Ch. 20 – Wise saws and modern instances


Sawing is not something you readily associate with book-making – sewing, certainly, but taking a saw to a book has a suggestion of destructive violence about it; yet if you are dealing in volume production, sawing is an essential step before sewing can take place.

It is also, I have to confess, one of the elements I never mastered fully – unlike all the rest, it was always a chore, though I think it need not be.

The idea is simple enough – by clamping the unsewn signatures together, spine upward, and sawing across them at several points, you create the holes you will then use for sewing; and because you do them by making a cut across all the signatures at once, you guarantee that they will be aligned, which saves a deal of marking out and individual hole piercing with an awl.

As mentioned already, I had anticipated this stage by printing lines across the spine of each signature to indicate where the cuts should be made. Those worked well enough; the difficulty was all with the saw. I tried several, starting with a neat little model-maker’s tenon saw with a reinforcement to keep it rigid:

fine-toothed modelmaker's saw

model-maker’s saw – probably the most successful, though a coarser cut might have improved it.

As you can see, the saw is quite fine, and creates lateral slits rather than holes; it also takes longer than you think to penetrate all eight sheets of paper in the signature, so that even after what seems an inordinate amount of sawing, and the growing feeling that you might have inflicted permanent damage, you unclamp it nervously only to discover that you have not actually penetrated the inmost sheet.

round abrafile

round ‘abrafile’ blade that flattered to deceive – those cuts look deep enough, but mostly were not

I did switch to what was effectively a round file in a jigsaw frame, and this flattered to deceive – it cut satisfactory trenches across the spine, and seemed to have made rapid progress so that you felt sure this was the answer, only to find on unclamping that again you had not sawn deep enough.


coarse-toothed jig-saw blade


I tried both a standard jigsaw blade – quite coarse – and at the other extreme a fine piercing saw (which I used to cut a vee with two cuts, so doubling the labour) and even at one point a full-sized tenon saw, though this really called for a fixed vice (for the rest I simply held the clamp on my knee).


an experiment in mass production – here we see ten books, in two sets of five, clamped for sawing to ensure that the holes for sewing are aligned. The signature numbers, at the top end of the spine, can be seen towards each end of the clamp, indicating that one set of books is turned the opposite way from the other. The guide lines for sawing can be seen – from the left, for the first signature, the thread goes in at the top end; then come the numbers; then the thread emerges (line 2) and re-enters (line 3). The pecked line marks the centre and was a needless distraction, better omitted. The thread re-emerges at line 4, goes in at 5, to emerge finally at 6 and link to the next signature, where it follows the same path in reverse. The mass sawing was not as efficient as I hoped and it proved easier to saw fewer copies more often than set up ten to do all at once.

I hit on the idea of sawing several copies at once and made a suitable apparatus but setting it up proved too laborious (the thickness of several copies made it hard to exert an even pressure across all of them and those in the middle tended to sink a bit under the pressure of the saw).

The model-maker’s saw was probably the best overall, but I think I would want one with a thicker and perhaps coarser blade next time, and a better designed-clamp that ensured the signature protruded by precisely the amount you need to saw through. (On reflection, much of the tedium was caused by feeling sure, as you were sawing, that you had certainly gone far enough and possibly too far, only to discover (having undone all the clamping) that you had not gone far enough – so a more precise clamp or press would help)

In the event, I found that imperfectly-formed holes could be corrected fairly speedily at the sewing frame using the needle, though occasionally at the cost of stabbing your fingers, since you went in from the rear but had to take care to emerge at the right point in the middle sheet.

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Ch. 4: WYSINWYG: the great Adobe Acrobat booklet-printing mystery

What you see is not what you get…

Adobe Acrobat will print booklets, putting two A5 portrait pages on each side of an A4 landscape sheet, with appropriate pagination (i.e. if you print  an eight page booklet – which will require  two sheets of paper – then one sheet will have pages 8 and 1 on the back, and pages 2 and 7 on the front, while the other will have 6 and 3 on the back and 4&5 on the front, so that when the sheets are folded together,  the pages will be in sequence).

pagination-copy  hmm… a bit rough, but I hope you get the idea.

This is exactly what you want, since a book is constructed out of a sequence of booklets (called signatures) that are then sewn together; and the pagination is far and away the trickiest part (to get the hang of the sequence above – the simplest possible after a single-sheet leaflet – you may still have to resort to physically folding some sheets of paper and numbering them,  just to see how it works*.  When you consider that a book signature may consist of multiple sheets – my first proofs had six, my final version eight – giving 24 and 32 pages respectively – you can see why you would want a computer programme to work out the pagination and printing sequence for you.

