Salt Cedar bookmaking

All that you need to make your very own book. (Image by Salwan Georges courtesy Salt & Cedar)

“Books are part of our DNA, we have an ancient relationship to them,” says Leon Johnson, artist, literary guardian and part owner of Salt & Cedar, a letterpress studio located in downtown Detroit. Together with fellow artist and partner Megan O’Connell, the two opened the space in 2012 with a brave and ambitious vision: “We’re not just a letterpress and bookmaker. We’re a dispatcher of the city’s narratives,” Megan explains.

Housed in a 3,000 square-foot former processing plant, Salt & Cedar is divided into three lofty rooms – every inch of which is utilized. The first is a gallery, the second a pressroom (equipped with beautiful vintage gear, like a standing book press from 19th-century Paris) and the third a flex space—meaning, quite literally, an area without a specific function. “It’s sort of like what William Burroughs might have called an interzone,” Leon laughs. Whether it’s being used as a stage for local bands and authors or a makeshift cinema, the flex space is paramount to Salt & Cedar’s philosophy. “We act as a kind of conduit,” Megan says. “People come through here, and so we’re a resource for all kinds of art making.”

Salt & Cedar collage

Scenes from Salt & Cedar. Clockwise from left: Megan O’Connell at the press; Leon Johnson prepping for a Book & Bread event; the press in type. (Image courtesy Salt & Cedar)

This includes food. “Cooking has always been central to my creative practice,” Leon explains. While setting up the studio, the duo rehabilitated an old Garland stove that was salvaged from a luncheonette in Pontiac, Michigan. “There’s something thrilling about having an old six-burner 20 yards from the printing press,” says Leon. It was the relationship between these two machines that inspired Book & Bread, Leon’s culinary and literary brainchild. Held tri-monthly (with the exception of private parties), the small gathering of around a dozen guests begins with a three-course locally sourced meal, followed by a lesson in bookmaking with each person binding their own book. “I love the idea that the next morning, 12 people are waking up with a blank book next to their beds.”

With this in mind, we asked Megan to walk us through the nine steps for creating a Butterfly Pamphlet. The two-signature, non-adhesive booklet requires minimal supplies and tools. In other words, the perfect craft project for dinner parties with friends or stay-at-home date nights.

Salt Cedar books

An evening of Book & Bread at Salt & Cedar, Detroit. (Image courtesy Salt & Cedar)

You’ll need:

– metal ruler
– scissors
– awl
– bone folder
– bookbinding needle & thread
– block of beeswax (optional)
– pad of 9 x 12 inch sketch paper
– large sheet of heavyweight drawing paper

Salt & Cedar book 1

First, fold your paper and flatten with a bone folder. (Image by Salwan Georges courtesy Salt & Cedar)

  1. Remove nine sheets of drawing paper from your pad. Fold each sheet in half and flatten with bone folder. Nest four sheets together to make signature A, another four to make signature B, and one additional folded sketch paper sheet to use as a sewing template.
  1. Determine the grain direction of the drawing paper (used for the book cover) by loosely rolling the shorter end in and gently bouncing it to test resistance; repeat on the longer end. The “path of least resistance,” meaning the side that folds over easiest, is where the grain lies. It must run parallel to the spine, otherwise the book won’t lay flat and the score marks will crack.
  1. Cut the drawing paper so it’s slightly larger than the inside pages (i.e. just over 9 x 12 inches). Using your ruler as a guide, determine the vertical center of the sheet of paper by measuring the middle point, then lightly mark it. This will be where the 1/4-inch wide spine of the booklet lands. With the ruler, make a vertical line 1/8-inch to the left of the center line and another 1/8-inch to the right. Place the ruler alongside one of these and bear down on the line with the bone folder – applying increasing pressure as you work from top to bottom – to create the score. Repeat along the second line.
Salt & Cedar book 2

Prepare your “sewing stations” with an awl. (Image by Salwan Georges courtesy Salt & Cedar)

  1. With the awl, punch a hole in the (vertical) dead center on each of the scores. Pierce a hole about 1/4-inch from the top and another 1/4-inch from the bottom on each score, making a total of three holes on each side. These are called “sewing stations.” Then, with signature A open, create identical sewing stations in the gutter of the folded pages. Repeat for signature B.
  1. To prepare the interior pages for sewing, use one additional folded sketch paper sheet as a sewing template. Mark the holes from the cover onto the ‘gutter’ of the interior paper, and punch them out of the sheet. Lay the template into the nested signatures (first A, then B) and punch the holes accordingly.
  1. Thread the needle with bookbinding thread (at least 12 inches) and, if desired, draw the thread through the wax a few times to coat it. Align signature A to the first set of holes, pages open. Draw the thread through the center hole, from the inside of the pages out to the cover. Leave about a 4-inch tail inside the book.
Salt & Cedar book 3

