How to Make a Chapbook - An Illustrated, Step-by-Step Guide
A chapbook is a hand-stitched pamphlet. In the colonial United States, street peddlers called chapmen sold chapbooks, which contained religious messages, political opinions, poetry, and popular pieces of literature. Today, chapbooks are stilled used as a way to self-publish.
Once you have written a collection of poems that you would like to gather in a book, you should consider self-publishing them in a chapbook. Figuring out how to organize the poems, choosing the paper to use, and designing cover art will allow you creative control over how your poems are published.
A chapbook consists of a group of folded pages tucked into one another (called a signature). The pages are sewn together into a cover-weight sheep of paper. Hand-stitching is more durable and sustainable than staples or wire stitching, which can rust or tear. Plus, hand-stitching is more attractive.
Most chapbooks can be made with a three-hole stitch. As opposed to four-hole stitch where the knot appears off-center, the knot for the three-hole stitch appears in the center of the book, creating a symmetrical appearance. Chapbooks tend to be on the smaller side, so you can reserve the four-hole stitch for bigger projects.
The Chapbook Basics
Gather Your Tools
Text Paper: Text paper is a bit thicker than regular copy paper, but not as thick as cardstock. You can use copy paper, but I suggest you experiment with different kinds of paper. Better grades of paper won’t usually cost much more than copy paper, but will create a higher quality look for your finished chapbook. You can find different kinds of paper at office supply and stationary stores, but also check salvage companies and printer supply outlets.
Cover Stock: You will need some cardstock, or other flexible paper that is thicker than text-weight paper, for the cover of the book. You want the cover to protect the pages of the text, as well as add rigidity to the book. The cover stock needs to be cut a big longer than the text sheet, so it completely covers the inside pages once it is folded. A good rule of thumb is to make the cover stock a half inch wider than the text sheet (if your text sheets are 8-½x11, cut your cover to 8½x11½).
End Sheets: These are pieces of paper which can be a different color from both the cover and text sheets. These pieces are optional, but add an elegant touch to the finished chapbook. Cut the end sheet just a bit less long than the cover stock. It is folded along the text pages before the cover is added. Consider using delicate Japanese papers as your end sheets.
Thread: Books are traditionally sewn with Irish linen, which is a strong thread. However, it is fairly pricey, so you can substitute it with button & craft thread. It is strong and easy to find. It comes in many colors, so you can use a contrasting color to your paper if you want.
Beeswax: You can find beeswax in sewing sections of craft stores. Use the beeswax the wax the thread. This protects it from deterioration, keeps it taut while sewing, and strengthens the thread.
Needles: You can purchase either binding needles or tapestry needles. The needle you choose to use needs to be long enough to easily work with, and the eye of the needle to needs to be even with the shank. I do not recommend that you use any other kind of needle. Not only could they break, but sharp points can making sewing your book together dangerous. I strongly advise you to only use binding or tapestry needles.
Awls: You can purchase a real book awl for several dollars, but there are other options that work as well. You can use a dissecting tool (the ones with blue plastic handles), which cost less than a dollar. In a push, you could use a push pin or by using a plastic wine cork with a needle pressed firmly into it. I use the pointy end of a compass I’ve had for years.
Folding Tools: A good folding tool is indispensible. Really good ones are made from bone, but you can also find them in plastic. In a pinch, you can use a pencil. Before using your folder, oil it with the natural oil alongside your nose. It sounds odd, but it really works well.
Miscellaneous Tools: You should also keep a sharp pencil, ruler, and scissors handy.
Folding the Sheets
It might seem silly that I’m going to tell you how to fold paper because it is a simple fold and crease, right? Well, sort of; but, a sloppily folded book will make it look unattractive. You don’t want to take a stack of paper, straighten it out, and then fold all of the sheets at the same time because this kind of fold won’t give you as flat of a book as you want. Plus, the chapbook will bulge, and the fore edge of your book will end up angled like a sharpened blade. You should fold each sheet separately, one at a time. Then, you can tuck them together.
Before you fold your paper, you need to find the paper’s natural fold by determining the grain. Sheets of paper will want to fold more easily in one direction (with the grain) than the other (against the grain). You can usually determine the paper’s grain by picking up a sheet and bending one edge towards the other. Try doing this in each direction. You will know you are bending with the grain when the arc of the bend is smaller, and there will be less resistance than when you bend against the grain. Paper folds easiest when you find its natural fold, especially with cover stock. Folding cover stock against the grain may cause the folded edge to crinkle and break.
Now, let’s practice folding. Lay an 8-½ x11” sheet of paper in front of you with the 11” direction lying from right to left. Position your left fingers along the left edge to hold it on place. Use your right hand to pick up the right edge, and bend it to the left. Adjust the edges/corners until they are even, holding it in place with your left fingers. Holding the folder/flattening tool in your right hand, “break” the paper in the center along the right side—be sure your left fingers are still holding the edges in place. Slide the flattening tool towards you, creasing the edge from the center. Then, slide it from the center away from you, creasing the edge. Run the folder along the edge again, making a firm fold along the length.
Set the folded page aside, open, like a tent. After folding the next page, place it on top of the first. Continue until you have folded all of the pages. Fold the cover sheet the same way, and place it on top of the paper tent. Pick up the pages, and fold the book shut. Tap the top and bottom edges until they are even.
Mark the Template
If you want a symmetrical chapbook, you shouldn’t eyeball the hole placement. If you are only making one book, you can measure the holes with a ruler, mark the spots, and then punch. If you want to sew several copies, creating a template will save you a lot of time. Use a piece of cardstock or tablet board about 1” wide and the same height as the spine of your book. Using your ruler, measure ¾” from the top and bottom, and mark the spots. For three-hole stitching, the last hole is in the middle, so mark there as well. Open your book (which you folded the pages of earlier), and place the template along the inner spine. Lightly use a pencil to mark on the page as indicated by your template—these are the spots where you will punch your holes.
Making the Holes
Now you need to line your pages up again. Hold the book in your left hand, tightly gripping with your thumb and forefinger along the inner and outer spine. Twist the awl through hole #2. You want to twist the tool, instead of pushing it, because pushing can put enough pressure on the book to bend the pages. Still holding the spine, move down and make the hole #1. Leave the awl in place while you spin the book so that you end up holding it at the opposite end (near hole #3). You want to leave the awl in while you do this to keep the pages aligned. Now you can make the final hole. Place the book down on the table, leaving the awl in the third hole until you have made the first couple of stitches.
Sewing the Book
Measure your thread—you will need a little more than double the height of the book. Then, cut and wax the thread. After threading your needle, you do not need to tie a knot while you are sewing. Stitch according to the following diagrams:
Tie a double overhand knot (granny or square) using the two ends. You can trim the ends to desired length. I like to leave about ¾” long ends. Use the edge of your folding tool to smooth site at each exit hole along the spine. Ta da! You have your very own chapbook!
A note on formatting: You will want to print out your poems and make a dummy book before printing out the pages of your chapbook. Count your total number of pages, including blank ones, and then divide by four to get the number of pages you will need (one sheet of paper makes four pages). Create a dummy book out of scrap or blank paper with the number of sheets you will need. Tape or write on each page of the dummy book what will go on that page in the finished book. Don’t forget to create pages for the bastard title, title page, acknowledgments, dedication, colophon, etc. Now, use your dummy book to guide you into formatting your book layout on the computer, so you know which poem goes where. Format the top sheets first, and then turn your dummy book over and do the bottom ones. Print off one side, then put the sheets back in the printer and print of the second side. These masters, when put together, should fit together like your dummy book does. Either print directly onto your text paper, or take the master to a copy center.
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