Bonus Info: Paper Prep

In most kinds of books, the grain direction of
every element (binder’s board, book cloth, text
paper, etc.) should be parallel to the spine.

This post has some extra information in it for anyone who took my “Intro to Bookbinding” class a couple of weekends ago. I’ll do two more posts as soon as I can about the tools you need for a basic binding kit and also about the pamphlet stitch, which is an easy stitch, of course, and yet there are some nuances I want to remind you about. Anyhow, this time I’ll just review paper grain and how to prepare paper for your handmade books.

Because of the way the fibers of paper pulp bond with each other during the sheet formation process, all paper has a preferred grain direction. Going one way across the sheet the fibers are, on average, linked up more or less well, while going the other way the fibers are naturally a bit less tangled up with each other. Basically, paper is relatively stronger along the lines of grain than between the lines of grain. This is equally true for Kleenex, chipboard, Arches, kami, copier paper, and Rives BFK (although, don’t make a book out of Kleenex!).

Because you want the leaves of your bound book to flex and drape well, you want to make sure that the grain direction of each folio is parallel to the spine. This way, the “strong” dimension of the folio is oriented in the head/tail direction, while the less-strong dimension is oriented in the spine/fore-edge direction. You’ll start seeing why this is best as soon as you learn how to feel for the grain.


To test a sheet, just lay it out on a flat, clean surface (make sure it’s definitely clean) and then roll half the sheet over against itself. Don’t crease or fold it. Instead, gently press down on the roll with the open palm of your hand and take note of how much it resists the pressure. Do this a few times to get a tactile sense of the paper’s flexibility. Then unroll the paper and reorient the sheet so that you can roll it up the other way (at a right angle to the first step). Press down again to feel the amount of resistance. You should be able to detect how, rolled one way, the paper flexes somewhat more than the other way. More “bounce” means the grain is running along the axis of the roll, less bounce means the grain is running around the curve of the roll. Also, the paper lays flatter when the roll is in the grain direction, whereas rolling the paper against the grain results in a more rounded shape because the fine structure of the sheet doesn’t want to bend that way. The difference is exaggerated in my drawing; occasionally, in fact, the difference will be pretty subtle, but it’s definitely there. When you think you’ve figured it out, pencil an arrow on a non-critical part of the sheet to keep track of your discovery.



You can also test for grain direction by laying a flat sheet over the edge of a table and looking at how it bends. The unsupported section of the sheet will tend to droop down more when the grain is parallel to the edge than it will when the grain is perpendicular to the edge. You can also cut a small (2″-3″) square of paper out of the sheet and flex it both ways to detect the grain direction. But make sure you record the orientation of the square in relation to the whole sheet before you remove it. For sure, some papers will be so thin and insubstantial that they’ll seem completely without bias. But, again, the grain is there, even if it hardly seems noticeable at first.

Proper grain direction is important mechanically, so that your handmade book opens and closes with the least amount of effort. But it’s also important because book paper is involved with the atmosphere in a way that a drawing or a print framed behind glass is not. When the leaf of a book absorbs water vapor, it changes shape, even if often only by a minute amount. But the change in dimension is not uniform. In a humid environment, paper expands perpendicular to the grain, while in dry air it contracts toward the grain. If the grain is lined up parallel to the spine, then all the leaves in your book will get wider, while staying basically the same height. This is all right because a side-to-side motion doesn’t add stress to the binding (or not much, anyway). However, if grain is turned the wrong way, then your book will expand in the head-to-tail direction, which adds a fair amount of damaging stress to the binding. As one of my teachers once said, think of grain as a bunch of spaghetti. Wet noodles laid side-to-side are wider than dry noodles, but not longer. (Please don’t test this analogy with real noodles and tell me it’s wrong, because it’s the main way I’ve remembered this stuff all these years.)


