Book Binding and Illumination Activity for Kids

Middle Ages Unit Study
Week 10: The kids bound their own books complete with illuminated introduction pages.

The people of Mesopotamia wrote on clay tablets with cuneiform script. The ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus with hieroglyphs. Chinese created printing and wrote on bamboo. Germanic tribes wrote Runes on stone, wood and leather. The Ancient Greeks and Romans used a stylus to write on wax tablets, scrolls and animal skins. All these ancient cultures felt that writing was important and so did the people of the middle ages.

The Benedictine Monks of the Middle Ages placed a high value on work. They spent much of their time creating illuminated manuscripts. Illumination when referring to medieval books, means written pages highlighted with silver or gold leafing. A manuscript is a page which contains a miniature (picture), words, and a boarder decoration.

The pages of medieval books were made with vellum (unborn calf skin) or parchment (sheep skin). The covers were often wooden elaborately carved or covered with leather. Jewels, bone and other decorative materials often were found in cover decorations. The short video Making Manuscripts describes the process.

Medieval books were expensive. The first books of the middle ages had primarily a religions focus, but as time passed there was a demand for scholarly books in subjects such as medicine and astronomy as well as stories such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Saint George and the Dragon.

Book Making
This was a highly involved and very rewarding project. Making books with the kids took approximately 3 hours and was divided into four main tasks.

1. Cover
2. Pages
3. Illuminated first page
4. Binding


  • Cardboard
  • Fabric
  • Paste
  • Awl
  • Paper
  • Bone or Knife
  • Thumb Tack

Illuminated First Page
  • Ink
  • Feather
  • Gold Leafing
  • Paste
  • Paint Brushes
  • Needle
  • Thread
Cover Construction

The cover was created by covering two pieces of cardboard with fabric.

The fabric was cut approximately one inch bigger than the cardboard. The cardboard was covered with glue and stuck to the fabric. The edges were glued to the other side.

Page Creation
Pages in medieval books were grouped and folded together into subsets called signatures.

Our subsets were constructed by folding five sheets of paper in half. Each crease was reinforced with a bone knife.

After creating four signatures, four holes were poked down the middle of each signature with a thumb tack using a template. The holes were used during the binding step to sew the book together.

Illuminated First Page
Manuscript pages have three parts: image, boarder and text. The kids began their illuminated pages by creating a boarder.

Next they added text.

Ink from a jar, using a feather to write with, was used to complete the boarder and text.

The gold leafing was very difficult to work with but a worthwhile experience. The kids began by painting glue onto the area where illumination was desired.

A sheet of gold leafing was placed over the glue. After the glue was dry, a large paint brush was used to brush away the excess leafing.

Once the covers and illuminated sheets were dry, sewing was begun.

This tutorial explains how books are stitched together.

Paper clips served as an extra hand and helped to hold the pages in place while sewing.

Now, what will be written in the new books?

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  1. What a project! Those books look fantastic - I'm so impressed!

  2. These look so great! I did something like this a couple years ago and really enjoyed it, though I wish it didn't take so long per book! Thanks for sharing those videos along with your experience!


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