Home Blog Blog WSW Toolkit Foreign Correspondent—Folding for Binding, Part 2: Folding Blank Paper

Foreign Correspondent—Folding for Binding, Part 2: Folding Blank Paper

The names for standard book sizes come from the number of times the full sheet is folded. A folio is folded once, and makes two pages. A quarto is folded twice, and makes four pages. An octavo is folded three times, and makes eight pages. And so forth. If you start with the same size paper, the folio will be biggest, the quarto half that size, and the octavo half the size of the quarto. Below will be an octavo.

Of course, the ability to fold down a larger sheet means you can print many pages on that sheet before you fold up and bind, if you’re a 15th century printer, or that you can do it in your living room, if you’re a bookmaker without access to book making equipment like a board chopper.

Unfortunately simply folding results in wrinkles at the edge of the fold. Think about it: if you fold four loose pieces of paper in half in a group, the middle one sticks out more the outer one, because at the fold the outer one has to go around all of those other papers. By the time you get to the last fold in an octavo, the previous folds restrain the movement of the paper, and it will always wrinkle like this:

closeupfold-bad copy

If, however, you make a few cuts as you go along, you’ll have no wrinkles!

closeupfold-good copy


folding-1 copy

If you missed the bit about folders and knives, you should read that first. As to the paper, the grain direction should be running short for an octavo (think about it—in the end, the folded section will have the grain running long). There’s loads of information about grain direction out there so I’ll skip that for now.

folding-2 copy

Bring the right side over to the left and match the corners up. Don’t worry about the far side; your paper might not be square anyway. As long as the corner near you is matched, and you begin folding from the edge near you, you’ll have at least one right angle and the rest will correct itself as you go along.

folding-3 copy

Here my paper is magically creasing itself without the use of a bone folder or even fingers, but you can extrapolate, I’m sure. I usually do about as much as is pictured with my fingers, to get it started, then run the bone folder all the way up and all the way back down to give it a good crease. Use the folder flat! It’s tempting to use the edge—it’s easier to hold, and you probably feel like you’re getting a sharper crease—but quite likely that you’ll stretch the paper fibers too much in the wrong direction if you scrape like that.

folding-4 copy

Cut the fold just past half of the length by slipping the knife between the two pages. Pull away from the fold and along the length at the same time. It doesn’t quite matter how far you go down except that you need to go at least halfway, so that the edge will be free to move at the fold.

folding-5 copy

Fold again, same as before, except this time along the bottom edge you have one cut side and one mostly folded side. Bring the folded side over to the cut side, and crease with the bone folder. Now you have a quarto section.

folding-9 copy

Cut again, same as before.

folding-10 copy

Octavo! And the grain runs long, parallel to the spine edge.

folding-11 copy

You can see the cut edges here give you a nice and even fold, and a 90-degree corner between the spine-side of the section and the head (folded side).

pressed_sections copy

Well, almost done. Press the sections, either under a board with a bunch of bricks on top, or in a nipping press if you have one. You can see how springy the unpressed stack looks; if you sewed that textblock, your sewing would likely be loose or uneven, which causes problems later. If you squish the paper down flat, you’re teaching it in advance to sit like you’ll want it to sit once it’s bound, and it will remember that in the binding.


  1. wrote on February 3rd, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Sam Ellenport

    Well done! I have two suggestions. One is to mention grain direction, so that you are always folding with the grain. It is easily determined (if you cannot feel it) by wetting a small sample and watching how it curls – it will always curl across the grain. Second, is that in my DVD on bookbinding, I show how I fold large amounts of paper quickly, with a strong crease. Much like your suggestion about pressing, I fold these quantities one atop the other, up to a group of 8 sheets. Each time the folder creases the paper, it is actually creasing the papers below it.

    As an anecdotal comment if anyone is keeping score, I never oil bone folders. Lately, as there are less and less options on the market, I have been sanding them into the shape I like. I agree that the most useful shape is with one end pointed and one round.

  2. wrote on February 3rd, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Aurora Oberloh

    Like your short discussions of folding and cutting paper. Would you mind my linking your articles to my tutorials blog. I would like to have my blogs be about other people’s activities and ideas as well as my own.

  3. wrote on February 3rd, 2011 at 6:45 pm


    Of course not Aurora, knock yourself out.

    Sam, I’ll do something with grain direction in the future… Note though that paper when wet will curl *with* the grain (parallel to it), not against it.

  4. wrote on February 4th, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Al Rodriguez

    Abby, Thanks for the tutorial. I took a class with Dominic Riley and this is the way he taught us. We used old table knives to do the cutting of the folded sheets. I make what I call “slitters” out of bamboo that work quite nicely to cut the paper. And, they have a silky, smooth feel to them.

  5. wrote on February 6th, 2011 at 3:40 pm


    Splendid work Abigail!

  6. wrote on February 8th, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Graham Moss

    An old-style dinner knife is perfect for slitting paper – the pre-war sort with phony bone handles. Cobblers knives or bench knives tend to be too sharp, and all the problems of over-sharp you deal with already. The important thing is that the sharpening of the blade should be from both sides rather than from one side like an Exacto blade or a steak knife. And not using animal bones myself I use various wooden equivalents – there are usually a variety for sale at the Trade Fair within the Society of Bookbinders Conference, this August 26/27 at Warwick University.

    Great blog Abi – do you have enough time for coming north on a visit? Spare room available. Graham

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