First Handmade Watercolor Sketchbooks

As mentioned in the previous post, finding a watercolor sketchbook that suited me proved difficult…so I made my own!

After constructing the book press, I began work on my sketchbooks by gathering bookbinding materials and testing several different papers.  To construct the book, I used the following materials:

  • Bone Folder
  • Awl
  • Linen Thread
  • PVA Glue
  • Muslin
  • Headbands
  • Linen
  • Book Board

These are the main tools and materials (besides paper) that I used.  Most everything I found at my local art supply store was made by Lineco, but Hollanders is another great online resource. I won’t go into crazy detail on the process as I used Jana’s Website for the process and you can read all of that there.  Her post was entirely helpful, and I’ll just mention a few of the things that I needed a little clarification on or found helpful in addition to the info on her page.  Dave’s Book Tutorial also provided a lot of good info.

For the paper, I started out trying Arches hot press, 140 lb., bright-white watercolor paper.  This paper is extremely nice for painting on, but doesn’t fold well for use in a book.  The most important  thing about building a book is getting the grain direction going the right way in relation to the spine.  For all paper (whether watercolor, sketch, decorative cover, etc.), all of the grain directions must run parallel to the spine.  When paper gets wet, or expands/contracts naturally, it will do so most prominently along the direction of the grain.  If your grain runs perpendicular to the spine, this will cause stress along the binding and could damage and warp the book.

When testing paper for grain direction, it’s easiest to test a sample piece.  You need to have reference for how the sample fits into the main sheet; writing notes on which is the long and the short dimension of the paper works for me.  I can then keep this small scrap and have it for future reference when using each type of paper again.

Watercolor paper and other papers with a t least a little weight to them are easy to test.  For light papers, like sketch paper, do the following: cut two test pieces from the larger sheet of paper, mark them appropriately so you have proper reference and orientation, fold one sheet over vertically and the other over horizontally, wet the fold of each sheet and observe how they buckle; the sheet folded with the grain will show little evidence of buckling along the fold, while the one folded against the grain will show a lot of buckling and warping.

Having said all of that, the Arches didn’t fold well along the grain.  The sizing doesn’t flex well and cracks along the fold.  I made a small book from a single sheet of 22 x 30 Arches, and while it seems like it will hold together just fine, I’ll have to put it through a lot of use to get a good feeling about whether I want to risk investing money and paper into a book that could potentially come apart.  Instead, I went with the Fabriano Artistico hot press, 140lb., extra-white watercolor paper in 22 x 30″ sheets.  This paper folds extremely well and does not crack along the folds.

After tearing the watercolor sheets to size to create a deckled edge, they’re grouped into signatures, holes punched for sewing, and then sewn together with linen thread.  Here are my book blocks in various stages of construction, both the small and the large.


The sewn book block is placed in the press, compressed a bit, and then the spine glued, the headbands glued on, and a piece of reinforcing muslin glued on.


A piece of linen is cut larger than needed, washed, dried, and then ironed out.  Instead of trying to glue the book boards in exactly the right positions on the linen, I glued them to a piece of card stock first, then glued this to the linen.  The linen is then trimmed to 1 inch around the edges and the corners cut at a 45 degree angle to within 1/8″ of the book board corner.  Because the linen is difficult to fold over at the corner, I also used the 90 degree cut seen here.  This worked much better.

As you can see in the photo here, one of the things I did wrong was to have regular sketch paper under the binding while gluing and pressing it.  The glue seeped through the linen and stuck to the paper.  It was a mess, but I managed to wet and remove most of the stuck on paper.  Next time, use wax paper, and less glue!  I thought everything went fine when building the small one, but I didn’t consider the challenge of trying to spread fast-drying PVA over the larger book surface and try to get it even before setting it down on the linen.  Next time I might mix a little methyl cellulose into the PVA to extend the working time.

Here are some final pictures of the completed sketchbooks.  I couldn’t be happier with the result.  I now have a watercolor sketchbook, hard bound, that lays open flat when working, has the hot press paper of the weight I want, is the size and page orientation that I want, and has sheets of sketch paper interspersed between each sheet of watercolor paper.  The best of all worlds!  Now I can do my sketch studies, get my compositions and value studies right, then transfer them down to the watercolor paper for more work.  I like having both books in one because all ideas stay together.


Larger images in my Flickr Set


~ by JustPlainSketchy on February 27, 2012.

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