Turning a PDF into a Coptic-bound book

By: Jeremy W. Sherman. Published: . Categories: bookbinding ttrpg skirmish. Tags: diy.

It’s sometimes convenient to turn an ebook into a paper book. My running example will be Skirmish: Wallet Friendly Wargaming by Biscuit Fund Games, which I wanted to have on hand at the table.

But what’s a satisfying way to do this ebook to book conversion?

I wound up creating a Coptic-bound volume that lays flat using a couple free tools I hadn’t encountered before and some stuff I already had lying around the house. This post records my thoughts leading up to and notes during the process.


Here are the options I considered:

I chose the bookbinding option. I actually had everything I needed on-hand already, and the crafting sounded fun.

Bookbinding Flavors

There’s a lot of ways to get a book to stick together. The main tradeoffs are around:

A couple decades ago, I did some very simple Japanese stab book binding of a volume I just printed off full letter-size double-sided using some random yard I had lying around and a drill press I found in my parent’s basement. The book had no cover, but it held up well. (I think I got the method from a Boy Scout magazine book at the time.)

But I really wanted the lie-flat behavior for this at-table reference work, and I wanted to do it using stuff I had lying around the house. So I wound up selecting Coptic binding.

Printing for Binding

The main complications of printing are generally:

Carl McTague’s Signature Optimizer

Luckily, that is entirely handled for me in a very nice way for Coptic binding by Carl McTague’s Signature Optimizer.

If you weren’t doing Coptic binding, you could still use the LaTeX output as a pointer in the right direction to generate your signatures, but you’d probably go for regularly-sized signatures, rather than the variably-sized ones.


Unluckily, the source PDF for Skirmish is already 2-up, so I had to disassemble it before I could reassemble it for signature printing.

Fortunately, McTague mentions Briss in passing, and it proved to be just the thing to slice and dice the PDF back into 1-up for me. It was just a brew install briss away. The interface is a bit clunky; the key for me was realizing that you just click-and-sweep to add a new rect.

Reversed Pages?

I was worried after imposition using the LaTeX that the Signature Optimizer spit out that some pages were going to come out upside down. But a test printing of one signature showed that the usual long-edge flip printing worked just fine, so those fears proved unfounded.

I also was worried I’d messed something up when I found the odd-numbered pages were on the left, but that turned out to be the case in the source PDF as well, and I didn’t want to change it - there were a lot of well-designed two-page spreads that would only be a spread if you have the even numbers on the right-hand side. Unconventional, but not really a problem in the end.

LaTeX Errors?

I was also worried about a warning that was emitted over and over:

pdfTeX warning: pdflatex (file ./Skirmish-v1-1-1up-briss.pdf): PDF inclusion: m
ultiple pdfs with page group included in a single page
>] [4 <./Skirmish-v1-1-1up-briss.pdf> <./Skirmish-v1-1-1up-briss.pdf

It turned out to be an ignorable error in most cases, including this one, as determined by reviewing the output. (It would be an issue if the page groups were configured differently, which they weren’t.)

Folding the Signatures

I saw some advice to fold each sheet individually and then nest them. That sounded like a great way for me to wind up with a bunch of subtly different sheets within the signature. I just stacked ‘em up, squared ‘em up, and then folded the whole lot.

I did not trim the signature to have an even end (the inner ones poke out more the deeper in you go, since they’re stacked atop the outer). I don’t regret this in the finished product: it’s not terribly noticeable, since my cover overhangs, and the signatures slide around a bit due to the way the binding is done anyway, so even if the pages were cut within the signature, the signatures would not line up into a perfect textblock most of the time anyway.

Making the Cover

I was divided on even adding a cover. It definitely took more fiddling and time (overnight drying!) than I liked at the time, even with me cutting corners (like eyeballing the size and shape of the cardboard I chopped out of a spare cardboard box). But the firm covers contribute a lot to making the book feel like a book to me, so I think it was probably worth it.

