Media & Techniques

The Art of Bookbinding (Ep. 202)

Today, Caitlyn Thompson (aka Coach T) returns to the show to talk to Tim about everything related to bookbinding. Listen as they discuss her favorite tools, favorite projects, and the best ways to bring bookbinding into your classroom. Caitlyn also gives a quick preview of her upcoming  Art Ed Now presentation. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Earlier this month we got to the 200th episode of Art Ed Radio, which was a fun celebration, something that I think we’re all proud of. So again, a big thank you to everybody who listens week after week, or just tunes in occasionally. We appreciate that.

But the reason I bring that up is it got me thinking about topics that we had never covered on the podcast. I started to make a list, and it was actually a lot longer than I thought it was going to be, believe it or not. So we have a lot to cover in the next few months here.

But one of the topics on the list was bookmaking and I was just thinking about that like, oh, we never covered this. I mean, I think it’s a pretty easy reason. It’s not an art form that I’ve ever done much with myself. Honestly, there aren’t that many teachers out there that do bookmaking, that do a lot with book arts, especially in their classrooms. But we have someone that we know who is really passionate about book arts and bookbinding, and she has some great ideas to share. It’s Caitlyn Thompson, aka Coach T on Instagram.

She’s been on the podcast before in the middle of last year and she was sharing about newspaper pottery and magazine pottery. People loved that episode. They loved her personality and after that, they absolutely loved her presentations at the summer Art Ed Now conference.

So she is back for the winter conference with a presentation all about bookbinding, a couple of awesome lessons that you can bring into your classroom. And today she’s back for another episode of Art Ed Radio, so we can cover one of those topics that we’ve never gotten to. I hope you enjoy your passion and her excitement and how much she loves book arts, so let’s bring on Caitlyn and see what she has to say.

All right. Caitlyn Thompson is joining me now, also known as Coach T. How are you today?

Caitlyn: I’m doing very well. Thank you. How are you?

Tim: I am great. I am really thrilled that you’re back on the show and I will tell you that our audience, for the most part, is very thrilled as well. You were very popular last time, so I think a lot of people are excited that that you’re back again.

Caitlyn: Yeah. Well, thank you for having me.

Tim: I guess let’s start with that. Welcome back. How are things going for you? How is the year 2020 for you so far?

Caitlyn: 2020 has been very good. I’ve been doing a lot of yoga lately, which is very good. So that’s where I’m at. How about you?

Tim: Very nice. Things have been great for me. We have a lot of exciting stuff going on at AOEU and both of my kids just had birthdays, so life is good.

Caitlyn: Well, happy birthday to them.

Tim: Yeah, life is good inside and outside of work, so we’re doing all right. But I wanted to bring you on today to talk a little bit about book arts, because you are one of the few teachers I know who have just a real passion for book arts and bookbinding. So I want to ask you, I guess, how did you first get into bookmaking and what about it do you love?

Caitlyn: Oh, good questions. And there’s a lengthy answer to each of those.

Tim: We have time. Just dive in.

Caitlyn: Well, I’ll say there’s two parts to the why I love it so much. There’s more of a personal and a practical, so I’ll do my best. I might even get a little vulnerable and we’ll see how sharing I’m feeling.

How did I first get into bookmaking? Well, I saved it for last during college. I was a freshman planning out my entire four years and I was like, “Ooh, book arts, bookbinding. I’ll definitely love that. I want to take that last.” It was in retrospect quite silly, because it really spoke to an area that I didn’t know I had.

I was always kind of intimidated by other art media because I had no background in it in high school. So you weren’t really allowed to take certain art courses unless you had the prerequisites, which I didn’t. So I was like, “Ah, but bookbinding. That just requires a really precise human being. I’m particular. I’ll probably dig it.” Which was 100% true.

After that, I discovered North Bennet Street School where I completed their two-year bookbinding program. Now that school is totally an education in hand craftsmanship. I believe that’s like the tagline.

Tim: Nice.

Caitlyn: It’s two years of just solid bench work, five days a week, seven hours a day. And it was the most, just exquisite learning experience with the most interesting and different kind of people you’d ever meet. So it was just unbelievable.