(If you really want to hold it in your head, then the reverse of the outermost sheet will always have the last number in the sequence (which will be even) on the left – e.g. 32 – and the first on the right, which will be odd (e.g. 1) while the obverse will have a low even number on the left (e,g 2) and a high odd number on the right (e.g. 31). Only on the obverse of the innermost or centre sheet (when they are folded) will the numbers be in sequence, because the pages face one another (e.g. 16 & 17 in an 8 sheet/32 page signature).

This is handy to remember for print instructions – a signature always starts odd and ends even: e.g. 1-32, 33-64, 65-96, 97-128 etc. It is also a useful check when sewing, since the page where the threads are visible will be the centre one and should have sequential numbers, e.g. 16-17, 48-49, 80-81, 112-113 etc.)

Adobe Acrobat does all that for you, but it does something else as well:

A rather tricky combination

The picture above shows the same page: the left hand is as it appears on screen, the right hand (stuck to the screen with blu-tack) as it prints. Though the screen image is set at 100%, the printed page is slightly larger, yet as you can see, the area occupied by the text on it is smaller – note how the chapter heading aligns with the first line of the screen version, yet the last line of text is farther from the foot of the page than on the screen, as is the page number.

Although we are supposed to live in the age of WYSIWYG – ‘what you see is what you get’ – Acrobat shows you one thing then prints another: it shrinks the text slightly, and inserts a border all round. The difference is slight but noticeable and very annoying when you have spent time getting the page to look the way you want only to have it come out different. You can waste a lot of time trying to find a way round it, as I did, but your best bet is to get onto some online forum discussing the matter. First, you will have the bitter joy of finding that you are not alone  –  solamen miseris socios habuisse dolorismisery loves company, as Mephistophilis observes to Faustus – and, eventually, usually some way down the thread, a rueful Adobe person will chip in with an explanation:
‘The issue, regrettably, is that Acrobat is performing as designed.’

In other words, it just does that.

My first venture in bookbinding with McAvinchey was a one-off edition for my daughter’s birthday, irritatingly bedevilled by the problem described above. It was that which persuaded me to make a second visit to a printer’s, this time a local one.




cloth-bound cover


Miss Isobel Flaws samples the prose


overgenerous margins imposed by Adobe Acrobat

*and in fact it was only on looking at my own video that I realised I had given an erroneous account in the opening paragraph of the first version I published, where I had the centre pages as 5&6 when they should have been 4&5 – which shows how easy it is to go wrong.

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Ch. 2: We happy few – a dedicated band


a dedicated band

There is a world of difference between telling a story and telling a story to someone. It can be likened to shouting at the sky and having a conversation: you might well manage to remain coherent and intelligible while doing the former, but you’re more likely to manage it in the latter.

So I owe a debt of gratitude to the members of the Top Secret Literary Project, the private Facebook page on which The McAvinchey Codex was first published, in weekly episodes; and likewise to Derek Shupert, who brought us together in the first place, through his notable contributions to the Zombie Infected Horror Suspense Novel – a genre he may have created, and has certainly advanced as no-one else has done. The Top Secret Literary Project in question was an hommage to Derek’s oeuvre, in the form of a Literary Zombie Infected Horror Suspense Novel; but The Salon of Death, a Norfolk & Goode publication by Vernon Abercrombie Bell, may be, like The Giant Rat of Sumatra, a tale for which the world is not yet ready*.

Thanks to the gallant men and women of the Top Secret Literary Project, I achieved in nine months what I had signally failed to do in the previous ten years or more – I brought The McAvinchey Codex to completion. The question now was what to do with it.

Find out more tomorrow!

*however, if you are particularly keen, you may find it here – but be warned, it is not for the faint-hearted. Derek’s oeuvre can be had, at a price, via the online retailer that threatens the very existence of bookshops everywhere.

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Chapter 1: How did it happen?


photo: Shaun Bythell

Well, here I am in the Bookshop, Wigtown, at the height of the Wigtown Book Festival, Scotland’s Literary event of the year (and I say that as one who has appeared more than once at the Edinburgh Book Festival). Those red books on the table, in the case and in the basket, are mine. There are one hundred of them in total, though not all of them are in the picture.

When I say they are mine, I do not mean merely that they belong to me, nor that they are copies of a book written by me – though in fact they are – but that I made them in their entirety: they were typeset, printed, sewn and bound by me. They are, if you like, the ultimate in self-publishing.

The book is called The McAvinchey Codex, and purports to have been written by one Auberon ‘Bron’ Dawn, from which the more astute among you might guess that it is a parody of Dan Brown, the American writer.

This is the story of how it came to be made.


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