The Land of Washi — A Visit to Mino City in Gifu Prefecture, Japan

Last month, my fiancee and I decided to take a whirlwind tour around Japan’s Kansai area. Taking advantage of the relatively weak yen and the affordable JR Tourist Pass for Takayama-Hokuriku region, we had great fun traversing long-anticipated historic and picturesque cities such as Nara, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Gifu, Nagoya and of course, Osaka.

The journey would not be complete without making the necessary pilgrimage to shops selling washi paper and chiyogami. There are big established stores such as Tokyu Hands in most cities selling a wide range of decorative paper products. Fellow bookbinder, ST Leng of Bukurama has a comprehesive blog post on where to look for bookbinding materials and papers in Tokyo.

However, it is also satisfying to look for the source where these papers come from. That reclusive village where great masters gather to make papers in the traditional methods. There are a few such villages / towns in Japan. One of them is Mino City. It is one of the three communities in Japan which still carries out the traditional craft of hand-making paper. The other two being Misumi-cho in Hamafa City and Ogawa Town in Saitama Prefecture. The art of paper making is an elaborate one. It starts from soaking the mulberry plant in clear river water. Through many processes, it concludes with the setting of a thin layer of  fibre on a bamboo screen to make washi paper. This technique is so intricate and well-preserved through generations, it was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014. Fresh from the exuberance of having a world recognised skill in the old city, there are congratulatory banners everywhere in the city.


Knowing that Mino City will definitely be worth a visit, we took the route prescribed by the JR pass. Taking a bus from Kanazawa City to Takayama, we passed through the World Heritage Site of Shirakawago Village. The detour was well-worth the effort as the mountainous village still retain its traditional thatched roof architecture. The temperature there was also much colder than the lowlands, which meant that while sakura flowers were in full bloom in Osaka and Kanazawa, there was still snow everywhere in Shirakawago. From Takayama, it was another 1 hour train ride to Mino City.


The attraction of Mino City is doubtlessly its well-preserved architecture. Due to the success of Mino Washi production, the downtown area flourished to include many large homes lined with Udatsu (decorative fire wall). This area, known as Mino-machi, is located on top of a hill which made it resistant to floods and earthquakes but put it at a distance to the river in case of a fire. There fore, people constructed Udatasu firewalls on both sides of the roof, widened the street and enshrined hibusegami (god of fire prevention) on the roof. Each Udatsu is decorated with the family crests and Mushiko windows (small windows designed to look like butterfly catchers). In the evenings starting mid-October till the end of November, the Udatsu streets are lined with lamps made from Mino Washi. Spotlights shine on the homes while the street glows with the warmth of washi lanterns.Though I missed the lanterns, there are some permanent washi lanterns at the train station as well.


Almost every other shop in the town sells something related to washi paper. The most comprehensive however, must be the Mino Washi Paper Museum located about 8km outside the city. It contains two main hall, the first hall introduces the history and technique of washi paper made in Mino vis-a-vis those made in other parts of Japan/the world, while the second hall showcases the varied uses of washi in Japanese culture, from screen walls to lacquered paper clogs.


The other attraction of the museum is the opportunity to learn how to make mino washi. Participants simply had to buy a package ticket from the museum which included admission, hands-on workshop and lunch at the museum restaurant. The total cost per participant is merely 1500 yen and the delicious lunch definitely cost more than this price in bigger cities.

The paper making workshop itself took about 30 min and it involved moving the bamboo sieve (keta in japanese) in a suspended mixture of mulberry fibres over a fine bamboo screen (su). The completed washi paper is then carefully removed using a soft brush and transferred to a hot surface to dry.

CYMERA_20150423_082906 CYMERA_20150423_083255

The museum also serves as a showroom of washi paper made by grandmasters. Each of these speciality papers are labelled with details of the master and where his or her workshop is based. Apart from traditional washi, the museum also sells decorative patterned washi as well as tools for paper backing and calligraphy.


If you are a paper lover and connoisseur, Mino City in Gifu Prefecture is a must-go destination during your next Japan trip!

A Christmas full of Pop-ups

No, we are not taking The Thistle Bindery down the road of a pop-up store. Instead the pop-up I am talking about here is much smaller, much more intricate and very much more appealing.