Then beyond that about three years later, so around 2014, I had just started my master’s program. At the end of the summer, this is where it gets a little sad, we found out about August 2nd that my mother, her cancer had returned and six weeks later she was gone.

So in the middle of that time, North Bennet Street School reached out to me saying, “Hey, do you want to interview for and/or have this book arts teaching position? We hear you’re in the teaching gig or going in that direction. Do you want to teach middle school book arts at North Bennet Street School?? And I said yeah.

Tim: Yeah.

Caitlyn: In all of that sadness, I remember we were in hospice and I got the call thing: “You got the position.” I was able to be like, “Mom, I’m a teacher. It’s not like an elementary art teacher yet, but this is happening.” Because she had said before things really took a turn that like, “You better not mope and you better keep being productive.” So I take that with me forever, and that’s the thing. That was mom right there.

It was kind of a beautiful craft and opportunity that one day a week I would head up to Boston and I would get to teach in a familiar place with two colleagues who I went to school with at North Bennet. So familiar place, familiar people, and I would just be present. For those few hours, life was okay.

That’s where my teaching career began. So book arts has a very real and personal connection to me. But to bring us back up because that’s a little sad. It’s so sad-

No, that is a spectacular story. I’m very glad that you shared that. So that’s awesome.

Caitlyn: Yeah, I mean it’s personal, but I’m okay. I’m okay. Brene Brown will be proud. I’m all about vulnerability, man.

Tim: That’s awesome.

Caitlyn: Yeah, but to get it a little more excited about it, I really think that book arts can help build all the art muscles. I think that it’s number one, different from all other crafts. You don’t have to recreate something observational, because that was always, I’m really intimidated by illustration and painting. I’m like, “Can I do it? Am I really good with my wonky eyes?? I don’t know. But bookbinding, it requires patience and precision and hand strength and dexterity.

Then it, and this is where I really geek out about it, it’s a total time-traveling device, because when I was working in conservation in the special collections library, they give you this 400-year-old book, one of a kind. They’re like, “Here you go, take this and fix it accurately.” And you’re like, “I hope I do an okay job.”

Tim: Yeah.

Caitlyn: But when you see the writing in the margins, for me that transports you back to a place and a time where another human being was experiencing and making or writing in that book and there’s your artifact. So that makes me feel really good, an object that you can cherish and sort of time travel and mind read a fellow human being. I just think that’s super special, but I’m wicked nerdy and I love it and I don’t care what people think.

Tim: No, I love it. I don’t know. You speak about it with such a passion and I think people can appreciate that, because even just listening to you right now I’m thinking I need to look at book arts a little more closely now.

Caitlyn: And you can do many different things with the older crowds. That’s where I feel like a little lacking where it’s one reason I would ever try to brave it out for high school. Because otherwise, high school age humans are just terrifying to me. So cheers to you and everything you do and all the secondary teachers out there. You’re amazing people.

Tim: They think the same. All of us high school teacher think the same thing about middle schoolers and elementary schoolers, so it happens. I want to ask you, you’re presenting at the Art Ed Now winter conference in, well, just a couple of weeks here. It’s going to be thrilling, but your presentation was recorded in your home bindery.

Caitlyn: Oh, yeah.

Tim: You mentioned that and I was like, “Wait, what is a home bindery? How do you make one of those?” So can you tell us what’s in a home bindery? Like what kind of supplies and materials do you have in there?

Caitlyn: Totally great question. First of all, what I did is I found a partner who three years later I married and he gave me the second biggest room in our house. He’s one heck of a dude, my husband. So first you need space.

But beyond that, start off with a bench. I have been totally spoiled. I have been collecting and building this bindery since I got out of North Bennet Street School in 2000. Oh, man, 2011? Oh, man, I’m getting old. Anyway, so I have a bench. Of course, you got to have a bench and a space. But the first thing you need, you need paper and then you need something to cut that paper with, whether that’s a paper cutter or an Exacto blade.

Now I have the monstrosity of all paper cutters. It’s a board shear with like a 70-pound blade. It’s just a monster and I love it and it’s my precious and I’m so proud.

