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Have you ever wanted to learn how to alter a book to turn it into an art journal? This post will share with you the basic steps for how to prepare an old book for art journaling. It is very important before altering a book or using an old book for art journaling is properly preparing it before you start creating in it. While it takes some time and patience to do this, in the end it will definitely save you a lot of headaches and ensure your creative work stays intact.

How to Alter an Old Book Step by Step

In this post I will walk you through step by step my process of creating an art journal from an old book. How to Alter an Old Book

Step 1: Choosing the Right Books to Alter

Choosing the right type of old book to alter is the first important step to take. While one would think that any old book would do, you’re going to want to look for one that has sewn binding as opposed to glued binding. While very old, vintage books like the ones shown here might be beautiful, these types of books are not always the best candidates to use for altering, at least not using the same technique the way I share here. Very old antique books will likely need a little reinforcement and more advanced book binding techniques in order to be something that is sturdy.

The Most Important Thing When Altering a Book? Sewn Binding

Most books will either have sewn binding or glued binding. Glued binding is exactly what it sounds like – the pages are glued together. This is pretty common for most mass-market books printed in the past 30 years, even if they are a hardcover book. However, you do not want glued binding for your altered book projects if you can avoid it! Sewn binding is stronger and the pages will be less likely to fall out, whereas with glued binding you risk the glue coming apart and pages falling out. It is relatively easy to identify sewn binding in an old book you want to alter – you will see actual stitches in between the signatures of the book! What is a signature? Signatures are sections of pages, so you might see the stitches in between every 20-40 pages or so for example, depending on the book of course! Note: Some books this does not apply to – such as children’s board books.

Need Some Inspiration For What Types of Books to Use?

You can use many different kinds of books for your altered book projects! Here are some ideas for different types of old books you can use:
  • Children’s books
  • Hardback fiction books
  • Textbooks
  • Cookbooks
  • Home & Garden Books
As you can see, there all sorts of different types of books to use for you to learn how to alter a book for art journaling! The possibilities are endless! Also think about the size of the book – do you want a big fat book with many pages or maybe a big skinny children’s book with plenty of room on each page as your canvas?

Where to Find Old Books for Altering into Art Journals Free or Cheap:

Finding old books can be a challenge. Fortunately you can often find them for less than a few dollars each book. Here are some of the places I’ve been successful in finding them:
  • Public & Private Library Book Sales in my area
  • Flea Markets and Yard/Garage Sales
  • Thrift Stores
  • Craigslist
  • eBay (try to find local sellers near you to avoid high shipping costs for heavy books!)
  • Used Bookstores such as Half Priced Books and others
  • Ask Family & Friends for old books you can buy from them
Want to see how I shop for books and the types of books I like to get? Read This: How I Find Mixed Media Art Supplies At Used Book Sales. Once you have your books, you’re ready to start preparing it for altering and making into an art journal!

Step 2: Start Ripping Out the Pages of the Old Book if Necessary

sewn binding Something I’ve learned with experience if you will be using the book for an art journal is that you may want to do is rip out at least half of the pages in the book. This may sound scary, but it will give you a LOT more room and flexibility later on in the project! So, if you have a 30 page book, you will turn it into a 15 page one. Why on earth would we do this? The main reason for this is because when you start painting on your pages, and glue stuff to them, it makes the book much thicker than the binding can handle. So, get ripping away! Of course, you do not actually have to “rip” the pages out – you can always use a craft knife and carefully cut these pages out. That sometimes looks a lot neater and nicer. I usually save my ripped out pages for gluing and collaging later on in the art journal, so these pages don’t even get wasted. Any leftovers are simply used for making junk journals! art journal prompts inspiration You may have different preferences and experiences than I have had with this – a lot will also depend on your style of creating art journal pages. I am very heavy on the collage layers, so for me it makes sense. Feel free to experiment with what works best for you and your style – The important thing is that the book’s binding will be able to hold up to the thickness of the book.