I unfolded a signature, held it onto the side of a box, marked some points around it to provide some overhang by eye, used a straightedge to rule between the lines, then went at it with a pair of scissors. It was not actually square, but it was close enough. I then chopped it in half.

I tweaked some images from the book to make a front and back cover, then printend them on some nice report/resume paper still sitting around the house from college thesis times.

I stuck the cardboard in the middle of the paper, then cut lines straight up and down to the edge at the corners, then diagonally back and up. This is to enable folding it over onto the cardboard to wrap it up. (This would normally be done with book cloth, but I didn’t have any, and I wasn’t making any, either.) I made the cuts with a boxcutter without marking the lines first.

I used some spare kid gluesticks (the purple ones that dry clear) to coat the paper, dropped on the cardboard, folded the edges down, then smoothed it all out. One side of the cardboard was more obviously ribbed than the other, but I noticed this too late, and due to my cardboard rectangles being more trapezoidal, I couldn’t really fix this after the cuts had been made, so I just sucked it up. Luckily it was the backside, and also, it’s not really that big a deal, either.

I found some green cardstock to cover up the inside part, cut it in half with a boxcutter, coated it in glue, and pasted it on over the edges of the outer wrapper. The paper tried to curl, which made lining it up a bit hard. I then left these to dry overnight in a stack of books.


At this point, it was time to prep for sewing. I decided to do 3 groups of 2 holes each. I eyeballed it based on where I’d placed binder clips before, moved the binder clips to the outside edges of the stacked-up signatures, then ruled a line along each intended hole position straight across the binding side. (I found out later that this hadn’t hit one of the signatures very well at all, and that one of the hole lines for some reason had scarcely marked any of them. It slowed down actually making the holes.)

I then transferred the markings to the edge of a spare piece of paper to use as a jig to mark the cover holes. The cover holes are inset a bit from the edge of the board, though not much, since I needed to ensure some overlap. The 1/8-inch inset has proven to be enough.

After that, I flipped each signature open in turn, lay it inside-down so the markings were visible, and pricked it straight through with a scratch awl down the crease. I used the paper jig to put the holes through the covers. I also flipped each signature over and made the holes from the other side, since the depth of the signatures was not great, so only the smallest bit of the scratch awl went through - not a very big hole.


I’d been convinced that coating the thread in beeswax would make things a lot easier. (It did - the stiffer thread didn’t try to knot up against itself as badly as it would otherwise, and that’s important when you’re working with a thread that’s long enough to sew the whole binding to start with.) So I melted some beeswax pastilles we had around in a silicone cupcake liner in the microwave and let it set before I started.

Then I measured enough sewing thread length (in a nice green color to match the book cover insides) as long as each signature, plus as long as each cover. Then I doubled that, because I wanted to work with doubled thread for strength. I held it against the beeswax with my thumb, then pulled the whole length through between my thumb and the beeswax to coat it.

Thread the needle, knot the end, and then I just followed the guide I’d found, Sharilyn Miller’s The Coptic Stitch: Instructions and Illustrations (PDF). The last signature plus cover was a bit odd, and I deviated a bit in a way that mirrored more the first signature, with a separate knot between the signature and the cover, except for the first and last holes, which I did as directed.

I found I needed to take some care not to let the thread knot up on itself at first - it was a lot of thread to start! This got easier as more thread had been used up, and once I knew to watch out for it, I only fouled it up a bit a couple times more.

I sometimes missed one or two pages in the middle of the signature when poking through; it was easy to notice this and correct by just poking it through the missed holes. This is a pretty forgiving binding technique.

Using a curved needle proved to be sound advice. It made looping around the earlier stitches much, much easier.

The sewing felt like it went fairly quickly. It’s pretty easy to get into a rhythm, and aside from the start and end, it’s all the same thing over and over, so very straightforward and easy to leave and come back to.

Notes for Next Time


Overall technique:

Key Resources