Boiled Books: Images and Process

My latest artistic exploration is making boiled books. They're fairly easy to do, require only basic (but dedicated!) equipment such as a large pot for the boiling process. It's a bit time consuming, gathering the plant materials, cutting or tearing the paper to size, assembling, wrapping, boiling, unwrapping, rinsing each page, cleanup, drying, flattening, applying matte medium, punching holes, sewing, cleaning up again.

So far I'm making 3x3 and 4x4 inch books because that's what will fit in my handy dandy thrift store aluminum pot. This week I got a $5 thrift store electric griddle and some large roasting pans from the dollar store so I can make larger pages... but I haven't done that yet.

If you want to read about my process, scroll down below the images. They're scans of some of the pages I've made, and one of a completed book I made for a friend for Christmas, complete with a simple string binding and a couple dangles.

Note: my hands get a bit stained during the handling of the boiled tannins and eco dyes. I don’t wear gloves so I can feel the paper as I rinse it. If you want to keep your hands clean, use gloves!

These first images are from my initial attempt at a boiled book. Not thinking it through, I tore the papers to 3x3" single sheet size. I may use them as cards...such as art prompt cards with some text on them. Perhaps for myself, perhaps for sale. My thinking cap is ON!

eco dyed paperLeaves rich in tannins, such as grape leaves, if in close contact with the page, give a dark impression.

boiled book pageA variety of plant materials yields a range of colors and textures. Some impressions are clear, others are dreamier.

A turkey oak leaf close to the page gives its tannins, while one while one placed on top of it is lighter, fainter, as well as the other plant materials farther from the paper.

A light impression of a turkey oak leaf. Though rich in tannins, and close to the paper, this one printed very lightly. It may be the difference between a fresh leaf and a dried one. I'm not sure yet which would be which, but will pay closer attention in the future so I can have more predictable results when I want them. (Half the fun is the surprise of what you get!)

Ooh, the rich golden yellow! I suspect this was a yellow leaf, freshly dropped from a tree (or picked off before falling.)

A small bunch of grasses is fanciful, with almost a feathery appearance. On the right I think I see a person waving a feather duster. Perhaps the brownies have come to clean my house!

Now on to the folios I made at twice the width to allow folding and arranging into signatures (groups of pages) to be sewn into a bound book.

In the first set (image above) I forgot to add the vinegar, a natural mordant (fixative) to the boiling water. This batch came out a softer, redder brown. Since I was using an aluminum pot, it acted as a mordant, but not as strongly as the vinegar and aluminum combined. I love how the left page has room for adding text... a little fairy poem perhaps. (My original intent in exploring art the past couple of years is to illustrate my fairy poems and self-publish books of them.)

In the following batches I remembered the vinegar. (Images below.)

Pages with lighter colors had plant materials with less tannin or that did not touch the page closely.

I used this page as a centerfold in the boiled book I made as a gift for my friend. The center features strips of dried Saw Palmetto leaves.

Spanish moss makes lovely patterns!

I believe the warm golden color on the left is from a yellow or dried grape leaf. Muscadine grapevines grow wild in my west central Florida yard. All I have now are dried leaves... until spring!!

Little branches of Walter's Viburnum Simpson's Stopper (left side) were a beautiful surprise when boiled onto paper! On the right is a begonia leaf on top with a highly textured Blue Porterweed leaf behind it to the right.

Delightful magic is going on here! I love to look at the images and entertain fanciful thoughts about what I see!

The reddish color on the left is a maple leaf in all its red fall glory. (We don't get much fall color here, so we enjoy what there is, and appreciate the mostly green winters!) A stem and leaves of another plant partly cover its right side but still let some of the color through. The circle right side was created by strings that peel off the edges of Saw Palmetto leaflets and hang there. I wound them into a circle and placed them into what came to look like a cocoon!

The round leaves of beefsteak begonia adorn the left and right pages. These are from the great-great-great grandchildren of the plant a beloved and dearly departed aunt gave me about 30 years ago. (Hooray for leaf propagation!)

The leaves of Red Cedar - delicate but prickly in spots - grace the left and right pages. I love how the other leaves show through, as well as what looks like sunlight but is really just the white of the page where there was no direct plant matter contact, and therefore little or no dying. Overall there is a dreamy effect of an early morning walk in the woods.

My Process

1) First, I take Canson 90# mixed media paper and cut or tear it using a ruler for a straight deckle edge to the desired size and fold the papers in half for assembling into books.

