Say hi to Jane Doe. Jane is a writer and, after years of writing and rewriting, has finally achieved what she believes is her greatest, most personal piece of writing ever.

And she has a crazy idea. She wants to make her work even more personal and craft, from scratch, one book to put her novel in.

She will make an entire book using nothing but things she created herself, getting help from strictly nobody. Then, she will make her own ink and write the novel inside the book by hand.

Any tool she uses must also be the result of her own work. So if she has to chop trees in order to make paper, she will use an axe she crafted herself. And if she is going to collect ink from squids, she is also going to kill - or capture - those squids herself.

Basically the idea is that she won't buy or borrow anything to craft her book, neither will she ask someone to do some specific work for her.


Is Jane's project achievable ?

Then if it is, I would like to know :

  • what processes she can use to make the crafting the least hard as possible (e.g. use papyrus instead of standard paper)

  • how long it would take

  • And as bonus points what constraints of struggling points she is likely to encounter.

Additional info

  • Jane lives in 2017. She can learn to do about anything thanks to the wonders of the internet.

  • Jane lives in a first world country, most probably in Western Europe.

  • Jane is in her thirties.

  • Jane can travel if needed and is ready to spend money on it (this is about the only way she sees herself spending money on this crazy project)

  • Jane won't give up because it is too long, too hard, or because she doesn't have the skills (yet).

Edit for clarification

Jane won't buy or borrow tools or anything involved with the process of crafting.

However she would use documentation, transportation (plane, boat, whatever), backpacks or anything that doesn't belong in the crafting chain.

So yes, she can travel by plane to somewhere, put resources in her backpack and fly back to her house illuminated by electricity.

I hope everything makes more sense now :)

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    $\begingroup$ If she won't borrow anything from anyone, then she also can't use the Internet to learn how to do stuff, as that would be borrowing the work and ideas of countless other people. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jan 3 '17 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ You're not asking for anything that hasn't been possible for thousands of years. Just that Jane is trying to do it the hard way. Some basic research should show you how to make paper/papyrus/velum and ink. After that all it takes is time. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jan 3 '17 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure I understand the lack of love this question is getting. Essentially the question is how would a person achieve this and what would the difficulties be. Compare to: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/25272/… $\endgroup$ – James Jan 3 '17 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ I see the fundamental question here as: "what's the industrial capacity of a single person in regards to constructing a single book completely by hand?" $\endgroup$ – Green Jan 3 '17 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ in other words... "How do I write a book Minecraft style?" $\endgroup$ – Adrian773 Jan 4 '17 at 3:27

10 Answers 10


You might want to watch this talk, for ideas. https://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_thwaites_how_i_built_a_toaster_from_scratch

It's not going to be as hard as you think the hardest part will be making her tools to make her tools. It will probably only take a few years assuming she has some handy farm land, and most of that will be growing time.

Basics She will need to make a stone axe becasue she is going to need one or two buckets, quite a bit of lumber,and two smooth flat boards.

She will need a stone knife for carving.

She is going to need a cup or two for mixing, clay would be best.

She needs to harvest a bee hive for wax and possibly honey.

She is going to need a lot of various size rocks. including at least one dished rock for grinding.

Paper She is going to need a bucket, two flat smooth boards, and a lot of rocks to grind the pulp and press the boards, the more weight the better. If the can lever up a small boulder that will work better. She is going to need sand to polish the pressing boards or she can harvest and smooth slate if she can get a quarry to agree to let her.

She needs a screen which means she has to make her own thread, although long hair (horse or human) would also work, but she is going to need a lot of it. the screen frame can be made from wood branches

She is going to need fiber for thread and pulp for paper, Flax will work for both of these, It's fairly easy to grow and process, and it can be used for both. Processing it can be done entirely with wood and stone tools up to the screening step. She can also harvest paper wasp nests and cotton as additives to make slightly better paper and thread.

If she wants really white paper it gets a bit harder her best bet is to make it with fly ash, If she considers scavenging it from a coal plant ok its fairly easyto get, If she has to harvest and burn the coal to make it herself she is going to need to harvest her own coal which can be done by hand or with her stone axe. She will need a lot of it. Then she is going to need to harvest some clay and wood to make an earth oven to burn it and harvest the fly ash.

