Today on the Make It Personal series, I have a guest post on book journals by Natalie Uhing of The Smallest Forest. Nat calls herself a person compelled to articulate living and loving with her hands; someone who loves the singular quality of the handmade, creative, and self-reliant life. Just the right person for the Make It Personal series! While she works with embroidery, textiles, paint and jewellery, Nat is a bookbinding specialist and in today’s post she is going to show us how to transform a generic sketchbook into a beautiful book journal gift.
Make It Personal: cheap and nasty sketchbook makeover
by Natalie Uhing
Materials you will need:
- a cheap and nasty generic hardbound sketchbook
- acrylic binder or matte medium
- art materials and tools finishing varnish
- acrylic paints
- bit of fabric (optional)
- various paint brushes (including a fine sable liner)
- scrap of bubble wrap
- a small piece of tracing or drafting film
- a scalpel or blade tool for cutting stencils
- PVA glue
- scrap sheets of plastic
- two pieces of cardstock (colored or printed…scrapbooking sheets are good)
I start by taking the sketchbook apart.
- Peel the endpaper away from the book, starting on the loose side and pulling gently toward the cover. Repeat for the endpaper at the back of the book.
- This will expose a strip of “mull” that connects the text block (the machine-stitched block of white pages) to the inside of the covers. Gently unpick this mull with your fingers (traditionally the mull is fabric, in this cheap and nasty version it is a pulpy strip of paper that is super easy to pull off).
- Clean off the remaining bits of white paper stuck to both the covers and to the back of the text block.
- Brush acrylic binder (or matte) medium on the covers and let dry.
While the cover is drying, I strengthen the text block a little bit:
- Cut a strip of cotton that is slightly less than the height of the text block (my block was 6″ high, so I cut a strip 5 1/2″ high) and make the width of the strip 2 inches + the width of the spine (the thickness of the block).
- Spread some glue onto the spine of the text block with a finger.
- Lay the cotton strip onto the spine, centering it between the ends of the spine and also from side to side. Spread a bit more PVA glue on top of the fabric and work it in with a finger.
- When the glue on the spine part has dried, glue the sides of the cotton mull down to the first and last pages of the text block. Stick some plastic sheets under these two pages, to prevent the moisture of the PVA glue from soaking and warping the rest of the pages. Let it dry.
Meanwhile, your cover should be dry and ready to paint:
Give the covers a coat or two of opaque paint (I used white acrylic wall paint, and a paint roller for even coverage) and when that is dry, put on the background color/s using a brush and artist’s acrylics.
WTID (when that is dry), roll/brush a contrasting color of paint onto some bubble wrap, and ‘print’ with it. If you use thick paint and leave the bubble wrap to dry a little before pulling it off, you’ll get brighter colors and a sharper print.
WTID, mix some acrylic gloss or matte medium with a bit of color to make a translucent glaze. I made two colors of glaze here…Indian Yellow and Alizarin Crimson.
Brush the glaze randomly over the covers. Before the glaze dries, blot some parts with crumpled balls of newsprint to bring back some of the background color.
At this point I cut out a heart shape from some fabric, and stuck it down by saturating it with acrylic binder medium. Totally optional, I could have painted a heart just as easily.
With yet another glaze of some ‘stand-out’ color, paint your text (or whatever) using a small brush. I used metallic sapphire blue, cut back with a few drops of water.
WTID, outline the letters using a fine sable paintbrush and some very opaque white paint or acrylic ink.
To the leftover opaque white paint I added a drop or two of pink, and again used the fine sable brush to make random patterns and marks here and there with the pink paint.
Then I added a little water to the pink paint and, with a loaded brush, ran drips down the front book cover by standing the book covers up. You can control how far down the drips run by laying the covers down flat and letting the drips dry before doing the next run.
WTID paint in some spots around the text with a fine brush and a complementary color, to break up the background some more. I used metallic ‘sunset gold’.
At this point I decided the covers needed some lifting with opaque white motifs here and there. And what better motif for a book called The Story of A Young Heart, than A Flock of Seagulls? LOL.
So I drew a seagull from a bird book onto some tracing film, and cut the shape out with a scalpel. I then brushed opaque white paint over this stencil…flipping the stencil over to do a few gulls facing the other way.
When the covers had dried, I put a coat of solvent finishing varnish over everything, to protect the paint and to bring out the brilliance of the colors.
Now to put the sketchbook back together (clockwise from the top left picture)!
1. Take a pair of scissors and cut the first and last pages of the text block (the ones with the mull glued on) so that they are just an inch wide. Place a sheet of plastic under each of these strips of mull, to protect the pages underneath, and spread PVA glue over the strips.
N.B. Don’t put glue on the spine of the book, just on the strip of mull facing up. Position the text block in the covers—centering it top and bottom and making sure there is about 1/8 of an inch of cover showing at the foredge—and close the cover so that it comes in contact with the glued-up mull. Carefully turn the book over and repeat for the other side.
2. Press the book on a flat surface underneath a board and a couple of dumbbells or dictionaries or something, for at least an hour.
3. Cut a new pair of endpapers from the cardstock, making sure they are the same height as the white pages of the text block, and double the width of a white page.
4. Open your (should be dry!) book up and smear just a line of glue on the first page of the block, from top to bottom, right alongside the gutter where the cover folds.
5. Lay the folded edge of the endpaper on top of this first white page, let it dry so that it doesn’t slide around.
6. WTID, place a plastic sheet underneath the top half of the endpaper (to protect the pages underneath) and spread glue evenly over the entire surface. Remove the plastic sheet just before you gently close the cover. Press down, and resist the urge to open up and have a look…the damp endpaper will stretch when you open the book, and when you close it again the paper will wrinkle up. Flip the book over and repeat for the other side Let dry two hours. You’re done!
From a cheap sketchbook to a book journal with a sense of humour
Some notes on inspiration and on gift-giving:
Have fun and be playful. I attempted to paint the covers of this sketchbook at least three times before…trying too hard to make everything perfect and wonderful. There were rabbits. Flowers. There were long-legged girls in fashion poses. The sort of stuff you see everywhere on Pinterest these days. But they all felt ‘forced’ and I felt terrible looking at them.
Finally, I put on a playlist of 80s music, decided I didn’t care what the outcome would be, and when A Flock of Seagulls came on, singing, “This is the story of a young…heart…” I saw a sketchbook cover with those words as a hand-lettered title, done in bubblegum-and-pop 80s colors, and a flock of white seagulls…and knew that, this time, it was honest and it would feel ‘right’. It’s not elegant or delicate, but perhaps those things don’t belong on a “cheap and nasty” sketchbook, anyway. What it has got is a sense of humor, and I’m happy with that.
Who would you give a blank book to? (remember, it needn’t be a sketch book…you could do the same thing to one of those hardbound ruled notebooks) Anyone who keeps a journal or diary; artists who sketch (especially if they like to sketch on the go) or draw; you may know someone who collects poems, quotations, or recipes, and could make them a book for that purpose.
The great thing about giving blank books as presents is that the final, real value of the book is something that shows over time. Even the nicest, poshest journals and sketchbooks are only empty vessels, brimming with potential, yet unfinished, incomplete. It is the accumulation of art and writing, of precious snippets and personal stories, the acts of mark-making by the owner, that give the blank book its meaning and reason for being.
And unlike many other gifts that get thrown out after some time — because they look battered, have been heavily used, and have been used up — a book only become more precious with use and time. Almost nobody throws out a dog-eared, yellowing and cracked old journal — its pages covered in writing — that belonged to a great-great grandmother!
When most things become ‘junk’, hand-penned books become heirlooms.