The Seven-Sided Die

Staple binding PDFs tutorial

Posted Saturday April 21, 2012 at 06:43 PM

Five half-letter booklets fanned out on a table below a long-arm stapler, a bone folder, and a pair of yellow binder clips.

A player asked me how I made the Adventurer Conqueror King System mini-booklets that we've been using. I ended up writing a long email and figured I'd share it here.

I can't stand playing from PDFs on a laptop (and I don't have an iPad), so being able to bind my own printouts has made lots of PDFs in my collection infinitely more useful for actual play.

There's four tools that make staple binding work: a duplex printer, a long-arm or saddle-stitch stapler, a paper cutter, and a bone folder aka paper knife. Most of the trouble is in cost for the stapler and paper cutter, and even finding a bone folder. For larger books a pair of small binder clips is very useful to keep the sheets lined up for stapling (my stapler doesn't have the v-shaped alignment bump of a real saddle-stitch stapler), but for booklets of just a few sheets I don't bother.

I've been using the latest version of Acrobat Reader to print in booklet form. (Versions earlier than 10.1.3 had problems with doing the two-sided printing right when the booklet option was selected.) It automatically handles the imposition and two-sided printing so the sheets nest right. There are some PDFs that were never intended for print and printing all pages will do things like put the page numbers on the inside or something like that. Often just leaving out the covers does the trick. Printing parts of a PDF like I did with ACKS takes more experimenting to get it to look nice, though you might notice I messed up one of the booklets and the page numbers are in the fold. There are certainly worse things. Experiment with the preview until it looks right. One thing to note is that the "automatically rotate pages" checkbox is off by default in Acrobat Reader, which only matters if the PDF has landscape pages mixed in with the portrait pages. I didn't notice that, so the Mortality tables in my GM booklets are printed upright and tiny instead of sideways and full-page.

The long-arm stapler came from, appropriately enough, Staples. The paper cutter too, and it took some talking to them to find one that would do more than two sheets at a time well. The packaging mostly lies and you can pretty much halve the claimed sheet capacity to find out what a cutter will handle without pulling and making a curved cut. As it is, just under a couple hundred still only gets you one that can do four well, six kinda, eight claimed on the box. The ones that nicely cut stacks at a time are exorbitant. The rotary type are only really good for one sheet at a time and are way less satisfying than the guillotine type.

The bone folder is a piece of magic. It's just a flattish stick made out of a certain kind of plastic (or actual bone if you get a fancy one) that you can press super-crisp folds with without the kind of friction that drags the fold into a curve or burnishes the paper. Michael's appears to carry one as part of a Cricut tools kit. Otherwise they're hard to find. Deserres might have them but I can't find them in their online store. Might be worth talking to them if you're passing by. I got mine from a local bindery: Rasmussen Bindery. They have an online store but they're the quaint kind of place that will call you on the phone to discuss your online order before putting it together for shipping.

You can do without the bone folder. Not having it will make thicker booklets fit together less well and be fatter, but it's doable. Having one does make the folding less time consuming and annoying though, which makes a difference in how fast you can make one book and how long it takes before you're tired of all this folding crap.

So just print the booklet sheets (collated if you're doing multiple copies of a PDF), fold the pages but don't nest them yet, and use the paper cutter to trim the edges. I just eyeball the margins to make sure I'm not cutting any text and there's enough margin to be visually pleasing. Making the outside cuts about the same distance from the text block as the fold margin (or slightly thinner if there's a large inside margin) seems to give good results. I ususally do two folded sheets at a time (so four paper-thicknesses) because my cutter cuts that cleanly without pulling and it's fast enough for the size of PDFs I've been doing. I do one edge for all the pages before moving to the second and third edge so that I don't have to keep resetting the backstop on the cutter.

The only problem with cutting a few sheets at a time is that in the end you'll get a V-shaped outer edge to the book that's more pronounced the more sheets it has. It's not really avoidable. (Real books sometimes have a saw-tooth edge for the same reason. The only way to avoid it is to use a book clamp and actually plane the edge of the text block until it's even, but that's serious binding geekery.)

Once you've got them all folded and trimmed, nest them together and unfold them. Try to pinch the folds flat rather than holding one side or the other so that they stays lined up and don't drift. For thicker books like the ACKS booklets, I use a pair of binder clips after unfolding to keep the folds lined up for stapling. My stapler has a sliding stop to make consistent staple distances easy, but setting it is still a matter of eyeballing where the staple will go through. I haven't perfected this yet, but the closer to right through the fold the staples go, the easier the pages turn in both halves of the book. For a half-letter sized book, a pair of staples 1/4 from the top and bottom of the fold works.

Then you've got a nice self-cover book. They're not super-durable, but once you've got the setup to make them it's just a bit of time, paper, and toner to replace them, and the time it takes is little enough that I'm more worried about toner costs. I printed, folded, cut, and stapled the entire GM section of ACKS in less time than it took everyone to make characters in the first session.

This is a great way to make books out of PDFs, especially ones that don't exist in print at all. It's not a replacement for a real print version, but it's a great DIY project to take a book you would like to use at the table out of the computer and into your hands.

I'm looking forward to my hardcover of ACKS coming in the mail (I got the shipping notice email last week!) but in the meantime being able to bind copies myself has been invaluable – we wouldn't have been able to play without them.

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