Workshop Group Photos

Group Photos for December Workshops

In the past one month, the bindery successfully conducted two English Case Binding and one German Bradel Binding workshop for more than 30 participants. It was a bountiful month, with an extra amount of donation going towards our charity beneficiary. More importantly, the workshops were also conducted in Dec, the month of Christmas. Hence came the idea of creating Christmas pop-up elements within the book.

The inspiration for this series of pop-up workshops arose from a workshop conducted by Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud during the Singapore Writers Festival in Nov 2014. The duo are graduates of the École supérieure des arts décoratifs in Strasburg, France. Since their school days, the duo had been creating pop-up books. In fact, one of the school assignment was modified and improved to become their first published book, Popville.

From City (their school assignment) to working prototype and finally published as Popville

From City (their school assignment) to working prototype and finally published as Popville

It was through Popville that I knew their works. The use of strong primary colours and simple geometric shapes told the story of how a rural church and its surroundings were surrounded gradually but irrevocably through urbanisation.

3 Pop-Up Books from the duo that I have

3 Pop-Up Books from the duo that I have

Since then, I obtained their later books such as Under The Sea and Wake Up Sloth, which highlighted marine conservation and deforestation respectively. Again, the use of simple graphic and a straightforward storyline were effective tools in creating awareness for complex global issues.

Intrigued by pop-ups, I decided to explore how pop-up elements could be incorporated into my bookbinding workshops. Much of the credit goes to Ai Ling and Kenji, past participants of my workshops and now able assistants in these three workshops. Ai Ling even created one of the three pop-up models we taught in the workshops. She taught us the simple but elegant Christmas Tree pop-up on end papers which uses the multiple V-cuts and valley folds to create a multi-tier tree.

A basic V-cut popup that is made into a multi-tiered Christmas Tree!

A basic V-cut popup that is made into a multi-tiered Christmas Tree!

In the other two workshops, I shared the symmetrical Christmas Tree which stands up when the book is open flat. The tree, supported on two V-shaped flaps, could also support several “gift boxes” attached to it. When opened, the elements rise up in a cascading form.

The standing Christmas Tree held up by a V-shape flap pasted onto the base

The standing Christmas Tree held up by a V-shape flap pasted onto the base

The last pop-up technique explored was the creation of a floating platform on which flat ornaments can be made to stand. The illusion is created using two collapsible hollow square tubes along the valley of the section. When opened, the adjoining tubes and platform (or magic carpet) lifts up and supports the decoration.

Creating a Floating Christmas Tree Pop-Up

Creating a Floating Christmas Tree Pop-Up

Definitely, devising the additional pop-up elements for the bookbinding workshops took extra time and repeat experiments, but the end results and the appreciative comments from participants more than made up for effort spent! More pictures of what we did during the workshops can be found at my facebook page,

Before leaving you with a warm “MERRY CHRISTMAS”, let’s take a look at this video from one of my favourite rare book dealer and his amazing collection of pop-up books, some even come with movable elements!

From Magna Charta to Singapore’s Constitution

Recently, I had the privilege to work on the restoration of two antiquarian books owned by a local law professor.

The two completed books. On left, the Spirit of Magna Charta and the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya

These books, The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841, bound by Wildy & Sons, Lincoln’s Inn, London) and Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London) represented two important points in the history of UK Law.


Original condition of The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841)

The 1841 book was a treatise on the importance of the Magna Charta, which was sealed by King John under pressure from rebelling barons on 15 June 1215. The document effectively placed a limitation on arbitrary royal authority and sought to establish that the king was subject to the law and not above it. Over the many centuries, it was seen as a symbol of struggle for liberty and the strive for greater democracy. The American revolutionists, the 19th century England working class and even the new pioneers of Australia all saw it as a “People’s Charter” and the basis of their own country’s law to recognise the rights and will of the people.

This awareness and respect for the Magna Charta underlined UK’s efforts to progressive grant independence to colonies worldwide, including Malaya. In 1946, 11 states in Peninsular Malaya came together to form a single British Crown Colony known as the Malayan Union. UK continued to enjoy strong, amicable ties with Malaya throughout the entire period of the Malayan Emergency until it was confident enough that communism was no longer a threat in Malaya and hence independence was granted.

