One of my favorite activities to do with my kid and adult classes is to handbind our own sketchbooks and journals. For classes or residencies where students will use sketchbooks for practice, writing, or to make observations, this is usually one of the first activities I introduce.
Journal-making is a great activity to set the tone for the class; with so many options for choice and customization for individuality, I like to demonstrate that the preferences the students make are celebrated and choice is a standard in the class. I focus on that freedom particularly for youth students where we may also explore new skills and story-crafting.
This binding is super simple and straight-forward, and uses a small collection of materials that I’ve been able to source somewhat inexpensively from local craft stores and online. Plus, it’s expandable, with the option to add more pages as students need them!
Another reason this is my favorite initial activity is because of the sense of wonder I usually see in most students when they finish this project and realize they’ve made an actual book! I do teach bookbinding classes for teens and adults where we dive into more sophisticated and complicated methods of binding. In those classes, the point is to practice bookbinding specifically. In my other classes that are centered more around community, story-crafting and reflection, creating a journal/ sketchbook can be the first way to dip into personal expression for the class.
I remind students in these classes that the journal they make is their book; they can put anything they want in it and they don’t have to share, so it’s a safe space to experiment, practice, fail, and try again. I’ve seen multiple students do this project and then want to spend the rest of the class period just making more books because they’re so elated to have actually made something themselves, so I always have more materials on hand.
Here’s the activity process, which can be done with most students 8 years and older. That’s the age group I’ve kept in mind for the project plan, although I’ve also made these with much younger children with some adaptations. See the end of the post for those and other adaptations to make this project accessible for all ages and abilities.
Handbound Sketchbooks/ Journals
Students will use materials to make choices and create their own sketchbooks for use throughout the class.
- Students will make choices from several options
- Students will use special tools and materials for book-making
- Students will be able to use the words and identify an awl, embroidery thread, a needle and book signatures
Materials (per student)
- One sheet 12″ x 12″ Scrapbook paper, decorative, several options
- 4 – 16 individual sheets of writing or sketching paper, cut to 9″x 11.5″, folded into 4 sheet signatures
- Tapestry needle with large eye (No. 18)
- 1 hank embroidery thread, various color options
- Scissors (one pair for the whole class is usually enough)
- Optional (for no-pocket option): Paper cutter
- Optional (for pocket option): glue sticks
Students should have their own individual spaces and materials to use. Place the signatures for each student, the tapestry needle, and the awl at each spot. Make separate piles of scrapbook paper in different areas of the room so that students can see the options and make choices.
- Invite students to observe the materials at their desks and share their observations.
- What do you think the tools are called?
- What are the tools used for? What could be a different way to use the tools?
- How should the tools be handled for safety?
- Introduce the activity: we’re going to make our own sketchbooks
- Name the tools and their use:
- The awl is the sharp tool with the wooden handle, we’ll use that to punch holes in our paper and cover.
- We’ll use the needle and thread to sew the pages of our book together.
- The paper is four sheets folded together, which makes one signature.
- Students can select their covers from the piles of paper around the room.
note: I usually have lots of options so I make sure to tell students to look at everything and share what they find with each other.
- After students select their cover pages, ask them to fold the page in half into the orientation they want for their book cover. Some decorative pages might have patterns that have a specific orientation, so make sure students understand that how they fold their paper is how their book will look in the end.
- It’s helpful to also demonstrate that the cover pages are too long for the book, and so they’ll need to be trimmed down by 3″ off one end. Or, students can fold the sheet up 3″ from the edge to make two inner pockets. I ask students to make the choice of what they want to cut off or fold.
- If not making a pocket, use the paper cutter to trim off the excess 3″ and the student can keep the scrap to make a bookmark or an even tinier sketchbook.
- If making a pocket, use the glue stick to glue the two open edges of the pocket to the cover.
Binding the Sketchbook
- Use the awl to safely punch three holes into the folded edge of their cover: one about 1″ from the top and bottom edges, and one in the middle. Help students do this safely by securing their cover in their hand with one finger on either side of the folded edge.
- Take one signature of paper and fold it on the outside of the cover.
- Using the holes in the cover as a guide, punch holes in the same spots on the signature.
- Measure embroidery thread to 3 times the length of the spine of the cover.
- Thread the needle to prepare binding.
- Place the signature into the cover, making sure the holes line up.
- Sew the needle into the cover from the outside into the middle hole, going all the way through the signature as well.
- Pull the thread through, leaving a 3″ tail on the outside of the cover.
- Next, sew into one of the edge holes from the inside of the signature, pulling the thread through to the outside of the cover.
- Sew into the last hole on the outside of the cover and through the signature.
- Lastly, sew back out the middle hole going through the signature and the cover.
- It’s helpful to make sure the beginning tail and the needle are on opposite sides of the thread that’s passing down along the outside of the spine.
- Take the thread off the needle and tie the thread and the tail together to finishing the binding.
To add more pages to the sketchbook, take another signature of 4 sheets of paper, folded in half. Lay the signature along the inside of the sketchbook, near the inside of the spine and mark on the signature where the holes of the sketchbook has been punched. Use the awl to punch holes in the new signature in those spots. Place the new signature inside the sketchbook behind the signature already bound, and follow steps 7 – 13 above to bind in the next signature.
Note: The dimensions for cutting the cover paper and the signatures leaves enough room for 4 signatures to be bound into one book.
Adaptations for Accessibility
This project requires eye-hand coordination, ability to fold paper, thread a needle and sew. Students with limited dexterity may need support from other students and adults.
- For students who cannot use the awl safely or effectively, students can point to where they want another person to use the awl to punch holes in their paper for them.
- Students may need support with threading their needle. A needle threader or a needle with a larger eye may be useful.
- Students may need support with folding. Having pre-folded signatures is helpful for saving time and avoiding confusion. Adult or other student help for folding the cover page will support students with folding.
- For much younger children, adaptations can be made by using a hole punch or larger awl to make holes in the cover and signatures larger, plus a large plastic darning needle and yarn instead of thread. Adults can also hold the cover and sheet together and point to where children can sew into the binding. I’ve made this project with children as young as 24 months with adult or older child help.