Tim: Nice, yeah.

Caitlyn: But of course the smaller materials: bone folders to fold your paper, awls, blunt needles, linen thread, beeswax to make sure that thread doesn’t fray, weights. I say weights, because when you’re handling paper it’s really far easier to tame if you have a weight down on it. You can find that in the form of a brick or fancy-schmancy l-weights. They’re just really heavy weights that are in the shape of an L. I got them at school. I don’t even remember.

Another thing that you can always find in like antique shops. You know those old cast iron mini-irons?

Tim: Yeah. Yeah.

Caitlyn: Those. Exquisite for book arts. They hold everything down.

Tim: That makes sense. That makes sense.

Caitlyn: Because after you fold paper you need to get the air out, and your paper needs to be under pressure. Cue the song. You know I’m into song with regards. They go hand in hand. And when, I’m hoping to see you at the national conference, I will show you the bookbinding dance moves because those are a real thing.

Tim: I’m excited that there are book-binding dance moves.

Caitlyn: Oh, totally. But other things I have that are bigger are like a nipping press, a sewing frame, finishing press. And I want to give just like the general place where I buy, my go-to bookbinding supply folks?

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Caitlyn: It’s a company named Talas, T-A-L-A-S. I think I got that right. Their website is You can find a few things on Amazon and at Blick. But yeah, the materials I gave you are the bare minimum for just like needle, thread. You need some Davey binders board, decorative paper, book cloth. I mean, I could go on. All the things.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. No. I think that’s good. And we can talk a little bit about maybe good projects to get started.

Caitlyn: Cool.

Tim: But I do want to talk about the projects that you’re showing at the conference. I guess I want to start with the one that’s a little more intense, going back to you nerding out about things. The Nag Hammadi. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

Caitlyn: I think so. That’s how I’ve said it for 10 years.

Tim: Okay, perfect. Well, we’ll say that’s right then. But can you just kind of tell us what that book looks like and talk about the process and why that fascinates you so much?

Caitlyn: Yeah. I learned about this structure at North Bennet. Everything goes back to North Bennet Street School.

Tim: Yes.

Caitlyn: It’s the best place on the planet. I discovered the Nag Hammadi during a bookbinding presentation. All of us were required to give a presentation, and I couldn’t tell you what mine was about, not if you paid me $1 million. My memory, I have no idea.

But I do remember my friend did a presentation on this ancient structure. It’s one of the oldest codex structure, codex meaning it folds in half, I believe, versus like a scroll or something, something. So it had lots of straps. It had distressed leather. There was this crumpled and crinkled papyrus. And in my book arts journey, I discovered that one of my favorite sounds is really old, brittle paper turning, like turning the page. That like, ooh, just gorgeous.

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Caitlyn: Anyways, I fell in love with the structure and a few years later, actually around the time where Mom passed, I was finding ways to be productive. Mainly crocheting, but I was also binding up a storm and I remembered how much joy that that binding made me or brought me rather. I was like hey, I feel like I can figure out a way to modernize this just a bit more.

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Caitlyn: Basically, all you have is a giant pad of paper or a stack of paper rather, that you fold in half. And you drill or punch four holes through these little, they’re little inside supports called [Tackits 00:15:46] . You just essentially tie a knot through the whole thing and there’s your book. It wraps, it’s leather. I mean, who isn’t totally seduced by a nice, soft leather book?

Tim: It is beautiful. The example you have is just gorgeous. So, yeah.

Caitlyn: Yeah. And again, I’ve talked about this before. I love pieces of artwork that I can touch. And the fact that it’s like one of the oldest kinds, I’m like, “Yes, now I have one for me and all the people.”

You can buy this leather. I use a less fancy leather. I don’t want to down-talk any leather and sorry for all those vegans. There are leather substitutes you can find, totally. This is cow leather I usually use for these bindings and you can find that at It’s just book arts leather and other leather supply stuff. Nothing beyond that.

Tim: I love all of these niche websites that we’re learning about today too.

Caitlyn: Oh, yeah.