Pen She can work with a simple pen made from a feather (search the woods), and some wax and thread. Plenty of youtube videos on how to do this.

Ink Ink can be made fairly easily from eggs, honey, and soot. If she insists on squid ink then she needs to make a fishing spear and/or net and go catch several dozen squid, octopi, or cuttlefish depending on size. there are youtube videos on how to harvest it, you just need a knife and a container.

binding She is going to need thread and wax or glue, we already covered all this except for glue, if she can find a dead deer by the road she can cut the hooves off and use the oven to make a workable animal glue although any hoof, claw, or leather will work. The bones will come in handy for other tools as well. The glue does have to be boiled for a long time, which means she will need some kind of earthenware container.

Here is the site of an artist who makes books. http://uacreativephoto.com/artist-heather-f-wetzel-her-book-making-tools/

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    $\begingroup$ This is a really detailed answer, thanks ! $\endgroup$ – Ctouw Jan 4 '17 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ +1 For not theory-crafting and say it depends (although it most certainly does) and just simply putting together a fairly straightforward possible solution. $\endgroup$ – fgysin Jan 4 '17 at 14:52

Jane is going to need three things, something to write on, something to write with and ink. In some cases she can combine something to write with and ink into one thing, such as in the case of a charcoal pencil.

Something to write on

If she's willing to use rice paper she could save some time. No need to cut down and grind up a tree when you can harvest grains and grind them up with a rock, soak the pulp and then cook the water out. If she's willing to hunt or trap animals, and has the stomach for skinning and tanning them, she could use leather sheets either as a cover or as the pages themselves. If remember correctly, Survivor Man, Les Stroud, was able to kill and skin a bunny with a dead fall trap and a sharp rock. So no need for complex spears or bow and arrow there.

Binding the pages might prove hard. If Jane does have leather, it can be cut into thin strips and a pointed stick could be used to poke holes through the paper.


Ink can be made from black walnuts' stain. In a pinch she could experiment with local wild berries and see if any of them can properly stain her paper.

Something to write with

A quill can be made from a common feather, or a stiff reed.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess you would not need a writing instrument if your willing to finger paint as well. $\endgroup$ – Madcow Jan 3 '17 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ *In a pinch she could experiment with local wild berries and see if any of them can properly stain her paper. $\endgroup$ – Madcow Jan 3 '17 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ Binding is actually very simple - Jane can tap trees for sap or resin, and glue individual pages together, placing large stones on top to push the pages together while the adhesive dries. This is a technique called perfect binding (typically done with a machine and glue, but beggars can't be choosers). $\endgroup$ – SPavel Jan 3 '17 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ @SPavel or she can make authentic book glue from anything that contains enough starch. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Jan 4 '17 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Daerdemandt True, but that requires a fire and the ability to process things into starch. Getting resin from pine trees just requires a little bit of walking. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Jan 4 '17 at 15:22

Really this boils down to where Jane decides to make her compromises. Depending on how loosely Jane defines outside help the task will be fairly straight forward or utterly impossible alone. Without some compromises Jane isn't going to be able to create something recognizably bookish because it takes a tool to create every single tool. It is this long chain of increasingly refined tool creation interrupted by inevitable failures along the way that will doom Jane if she doesn't compromise.

You say that Jane can use the internet does this mean that Jane can use the internet for initial research that she must memorize prior to starting the process of constructing her book, or can she use it throughout the process every time she gets stuck? You say she can spend money on travel to acquire raw materials. Can she spend money on a backpack to carry the raw materials back home or does she need to carry all raw materials by hand until she fabricates her own backpack? Similarly can she use an existing container to hold her ink or does she need to fabricate that? These decisions are just the beginning. Can she use electric lights to extend her working hours thereby getting assistance from others in the form of viable working hours? Some materials potentially could be spoiled by animals. Does her living in a city and effectively using the other people as a deterrent constitute outside help? If she buys a farm to help her produce animals to be slaughtered for their hides, or other raw materials, does she have to bootstrap every farm system alone? Does she have to provide her own shelter since the comforts of a modern home will impact her health, level of fatigue, and mental clarity for the tasks she must perform?

