Hello, everyone. It’s Tom here – popping in to the KDD blog to share my latest obsession – making books by hand. . .

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work at Kate Davies Designs is the making of books. I’ve talked about the creative choices involved in making a book with a commercial printer here previously, in relation to our celebration of the distinctive local industry of Shetland wool – Shetland Oo.

I’m very proud of this book, both as a photographic documentary account and as a book-object. It’s a collection which has garnered some acclaim; one of the photos was displayed in the House of Commons after being shortlisted for the EEF Photography Awards . . .

. . . and Shetland Oo was later chosen as one of the photography books of the year on the Art of Photography’s channel (Thank you Ted Forbes!). I loved the process of creating Shetland Oo, but have become increasingly interested in exploring creative possibilities beyond those offered by commercial printing. So, for the past 6 months or so, I have been learning how to make books by hand.

This all began on our last visit to the Hebrides, where I came across a little coptic bookbinding kit, produced by Sollas Books. I was immediately drawn to the wonderful decorative paper, and to the rounded piece of Hebridean stone the kit contained, so I immediately snapped it up. Once we got home, I set to work and quickly found that I absolutely loved the process of binding from start to finish. I liked the way my hands found their way around the tools I had to work with and the way that the process required a very careful, precise and methodical approach (which, I think, probably plays to my strengths . . . )

. . . but best of all, I was overjoyed with my finished little book.

Sure, it was a little wonky – but it was handmade – by me! I loved the beautiful braided stitches, the undulating “waves” at the untrimmed fore-edge, the wonderfully graphic decorative paper and the obvious handmade-ness of the thing.

After this initial experience, the hand making of books quickly became a bit of an obsession. I made tiny saddle stitch pamphlets, Japanese stab-bound booklets, and hardback single section books. Kate’s pile of handmade stationery grew ever bigger; my father-in-law, Wal, got a notebook in which to write his magnum opus; our four-year-old neighbour Emily received a “Little Book of Pictures of Bobby” (her favourite wee canine friend). I was hooked.

To learn more advanced techniques I enrolled on a course with an amazing traditional bookbinders local to us in Glasgow — Downie Allison Downie. There I learnt how to round and joint a book, and how to make a cloth-bound paper case.

I produced a wonderful (ahem) journal for Kate and small leather bound one for myself.

I continued making books, in all styles, shapes and sizes. But I kept returning to the coptic bound technique because I so enjoyed its earthy, handmade appearance. Might I be able to combine my new coptic-bound book-making obsession with my other love – photographic print-making? Could I produce a collection of photographic prints and coptic-bind them into a beautiful book object?

As well as having a deeply satisfying aesthetic, I felt this ancient style of binding would probably be ideal for a photography collection and, as I experimented, I discovered how true this was. Once the printed photographs are bound together, the stitched spine of the finished book lies flat, allowing you to easily see the whole image. The exposed spine also means there is less messy glue to deal with.

The hardback cover protects the precious photos inside. I love the balance in stitching the spine; there must be enough tension in the thread to hold the spine in place, but not so much that the paper is damaged. There’s a slight looseness and mobility in the spine which just “feels right”. The photos inside aren’t being unduly crushed together, almost as if they have room to breathe.

I now knew that this kind of book, this made object, was how I wanted to present the photographic project I was currently working on. And, with the decision made on the style of book I wanted to produce, my next task was to decide on the materials I wanted to use for the project. I’ll tell you more about this in my next post . . .

59 thoughts on “Making books by hand: part 1

  1. tom and kate this is a wonderful series! thank you both so much. for everything you do. best wishes and a long productive lives for both of you. thank you once again

    janet speier



  2. Beware the slippery slope, Tom (or just enjoy it). Handmade special boxes are fun, too! (Boxed sets?) Looking forward to your further adventures in binding. What one can do with presses and other more specialized equipment is amazing. Yet there’s something about the immediacy of a folder, a needle, and cord that is magic.


  3. I’m lucky enough to live near Dillington House in Somerset. They run adult education classes and that includes bookbinding. I was there doing gold work embroidery but the bookbinding was next on my list. We are now moving to the borders of Scotland so I may never do the Dillington course but I’m determined to find another. Thank you for sharing x


    1. Fear not Susan! Scotland has a very special book-maker called Rachel Hazell, based in Edinburgh, who runs lively and on-line courses on creative book-binding. Look her up – I hope you enjoy her newsletter for inspiration and connections.


  4. Love your books. Years ago, I took several workshops on making books and boxes. They are quite similar in many ways. Due to my disabilities, I haven’t been able to continue, but am very happy to have those memories. Would like to try again.


