Review: Real Life Journals by Gwen Diehn

Real Life Journals: Designing & Using Handmade Books

My love affair with books, both the written word and the bound tome, is  one that never seems to fade. In university, I was drawn to Medieval Studies and Religious Studies in part by the relationship of the written word to processes of thought; I was fascinated by the value attached to the meaning, structure, illumination and binding of texts, both secular and sacred. My first class in Medieval Studies was a fourth-year reading course in medieval palaeography (that’s “old hand-writing” in normal human speak) followed swiftly by several courses in the medieval book, bookbinding and the monastic book production tradition. The more I learned, the more I grew to respect and see the beauty in hand-crafted volumes.

In my own life, my books have kept me company through thick and thin. Some books have only a page or two filled, with others are crammed with minuscule paragraphs and clippings and sketches and heaven knows what else. I have occasionally cobbled together a blank volume for use as a scrapbook, but have not really delved into the binding and construction of paper books for my own use. I’ve made a couple of fabric books (this is one of them) but haven’t taken the time to really explore the process of making my own book suited to my journalling needs.

Enter Gwen Diehn. Gwen is a journal artist, a master of the book arts and a generally cool person who writes well, organizes processes beautifully and creates books that are worth buying and keeping. I do not lend my Gwen Diehn books out, since they are too useful to lose (and they’re good enough that borrowers might “forget” to return them!).

I was sent a copy of Real Life Journals: Designing & Using Handmade Books to review and, after flipping through it, I realized that reviewing this book without actually using it would be like reviewing a new camera without taking a picture. So I read through the volume from cover to cover (twice), soaked up the ideas and inspiration therein and settled in to work.

The book is hard-covered, nicely organized, well-illustrated and has a decent index (extra points for this!). It is clearly laid out, with all major elements being itemized in a table of contents, and is chock-a-block full of great information on design process, techniques and materials. In short, it is a tremendous resource.

It does require that you bring a certain set of skills and tools with you; in addition to a desire to create a book, you will need an ability to read diligently and thoroughly, a willingness to be precise and careful in your measurements, and an ability to think through a process both before and during working with it. While it is a “how to” book, the process is for a customized item, therefore any choices you make have ramifications that you need to think through.

Materials-wise, you will need paper and cover materials, but deciding what sort is part of the design process, so don’t rush out and buy them before you work through the steps.

You probably will also need these basic supplies:

  • PVA glue – which is another name for the more expensive, acid-free, white glue
  • glue brush – I have an old large watercolour brush that worked just fine.
  • an awl for punching holes in the papers – but I didn’t have one and used a particularly long thumb-tack
  • a bone folder – I did have one of these, but a plastic ruler could do in a pinch
  • a craft knife – with a really sharp blade. I cannot stress this enough
  • a straight edge
  • a cutting mat – I use an old quilting one
  • needles for sewing – as it turned out, I didn’t need one, but you might
  • bookbinder’s thread – you can get away with really heavy hand-quilting thread, run through with bee’s wax

Format and a Confession

This book has a somewhat unusual format, in that there are really three parts. The first and most obvious is the main text, containing the specific  “how to” information for various binding and cover types. The second is the big pocket in the back cover, containing a handy fold-out sheet explaining some of the more universal and integral basic skills or techniques required. Finally, the third is a CD-sized pocket in the inside of the front cover that contains a “Choose Your Own Adventure” booklet to help you find the most useful combination of all the techniques available in the main text to suit your specific book needs.

I have a confession to make.

I almost missed that little booklet in the inside front cover.

It is exactly the size of a CD case and I, leaping to ridiculous conclusions without checking, assumed there was a CD in there (this assumption actually caused my heart to take a dive. I’m not a CD demo person). The relief I felt when I found out it was a booklet was so profound as to be funny.

So I didn’t open it at first. I read right through the whole book and was mystified by allusions to the “the choice on page 8” or “she turned to page 10”. I scratched my head and flipped back to page eight  or ten in the main text, saw that they had nothing to do with the pages that had referenced them and was completely flummoxed.

Finally, after having read through the main text a couple of times, enjoying the demonstrations of the uses to which people put the books that were designed and crafted for them, I booted up the computer and decided I’d have to have a look at the “CD”. I opened the front pocket…. then I shut the computer back off again and started laughing. Suddenly the whole thing made sense.