Once we define all the little compromises Jane will make we need to address what she defines a book as... For example the absolute simplest version would be to find a dry cave, and write the book on the cave walls with charcoal. Does that count or does the book need to be distributable? Can she crack open bamboo with rocks, flatten the bamboo into strips and write the book on the strips with charcoal? Now the book is theoretically distributable but it still doesn't really look bookish. If she uses clay tablets then the "pages" can be rectangular which will look more like a book but can't be reasonably bound.

Her best bet in my opinion for something that looks like a book would be to make paper out of cotton, and use a hand spun cotton thread to bind the book. It would be easier to bootstrap a cotton farm than something to handle livestock, not to mention figuring out how to pulp wood. She could use fire to fell, and hollow out trees to make the vessels for processing the cotton and find a flat rock for drying the cotton pages. With that part done writing on the cotton pages should be fairly easy to figure out.


Reality check: The first chapters rot before Jane finishes

The art of preserving written material is going to be hard for Jane to learn on the fly. If she makes the smallest mistake, the only tell-tale signs will come months later, in the form of a terrible smell and a heart-breaking loss of her work.

Consider this: A three-hundred page novel may take Jane as long as two years to write out.

The Bible took 4 years to write out, working 14 hours a day with modern pens and paper.

Many of the natural materials people are suggesting would rot in the time-frame required for Jane to finish the novel. Either Jane must:

  • Keep the book in the fridge, only taking it out to add pages. This is no guarantee, and actually risks more condensation damage.

  • Use modern desiccants and preservatives.

  • Live somewhere very cold and dry.

  • Spend years learning, and demonstrating, the art of preserving until she is confident enough to invest her time writing again.


Yes of course, she can

The question is how much time she wants to spend getting ready to write. She can either write the novel or master every industrial art between the Stone Age and Gutenberg, and then write her novel.

Simplest Novel Ever: The simplest of novels could be written on clay tables fired by the sun or in a simple kiln. Use a sharpened stick or rock to make impressions on the clay. Making enough clay tablets and finding appropriate sticks is time consuming but Jane is highly committed to this method so it's okay. She wants to write not invent civilization from scratch.

Introducing metal working: Starting with bronze, Jane has many more options for what she can write with and what kind of "paper" she can use. However, the trade-off is that she's going to spend most of her time mining, smelting and smithing to get the tools (and replacement tools) that she wants. Bronze tools make chopping down trees much easier.

Making her own high quality paper: The higher the quality of paper, the more time will need to be spent on building the tools and machinery to make that paper. Simple rough paper with rough pulp won't take very long to make. Fine paper from smooth pulp and bleaching will take longer.


A lot of the answers here have mentioned paper. That's not a great way to go about making a book from scratch. Making a book-sized amount of paper is an immense amount of work.

Parchment is a much easier way to go. All Jane needs is some animal skins (and thanks to persistence hunting, that takes basically zero tools, though she'll want a hand-axe for the skinning and scraping), a way to stretch them (rope, vines, or sinews, tied to some convenient trees), and some alkaline soaking solution (burn a tree, use the ashes). She'll rack up quite a body count by the last chapter, but at least she won't need to lathe any rollers.

From there it's a relatively simple matter of the ink (lots of potential recipes, depending on what plants she has to hand) and the binding (she'll have a lot of sinews to use, but plant fiber might be better). Probably not worth catching birds for their quills... broken reeds will suffice. She can use boiled leather for the cover.

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    $\begingroup$ Now I'm picturing Jane in the midst of savannah, after day's pursuit finally striking down the exhausted gazelle with a stone, saying "Chapter 9, babe". $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Jan 4 '17 at 10:54

Jane CAN grow the trees, shave them down, make paper pulp and so on, or she can raise a bunch of sheep, hand slaughter them with a knife she made (which she learned how to do from a local blacksmith, over the course of two years) but this is 2017.

If the goal is to make it personal and do EVERYTHING, including the tools from scratch, this is going to take a decade or longer just to learn the skills to build the tools she would use.

As to growing things--she would have to make the fertilizer herself--or raise things to make the fertilizer...this includes, trees, cotton, papyrus, rice and what have you...she'll need to make a plow and what not, which she must make herself, by hand. Oh, and to get the water to the field, or to the animals I guess she won't be using a hose made in a factory, because that's a tool to keep her plants and animals alive? Because that would be a tool to get water there. If you are having her make the axe to cut down trees, this fits right in. And if she has animals, I suppose she'll have to make an enclosure and carve out a water trough.