Original Condition for Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957)

The newly-formed Federation of Malaya achieved independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on 31 August 1957 with the passing of Federation of Malaya Independence Act 1957. The new constitution for the Federation was drafted jointly by law practitioners in UK and Malaya with inputs from international experts, culminating in the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya.

When Singapore joined Malaya in 1963, the Federation Constitution was adopted and when the island gained independence in 1965, part of the constitution remained and was refined to become our own State Constitution. Hence, the proposal could be seen as the genesis of Singapore’s Constitution as well.

The two books came to me as pamphlet sections bounded together using metal staples. The 1841 book was definitely in a worse condition than the 1957 one but notwithstanding, the ferrous metal staples had corroded over the years and had become weak and friable, leaving a bright orange stain on sections of both books. The staples were removed and parts of each folio affected by corrosion were cleaned and patched up using lightweight repair papers.

Damage caused by metal staples (left) and the repaired sections

Once strengthened, the sections were hand-sewn using French-link stitch on tapes. The completed text blocks were then glued, rounded and backed to create a rounded book spine. The client had requested for a traditional look for the two books, hence quarter leather binding was chosen. The calf skins, in black and red, were pared down and pasted onto the spine. This was then followed by the pasting down of marbled papers for the covers and the endpapers.

Restoration Process — clockwise from top left, rebinding, backing, leather paring and casing in

You would probably notice that the endpapers were attached onto new flypapers instead of the original book. This allowed for maximum reversibility in the future if the books are damaged or if the owner wants to recommission a new binding for the books. The flypaper can simply be cut away and the original textblock can be removed.


The completed restored books

In total, the entire job took about 2 months to complete. Considering that I have to juggle full-time work, weekend bookbinding workshops and other activities, the process proceeded very smoothly. While I cannot say I have acquired a fondness for law history, I did gain quite a bit of law knowledge flipping through the two books, especially on the rights each citizen is entitled to.

A Visit to the Herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens

I really do love my day job. I have the occassional opportunity to venture into interesting places that I am eager to share.

The herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens is one of such places. It is tucked at a corner of the sprawling compound and may not be easily noticeable to common visitors. Part of the herbarium, particularly the preparation area is open for public viewing via a glass window in the library.


Peek behind the glass for a closer look at herbarium preparation

Through the window, you can observe how the experienced technician mounts the herabium plant specimen by applying glue and adhering it to a rag-cotton archival-quality card. The specimen is then sewed onto the sheet for additional support before the information label is pasted on. This step of preparation is only one of the several steps involved in the herabium specimen making process.


A completed herbarium specimen

Prior to mounting, other steps include collecting the plant specimen, preparing the sample using chemical treatment, preparing the information on the label and cataloguing the specimen in a database.

The widespread, scientific circulation of the herbarium specimen is precisely why it is so important to maintain a high level of accuracy and precision in each step of the preparation process.


Applying adhesive to the specimen

In a nutshell, a herabium specimen is a physical sample of a known plant classified according to the modern Angiosperm Phylogeny Group Plant Classification System. The specimen is usually collected during a fieldtrip or a floristic survey. About 30cm of the plant, representative of its growth, including leave, stem, flowers and fruit is collected intact. Each collected sample is accompanied by comprehensive field notes and desk research. Information include the collector’s name, date of collection, collection number, locality, habitat and description of the plant habit, especially notes on field characters that cannot be observed on the dried specimen.

Famous herbarium collectors who had graced the shores of Singapore include the great naturalist, Alfred Wallace, best known for his work on the theory of evolution through natural selection in 1858, paralleling the work of Charles Darwin. He conducted extensive fieldwork in Borneo and Malaysia, using Singapore as his research base. Wallace’s herbarium specimens now reside in UK collections, such as his fern collection in Cambridge University spanning 33 species, 22 genera and 17 families. More information can be found at


Old herbarium collections

Another famous plant collector well known in Singapore is Henry Ridley, the first Scientific Director of Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911. He was known for the many years spent promoting rubber as a commercial product and his discovery in 1895 of a means of tapping which did not seriously damage the rubber trees. Due to his discovery and work, he was largely credited for establishing the rubber industry in Malaya and Singapore. Less well known, Ridley lived to a ripe old age of 100 and retired in Kew, where he continued to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens on a regular basis. He also bought back many herbarium and timber samples now stored in Kew. The picture below shows one of such sample which I had the privilege to hold when I studied in Kew.

