Nice paper going to waste? Make your own notebook!

The world of notebooks is fraught with peril. It seems like most of the notebooks I find with great paper come in a format that I’ll never use. Then there are the notebooks that I pick up for a specific purpose, fill up half or 3/4 of the way, and then I’m simply done — there’s nothing left to add to them. I’m sure there are plenty of other scenarios that all result in the same thing: a bunch of perfectly good paper going to waste because I don’t want to use the notebook that it’s bound in.

So, what’s a writer to do? Cut the excess pages out and make another notebook out of them, of course.

It occurred to me, while scouring the internet trying to find the perfect Traveler’s Notebook insert, that anyone can make one of those things. It’s literally just a bunch of pages folded in half and sewn together. All you need is some filler paper (see above), some kind of hardier cardstock-type paper for a cover, a cutting tool of some sort, a needle, a thread, and elementary-school level sewing skills. The hardest part is finding the right paper, but if you’re in the same boat I am, that’s already taken care of. The rest of it is easy peasy lemon squeezy. I’ll show you how.

The first step is to figure out what size notebook you want. This is probably going to be a function of where you want to put it: a Traveler’s Notebook, the butt pocket of your jeans, etc. If you’ve got a specific place in mind, measure whatever it is and make sure that it’ll fit. Otherwise, just pick whatever measurements look good. Regardless, you should decide on some dimensions up front.

Now you need some paper. Here’s the important part: whatever width you want your finished notebook to be, double it — your filler paper material needs to be the same height and at least twice that width (because you’re going to fold it in half). This gets tricky if you’re trying to make larger notebooks out of ruled paper. For example, the “standard” TN insert is 110 mm wide, meaning you need filler paper that’s 220 mm across. However, a sheet of 8.5″ paper is only 216 mm across — so you either need to find wide paper, settle for a slightly skinnier insert, or learn to like writing sideways. However, for making pocket notebooks, this is less of an issue; and blank/gridded/dotted paper is more versatile because it’s symmetrical. You might also decide to mix up the pages; for example, if you wanted a combination of ruled and blank papers.

Once you’ve determined the source of the paper, figure out how many pages you want. Then divide that number by four, and that will tell you how many sheets of paper to rip out (each sheet of paper makes four pages because it is folded in half, and has a front and a back). Don’t go hog wild with this: I know how tempting it is to try and make a super mega high-capacity notebook since you can theoretically cram as many pages as you want into it, but keep in mind that you’re going to have to push a needle through all of these pages stacked up and hopefully end up with a product that doesn’t look like poo. More paper, more problems. There’s a reason commercial manufacturers tend to settle around 64 pages: 16 sheets of paper is close to a reasonable limit for how big you can make a saddle-stitched notebook that functions and looks good.

You’ll also need a cover of some sort. There’s all kinds of possibilities. You can get a pack of kraft paper or scrapbooking cardstock at an art/craft supply store. That’s what I usually do. In the past, though, I’ve upcycled old manila file folders or pocket folders. The same rule as above applies: you’ll need a piece of this paper the same height and twice the width you’ve chosen for your finished notebook.

Mark and cut the pages as precisely as possible to the dimensions chosen; I use the paper cutter at my office. Or, for a rustic, obviously-hand-made look, fold the pages precisely and hand-tear them along the fold. Next, start folding over the pages and the cover. Take the time to do this neatly. You’ll get much better results if you fold each page one at a time.

Then, nest all of the pages together in an unbound “booklet” form and see how it looks. Like it? Good, keep going. Flatten the pages back out and square up the edges as precisely as possible. At this point, I like to clip one edge with two binder clips or whatever to keep all of the paper lined up as I handle it. Then, get out some needles, pins, pushpins, or whatever. Before doing the actually sewing, it helps to pre-poke the holes. Then you’re simply going to go down the length of the spine, starting at least a couple millimeters from the edge, piercing the stack of paper ever 5 to 10 mm. You can use a ruler to help you be more precise with your spacing if you want. It also helps if you have a few pins to “leapfrog” the holes, and leave a few behind to help make sure that the paper remains aligned correctly.

The final major step in the process is sewing it all up. Thread your needle — I like to double the thread — and go to town sewing it all together. Stitch from one end to the other, then turn around and stitch back. When you’ve used up all of your thread except for the last few inches, stop; tie the tails together, and snip off the excess thread.

At this point you’re pretty much done, but if you want to tidy it up a bit, you could go back and re-trim the edges so that they are all straight. Other than that, you’re finished. Enjoy your new notebook, and the fact that you are no longer letting all of that great paper go unused!

Or, you know, just use it for shopping lists or whatever.

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