• February 2012

How to Make a Classic Handmade Book

By Michael Gibbs
Illustrator
mglenwood.com

I have always had a fascination with the art of handmade books. So in 2007, I signed up for a course to learn how to build these complex creations at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC.

In addition to being fascinated by being back in art school (something I hadn’t done since my days at Pratt), it was thoroughly enjoyable to put my decades of experience as an illustrator to work using this old medium that was new to me.

Of course, handmade books date back thousands of years to when writing systems were invented in ancient civilizations, and nearly everything that could be written upon—stone, clay, tree bark, metal sheets—was. When papyrus came into fashion, books were born. The thick, paper-like material made by weaving the stems of the papyrus plant into woven sheets allowed people to share long stories in a magical new way.

What thrills me most about making handmade books is the range of options we have in terms of styles and architectures. From the piano-hinge book that I used to create Blue Moons, Yellow Cows, Green Tamborines, to creating a “book within a book” for my original title, UnHoly Wars, the possibilities seem limitless.

One of my favorite architectures is the flag book—simply because it’s so darn complicated to create one.

That’s why I chose the theme, “Occam’s Razor,” for my first foray into this style, for it is a philosophical maxim that argues for simplicity over complexity.

The theory is credited to the 14th century philosopher William of Occam, whose maxim is often reduced to “keep it simple.” Indeed, “razor” refers to the act of shaving away unnecessary parts of an argument, reducing it to its simplest, and therefore most logical, form. In design, it is taken to mean simple design is preferable to complex design. Given the complexity of creating a book made from sliced illustrations, I thought this was the perfect irony.

Below you’ll find samples of the pages of the book, which includes three sliced illustrations, as well as a 2,800-word sliced-up explanation of “Occam’s Razor.” For fun, I included an antique straight razor in a box inside the book.

I hope you enjoy learning about this as much I did. Here’s to keeping it simple—and clever, too.


Occam’s Razor
Overall size is 9.5” x 12”, 1/2” thick.

The outside of the book is covered in black bookcloth. The inside pages are printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag paper using an Epson 2200 printer and archival inks.

Close-up of the title label. Title is laser printed on handmade paper. The subtitle, which reads, “[keep it simple]” is cut and inlaid into the decorative paper, using paper cut from the inside of the book (see below).

This is the book, opened up. There are three flag spreads, each spread a long illustration broken into seven flags.

On the left is text explaining William of Occam and his philosophical maxim, “Occam’s Razor.”

On the right is text explaining three examples of Occam’s Razor, each of which is illustrated. There is also a handmade box, containing a razor and cut pieces of text.

This angle shows the open book displaying the full illustrations. The inside cover pages are designed in Quark Xpress. For the backgrounds, I scanned in the handmade paper used to create the book (the box, accordion, backs of flags, cover label) and printed/reversed out the text onto it.

A close-up of the box. The razor is an antique straight razor. The sliced text is a very lengthy explanation (2,884 words) of Occam’s Razor, printed on handmade paper. The subtitle on the cover, [keep it simple] is from this same text.

The shredded paper is glued in … each piece individually glued in one spot, giving it the appearance of being randomly tossed into the box. The box is handmade, wrapped in handmade paper. The straight razor is glued in with epoxy. The book can stand up with nothing falling out.

Inside left cover, with explanatory text. Colophon is printed in black, below the main text.

See the text, on left side.

Here are the three illustrations. Uncut, they each measure 3” x 19”. The illustrations are each hand drawn in Photoshop specifically for this book. They include:

Top: Crop Circles: It’s more reasonable to conclude that humans, rather than aliens, made crop circles, largely because the alien theory is too complicated and makes too many unproved assumptions.

Middle: If You Hear Hoofbeats, Think Horses, Not Zebras: A phrase used by doctors to explain how to diagnose multiple symptoms … go with the obvious. If a patient has five symptoms, it’s likely to be one malady, not five.

Bottom: Solar System: Copernicus used Occam’s thinking to explain that the Sun—not the Earth—was the center of the Solar System, which made heavenly observations more easy to explain and eliminated many convoluted 17th century theories.

Close-up examples of each illustration are below.

For more information, and to view all of my handmade books, click here.

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