So how do herbarium samples relate to bookbinding? According to Duke University Herbarium (, Luca Ghini, professor of medicine and botany at the University of Pisa during the 16th century, is credited with the invention of the herbarium. Traditionally, several plant specimens were glued in a decorative arrangement on a single sheet of paper. These sheets were then bound into volumes, stored in a library, and cited like books. Specimens were thus placed into a fixed order from which they could not be removed without destroying the specimens.

It was the famous Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus who advised readers of his Philosophia Botanica in 1751 to mount just one specimen per sheet and refrain from binding the sheets together. For storage of the mounted specimens, Linnaeus suggested a specially-built cabinet where individual sheets could easily be inserted at any place, removed at any time, and reinserted again anywhere in the collection. In contrast to the bound volumes of older herbaria, the order that Linnaeus’ herbarium cabinet brought to his collection was not fixed into perpetuity. This “internal mobility” of the herbarium could accommodate the arrival of new material and enabled the user to repeatedly rearrange that material to reflect new knowledge.


Example of a bound herbarium volume

Hence, while not common, herabarium found as handbound volume do exist and are treasured. So, next time you stumble upon a volume of herbarium specimen, who knows, it might turn out to be quite valuable!

Weaving and Binding Pages of History — A Cultural Mapping Approach to Bookbinding

In August 2014, I had the privilege to collaborate with National Arts Council (Singapore) and Georgetown Festival (Penang, Malaysia) to launch a series of art exploration workshops which use cultural mapping techniques to rethink the format of classroom based craft learning.

Weaving and Binding Pages of History was envisioned to bring participants, particularly locals, closer to where they stay and to discover nuggets of history in their neighbourhoods. These nuggets of information are grouped within an umbrella theme (e.g. nature, history, culture, sports, etc) which also serves as the inspiration for them to create personalised covers and structures for the book.


4 workshops, 2 in Singapore and 2 in Penang were created after a period of research and experimentation with potential book structures and art mediums. These 4 workshops are “Glorious stained glass and tiles in Bras Basah”, “Sacred tree and green spaces in Toa Payoh”, “Stories cast in stone, exploring Georgetown’s Chinese architectural symbolism” and “Penang and its world of spices”. 


The format of the premise is straight-forward. Participants are first bought on a guided tour around the neighbourhood, understanding the history and culture of the vicinity. Thereafter, the theme for the day was announced and participants are given some time to collect found objects or raw materials to create their unique book. With the gathered items, everyone heads back to the classroom, discuss what and why they had gathered these objects. Then using suitable art mediums, participant create personalised designs on the covers and the book before finally binding the covers and text block together. Each workshop lasts about 4 – 6 hours and there is nary a dull moment in the workshop as each activity component actively engages everyone’s mind and hands. The required energy and input may be much higher than a typical bookbinding workshop but it definitely doubles the satisfaction level as well!


By engaging participants to immerse in the community, the community will reciprocate by showing its vibrancy. Learning becomes interactive and the workshop becomes a two-way flow of information between the instructor and participants. Without venturing out, participants would not have realised the potential of their surroundings as a form art inspiration and likewise, the instructor would have underestimated the potential of each participant in creating works of art within a short time.

These four workshops have truly opened my eyes to the potential of using cultural mapping techniques even in 1 day craft and bookbinding workshops. In fact, I believed strongly in the potential of art as a community changemaker that I even gave a talk on the potential of simple art and craft as a way for everyone to create “mental maps” and “visual time capsules” for their surroundings!

For more pictures and information, visit my facebook album and see the Bookbinder and Flaneur presentation.