Tim: This is one of many. Okay. Now moving on to the other idea you want to share. I think this other idea is probably good for people who are maybe intimidated by the fact that you have a bindery and you’re talking about all of these super intense processes.

Caitlyn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim: But if people want to begin with something a little more simple, can you tell us about the map fold book that you show as well? And kind of how that, I guess, that book turns into a hidden sculpture?

Caitlyn: Yeah, I learned the map fold from another North Bennett Street friend named Colin. It was during that first fall of 2014, and he showed me this structure where I was like, “Ooh, that opens just like a book.”

But what we did is we had the students paint a map of any kind they wanted. When I was a student teacher, I too, I was like, you could make it like a Candy Land map. Anything you want. Just use your imagination.

Then instead of just putting it up against the wall, we made that one map fold. The way I presented it was they were all kind of half open so you could look into them. It had a very sculptural look to it during the final show. A couple of years after that, there’s a big timeline here, I decided, wait, I could totally stack these and make it look like a full-on book.

So that’s where I brought my two cents to the game, and I decided art four is the magic number. And the way it looks like a hidden sculpture is when you open it, it sticks to itself with those little Velcro dots and you could actually peer inside and design before you make any of those folds. It’s just a cool presentation structure. Also my love for hidden sculpture book structures, a mouthful, came from when I was in college and I did altered books.

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Caitlyn: So that’s a totally approachable way to enter into the book arts realm without worrying about do I have bone folders or awls, or do I know the words to the Mariah Carey song? There’s so much pressure, but I’m there. I’m here, I’m so here for anyone.

That’s awesome. now-

Caitlyn: But anyways, I would make these sculptural-like pieces that when you look at them flat, it just looks like a regular book. But it’s kind of like this really cheesy metaphor for like, there’s always so much more. There are layers and folds and flippity-floppity openings that are messier than others and that need each other for support. That’s how my big structures work. I love making altered books, could you tell?

But anyways, they’re just so special. So yeah, that’s like from the elementary map fold all the way up to a different kind of sculpture. Because your book can be more than just a vessel for information. I’ve said that before. That’s like my soundbite: more than a vessel for information. But it can be a work of art in itself and I really believe that. So yeah.

Tim: Nice. Nice. Now you’ve given us just a million ideas here just in this short conversation. I guess, to wrap things up, I want to ask you about, I guess, bringing bookmaking and those processes into your classroom. Would you suggest starting with like the map fold project? Or is there another simple process that’s worthwhile for people who don’t have a lot of experience or people who want to give it a try for the first time?

Caitlyn: Good questions. I’d say it really depends on the age and atmosphere of your classroom. I have done the map fold successfully with third graders, but this year I actually introduced a two-hole pamphlet to my second graders. Now I feel like they don’t appreciate what they’ve made.

Some of them were like, “This is it?” And I’m like, “What do you mean, ‘This is it’? You made the papyrus and then you bound it together. This is exquisite. You can’t swipe through that.” I was like, “Keep it for 10 years. You’ll thank me.”

But when I tell them like, “Hey, we could make a sketchbook out of this,” they’re like, “We can make sketchbooks?” I’m like, “Yeah, you can.” So it’s just about building that small foundation, three whole pamphlets, five whole pamphlets are really good for that younger-ish age, middle school range level.

As you approach high school, I would, for me it’s like if I was in the dream world, how would I start this? I might start with an altered book and like a really simple teach them accordions or a link stitch, something that’s accessible but you don’t need too much equipment to do.

Because just paper manipulation is a whole different craft and ballgame that you could bring into it. Then if you do have older students or even any age of students, if you’re doing a printmaking process and you have a lot of time or they’re small, what about a class printing project that you turn into a book that everyone gets to take home?

That’s what we did in college where we each were given a poem. We had to do the typesetting, because book arts was paired with letterpress printing. So amazing. Oh, I love all that old equipment. Vandercook printing presses are just … so beautiful. I’m just dropping all these names. Cheers to all my bookbinders out there.

Tim: No, that’s good. I-

Caitlyn: There’s a few of us. There are dozens. That’s totally an arrested development reference to I’m not feeling. But my life is an amalgam of everything I’ve seen on TV.

