Tag Archives: sewn board binding

On a bookbinding adventure in Pohnpei

I don’t “do” tourism very well; I can’t lie still on a beach for more than a few minutes. Four of us had decided earlier in the year to visit our friend on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. As the time approach, I wondered how I would amuse myself for 2 whole weeks.


I can tell you now that I re filed over 10 000 photos of ornaments and initials. That took up a bit of time.

We knew that the island would be small, and that our movements would be limited. So when a colleague from work reported that there was a library on the island, it occurred to me that I might be able to teach bookbinding on my off-excursion days.


I sent my CV and bookbinding workshop proposal to the Pohnpei Public Library (PPL), and with a bit of help from the Australian Consulate,  three morning workshops began to take shape. I had also visited their website and found that they had a wish list of books to complement their holdings. So the girls and I decided to bring a few kilos of Australian children’s and youth fiction with us.

I had hoped that teenagers or children might be involved, but I had not reckoned on how the island works. Let me say here that this blog is not so much about the bookbinding aspect as it is of  social ramifications of a visiting teacher might engender in a small community.


This is Lester Ezekias, the director of the PPL. He contacted his local librarians group, the equivalent of ALIA in Australia,  in the hopes of creating interest. Even on the Friday before the start of the workshops, he was emailing people to gauge interest.

Things on the island work by word of mouth or social media. Therefore on the first day we had 6 people who didn’t know what to expect. IT was lucky that Lester had attended a previous book repair workshop as he had bone folders and a few bits and pieces that were to come in very handy.

I’d come prepared with electronic notes and a presentation, but not the correct hardware. On that first day we had to crowd around my laptop to view some power points. I had made up small shows about the various different exhibitions, of Pacific and Islander material, that I had chanced upon during the year. One was a visit to the Museum of New Caledonia, compact exhibition space, but full of interesting information and artifacts relating to Kanaka culture as well as Pacific cultures in general. Another was a glimpse at the Tapa exhibition at the National Library of Australia, where the conservators had cleverly used camouflaged magnets to hold up a long tapa cloth.

And of course, a power point on a very brief history of the book in images.

My friend Kath, we whom we were staying, saved the week by providing her laptop and hardware to connect to the big screen. And as we bound books and had morning tea, the shows ran on a loop. But enough of electronic things, let’s get back to the meat of things, learning bookbinding.

Waiting for students, and Kath and Lesley helping out on the first day

I introduced the students to the wonderful uses of the telephone book and the versatility of pamphlet sewing.

At the end of the first session everyone had a few small booklets.

Bush telegraph and the next session was full; librarians from public schools and the Micronesian community college turned up to learn how to make simple housing. Wallet, four flap folders, phase box, using material locally available.


By the third session we were overfull; but no matter I was happy to share my knowledge with those I hope would be sharing this , in turn, with their students.

On the third and final session we made sewn board bindings. Everyone happened to be skilled at sewing, even the men. What pleasure to see surprise and smiling faces at the end of the day, book in hand, students marvel at the immediacy of the result and at having gained an understanding about the construction of books.


My friend Lesley H. had been my assistant throughout, and for a complete novice she was a great help to others.

I have to thanks Kath Grant for her invaluable insights, as well as for inviting us for a visit. Thanks also to Lester Ezequiel for his unfailling support and to his staff who were completely in the moment, in between answering phones, checking out books to patrons and helping with passport applications.

On our penultimate day the four of us trouped over to the library to donate Australian books we had brought with us.

img_9039I think that carrying 20 kilos of books was very worthwhile.

The whole experience was all about the people; how we interacted, how different cultural views can be, how adaptable humans can be.

Perhaps I hope to go back and teach again.

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What is wrong with this book?


Whats wrong with this?

Whats wrong with this?

At first glance there is nothing particularly wrong with it. It functions as a book should: that is that it opens well and you can read the text and look at the pretty pictures. It has a cover to protect it.

So why don’t I like it? From a binder’s perspective I can see little faults. It is 1mm larger at the head than at the tail. What’s 1 mm, you may well ask? Well it translates in the square, that is the edge that sits beyond the text block, looking off.  I can also see that the endbands are uneven. And lastly I don’t actually like the cover, even though I designed it….I’ll get back to this question of design later.

