the materials and get it all together.
  • Test the paper to see that you like the way it behaves before making a book from it. (The paper seemed nice enough to write on, but when I tried doing watercolors, they bled all over the place.)

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