Step 3: Glue the Pages Together if Necessary

glue stick Depending on the paper weight of the pages in your book, you will probably want to glue some of the pages together to make for a stronger and heavier page. I typically will use a heavy duty glue stick for this step when I make an altered book. Be sure to put a little extra on the corners as that is where they are most likely to come apart at. You can glue 1-2 pages together or several, depending on the weight of the paper in the book. Gluing your pages together will likely cause some rippling and bumpiness in the page, but no one said art journaling had to be perfect. If the bumpiness and wrinkling bothers you, you can also choose to use more collage elements and avoid the paint and wet media all together if the pages are thin.

Step 4: Priming Pages With Gesso

This step is completely optional, but is usually a “must-do” for me, as I love working with Gesso – it really does help the acrylic paint stick a bit better to the page. The main reason I use gesso however is because I usually choose some odd books for turning into journals and don’t usually want all the words and titles and page numbers showing through! This is from our altered composition book tutorial – you can see the Gesso does a very good job of covering things up – sometimes too good of a job! Not sure what Gesso is? Gesso is a white primer available at most craft and hobby stores. You can also find it online or if in a real pinch, go down to the local hardware store and buy a small pint of white primer – while not quite the same that will work too!

Now You’re Ready to Create in Your Altered Book!

Once the pages are ripped out, glued together, and the gesso has dried, you are ready to start creating in your new altered book! This is the really fun part of using an old book as an art journal! I hope you find this tutorial on how to create an altered book helpful, and of course, if you have any questions about how to start an art journal, share your questions in the comments section below or join us in our Facebook Community Group to connect with others!

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  1. Love the idea of using an old book. I don’t care to keep my feet on the ground all the time.I like to step outside the box and explore. I am trying to develop new ideas to help widows find joy on their new path in life.
    The old is my life prior to my husband’s death. Now I will take that (book) life and find new meanings, purposes,creativity inside and build something beautiful by the grace of God.

    Oh thanks so much for the inspiration!

    1. Maryanne~

      I’m so sorry to hear about your loss!!! Praying that you will be comforted as you give comfort to others. I think this will be a wonderfully crative thing for you to do and am sure you will be greatly blessed by it.

      Praying for you~~

    2. Mary Ann, I’m a widow too. I’ve used a technique similar to this to create a joy journal as part of my healing process. Wish I’d known about these hints! Blessings to you as you create your new, wonderful life. <3

  2. Hi,
    I am fortunate to have a lot of old books, we found some being thrown out and I used them more as props for that old look on a mantel but love your idea about using them for a journal. I do have 2 questions. Does normal pen ink work on the pages after they have been primed or do I need a sharpie? Also how do I glue the pages back in? Would normal white glue do if I linned the edge with it and pressed it on the binding? I am new at doing this as I used to use old photo albums that had the vintage black construction type of paper and the photos had corners that you glued on. So it made it so much easier. But now I would like to one your way and see how I do. If you can just answer how to glue the pages back in and what type of pen or market to use would be great. I left my email above if you prefer to just respond that way. Thanks so much for all the information.

    1. No need to glue pages back in. Only take out those that you want to take out. I would try to find some acid free pens and pencils to write in your alter book. I realize that many of your other materials are not acid free, but you have better work ability with better I would try to find some acid free pens and pencils to write in your alter book. I realize that many of your other materials are not acid free, but you have better work ability with better pens and pencils. Have fun!

  3. Hi,
    I find when I put gesso down on a page, it’s hard to draw/paint on – things don’t leave their ink on the pages, do you know what I mean? Like it’s waterproof. Is this just me?

    1. Gesso changes how everything looks. Try using pencil and then smear it…. very cool. Gesso really is for using on any surface to make it “paintable”, but you can use chalks on it too. Pens and markers wont work as well. Or at least they will be greatly altered, which may actually be what you want.

  4. How do you keep the gesso pages from sticking together once they are dry. I let each page dry for 24 hours but still had problems with pages sticking together when the book closes–at least those pages that have not yet received their journal entry.

