How to make a journal from an old book… the budget remix

[AKA: massacring a historical artefact in order to have a one-of-a-kind scribblebook]

Inspired in the ever-lovely £1-bookroom of Voltaire and Rousseau, I decided to take the chance of buying a pretty old book and ripping it apart for my own ends. I’d meant to take a look online to see if this was possible first, but forgot and figured £1 wouldn’t go to waste on an old book anyway. My choice: The Aspen Papers and Other Stories, by Henry James. I flicked through it first, establishing that it (1) wasn’t a 1st edition that might be worth a penny or two more some day, and (2) that it wasn’t a great read. Satisfied on both counts, and armed with my newfound knowledge of the art of bookbinding, I set to making what will be my chronicle of my adventures abroad next year (I hope, anyway!). And then found that I have absolutely no idea where my sewing stuff’s gone. Probably the same place as my watch (missing for a fortnight) and maybe where my camera went to (missing until the day after I bought a replacement on eBay, then mysteriously appeared).

Apparently, you’re also meant to have many other things to successfully bookbind: a press, an “awl” (whatever that is), cheesecloth, and waxed thread, to name but a few. I didn’t have them, so made do and mended, and it  seems to have worked out.

First, a few pieces of terminology:

Folio: One sheet of paper, folded, making 2 leaves or 4 pages

Headband: Small, ornamental band at the top of the book

Signature:  A collection of folios (for my book, I used 9 signatures of 5 folios each, meaning I’ve 180 sides in total – plus plenty of room for stuffing tickets etc in!)

Next, the basic ingredients:

  • Paper (printer paper’ll do, you probably want decent quality stuff though) (cut to the right size with a guillotine if need be)
  • Thread which you’ve waxed with beeswax OR dental floss (you can give your teeth a thorough clean at the same time, now you’re remembering about it…)
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • An awl OR a biggish heavy needle
  • A smaller needle, that’ll take the thread/floss
  • A press OR 3 big bulldog clips
  • Cheesecloth OR some gauze from the medicine box
  • PVA or spray or some other form of glue
  • Ribbon / something to use as a marker
  • An old book
  • Pretty, or at least coloured card to use for the front and back covers
  • For the headband:
    • Cord OR leather OR thick string OR an old shoelace (I used thick string, though in this case I’d actually advise thin leather if you can, as after I made the headband I realised that it would be better with the leather)
    • Embroidery thread (or just thick-ish thread)
  • Shirring elastic
  • Waxed paper OR greaseproof paper OR baking parchment
  • Duct tape (or should that be Duck Tape? I don’t know…)
  • Stiff material for the pocket – I used denim from an old pair of jeans; curtains would also do (maybe best to use ones that aren’t attached to windows…)

Now, the good stuff:

Right, so once you’ve assembled all of the above (or the first 7 anyway; I always work on the principle that something should be got off to a good start and then the needful other items can be obtained along the way), and gutted your old book (I used my grandpa’s stanley knife; no idea how common they are but you need something sharp like that), then it’s time to begin.

The Basic Booklet

  1. Fold each of your pages in half, making folios. Use a very firm fold, pressing with a ruler or something similar.
  2. Make signatures of your folios by assembling them in groups of 5, then dump some dictionaries or encyclopaedias on top of them to make the folds better – leave for at least half an hour.                                                                                       
  3. Open your first signature and decide where you want each of your 4 holes. Measure this with a ruler and dot the points with a pencil (I dotted 1.25″ up and down from the bottom and top, then did the other two 1.5″ apart from the other holes), then pierce them with the awl / big needle – make a hole just big enough for the smaller needle you’re going to use for the dental floss. Repeat for the rest of your signatures.  
  4. Thread your needle with a LOT of dental floss – I used 60 inches and that was about comfortable for my size of bookOther brands of dental floss are available...
  5. Following this helpful diagram from, insert the needle at number one, then take it out at number 2, then in at 3, and out at 4,  in to #5, come out #6, UP into #7 (which is also hole #3), come out #8 (also hole #2), go DOWN into #9, and out #10. At this point tie a knot with the string end that is hanging at #1. Go into #11, come out #12, go UP to #13, come out #14, go DOWN to #15, and come out #16. String the thread through the loop that was created between #4 and #5, and carry on as before.The fabric was a mistake - it's meant for use if you've got 5 holes.

    Going through a previous stitch before going down into a new one - this keeps it tighter

  6. Tie the ends up with reef knots and trim.
  7. Clip the finished collection together with bulldog clips.

The Headband

Not strictly necessary, but I thought it’d make the book look nicer and make it easier to attach a ribbon. I’m not going to try and explain this, as a great tutorial is freely available here. (Note: a “square knot” is a reef knot: left thread over right thread and under, then right thread over left thread and under)

At this point, it might be helpful to remember that you want a ribbon marker in the book. *Before* you make a headband and stick the cheesecloth to it. Just a hypothesis…

The Sticky Stuff

Ready the gauze or cheesecloth. Apply glue to the spine (I used spray glue) then stick the ribbon (if using) onto the spine; spray some more glue and then put the gauze on.  Leave to dry overnight.


Next, spread glue over the front cover and press down the first page, being careful to align it well.

(In case you have absolutely no imaginative powers)

Insert waxed paper / greaseproof paper / baking parchment between the cover and the new first page, and turn over. Do the same thing to the back, and then leave overnight underneath some old law textbooks.

This is the point to add your finishing touches (except a pocket), then get your endpaper together. Fold it, glue the front cover again, then stick it down and leave it under the books overnight again.


Finishing Touches

A page marker

I’d forgotten to add this in above, so got a double length of trimming and stuck it at the top and bottom with duck tape to the spine:

A pen holder

Get a couple of bits of shirring (thickish) elastic – 3m for £1 at john lewis if you don’t have any – and duck tape them to the cover (unsightly bumps will be covered by the endpaper and pocket):

A keep-it-all-together bit of elastic

Duck tape at top and bottom; make sure it’s long enough to stretch all the way around. I left mine loose at this point so I’ve lots of room for souvenirs to be stuck in!

A back pocket

I basically took my inspiration from my Moleskin notepad and folded it based on that. Fold a piece of card like the one below, and 2 rectangles of material like this:


Then place, folded, under a pile of books to strengthen the creases.

After several hours, glue one side of the flap to the middle panel, thus:

Fold & glue what looks like the right side from the picture above over onto the material (1 thickness), then glue the other side of the material onto the left bit. Duct tape at will wherever you think needs strengthened, then glue the left hand side (which has one thickness of the card) down onto the back of the book.


et… voilà!

And finally (I am a student, after all) – Bibliography / Sites that I found helpful: (Stab-binding – slightly different)

10 thoughts on “How to make a journal from an old book… the budget remix

    1. Thanks 🙂 ‘Twas time consuming but so nice to have it at the end! I love the smell of old books, even though I’ve been told by someone that it’s the skin cells of previous owners decaying that you smell… not sure how much I believe that mind you!

    1. Another option would be trying to use wood or really thick card for a cover, think there are plenty of other tutorials online for that, but the look of an old book is lovely if you can find one cheaply enough that you don’t mind essentially destroying! Good luck 🙂

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