If you’ll take my recommendation, have a good read through the main book, with the little booklet in hand. Save working through the process yourself until after you’ve read the main text, though. You’ll get more out of it having seen the possibilities and how the choices panned out for other folks.

The Process

I confronted the little booklet and found that the first part was the hardest; I had to settle one what sort of book I wanted. Did I want a sketch book? Was I looking for a notebook to record my workouts and running logs in? Was I going to make a book for a particular project? Was it to contain more than one part of my life? Did I need a book within a book?

After some agonizing, I decided that for my first book project, I’d keep it simple. I’d make a book of the sort that I use every day to work through ideas, sketch out possibilities and plan and design my art work. Having established my limits, I took the following steps:

  1. I decided I didn’t want a book in which the cover folded back around itself. That seemed too cumbersome to paint on. I was therefore told to go to page 3.
  2. I decided that I needed a book that lay flat. I sometimes sketch, sometimes paint and often refer to my sketches or paintings when working on other projects. I wanted the book to open and stay put. I was therefore told to go to page 8.
  3. I decided that it might be nice to be able to add pages, remove pages or replace the pages with a different paper type. If a sketch turned out to be something that could be incorporated into a larger work, it’d be nice to be able to take it out without ruining the book. Also, I thought it might be nice to add a few watercolour pages here and there, should I need them. I was therefore told to go to page 10.

Page ten was the end of my Journey of Discovery, revealing to me that I was a prime candidate for a Flat-Style Australian Reversed Piano Hinge binding. Since I had the option of a soft, hard or self-cover, I opted for a hard cover to give me a good supporting surface on which to write and draw.

The Results

Flat-Style Australian Reversed Piano Hinge binding with a hard, paper-covered cover

I was initially going to do a “piggyback book”, or little booklet to put into the larger one, but decided against that as I built the larger book. Once I found how much choice I had about what sort of papers to build the pages from or how big individual pages could be, I found that I really didn’t need the little booklet at all.

After some work and careful following of the instructions, I finished my first book.

For those of you who aren’t interested in following the link to the afore-mentioned blog post about the book, I’ve included a couple of pictures in this post, along with the book specs in the picture captions.

I enjoyed the process thoroughly and encountered only one hiccough.

The binding format that I had chosen was a fairly complex one and not a format that I had encountered or even contemplated before. I read it through repeatedly, prepared the requisite number of signatures (groups of pages) and was all ready to start putting things together when I realized that the concertina, as laid out in Diehn’s book, simply wasn’t going to work with this sort of binding. Basically, instead of needing a certain number of valleys (which were what the sheet of basic instructions emphasized) in the concertina, I needed a certain number of peaks.

Strathmore 400 Series Drawing Paper and Arches Cold-Press 300lb watercolour paper

Luckily I figured this out before irrevocably cutting anything or trying to put the whole thing together and simply adjusted my page organization to accommodate one of the the extra peaks I had inadvertently made.  I added a half-page of watercolour to use up the other. As it turned out, this was a good thing, since the half-page or watercolour has become my test sheet for paints and pencils!

Gwen realized this herself and has published a correction to this particular oversight on her blog. She has also started a page on her blog called “The Corrections” for on-going revisions of spots that might need clarification or areas of the book in which folks would like more information. As it transpired, I was able to work through the dilemma on my own and truthfully didn’t find it too much of an obstacle.

Test sheet of watercolour paper in back of book

I have since started two other books for different purposes using the same process and have had no issues with either. As they reach completion, I’ll revise this entry to link to them.

I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone wishing to design books for their own (or others’) uses, although I would suggest that those using it be diligent folks accustomed to (or at least not intimidated by) working through a design process.

This is an excellent book and one that I’ve recommended to our local craft council as a worthy addition to their library.

I suppose the real question, though, is how does it work?

In use!

Oddly enough, my initial problem was in actually writing in the thing. To that end, the little flap of watercolour paper helped to bridge the void. I used it to make colour swatches of what was in my little watercolour tin and my case of watercolour pencils. Simply putting a mark in the book made it much easier to dive right in and start writing. Of course, the approach of a couple of deadlines for which I need finished designs rather kicked me into gear, too! Since then, I have been using it and enjoying it far more than any previous books.

All-in-all, though, it was a fun enterprise and one that I’ll be repeating each time I need a new book henceforth.

I can’t believe I didn’t try this sooner.


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