2) Then I gather fresh plant materials from my yard, dropping them into a box to be sorted through and cut into book-size pieces. Note: some oversize pieces and stems sticking out help let eco dye from the water get in. More on the eco dye later.

3) I lay down a ceramic tile, slightly larger than the desired book size, smooth side up and place some plant materials directly on it, topped by a folded paper.

4) Doing my best to hold that down, and actually pressing it a bit to flatten for more surface contact, with the other hand I open the folio and add plant matter. Then I close that folio and add more on top.

5) Successive layers of plants and paper follow until the last folio is topped with plants and another tile, this time smooth side down.

6) Holding that thick stack down with one hand, with the other I place the heavy wire I will wind around the stack to hold it, then another in the other direction to keep things in place.

7) In a large aluminum pot - dedicated to non-food use! - I add 12 cups of water and one cup of white vinegar. It isn't a magic formula, just add a cup of vinegar to whatever size pot. (If it's ginormous maybe you'd need two cups? I don't know. Yet.)

8) I bring it to a boil and carefully, using tongs, place the wrapped stack into the water which covers it by an inch or so. I add some old rusted hand tools that fit, and some rusty old bottle caps found smashed in parking lots. If I had some rusted chain I would add that instead - much easier to remove/rinse/dry/store one item afterwards than a bunch of smaller ones, methinks. (The rusty bits and extra leaves are the eco dyes I alluded to earlier.)

9) Important steps: Turn heat down to simmer, cover pot, and set timer for one hour. I also turn on the stove's exhaust fan to carry away some of the fumes. The plants I use are not toxic as far as I know, but best to be safe! I also open a window if it isn't raining, or too darn freezing (that doesn't happen much here!)

10) Ding! The fun begins! I remove the pot from the stove and set it in one side of stainless (hahaha) steel kitchen sink. I remove the cover and let cold water run into the pot for a few minutes.

Use a pan, not a paper towel on counter!
11) Using tongs I remove the bundle from the pot and place it on the counter beside the sink - but NOT on the counter itself, or a paper towel (oops!) those tannins will stain in a heartbeat! I now use a cookie sheet with sides, and I let it hang over the sink a little so nothing drips onto the counter top. I carefully unwrap the wires - contents may still be too hot to handle even though the pot of water was cold! Let it sit for a minute while meanwhile back in the sink...

12) I remove the large rusty objects from the cooled pot, pour most of the water down the sink (it has a strainer to catch stray bits) and then remove any leaves and smaller rusty bits. I rinse and dry the pot using paper towels or a dedicated cloth towel and set it aside.

13) Time for the oohs and ahs as the plant material is removed one layer at a time and set aside on another cookie sheet with sides. I rinse both sides of each page under cool running water, rubbing gently to remove any loose eco dye and plant parts from the page. Dried grape leaves, when I use them, can leave a grainy residue on the paper, so I rub these spots gently but persistently under the running water until smoothish. (Sorry, no image of this step. I was busy!!!)

14) As each page is rinsed, I lay it flat on a cookie sheet and blot with paper towels. No overlapping pages, but when one layer is done I add a layer of paper towels and keep going with the next layer of pages, blotting each along the way. (Your eyes are working fine, I just didn't have a pic of this step, so here are my pans. Bottom steel cookie sheet from Walmart for about a dollar, same for top aluminum sheet, from a dollar store. Either works, but the steel will last longer.)

Pages drying on freezer paper

15) When all the pages are rinsed and blotted I lay them out single layer on cookie sheets or freezer paper. The paper is only damp now, so just needs protection from the counter. If I had space for large boards on a drying rack I would do that, but I don't, so I don't. So there. I do reuse the paper towels, though, next time I boil a book.

16) Allow to dry overnight. They will lighten a little as they dry, but this makes them look even better - it often adds a bit of extra contrast.

17) Once thoroughly dry (I cannot emphasize that enough!) I stack them and place them under a heavy stack of books to flatten them a bit. Some curl will remain, but that is part of the natural beauty and handmade appeal.

Oh, and the edges, especially if torn rather than cut, can have a beautiful darkness! (Some of what you see in the photos is shadow from the scanner where the pages weren't touching the glass. If you look at the first photo you can see the bottom edge looks like the photo was cut off. It wasn't. That was the cut edge of the paper as it came. The torn edges show more darkening - the left edge has no shadow, top has some here and there, the right edge is the cast shadow but there isn't much on that photo.)