Report Card for [A Bookbinding Cause] Season 2

The last workshop for Season 2 of [ A Bookbinding Cause] was held on 31 May 2014, yet the season only came to a proper close last Sunday when The Thistle Bindery co-organised the first-ever bookbinding event for kids with the team behind Singapore Mini Makers Faire. Titled “Let’s Bind a Book”, the event held at Singapore Science Centre bought together fellow bookbinding instructors, co-instructors and friends whom I had the privilege to teach and meet during the course of Season 2’s [ A Bookbinding Cause ].

coptic binding workshop

Coptic Binding Workshop

It felt like a complete circle. I saw participants who came for their first taste of bookbinding returned for more workshops in subsequent months. With more practice and confidence, these participants stepped up to become co-instructors for the bookbinding event. Some even went the extra mile by taking the initiative to express their loves for bookbinding and urban sketching by leading a sketch walkabout during the bookbinding event. I felt humbled by their efforts and the hard work every instructor and co-instructor put in for the event.

Case Binding Workshop

Case Binding Workshop

Beyond the regular fortnightly workshops raising funds for charity, these “extra”-ordinary events, such as Let’s Bind a Book, Singapore Makers’ Meetup and Makers’ Block are important causes which The Thistle Bindery supports and participates in. They resonate with the practice’s twin objectives of making bookbinding accessible to all and supporting worthy causes. More so, such events are also excellent platforms for past participants of our workshops—now budding bookbinders—to showcase their bookbinding skills and to share their bookbinding passion with more people.

Maker's Meetup in Feb 2014

Maker’s Meetup in Feb 2014

Each update, photograph and news put up on Facebook in the first half of this year would not be possible without the support of our participants, collaborators and friends. It was a little overwhelming to realise that almost 100 people had attended the 8 workshops in the past season. This bought in a substantial amount of donation for our charity beneficiary, Loving Heart Multi-Service Centre.

The attendance figure and the amount of donation will pale in comparison to the support and effort from our venue supporters. Without the generous venue subsidiaries from The Arts House and The General Co, [ A Bookbinding Cause ] would not have taken off at all! Their steadfast support and accommodation provided the motivation and ease for the bindery to conceptualise and realise new programmes and collaborations.

The Thistle Bindery may carry different connotations to individuals. It could merely be a Facebook page of nominal interest; or it could simply just be a source of bookbinding instruction.  Yet personally, the impetus for starting the art practice then, and still holds true now, remains the desire to provide a platform for bookbinders and book arts instructors to gather and collaborate, and to grow the number of hobbyist bookbinders in Singapore.

The Thistle Bindery is an ever-growing community and [ A Bookbinding Cause] shall continue to be the practice’s flagship medium to attract more people to pick up the art of bookbinding.

Artists’ Books and Books Artist Bind

After one of our regular [ A Bookbinding Cause] workshops on 24 May, I headed down to Tiong Bahru for an art exhibition on – what else – books! Grey’s Project, located right in the heart of the colonial SIT estate, is a gallery/artist residency space that has so far produced a range of thought-provocative, yet intimate exhibitions by Radi Arwinda, Lee Wen and Gabriela Butti.

Intimate, surely is the first word I made in mind when I saw the range of self-published chapbooks and pamphlets (or fashionably known as zines now), books and art catalogs produced by visual artists, writers and designers displayed on wooden boards. Books are balanced delicately in between 2 screws nailed into the boards: simple, elegant and not trying to overwhelm the book on display. Curiously, book artists and bookbinders are under-represented in this exhibition, with only two technical binding editions produced by Eriko of La Libreria on display. Having spoken briefly to her during the exhibition, she elaborated on the design of one of the volumes. Bound in Japanese Stab Binding style and covered in a bark-like textured paper, the hand-size volume featured repeated prints of a block pattern. The initial pattern was printed in jet black ink, and the image gradually printed in paler shades of grey until the final print on the last pages is barely visible. The carved pattern featured a shoal of fishes extracted from one of Eriko’s kimonos.

Using clothes as an analogy to artist book is strangely apt. The choice of clothes is very much one’s personal choice, yet the motifs on our clothes, visible to others, are often a reflection of our public personas that we project for others. An artist’s book relate in the same way. It is an intimate collection of a creative practitioner’s thoughts and ideas, and yet undeniably it craves to be seen, read and for the contents to seek resonance with readers and viewers. An artist’s book does not contain the personality of the artist within its folios, yet it may provide a glimpse into the creator’s thought processes and the distilled works that resulted.