At some point, this gets ridiculous.

Ink is, by far, the easiest thing to make from scratch. But if you use the recipe with honey, eggs and soot involved, you will need to raise chickens, keep bees, and learn how to make a fire without a match or lighter. The beekeeping is the trickiest because she will have to make the boxes from scratch. If she wants to protect herself from stings, is she allowed to wear a bee keeping outfit she did not make? I think she can. I think that's ok. Same with the thick leather gloves she'll need for the metalworking, and the apron. I mean, we have to draw the line somewhere. Can that line allow her to buy a net if she decides to go for squid catching instead? Otherwise we can add net-making to her skills.

The good news is that the bees wax can help with binding. But she will likely need a needle and thread--so it's time to learn how to make thread with that cotton or those sheep. And she'll need to make the needle as well. Can she buy the loom, though? I hope so.

Speaking of livestock, is she allowed to buy feed for them? Or does she have to grow that as well? Originally you said she would not buy or borrow anything--and so I guess she'll have to catch the bees or something? And the livestock and the seed for any plants would have to be bought. Any metal for a letter press or tools would have to be bought.

Speaking of buying things, man, Jane is going to need a lot of land, depending on the length of the book. That's something we need to know, because that will tell us how much she will be growing and what she will need.

Stumbling blocks: Jane will need a lot of land, if only to grow things. Jane will need a lot of time depending on the length of the book. Jane will have to be the entire supply chain from start to finish. Jane will need to not have a job. Jane will need to have a lot of money, if only to buy livestock, land, and seeds...

  • $\begingroup$ As for bees and eggs, she could poach wild beehives and wild birds' nests. It's less sustainable, but she doesnt need much. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Jan 4 '17 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Daerdemandt Depends on how long the book is. I guess stealing is ok and borrowing isn't according to the terms the OP laid out. here in the U.S. that would either be stealing from someone's land (poaching) or disturbing a park habitat. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jan 4 '17 at 15:21

To make printed books she needs to

  1. make paper,
  2. make a device to cast sorts (BTW, this is what Gutenberg actually invented),
  3. make a letterpress,
  4. design and cut one or more typefaces,
  5. cast the sorts,
  6. compose the pages,
  7. print them,
  8. cut them and bind them.

All these crafts are widely practiced by artisans and amateurs, at least in Europe and America.

As an alternative she could have her book printed on demand by countless service providers, or she could choose to have her book published in digital form.

I intentionally did not provide links except to clarify what a sort is in this context.

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    $\begingroup$ "All these crafts are widely practiced by artisans and amateurs, at least in Europe and America." And certainly none of them produces everything from first principles, like Jane wishes to. Thankfully Jane wants to write the book by hand, so the whole printing issue does not arise, as it would be utterly impossible for her to do that alone. $\endgroup$ – AnoE Jan 4 '17 at 0:42

Jane's project is achievable, but requires a large time investment.

The first choice Jane has to make is what material the book will be written on, which is dependent upon her definition of book.

Parchment, such as vellum, requires the hunting and skinning of animals. While rabbits would be easy to catch, their hides are small and Jane would need a large number of rabbits to make her novel, dependent on how small she is able to or willing to write. A single calf, on the other hand, can yield about 3.5 medium sheets or double that if folded. However, if Jane is not willing to buy calves from people, she will have to start a cattle or sheep ranch. She will require tools for skinning. The skin has to be washed by soaking in water and then dehaired by soaking either in a fermented vegetable bath or in a lime bath. Both of these should have their own separate soaking places to save on time, so at least two pits or vats are required. A frame is also needed for stretching out the parchment after it has been dehaired. Any remaining hair would be removed by a knife at this point. From skinning to writing-ready parchment might take up to two weeks depending on the temperature of the dehairing bath and how quickly Jane learns the process.

