In the handpress period (1450–1850, -ish, when printing was done by hand from handset type) forms would generally be laid out in such a way that the printer could fit multiple pages on one sheet of paper. Within the size limits of the paper, press, and finished book, as many pages as possible would be fit onto the sheet, which of course would be more efficient to print. Once the order of the folds is established, it’s also faster to bind, because some of the collation is built into the printing itself. As long as the folds are correct, each sheet ought to fold up into a perfectly ordered gathering, leaving only the collating of the sections as a whole. Very large sheets of paper proportionate to the size of the book may be cut in half or quarters before folding, thus producing two or more gatherings each. The first time the imposition needs to be figured out takes some time; after that a formula should work the same for every book and paper of that size.
You may or may not be setting type and printing on an iron press, but if you want to duplicate the effect, as I did with the text in these images, or if you have caught whatever disease convinces people to spend hours putting together tiny little pieces of metal to spell words, then keep reading. If you want to make blank books, nobody will be offended if you skip the rest. If you want to make digital layouts in the way it’s normally done these days, in spreads of two pages each, get cosy with the InDesign user’s manual.
Right. So remember that each sheet will need a recto and verso to be complete. Here’s the recto of my example sheet (page 1 recto is the bottom right), which will be the first gathering in the bound book:
And here’s the verso (page two is top left):
The way to figure out the order is relatively simple: fold up a blank piece of waste paper with the same number of folds, and without cutting more of the folds than you have to, number each page. (Some are easier to get at than others.) Open up the paper & you’ll have a map of which page needs to be where on the full sheet, including what the orientation is.
I didn’t take a picture of my map for you, because it was very small and on very scrappy paper and then I made a to-do list on the back. But I did make you this:
… which is the numbered recto with the text superimposed. Since these pages of the first gathering weren’t all numbered and the order if mixed up was less obvious, I printed a test sheet with the numbers right on top to make sure that when I folded it up everything worked out.
—–> I used InDesign to do this, and for those of you who want a word as to how, I’ll go through it very briefly: I set up an A3 document (such was the closest standard size) in spreads so that the left page would be the recto and the right page the verso, just to keep track of which matched up with which. I put the very numbers that you see above on the master so that I could see them on every page in the document, then imported a PDF with the text and just went through in the order of the numbers pasting page by page the PDF onto the InDesign document. I actually set it up so that the top was 8, 9, 12, and 5 right-side up, then grouped them later and rotated as a group to save clicks. I printed it all to a new PDF, as single sheets not in spreads, and told it to print double-sided. Presto.
Two things to note: the first is that most of you have probably torn your hair out trying to get your printer to print double-sided with the right orientation, and I’m right there with you. Fortunately the one I have here prints double-sided for me, but it does rotate the paper, which is why you may have noticed that the verso of my example sheet is rotated 180 degrees from the way the recto is laid out. It does print page 2 on the back of page 1 in my printer though. (I figured out after I digitally rotated all of the versos in this book that there’s a setting to tell it not to rotate the paper… but never mind.)
The other thing is that you’ll need to leave margins at head, tail, and fore-edge for trimming, but not in the gutter. The grey here shows the margins I built into this document, although I’ll tell you that I wish I’d spaced out the inner margins a bit more as well because in the bound book the text is really too close to the gutter.
Photos of the finished thing to follow, if you like! It’s under weight now. I’m getting teased that it’s an albino book because I gave it red edges and a white (vellum) binding. It was an experiment.