18) Dyed, dried, pressed flat. Now what? On to the art table for a layer of Liquitex matte medium brushed on one side, set aside to dry, then on the other. This gives a little water resistance and soiling protection. It also gives a little added strength to the paper where the binding is sewn. As a bonus, it adds a little depth to the photo by way of a smidgen of additional contrast. The surface will be ever so slightly rough from the matte medium. (As part of the protection it makes it easier to remove paint if I decided to paint over them in spots and wanted to be able to "erase" with a damp rag or damp soft brush if I change my mind! A second coating of matte medium would make this even better. But I haven't painted on any, or given a second coat to any. Yet. Who knows??) 

Pages with matte medium, set out to dry

19) All dry? Great! Now it's time to make the boiled book into a book!! I usually choose which image I want to become the front cover, and which will be the centerfold. Then I start arranging the other pages together with these into a single signature, taking care to have facing pages that go well together. This can be a bit tricky, and yet fun!!

20) Once the order is settled, for the smaller books I have done so far (3 or 4" square when folded) I poke two small holes about a half inch from top and bottom along the center fold. I use one page as a template for poking the next page. That way I am sure they will all line up. (If you do this, make sure not to turn any pages upside down - the holes may become misaligned.) They pages all stack one inside the other in these single signature books, with the centerfold being, well, in the center. So I usually start the hole poking with the centerfold and move outward from there.

21) To sew the simple binding I use a needle only large enough to carry the heavy waxed thread I am using. It's also what I use to poke the holes, wiggling a tiny bit to enlarge so the threaded eye can go through without tearing. I wax my own thread by dragging it across a chunk of well-grooved beeswax.
  • The string only needs to be strong enough not to break. (Test it to be sure, especially if using vintage thread.) Linen, cotton, whatever. Pre-waxed or do it yourself, but it should be waxed. With beeswax.
  • Thread length is about 4x the length of the spine. This allows extra for not pulling the needle off the thread, for tying in a square knot when finished (inside or outside, up to you - but the side you start sewing from is the side you will finish on, and the side where the knot will be. Personally, I like the knot on the outside so I can leave the thread ends long and add beads and whatnot to them for an extra decorative touch.
  • For mine, I start sewing from the outside, leaving a long tail, and in the center I go out the other hole, through all the pages, back to the outside.
  • Before tying the knot, though, I make sure the thread is pulled fairly - but not overly - tight by gently pulling the ends of the thread away from each other, as if extending the line of the spine beyond the book in both directions. Pulling them toward each other to tighten is more likely to tear the holes. Then I tie the knot, usually either by the hole near the top of the book or in the center between the holes.

Here are a couple of pics of the little book I made for my friend. It has dangles, including the largest one that one I made by red rubber stamping flame-liquidized lead-free solder!

Front cover at left

Centerfold below

Plant Materials

I gather fresh plant materials from my yard, plus dried fallen leaves that interest me for including in the book. I gather a few dried oak leaves to add to the water, too.

Native plants growing in my yard and used in my boiled books include, in no particular order (Items marked with an asterisk are rich in tannins):
Sand Live Oak (leaves)*
Turkey Oak (leaves)*
Muscadine Grape* (leaves... mine never bear grapes)
Beauty Berry (leaves... will include some berries soon!)
Blue Porterweed (leaves and long flower stems without the flowers - they fall off too easily)
Simpson's Stopper
Walter's Viburnum* (leaves only so far, flowers coming soon - they bloom early!)
Fern (I think mine is Thelypteris kunthii, aka Southern Wood Fern)
Saw Palmetto
Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola)
Passion Flower (leaves only... they died where I wanted them and keep popping up where I didn't, so I keep yanking them up...)
Florida Anise - oh my, the leaves smell so good boiling! Tiny flowers may be added soon.
Spanish Moss
Miscellaneous "weeds"
I also use a couple house plants: Tradescantia pallida - a spiderwort commonly called Wandering Jew; Begonia ‘Erythrophylla’ (Beefsteak Begonia) - an old heirloom variety

Other Materials I Used

Canson 90# mixed media paper (I will be trying Khadi and watercolor papers, too.)
ceramic tiles - 2 per stack of pages
Heavy wires - 2: one for each direction
aluminum pot with cover (I hope to find a good, rusty dutch oven, too!)
measuring cup
rusty things
running water
baking pans and/or freezer paper
paper towels
Liquitex matte medium
jar of water for rinsing paintbrush
rags for drying paint brush before using again
brown craft paper (from package stuffing) for laying out pages with matte medium to dry
needle, thread, beeswax
beads and whatnot for dangles (optional)
lights, camera, action! (regular kitchen lights, iPad pro, lots of action!)

Congratulations, you have reached the end! Thanks for reading all this! Hope you enjoyed!!