Drawing Out Conversations

The book is a vehicle that connects the artist to the intended audience. Unlike a physical exhibition, the book is neither spatially restrictive – the audience does not travel to see a work; nor temporal-based – a book will definitely outlive an exhibition; and by extension, the book’s message remains relevant and contemporary to an engaged reader.

This is why, I am pleasantly surprised to find Ling Nah’s volume of Drawing Out Conversations (8 Slangs) on display in Print Lab. The catalogue and the exhibition it documented shared the same name: Drawing Out Conversation was produced as part of the 2008 Singapore Biennale and featured a diverse representation of Singapore-based artists to explore their concerns with drawing and its relationship with their varied practices.

Two separate sections, a smaller black and a larger white section are bound together using the flexible Japanese stab binding technique. The difference in size immediately draws the reader towards understanding the dichotomy / duality of the subject in question – how to draw out conversations and how conversations are drawn – the former is answered in the larger section, where artists in the group show are interviewed and the contents of their conversations penned down in verbatim. The latter sections, document the work processes and showcase each of the artists’ work. It was a good accompaniment to the 2008 exhibition but yet it still remains contemporary as a standalone volume exploring the duality of word “drawing” in the context of local art practices.

 The book is the medium

While the design of the previous example was driven by largely by the content in the book, self-published artists’ books (a loose term here, referring to any creative / art practitioner) are often conceptualised with the book design in mind to be representative or at least analogous with the content within.

A friend of mine and a past participant of my bookbinding workshop, Jasmine Cooray produces handmade zines/chapbooks as part of her poetry practice. In her words, she described the production of her recent zine ‘True Colours’ as a means to “fill the gap before any other publication comes through.” Each of the zines is handpainted and hand sewn by the poet and contains ten of her new poems which have not been published.

(Photos by Jasmine Cooray, taken from Facebook)

There is a strong sense of autonomy here with Jasmine having creative ownership over the content, layout, design and even production process of the book. The sense of coherency in her design intention is evident. Jasmine’s poems are rich in visual metaphors which translate into the design of her zine. Consider the excerpt of “True Colour” below and then look at her zine production process. It is not hard to identify the fluid translation from word to form.

Outside, football fans warpaint their faces
with St George’s flags, and as they stumble
through tourists pouring coins
at the feet of a rich elderly lady in pastels,
I feel my cheeks burn. I am
the kind of latte brown that sits tepid
in most company, but shouts of eng-er-land
and your manicure’s imperious drum
on the countertop boil me, steep me
in something older than this moment.
My waters flush, bleed through innocuous gauze:
the ancient taste of my true colours,
a wince in my blood.
(from USP website )

Book + Artist = Book Artist?

With crafty artists like Jasmine delving into both written and visual forms, it is not hard to imagine a future generation of visual and literary artists handling the entire creative process from thought to print, aided by DIY books and computer technology. Yet it does not necessarily spell the doom for book artists or bookbinders per se. While having autonomy over the entire production of print materials makes it easier to control the articulation of the creative intention, it does not necessarily restrain the artist/author within an ivory tower devoid of interaction with book designers and bookbinders.

Many book designers, even those working for established publishing houses like Folio Society and Penguin had demonstrated synergy and finesse in the translation of the written word into a visual form within the confines of a book structure. The onus is on the bookbinder to continuously improve upon their technical precision and creative quality to be fit for the opportunity when artists require a unique book form worthy of containing their creative output.


P.S:             Print Lab is on at Grey’s Project until 14 June 2014 (6B Kim Tian Road)
P.P.S:        Drawing out Conversation is available online on ebay and amazon. You may also want to contact the artist, Ling Nah at her blog
P.P.P.S:   Jasmine Cooray’s UK activities are be tracked here. Please stalk her out at events. 

A Manifesto for a Community Bindery

Pooja of Notabilia and I recently had the privilege to present a short 10 minutes presentation on Community Book Arts during the Maker Meetup event organised by SG Makers. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to rethink and set down what The Thistle Bindery meant for me, beyond just a hobbyist art practice that I started one year ago. This post is accompanied by slides presented in my segment.


