How to back paper or cloth

My first book on bookbinding was Japanese Bookbinding by Kojiro Ikegami. One of the many useful things I learned from that book was how to back paper and cloth.  I learned to strengthen fragile papers and make my own book cloth.

Over the years, I have modified the process. To back paper I use either plain cooked wheat starch paste or a starch paste/PVA mix. For better adhesion when backing cloth, I use a starch paste/PVA mix, with a PVA content of about 25%.

Step One:

Lay the paper/cloth good side down on a hard smooth surface — I use my kitchen counter — and mist thoroughly with water.

Step Two:

Use a brayer to roll out excess moisture and flatten the paper/cloth thoroughly. Always work out from the middle, and be careful not to press creases into the material. The water in the paper helps to prevent the paste/PVA mix from soaking through and marking the good side of the paper.

Step Three:

Lay a sheet of backing paper out on another hard smooth surface. I use Chinese mulberry paper for backing — the kind sold in rolls for brush calligraphy — and I use a sheet of Plexiglas (Perspex) for the hard surface. (It looks brown in the picture because I have left the protective paper on the underside of the Plexiglas.)

Step Four:

Apply paste to the backing paper, always brushing out from the centre. If you are backing a synthetic fabric, you may wish to increase the amount of PVA in your mix to get better adhesion.

Step Five:

Lay the backing paper paste side down onto the paper/cloth. It is usually advisable to allow a margin of about 5 cm (a couple of inches), but I have been a bit stingy since paste on the back won’t matter for this project.

Step Six:

Using the brayer, smooth the backing paper onto the paper/cloth. You need to apply enough pressure to make sure the entire surface is attached, but not so much that all the starch paste/PVA is pressed out the edges. It is especially important to work out from middle with this step, as you don’t want to leave any air bubbles between the layers.

Step Seven:

Apply paste to the outside edges of the backing paper. You need to cover a strip about 5 cm (2 inches) wide on all four edges.

Step Eight:

Transfer the whole thing to the cleaned Plexiglas sheet with the pasted edges down and the good side of the paper/cloth facing up.

Step Nine:

Use the brayer again to flatten the whole thing onto the Plexiglas. Again, work from the middle out to get rid of air bubbles. You will need to wipe the brayer clean after each roll to prevent paste getting on the surface of the paper/cloth. This is particularly important when working with dark materials, as every speck of paste will show when dry. I leave one corner of the backing paper sticking up, to help with removal later. Wipe off excess paste from around the edges.

Step Ten:

Leave your backed sheet until it is thoroughly dry. Removing it before drying is complete will result in a cockled mess which you will only be able to flatten by re-wetting, re-rolling, and re-drying. When the paper/cloth is completely dry, you should be able to peel it carefully off the Plexiglas, starting at the corner you left unattached. If your proportion of PVA is quite high, you may need to use a pallet knife to ease things along. If everything has gone well, you will have a nicely backed, perfectly flat piece of paper/cloth for your project.

Happy backing!

About Byopia Press

I have been working in the book arts field for more than twenty years, and operating Byopia Press with my husband David since the late 1990s. I began producing artist's books and altered books in 2004.
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13 Responses to How to back paper or cloth

  1. I first learned to back cloth from this tutorial, I believe you posted on Jackie’s Book Arts Forum, a late but heart-felt thank you!


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  4. Lina Asp says:

    I’m sorry, excellent tutorial but it doesn’t work for me. The sheet will start to dry and peel off from the plexiglas before it’s completely dry and buckle terribly which will render it unusable for book cloth. Am I doing something wrong?


    • Byopia Press says:

      Oh dear, how devastating for you! I just hate it when that happens. Some possibly helpful tips:

      If you are using plain cooked starch paste with no PVA mixed in, you may need to make your starch paste thicker. You can thin it a bit for pasting out the paper/cloth, reserving some thicker paste for the edges that attach the backing paper to the drying surface. You might also consider adding some PVA. This also helps to make your cloth moisture-resistant. If you are concerned about reversibility, I have found that a mix with no more than 25% PVA is reversible with moisture and a little patience.

      Some cotton fabrics can have up to 10% shrinkage. If your cloth has never been washed, you might consider washing it to pre-shrink it.

      You may be stretching your cloth too much in Step Two. You just want the cloth to be smooth and flat with no excess moisture in it and no air bubbles under it. Try rolling it out, then lifting it off your work surface and laying it down again. The first rolling gets rid of excess moisture. (There should still be enough moisture in the cloth to prevent the paste from leaking through to the surface.) Releasing it from the work surface lets it relax a bit. Then just roll it enough to get it smooth again.

      If you roll too hard in Step Nine, you may squeeze out too much of the pasted area around the edge that is supposed to keep the paper attached until everything is dry. This is the one that I have had trouble with a couple of times. There needs to be enough paste or mix on that two inch border to keep the backing paper attached to the drying surface while everything contracts slightly in the drying process.

      Don’t give up. If these suggestions don’t help, I will try to think of something else that might be going wrong. If I knew exactly what materials you are using, it might be easier to figure out a solution. Every type of paper and cloth behaves a little bit differently.


      • Lina Asp says:

        Thanks so much for your quick reply! My wheat paste might have been too thin, I don’t know and I might have rolled too hard and left too little at the edges. I have tried it twice with two different cotton fabrics, one was a little better but still not usable. I was thinking it might be the backing paper I was using? It’s very hard to find the right backing paper (and size) here in Sweden and I don’t really know what paper is suitable. I have read quite a few tutorials for backing fabric and all use different papers that I can’t find here. How important is the backing paper? The paper I used wasn’t very thin but it was a handmade Japan paper, quite expensive, don’t remember its name or where I got it, can’t find it now. The paper that is readibly available here is called Chinapaper (Wenzhou or Pi paper, 30-32gr, in rolls) Tengujo (appears to be a silk paper) (17-18 gr) and different weights of chinese rice paper called Shuan (25-41gr). Are any of these papers suitable??
        The fabric I uesd was ordinary cotton fabric not too thin and not very heavy.


      • Byopia Press says:

        I don’t use expensive Japanese papers for backing. The roll paper (mine says Chinese Premium Mulberry Paper) sounds like what I am using. The paste and the shrinkage sounds more like the problem: wish I was actually there to help!


  5. Lina Asp says:

    Yes please that would be great! Anyway thanks, I will try again with your tips and with the chinese paper (this is the kind I got)
    and hope that it will go better.


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