I am showing you my mistakes as a way of sharing information. I believe that all too often we don’t like to acknowledge mistakes publicly. Makes one appear less competent. But the world is not a perfect place and we are not perfect machines. Sometimes I learn from my mistakes, and sometimes it takes me a long time to do so.

I have a hard time cutting straight. It’s taken me a long time to get used to my guillotine. Things move all on their own, and my book becomes 1 or 2 mm out. I curse and swear, but it comes down to how observant am I when I begin to cut.

How does the glue get onto the front cover? Maybe my work surface is not as clean as it ought to be, or in my haste to paste too much product was used. Maybe my fingers are grubby.

And then I take a look at the text block itself. I used the drum leaf method so that there is no sewing across the margin. If that is so, why then do the pages look like normal text and image pages? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the drum leaf? If you have answered yes, just as I did, then we have both come to the realisation that this book now has fundamental flaws that can’t really be fixed.

And then we get back to the idea of design.  I have often said to my partner that he should design the covers and I could follow his pattern.  I am not really that artistic. I’m not being hard on myself; I’m being realistic. However I push on. I am nothing if not tenacious.

I designed the cover on the computer, to have a  black spine with red cloth boards. This allows me to have a visual. A bit plain, so I added footprints, which I took off the internet. I do have a note book for ideas, and it is filled with scribbles and basic plans for covers.

So, I print the design onto my cloth; however Max, my son gave me this throw away comment: “It’s crap if you use stock images- you need to make your own.”


While it looked bright and shiny on the screen, the reality was a far cry from that. For one I couldn’t print on the black cloth.  I was disappointed in its dullness; where is the skill if I am just printing off a computer? What was I thinking?

Not a day goes by when I don’t peruse a bookbinding journal or book. Not so much to poach ideas, but to be inspired. If I print the design with the computer, where is my skill? And as I look at designs by others mine seems simplistic at best.

I think I am disappointed in myself; how I perceive my skills and capabilities is a far cry from this current result. I won’t chuck this in through; I will change it around, add some black to the spine. I  will use my small blocking press even if it keeps blowing the fuses and I need to work in the cold. I will add paint to the cover to give it some lift, and in fact this will turn out to be a pop-up project for the real thing.

The real thing being repaginated and printed as we speak. Watch this space, this is definitely a work in progress!



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The joys of sewn board binding

On most days I will usually do a Google image search for the term “bookbinding”. I am pleasantly surprised at the number of images that come up, some reccuring, some new. As I work on stuff, I might just browse down the page of images; this gives me a refreshing sense that I am not alone in the world. It also reminds me of what I am: a craftsperson.

I love making things, books, boxes, something tangible. Writing is tangible, but once you turn off the computer, it is no longer in front of you. A book, on the other hand, is. It might get lost in the vastness of one’s library, but then again, there is always another book next to it to remind you of its existence.

As I was entering data on an Excel spreadsheet, I happened upon images, and instructions, for sewn board binding.

My friend Chris left this morning for Buenos Aires. She had a farewell/significant birthday yesterday, and I just KNEW she needed a travel journal. With limited time on my hands, I thought I’d try out this new method. This is what I hope is in her hand luggage:

sewn board binding

sewn board binding


It was produced relatively quickly. I have Gary Frost and Karen Hanmer’s excellent notes for this amazing technique.

I have little time for creativity. Lt me rephrase that; I have little time for all the creative endeavours that fill my head. This method which requires little glue, short drying time, allows me to be creative in a minimum amount of time. I think that once I get it down pat, this would be perfect for beginning student.

Sewing and lining in the usual way

Sewing and lining in the usual way

I would have liked to paint the spine, but simply ran out of time. I can see how decorating the spine would work, just as it does with Elbel’s dos rapporte method, which I learned from Rosemarie Jeffers-Palmer.


Adding the spine

Adding the spine


With minimal glue, the sewing is the part that takes the longest.

AS per the instructions I did use some double sided tape so as to avoid cockling and pressing time, but i guess I am a little anti sticky tape these days, so used a sparing amount of glue.

Small amounts of glue on the turn overs

Small amounts of glue on the turn overs

The turn overs reminded me of oriental binding techniques, and the cushioning effect makes  the book  very tactile.


IMG_4368I can see that I will need to experiment with covering the spine side of the board section. But that will come in time.

However, for now I will return to the bindery and make another book today!




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