After conducting more than 20 workshops, the bindery had taken on a life of its own.  Similar to a real bindery business, I find myself dealing with everyday logistics problems and administrative issues such as looking for spaces to teach bookbinding workshops and sorting out sign-ups, payments and donations to the charity beneficiaries, etc.

There were also moments of contemplation and reflection. Tricks and tips simply learnt and absorbed during my training had to be rationalised and distilled to participants in my workshops. Tools that were not available in Singapore were substituted with those found easily in hardware stores and haberdashery shops, often after a long period of trials. This period of gestation before I started teaching in 2013 was an important time for me to become aware of the bare essentials in my craft and how the potential of simple tools can be maximised to perform as well as bookbinding specific tools such as laying presses, guillotine and rollers.


What excited me the most was seeing how the book arts community had grown through the regular [ A Bookbinding Cause ] series of workshops. Familiar faces appear at consecutive workshops; contacts and connections were forged among participants and regular comments and messages were left on my Facebook page. What left the most indelible impression was perhaps realising how small and connected the creative circle in Singapore was. There are crafters who know makers, designers who talk to 3D printing tinkers, as well as a whole group of weekend artists with interesting day jobs and the passion to pursue their chosen craft in their free time. Initiatives such as Urban Sketchers and Sg Makers inspire and help define what it means to build a community. Particularly, the “many hands” approach in organising activities is important in vesting ownership in everyone and to allow events and encounters to happen spontaneously.

Building The Thistle Bindery allowed me to come in contact with many supportive people which I am indebted to. Some had came forward to provide a space for the charity bookbinding workshops, such as Jing, Colin and The Arts House; others who had given me a platform to test out ideas and showcase my skills, such as William and the wonderful girls from Trade School Singapore. Such avenues were and are still great training grounds for my practice and they helped build up my experiences incrementally towards loftier ideas like advocating the use of bookbinding and other artistic mediums in cultural mapping and urban studies activities.


The Thistle Bindery’s bookbinding pursuit can be represented in a wider community context akin to a drop in a pool. A pool of like-minded crafters, educators and thinkers, not just in Singapore, but regionally and internationally.

At the apex of the practice is a constant yearning to learn more advanced bookbinding techniques and at the same time, to regularly rekindle the love for the craft and to connect with my beginning. Owl and Lion, where I first learnt bookbinding will always be a magical place of endless possibilities.

The core of the practice will still focus on bookbinding workshops where I hope more people will be interested to learn. [ A Bookbinding Cause ] remains as the practice’s flagship programme and vehicle to raise funds for charity while imparting traditional bookbinding skills at affordable rates.

As the current season of bookbinding workshops come to a close in end May, it is yet again time to plan the calendar for the second half of the year. There will be interesting activities for the community, not just in Singapore but also regionally. There will also be interactions with other bookbinders from around the region. And at the end of the day, the most important is still to ensure that coming for one of The Thistle Bindery’s activity remains enjoyable, fun-filled and relaxing. 🙂

A Set of Rebound Newsletters


I recently had the opportunity to rebind a set of newsletter from a defunct political party in Singapore. The Barisan Socialis was formed in 1961, and was led by Dr Lee Siew Chor until 1988 when it merged with Workers’ Party. More information can be obtained from Wikipedia if you are interested.

I will not delve much into the party’s history as I would like to focus on the rebinding of the set of newsletters. It contained 100 issues of the party’s newsletter spanning from 1961 to 1964. The newsletters were bound in four sets of soft Kraft paper covers and secured with three metal staples along margins of its long edge. As expected, the staples rusted over the years and the metal oxide deposits had caused the surrounding paper to be stained with a ring of orange rust. The punctured areas had also became friable and in some newsletters, the holes were enlarged and no longer held by the metal staples.


Other defects included frayed edges along the fore edge of the bound volumes and damaged book spines. Cellophane tape was also used to hold the volumes together and these had become stiff and stained over the years.