Tablets or steles are easy in terms of resources, but would require a large amount of space to make a novel. All Jane would need is a source of stone, clay, wood, or wax and she could get started. Clay tablets can be sun-dried or fired in a kiln with the later being more durable, so Jane might need a kiln. Wax tablets can be wax covering a wooden tablet and have the benefit of being editable--simply heat up the wax to about 50 degrees Celsius and start the tablet over again. But Jane would likely need to take up beekeeping. For steles Jane would need a method of moving the stones or wood into position. All of these would benefit from being housed in a cool, dry building.

Paper can be made out of a variety of plant materials. While wood pulp is common today, flax, cotton, hemp, bark, bamboo, and papyrus sedge are other materials that can be used. While papyrus might be one of the easiest papers for Jane to make, it doesn't last long in the climate of Western Europe. Xuan paper and washi, made from the bark of trees, such as mulberry, are probably Jane's best bet for papermaking. First Jane would have to collect the bark and allow it to dry. The bark needs to be pounded and washed--the order depends upon the type of paper. Bleaching may also be done, though Jane need not use the chemical, as traditional bleaching involves the action of the sun and water. A screen, either of metal or bamboo, is needed for forming the sheets. The sheet can then be pressed by another screened frame (like a mould and deckle) or placed on a heated stone. Winter is a better time for this papermaking because it reduces the chance of rot. This is a simplification of the process. The benefit of this process is that Jane would be able to travel to China, Japan, or Korea and be able to find places where traditional papermaking is carried out and possibly become an apprentice.

Bark or bamboo can also be a decent writing surface in itself. I once wrote a poem on some birch bark. Bones could also suffice. It really depends on what Jane means by book.

Once Jane has figured out the material to use, she can then figure out what she will need to write with.

A chisel and a percussion tool, such as a mallet or hammer, would be required if she intended to carve her novel into stone or wood. These could be fashioned out of stone, though if she was willing to take the time and effort to smelt copper or iron, then she could use metal tools.

A stylus would be required for the clay or wax tablets. Any material would suffice as long as it was pointed.

A brush and paint could be used with a variety of surfaces. For instance, Jane could paint her novel onto steles or tablets. Or she could chisel out the words and then fill them in with paint to make them stand out. Various animals could be used as the source for the bristles, including sable, rabbit, hog, ox, and goat. Egg tempera is one form of paint that would be easy to make.

A pen or brush and ink could also be used with a variety of surfaces. A pen can be made from reeds or quills, both of which wouldn't be hard to get. Some sort of knife would be required to make these pens. Inksticks are made from soot and animal glue (made from the boiling of animal connective tissue). To get the ink from an inkstick, it is ground on an inkstone and a little water added. Iron gall ink, which can be used with pens on parchment and paper, would be another possibility.

The other consideration for Jane is how to collect the book together. Steles, for instance, would be stood in a field or room. If she went with paper or parchment, some sort of binding would be needed. Thread could be made from cotton, silk, or linen. Bone could be used for the needle. The cover could be made from paper, leather, parchment, wood, metal, or a combination of those materials.

This process will likely take Jane several years if not decades. Not only will she need to learn a variety of skills, but she'll have to deal with growing times for plants and/or animals. And not all of what she produces will be usable, as she may have a tool break (possibly ruining what she was working on) or have a batch of paper ruined because of mold. When done right (and stored in the right conditions) many of these materials will last for hundreds if not thousands of years, so Jane won't have to worry about her materials spoiling on her once the process has started. She'll just need to get the requisite level of skill in several different areas to be able to make the quality of material she needs. And her desire to make all her tools will be one of the biggest time sinks, as she'll need to learn skills that won't help her at all with actually creating a book and spend time making tools to make better versions of those tools to make the tools she needs to make books. Because it involves such a long time frame, the biggest struggling point will actually be sticking with the project. Jane will be spending a long time with not much to show for her efforts, which might be very disheartening.


Simpler ways:

  • clay tablets fired or sun dried - thick/heavy book, fast to finish
  • strips of bamboo with either:
    • "incision writing" - flint flakes/splinters, the same as the ones used to split bamboo and give a flatish appearance to the strips
    • "polymer ink" - see lacquer tree (rationale: viscous, doesn't diffuse into the fiber)

The absolute easiest way to "write" that book that I can imagine: use Quipu with fibres obtained from... umm... "medicinal weed"; bonus: Jane Doe will have a hell of a good time writing that book.


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