  5. You’ve taken me back to childhood. When I learned that the Brontes made tiny books when they were children, I set to work putting together little pamphlets of my own with scavenged heavy papers for the covers. It was all plan-as-you-go, and very imperfect, but the feeling of holding those little volumes in my hands came right back while I was looking at your post! Thank you.


  6. Hello Tom…great to have a passion for making , eh?…one more skill or craft to bring forward again from the past…so says that , learning and exploring never ends, thanks for that..best of luck with your further endeavours..love what you have created..cheers pat j

    You and Kate a house of exploring and creating…..

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Tom–These are beautiful! I also took one of the DAD classes (after taking some an evening course at the Smithsonian many moons ago) and thought it was super! It’s a hobby I hope to return to in my new home. I can’t wait to see how your photos and books come together!
    All best, Marina


  8. How absolutely, totally satisfying for you! And for us watching. The detail is mesmerizing. Thank you for taking the time to detail this for us. The books are beautiful!


  9. I found this fascinating Tom and of particular interest given that I used to be a bookbinder many years ago. I still have my ‘bone’ and can confirm that they really are individual and all bookbinders in traditional print works have their own bone. Can’t wait for part two…


  10. Kate, hello, how lovely to see your blog and the mention of my wee coptic book kit. I got quite emotional reading your lovely words and where the purchase of my kit here in the Hebrides has taken you in terms of the making of beautiful books. When did you buy the kit? Maybe one day you could come to my studio here in North Uist and we can make a book together,

    thank you for a lovely blog,

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks so much for your photographs and essay about your new creative journey. I took a great bookbinding course at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. I loved the tools: the bone folder, the paste, the awl, and I love the fact that your wax is a little heart. You’ve taken to it like a duck to water (Kate’s journal is magnificent). Best wishes as you explore and combine your wonderful new passion with your old!


  12. I would love to learn to make books. I worked in a bindery at one point, I was a printer though. I sometimes was able to help with the book making process but not often. I thoroughly enjoyed the craft of it. It’s on my (very long) list of ‘want to do’.


  13. Oh My!! You two are so inspiring. I love the idea of handmade books, it is a skill I learned when I was training to become a librarian, but yours are amazing. What a family, what with your skills and your dogs and your generous sharing and the beautiful place that you live.


  14. I totally share your passion. I did some bookbinding and manuscript illumination in New York. I would love to take it up again. I live in Baraboo Wisconsin now, a tiny town in comparison. But I will look for lessons. Thank you for sharing your delight.


  15. Tom, thank you so much for sharing this new interest of yours. I wasn’t sure if I was going to sign up for a bookbinding class at our local art center, but now I will give it a hand. the combination of techniques used is appealing but even more the choosing of papers, size, shapes etc..fits the bill for me.
    on a side note, my husband just finished reading Handywoman. I knew he would find Kate’s story fascinating. Because he is a good listener, he has heard me talk about Kate and has watched me knit several of her designs. The last chapter made him aware of how much he knows about knitting. Perhaps once he retires, the hands he used as a dentist will find another outlet.
    Again, thank you for all you both do for us, spiritually and creatively.


  16. Oh wonderful! I love reading about how we as artists get into a new field and embrace it with passion. I’ve tinkered with bookbinding a wee bit and love the process. These are beautiful Tom! I use small journals , sometimes hand-made, for each pattern or collection I’m designing, they end up a messy collection of mementos, yarn, sketches, and math and are very satisfying. Kate, do you do something like that?


  17. An extremely interesting post. Loved the note books. I hope soon we will be able to purchase one. Keep them away from Bobby’s sharp teeth. How is Bobby progressing ? Pauline and Gordon


  18. Making books, we must have a go. Having done pottery, silversmithing and my husband made the stained glass windows for our porch, my knitting, quilting, and stitching. It would be a new field.
    But, I am curious to know who took the photographs of your working hands? Kate ??


  19. Your books are absolutely sublime!
    Thank you for sharing them and I can’t wait to see more!
    All the best from the rocky coast of Maine.


  20. Oh my goodness. The combining of stitch and paper into books is mesmerising. My fingers are itching to try this. Thank you so much for this post. Something new for me to add to the must learn pile.


  21. I love that you are so inspired by bookbinding. I studied it as a graduate student at Syracuse University. It is indeed intoxicating. You’re obviously hooked. Enjoy.


  22. What a lovely and fasciating post, Tom. These are so interesting. What an enormously talented and dedicated pair you two are! Thanks so much for sharing, and keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

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