how to / learnings

Coptic Bookbinding


Coptic binding dates back to 2AD when Christians in ancient Egypt developed the method, which is still as relevant today – particularly amongst artists and crafters. Interested in learning the skill myself I joined a one-day workshop at Northlight Artists Studio in Hebden Bridge on 29 June 2013 with the lovely tutor Katherine Bolton.

An interesting fact from the day was that paper has a right and a wrong way. There is a grain that runs from head to tail and if you gently squeeze the paper in half there should be little or no resistance; if there is resistance then your paper is the wrong way round and you need to turn it so the papers are easier to fold and stay open when you are using the final notepad.

Make glue

  • 1 tbsp corn starch (available from a Chinese supermarket)
  • 1 pint of cold water + more if needed
  • 1tsp-5tsp PVA glue
  1. Mix the corn starch with cold water and put in a pan on the hob.
  2. Boil and stir the mixture until it ‘turns’ (it will be obvious and remind you of making custard), adding more water whenever needed.
  3. Make the final mixture quite watery as it will thicken as it cools.
  4. Add some PVA glue. If you are a beginner and will be slow pasting add 3-5tsps, if you’re quicker just add 1tsp.
  5. Keep in fridge when you’re not using it. It will last 3-4 months with PVA, and a week without it.
  6. Use a mini roller for easy spreading.

Make the cover and pages

  • mount board
  • decorative paper for the covers
  • paper for your text block
  • glue
  • sharp scalpel
  • cutting mat
  • scissors
  • ruler
  • pencil
  • bone folder
  • a pricker (a pin that has a shaft of the same size the whole way down)
  1. Cut two boards out of mount board so that they are 6mm taller and 3mm wider than the text pages.
  2. Cut out some decorative paper for the covers making them at least 30mm wider on all edges than the boards.
  3. Glue the inside of the decorative paper and stick the board to the centre of it.
  4. With scissors cut off the edges so a triangle shape is removed from each corner. These should be cut 1.5 times the board thickness from the board. You can buy a plastic template for different size boards to help with this job.
  5. Fold the head and toe edges of the decorative paper up and ensure it is stuck securely to the edges of the board – use the bone folder. Then stick the folded paper to the inside back of the board.
  6. Using your fingers fold in the ears of the sides to the side of the board. Fold over the rest of the paper, securing to the sides of the board and then to the back of the board.
  7. Line the inside of the board. Use a scarp piece of paper and trace around the space between the folded decorative covers. Mark the top left cover so you remember how to stick it down, and cut out the shape. Glue it (make sure you add glue to the reverse of the shape) and then stick it on the insider of the cover.
    1. get your front cover and make sure you know which way up and round the cover should be when it’s on your book, then turn it over like you are opening your book and make a small mark on the left where you want your ribbon to be (usually in the middle)
    2. draw around your ribbon to create a rectangle 30mm-50mm long, but keep it about 4-5mm from the edge
    3. cut gently around the rectangle with the aim of only breaking through one or two layers of paper
    4. peel away the tope couple of layers of the cut rectangle
    5. line up the right side of the inside back cover with the left side of the inside front cover and mark on the inside back cover where the top and bottom of the ribbon hole is – this will ensure your ribbon is level – and repeat steps 8.2 to 8.4
    6. glue the ribbons into the holes
  9. Cut the endpapers (inside paper) to the same size as the text block (3mm smaller than the boards) then paste these to the centre of the boards on the inside.
  10. Put the covers in to a press, covering with acid free paper if needed. A press can just be a pile of cookbooks.
  11. Fold 30 pages in half and sort into 10 signatures with three pages in each – this is your text block.
  12. Mark the position of where you want the binding holes on the boards – at least 10mm away from the spine and 1 or 2mm extra up from the tail compared to the spacing from the head to the first stitch – then make the holes, remembering to make them on the opposite edge for the back board.
  13. Take a piece of thin waste cart (a Argos catalogue cover is perfect) the same length as the pages, fold in half lengthways, and mark the position for the holes on the fold using the same spacing as you used on the boards. Cut the edge of the bottom of the template so you can use it the right way around each time.
  14. Lift one of the signatures and place the template along the spine of the central inner pages (if the pages are not blank make sure they and the template are the right way around).
  15. Use this template to prick the holes in each signature ensuring all the holes match up: place the signature on the mat and use one hand to keep it together with the template, and the other hand to prick. If you are using a professional pricker the handle will automatically angle the pin correctly, if you are using another tool – like a hat pin or old dart – don’t angle too low or it won’t pierce in the middle or too high or it will pierce cutting mat and ruin it.
  16. Pierce all signatures and boards making sure you pile them up again with the tops and tails all in the same direction.

Sew the book

  • embroidery thread
  • curved or straight bookbinding needle

THREAD ADVICE: Before you start sewing make sure you have enough of your chosen thread. You’ll need the height of your signature for each signature you want to stitch in plus one extra measure for knots. It’s best not to cut all your thread at once because it’s more likely to break and get knotted and twisted. Cut an arms length and when you thread your needle hold it up at shoulder height and run your hand down the thread a couple of times to smooth it out and prevent it twisting. When you need to add more thread stitch through to the centre of a signature, make a slip knot with your new thread and tighten it over the old thread. Thread the needle with the new length of thread and continue stitching the book.

  1. Lift one signature and start from the middle of pages and sewing outwards. Put your needle and thread through the first hole keeping the tail of the thread beneath your thumb in the middle and bringing the needle and thread out of the first hole.
  2. Go into the hole on the board from the inside out (make sure it’s the same top or bottom hole you went through on the signature), go around the boards and in through the same hole in the signature.
  3. Move on the next hole and from the inside centre page stitch out and through the signature and through the board (inside out) and then back through the same hole of the signature only.
  4. After the second hole go to the middle of the signature and tie the tail of the thread to the stitch. Tighten up your stitches by working the thread along. Try and keep the stitches solid, tight and even – consistent and tight will look the best.
  5. Continue stitching (see 3) until you reach the last hole on the signature and front board. On the last hole stitch from the inside centre page stitch out and through the signature and through the board (inside out) and then into the corresponding hole (outside to in) on the next signature – make sure your signature is the right way round!
  6. Stitch from the inside out in the next hole then go round the thread between the cover and the first signature in the direction you are travelling with your stitches before sewing back into the thole you came out of. Continue like this until the last hole of the signature.
  7. When you reach the final hole of the signature before tightening your stitch around the thread between the cover and signature loop it through the hole to create a knot. Do not go back into the final hole of the signature.
  8. Lift the next signature and sew from the outside in through the first hole (make sure your signature is the right way round). Repeat steps 6 and 7 stitching around the two previous signatures. Continue until the last signature.
  9. Lift the last signature and back board and stitch them to the book using the same method as you used with the front cover and first signature.
  10. Tie off the thread in the same way too.
  11. Cut any thread where they’ve been tied leaving around 5mm to the knot.

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