Boustrophedons, one-sheets, and ‘zines are some exceptions to the grain rule. Most copier paper I’ve encountered has usually been grain long (but always test to make sure!), so if you use this material, there will be times when folds will go across the preferred grain direction. As far as I know, this is okay. Zines are, in any case, ephemeral art, so do tons and tons of them and don’t worry about anything other than making them look as wild and cool as possible.


The rest of the diagrams are all about tearing down paper and then about flattening gatherings of folios. The drawing above represents a scaled-down 25″x38″ sheet of 70lb. Mohawk Superfine. Right now, I’m looking for a new source for this paper and so I won’t list my old one here. But it’s an inexpensive stock that I like to use for sketchbooks, journals, and even for a lot of my printing projects. You should, of course, experiment with several different brands, surfaces, and weights. These instructions, though, are based on big pieces of Mohawk; how you tear down other shapes and sizes may change some here and there.

You can see, by the way, that a simple sheet of paper isn’t all that simple, even when it’s a flat blank expanse of material straight from the warehouse. The diagram, for example, shows the grain direction, which is long, and the planned alignment of the first, central fold. This sheet will spawn new sheets, which folded and combined with other sheets will only acquire more complexity as you move forward.


Working on a clean, uncluttered surface, make the first fold. You don’t need to press down on the crease too hard. It’s better, in fact, if none of the next few folds are all that extreme. Soft folds are best.


Then reorient the sheet so that the fold is facing you and the open end is facing away. You can use a butter knife, a fettling knife, or a paper knife to make the first tear. My favorite tool for this process, though, is a long bone folder. It doesn’t have super-sharp edges or anything, but for whatever reason seems to do a much better job than a metal knife. I work it down the fold in sort of a quick looping motion, but you’ll find your own style the more paper you tear down. You probably won’t even have to look at these diagrams again after you’ve reduced your first couple of sheets.



Now you have two sheets. Jog them together and make another central fold along the short dimension. Note that the grain direction has changed. It will change again before you’re done, but should end up going the right way.




Now, after the second tear, you have four sheets. Jog these into alignment and then fold the whole stack again. Tearing might get slightly more challenging, especially when you have to tear across the grain, but everything gets easier with practice.





The third tear gives you a pile of eight 9.5″x12.5″ sheets (when you start from a 25″x38″ piece of Mohawk). Folding these sheets gives you a gathering of eight folios. Remember, though, that the little notebooks we made in the workshop were six-folio, single-section pamphlets. So, as you accumulate stacks of folios, you can remove two from each one, which will give you a new set of six every three stacks. I’ll talk about how to trim these sections in the next post. We used a Kutrimmer, but that’s not the only way.


The final step is a minor one, but important. Even this early in the process, you’re working on getting the folios into a book-like form, and to help things along you’ll need to nip the sections. The drawing above is a simplified view of a cast iron nipping press. This is a normal piece of book arts equipment and most community studios ought to have one (or several). They’re a little hard to come by for home studios, but not completely impossible to find. I got mine on eBay a few years ago for about $200 and have seen plenty of other ones come up for sale since. You can also get really nice wooden ones from Talas (they’re pricey, though the prices seem fair for how nice they are). But a nipping press, while a time-saver, isn’t all that necessary. The alternative is to place your sections between two clean, smooth, as-flat-as-possible boards and then to place a weight on top of the stack. You would leave your sections in a nipping press for a few minutes at most, but might want to leave them under weights overnight. The weights don’t have to be crazy heavy. A couple of bricks should be okay (but try different weights and see). Essentially, nipping is a way to encourage folios to start relating to each other as parts of a whole structure.


So that’s all for now. Sorry this was such a long post. I’ll try to wrap up all the Bonus Info entries this week. And then I’ll work on the plan for the rest of the year’s weekend workshops.

P.S. I’m not a papermaker myself, so my description of how paper works should be taken with a few grains of salt. I think I’m mostly right…but I’m still learning this stuff.

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