    1. You can help the sticking by rubbing the page (when you are finished with it!) with Dorland’s Wax Medium. It is a non-yellowing wax and resin mixture that strengthens oil paint film against shrinkage and cracking while sealing out dirt and air. I just use my fingers, or a soft thin cloth, to spread a tiny little bit all over the page. Works like a wonder. You can find it in small cans in an art store or online, of course.

  5. I don’t know if 2nd and Charles is a nationwide store or not,but they have free books outside and I’ve been able to collect a bunch of them for my projects Thanks for your good advice.

  6. All of these are great tips for prepping for some serious art journeling! Gesso is amazing for crafting purposes so I’m right there with ya! Thanks for sharing this post! It has my creative juices flowing!!

  7. I’ve always wanted to make one and I never knew where to start, so thank you for this post. I wish you included some pictures so we could see how it looks! Regardless, it was a good read with some great tips (like tearing half the pages away).

  8. I purchased some antique bird books to alter for scrapping, etc. what’s the best way to affix cloth to pages? I don’t have a sewing machine. I really want to complete these for my sisters and I as a way to remember our precious mother who loved birds and flowers and was the quintessential HOMEmaker.????

  9. This is wonderful information. I have so many ideas and plenty of creative talent– but where, folks, do you find the TIME? I want so much to get started! ????

  10. Thank you for the useful tips. Please remind people that some old books, especially those including local historical information or info on local people, are extremely useful to genealogists, so if you are buying old books, be careful not to destroy someone’s genealogical find.

    Happy journaling!

  11. I have some parchment paper on hand that might be glued on to cover the pages and make a cool background for art. What kind of glue would you recommend so pages would be a little bit flexible, or isn’t it important to have flex?

    BTW if anyone needs access to 8.5×11 parchment, let me know and I’ll let you in on a good source 🙂

    1. Elizabeth…it has been 3 years since your comment, so I don’t know if you will even see this! But yes, I would like to know a good source for parchment paper. Is it the same kind you can buy at the grocery store to put, for instance, under cookie dough for baking? Thanks for any info!…Kim

  12. Sometimes your local library might have some old books for sale or free and yard sales are usually a wonderful source for them! I have several old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books editions that, while the pages are pretty thin, do work for altered books. For those, I usually glue a few pages together to make a better “page”. Gesso works very well in these but can get expensive if you have to use it a lot. I Googled it once several years ago – hey, you can find anything on the internet, right? Lo and behold, I found it – DIY gesso! So, I am including 2 different recipes here. I tried the one with the joint compound and it works very well.
    –Recipe Number One:
    1 tbsp joint compound
    1 tsp white glue
    dab of acrylic paint, about a half tsp
    –Recipe Number Two:
    3 tbsp white glue
    1/2 c baking soda
    2 tbsp white acrylic paint
    Journal on everybody!!

    1. Thanks Pam! The old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books are lovely for all sorts of things {especially art & junk journals – such pretty covers!} Will have to try out the gesso recipes!

  13. Thank you for all the info, esp the tips on finding old books with sewn bindings. I am excited to start my first junk journal!

  14. So I have an old dictionary that I want to turn into a junk journal. I’m thinking of using it to journal my flower garden. When taking pages out to make room for things, do you just cut out every second page?

    1. I like your idea of using an old dictionary! Instead of cutting out every other page, which would be very tedious … I am thinking it would work to glue a couple pages together as mentioned above … and remove small sections of pages (equal to a signature — or 16 pages) at regular intervals throughout the book to allow room for the stuff you put on your pages. I hope that makes sense. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m eager to try it.

  15. If I tear out pages from an old book with sewn-in signatures, won’t the other HALF of that torn-out page get loose and fall out??? This is NOT book with pages glued in.
    Thanks for this wonderful tutorial.
    Barbara -Austin, TX. USA

    1. Hi Barbara, it depends a lot of times on the age of the book and the type of sewn binding but generally yes, if you tear a page the other half will also come out, that is why you’ll want to be a little careful when ripping out pages to not tear where the signatures are sewn or you might lose whole sections!

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