Tim: Love it.

Caitlyn: But anyways, I think try to give it a try. There’s so many different entry points, and honestly, I could talk forever about it. But when in doubt, I’ve said this before, a handsome accordion can turn into a really snazzy pop-up book. Give it a shot.

Tim: That’s awesome. Now, that will work well. And we’ll go ahead and wrap it up there. Then I want to ask you. I know you always offer to help people if you know they have questions, they want to get in touch with you. Can I just direct everybody to your Instagram and they can get in touch with you there?

Caitlyn: Yeah, of course. I’m always there.

Tim: Okay, we’ll do that. We’ll make sure we link that in the show notes and then those 12 people who are super excited about this can get in touch with them.

Caitlyn: I’ve got to call everyone at North Bennet Street School. But really take a moment to look into book arts. Jeff Altepeter, who was my teacher, Dominic Riley, a colleague of mine, Erin Fletcher, Colin Urbana. I’m just giving all the last names now because I want people to find them and look at what you can create with book art stuff.

It’s pretty incredible and it’s a craft that should not be ignored, because if and when the power goes out, there’s nothing else we can swipe. But you can hold and preserve a book. But this is what I tell people. I’m like, “If you drop your phone in the toilet, you’re donezo. That phone’s donezo. But if you drop your book in the toilet, we can probably fix it. Water damage is totally fixable.”

Boom. That’s it. Have fun. Passionate.

Tim: Cool. All right. Well, thank you, Caitlyn. It’s been awesome talking to you and we will see you at the conference in a couple of weeks.

Caitlyn: Sounds good. Have a good one, Tim.

Tim: As always, that was a lot of fun with Caitlyn and I was just intrigued by a lot of the stories that she shared. I just want to comment on one thing that she mentioned. She almost mentioned it in passing, really.

She talked about doing a class print-making project and putting the prints together into a book. And then everyone has a book full of prints from their classmates. I did this in college and it was a really cool experience. I really enjoyed it.

So when I first started teaching high school, I tried to bring that idea into my classroom. It was not one of my best moments, because for, I don’t know what reason I thought to myself, “Hey, let’s get enough prints for everybody.” So I’m trying to ask my kids to put together a book with prints from 30 of their classmates. On top of that, they have to make 30-some prints of their own to share so everybody could have one. It was just an absolute cluster. It was a mess.

So my recommendation, if you decide to do that idea and it is a great idea, maybe limit it to six or eight or 10. Not everybody needs a copy of everyone’s prints. But if you want to break it up into some smaller groups and put that together with just a few pages, it runs a lot smoother that way.

I can speak with the voice of experience there. You don’t need to do the entire class. You’re trying to do a class-wide printmaking book project. Anyway, I’ll leave you with that and hopefully that’ll be your advice you can take home from this episode, along with everything that Caitlyn had to say.

Now real quick before we go, I of course have to mention the Art Ed Now conference. It is time to sign up. We’re only like two weeks away. We have an amazing lineup that I’m very, very excited about if you haven’t figured that out already, Caitlin included. We have CJ Hendry, an awesome colored pencil artist who is going to be our featured presenter.

There is just an entire amazing day of professional development. You can see all the details and get yourself registered at The last couple of weeks I have been mentioning our discount code as well. If you use the code AEN2020, that’s AEN2020, when you check out you can get $20 off the price of the conference, so make sure you do that. But until that conference that is on February 1st, we have just a couple of weeks.

In that time, we will leave you with a bunch of links in the show notes here, in case you’re curious about everything that Caitlyn was talking about and you want to explore it more. The North Bennet Street School, that bookmaking school she mentioned a few times, all the suppliers she talked about, the artists that she mentioned. We will make sure you will have everything you need in case you want to dive in there.

So thank you to Caitlyn. It’s been an awesome episode. It’s been fun and hopefully we will see at the conference in a couple of weeks.

Art Ed Radio is brought to you by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you, as always, for listening. And one last time, remember to sign up for the conference at Use the code AEN2020 for $20 off your registration. We’ll see you there on February 1st.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.