Hooked on handbound sketchbooks

When I’m making the covers, I like to look through the sketches

in the volume I’m binding and choose two to reproduce on the front

and back. With one glance, I can recall the weather, events or travels

 I experienced while sketching during that period.

By Tina Koyama

Here I am sketching in an unbound signature of watercolor paper.
The signature is supported by a leather sketchbook cover.

A simple piece of elastic cord holds the signature in place.

One reason I use the ancient Coptic bookbinding stitch is that

 I really love the way the exposed stitching looks on the spines.

When I started urban sketching about three years ago, I had idealistically decided that I would make all of my own sketchbooks for the rest of my sketching life. It seemed like the perfect integration of medium and message: hand-drawn images kept in handbound books. Wanting book pages that opened flat so that I could sketch across the gutter, I learned the ancient Coptic bookbinding technique that creates a beautiful stitched spine.

The problem was that any sketchbook I use has to withstand being carried in my bag day to day. I was concerned that the exposed stitching wouldn’t hold up to daily wear and tear. Regretfully, I decided I’d be better off using conventional purchased sketchbooks after all.

Then last summer as I was preparing to travel, I needed to streamline my sketch kit. I started thinking about how the basis of nearly all handmade books are small stacks of paper (known as “signatures”) stitched together. Why do I need to carry a whole sketchbook when I really only need one small signature at a time?

I fold three 9” x 12” sheets of watercolor paper in half, making one signature, and stitch them together with the pamphlet stitch (instructions for this very easy stitch are available online). To give the signature some support, I place it in a leather cover purchased from leatherworker Stefano Bramato, who is an urban sketcher himself. A simple piece of elastic holds the signature in place. I put one signature into the leather cover at a time – much less bulky to carry than a whole sketchbook. When five or six signatures are filled with sketches, I bind them together.

Since last summer, I’ve bound 10 sketchbooks, and I’m hooked on the bookbinding process. It gives me the satisfaction of handbinding my own sketchbooks without having to carry around delicate books. Other benefits I’ve discovered:

  • The thin, flat, stitched signatures are much easier to scan than hardbound sketchbooks.
  • Since the content is complete by the time I bind the book, I can incorporate any themes (such as travel locations or the season) on the cover, including reproductions of the sketches themselves or ephemera collected while traveling.
  • I can use different types of paper any time I want without having to use multiple sketchbooks.
  • If I ever lose my bag, I’d be sad to lose whatever sketches were in the signature I was carrying – but not nearly as sad as I’d be if I lost a whole sketchbook!

Like I said: It’s the perfect integration of medium and message – hand-drawn images kept in handbound books.

Tina Koyama is an urban sketcher, Seattle native and active member of Seattle Urban Sketchers. After a lifetime of believing she couldn’t draw, in 2011 she decided to change that belief. She has been urban sketching almost daily ever since.


Would you like to contribute an article about your unique sketching tools? Email your submission to editorial@urbansketchers.org.


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