The first step in rebinding the volumes involved removing all the metal staples and cutting away the damaged spines, leaving loose sheets consisting of individual newsletters and original volume covers. Cellophone tapes were then removed carefully, particularly in areas where tape was used to patch long tears, in order to prevent further damage to the pages. These were then backed with a thin almost translucent Kozo paper. Thankfully there were few tears and the tears appeared on volumes which were printed single sided using silkscreen.


Volumes were then bounded with new cards with colours complementary to the original covers. The two new cards, one on either ends, serve as end papers to the new book block. The entire stack was then bored through using a fine 0.5mm drill bit. The new holes were made about 1cm adjacent to the original staple holes. Reusing the previously stapled holes was not an option as the surrounding paper had became friable due to the rusting.


The newsletters were then stitched up in Japanese Stab Binding style. The perforations followed the original positions of the staples in the new exposed binding along the long edge. Two styles were adopted. First, the binding was left exposed on the end papers. Second, the stab binding was covered by end papers.


Four original cover designs

A new buckram hard cover was then attached to the completed book block. Similar to the end papers, colours of the buckram was chosen to complement the end papers and the original soft covers. To differentiate between the four volumes, an embossed pattern was made on each of the covers. The pattern consist of the defunct party emblem and the sequence number of each volume from 1 to 4. All these embossed patterns were drawn and cut by hand.


After each of the four book blocks were cased in, they were left in the nipping press overnight to ensure that the end papers have been firmly attached to the covers.

It had been a hectic March for me with the two bookbinding workshops and other work activities. It did affect the progress of rebinding this set of rare newsletters. Nonetheless I am glad it is completed and the four volumes will hopefully be kept in good reading condition for a long while more.

Making your own starch paste

Many people had asked me about making starch paste since all our bookbinding workshops use copious amounts of this wonderful natural, non-toxic glue .

I have never treated starch paste making as a science, you know, like having fixed amount of water added to starch powder and how hot the temperature must be or how long to cool it, etc. Instead, it is mostly through trial and error, adding additional amounts of water on the fly and if the mixture did not turn out well, then start over again.

But I thought it will be good to share how I normally do my glue and to explain briefly the science behind starch making.

Starch is present in plants as a form of storage. It is a complex carbohydrates that has powerful thickening properties. When starch is combined with water or another liquid and heated, individual starch granules absorb the liquid and swell. This process, known as gelatinisation, is what causes the liquid to thicken.

There are various types of starch, grinded into powder form available in Singapore. There is the common corn/maize starch, tapioca starch and yam starch. Notice most of these starch are either root based or cereal based, where these plant parts are used to store food for the plant. Gelatinisation occurs at different temperatures for different types of starch. As a general rule of thumb, root-based starches thicken at lower temperatures whereas cereal-based starches thicken at higher temperatures.


My preference is to use corn starch since it is cheap and readily available at all provision stores and supermarkets. I have a shallow enamel plate which I use for cooking starch paste. The plate is filled up evenly with starch to about half of its depth before water is added. As starch molecules will absorb water and clump together, it is important to keep stirring and to make sure no lumps are formed. Add enough water to form an even white mixture where you can see the starch powder suspended in the water.

The mixture is then placed over a small flame, again with constant stirring to ensure even heating throughout. The shallow flat plate is good as the heat is spread out over a larger surface area instead of a container with a tapering small bottom that concentrates heating at the bottom.

As you stir the heated mixture, you will encounter some resistance as the starch undergoes gelatinization, once a clear, gooey paste starts forming, off the fire but let the plate sit on the stove. Continue stirring as the rest of the mixture literally hardens as you stir.


The finished paste should have the consistency of sticky red bean paste and a translucent colour. Once done, cool the paste in a glue container. I normally fill up to half the depth of the container so that I can add in white glue or PVA up to one third depth of the glue container.

Stir the white glue/starch paste mixture well. The more liquid glue and the thicker paste should eventually form a mix that has the consistency of runny mayonnaise. The starch glue is the element that gives adherence between paper and boards without leaving unsightly glue stains from over application, whereas the white glue allows the mixture to dry more quickly.

The starch glue can be stored and used for about 5 to 7 days before mould starts to set on the surface of the mixture. I do not refrigerate my mixture to keep it longer as it will harden very quickly.

Hope the guide has been useful and keep trying!