Thread the needle (and coat with beeswax, if desired); send the needle from the outside in several times, following the sewing stations; knot and trim the ends. (Image by Salwan Georges courtesy Salt & Cedar)

  1. Send the needle from the outside in, passing it through the top sewing station. Again, pass it through the center (without piercing the thread that’s already there from the first stitch). From the outside, draw the thread through the bottom sewing station. Pull so the two loops are taut. ‘Grab’ the thread on the inside of the signature (from loop one) to link the top and bottom loops (like crossing a “t”). Give the thread a final tug on both ends to get rid of any slack and tie a square knot with the two ends. Repeat for signature B.
  1. Keeping the pamphlet open, score the right side vertically just beyond the text pages of signature B, about 1/8-inch. Flatten the fold and tuck it in. This will be the right flap. If it’s too wide to lay flat, trim it down. You may also shape the edges (i.e. round or angle the corners using pinking shears). Rotate the book 180 degrees, and repeat for signature A (what will become the left flap). If you don’t want flaps, simply trim the cover about 1/8-inch wider than the inner paper.
  1. With the bone folder, gently burnish the scores on the outside of the spine to encourage the spine scores to hold their shape. If desired, create a paper label and affix it to the front cover using an acid-free glue stick.
Salt & Cedar book 4

Score the pamphlet edges to create book flaps – perfect for marking your page when you start using your book. (Image by Salwan Georges courtesy Salt & Cedar)

A few ideas from Megan as to what to do with your finished pamphlet: “Present it to your partner or your friend as a gift, use it as a guest book in your home, or tuck it in your suitcase to use as a journal for your next trip.” In a time when the screen often substitutes for the page, a book is a chance to connect physically with a story as a kind of treasured object – especially when it’s one of your own making.

As far as what to pair with your own Book & Bread session, try this cocktail recipe from Leon and Megan’s son Marlowe Johnson.

The Broken Hearted Boy

2 oz gin (preferably Detroit City Distillery Railroad Gin)
1 oz black tea cardamom syrup
½ oz lemon juice
two dashes grapefruit bitters

Shake, strain and serve in a Collins glass with crushed ice and a generous grapefruit twist. Enjoy!

Salt & Cedar front gallery

The front gallery at Salt & Cedar doubling as a display room that’s covered in prints fresh off the press. (Image courtesy Salt & Cedar)

In April, keep an eye out for Salt & Cedar’s limited edition book Vestigial Enclaves and Sacral Enclosures: The Fox Creek Biome in conjunction with ArtX Detroit, as part of Leon Johnson’s Kresge 2014 Fellowship in Film & Theater


  1. Gloria Anne
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 1:29 PM | Permalink

    I love reading about this, and as I see your last picture with the print fonts, I wonder if you know of the Hamilton Woodprint Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin? It is amazing in its scope, and preservation of wood print, and the woodprint process. They have workshops, and conventions. Two Rivers is my home town, there was the Hamilton Mfg. Co. there for over a hundred years. Luckily, in later years, as things changed, people discovered Hamilton's, and sent them tons of old wood print. I have a few pieces, and they sell some they do today, using the skills of some of the older citizens of the town who once worked there. Most of my family worked in one area or another, they were not just known for woodprint, but for many other manufactured items. I worked there in the office when I was still in high school, a long time ago. I love wooden things. In fact, from one of the sellers I found on your site at Christmas time, I bought a set of earth friendly wooden Lincoln log type building toy. Just because. Anyway, I wanted to tell you about Hamilton Woodprint Museum, in great new quarters, just across the road from the great Lake Michigan! I am going to send them this article, although I'd be really surprised if they didn't know about these books. I love the idea of Vestigial Enclaves and Sacral Enclosures. I know I do.

  2. Salt & Cedar
    Posted February 10, 2015 at 10:09 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for this kind note, Gloria Anne. Salt & Cedar loves the HAMILTON WOOD TYPE and PRINTING MUSEUM, and we are eager to visit its newest incarnation. The documentary film that outlined the history of the company–TYPEFACE–struck a chord with us a few years ago and we cheered the organization along by donating funds to its kickstarter campaign. So happy it made it through the various obstacles and now has so many 'stakeholders'. We happen to be proud owners of three sturdy oak type cabinets as well as wood type manufactured at the plant over a century ago in Two Rivers, WI. Three cheers!

  3. Posted April 20, 2015 at 5:42 AM | Permalink

    It’s going to be finish of mine day, however before end I am reading this impressive article to improve my knowledge.