Friday, October 5, 2018

So You Want to Make a Zine?

So I've been working away on my first zine, Through Ultan's Door, and the first issue is ready for physical assembly. Along the way, I got a lot of good advice from other people about techniques and gear. If you are interested in making a zine and don't already know it, you should join the G+ community called RPG Zines--it's a great repository of collective experience and helpful advice. I then fiddled around with their suggestions, learned about different kinds (weights) of paper, found out about the maddening limitations of various printers, and thought about weird stuff like how you actually staple on the incredibly narrow spine of a folded piece of paper. I thought I'd share the fruits of my experience with you, because you might want to try your hand at the zine game. This is the post I wish I could have read when I was embarking on this. A warning: if you aren't interested in making a zine, this post will probably be about as appetizing as a piece of cardboard. I should add that I'm a relative novice and other people know much more than I do.

Suppose that writing, art, and layout are done. You have a PDF ready to print. The first thing you need to think about is what kind of paper you want to use to print the zine. Broadly speaking, paper is divided between "paper" and cardstock. Cardstock is the thicker stuff, literally the stock for business cards and wedding invitations. There are three different weighting systems that people use to classify the thickness and sturdiness of paper. The most commonly used in the US is a system that simply puts paper and cardstock on a single spectrum by weight: 20 lbs is normal printing and copier paper, 28 or 32 lbs is what you might print a nice resume or brochure on, and 60 lbs + is cardstock. Another weighting system, used for example by French Paper Co, employs a separate scale for paper and for cardstock. On this system paper is called "text", so there'll be a weight and then the letter "t", and cardstock is called "cover" ("c"). So, for example, on this system 80t might be much less thick than 60c. Confusing, I know, but the link above converts the various measures for you.

This really matters because the weight of paper you use has all kinds of consequences, including aesthetics, price, the viability of trimming your zine, and what your printer is able to handle. The most important thing to say is that you really need to test out different paper weights and types on the printers you intend to use. Luckily, you can usually order single sheet samples of paper pretty cheaply from paper sellers (like $1 a piece). As Nick Kuntz taught me, if you want really fancy paper, the French Paper Co. will send you samples of every single paper style at every single weight they sell for $30 plus shipping. 

You'll get a huge box like this if you do.

People usually use a sturdier cardstock for the zine cover, and lighter paper for the zine interior. If this is your first attempt and you have a limited budget, my advice would definitely be to go with a 20 lb interior and 60 lb cover, both of which you can purchase on Amazon with free delivery if you have prime. Then you can literally photocopy the interior at a copy place, and either use a home inkjet printer to do the cover, or have a copy place do it for you, likely at color copying prices. It will cost you roughly between $2 (if you print the covers yourself) and $4.00 (if they print the covers for you) to physically produce each copy, and the end product will look and feel like a nice zine. But that's not what I did.

The first issue of my zine consists largely of the dungeon that lies on the other side of Ultan's door. I really wanted the zine to be usable at the table. So I decided to produce a zine with a detachable cover with a map on the reverse, like old school modules, that could even stand up like a tiny DM's screen. I also decided to include a separate card with the encounter table reproduced on it, so that you could have the map, random encounters, and key all open at the table, running the whole thing straight from the zine.

For this reason, I went with an 80 lb cover, which it turns out my inkjet printer can handle printing. It has a very sturdy feel and stands up nicely when opened at the table. I experimented with using 60lb cardstock for the interior of the zine, since I happened to have a huge stack of it lying around. I thought it might make the zine super fancy and nice. But it actually was too thick--aesthetically it didn't really feel like a zine in my hands. The other problem was that it made trimming the zine both urgent and impossible. (More on trimming shortly.) In the end I went with a roughly 32 lb interior on nice looking paper...because I could. This zine's been three years in the making, and so I want it to be nice.

Once you have your zine printed, you will need to fold it. I find that it's hard to get a really neat fold if you try to fold all the sheets at once, there's a lot of rounding and stress marks on the paper, and it's hard to keep the fold perfectly straight. However, an amazing device called a Score Pad recommended to me by Keith J. Davies solved that problem for me. It comes with a handy little bone folder to score the paper.

You lay the paper or cardstock on the score pad, which has a ruler along the top with tiny little grooves running along each 1/8" marking. You can then run the bone folder lightly along the groove you selected (5 1/2" in my case) to make a light score that doesn't damage the paper. You then can fold it over using the guard rail to the right to make a perfect, neat fold.

If you score it heavily enough, it'll fold immediately over into a perfect fold. But that might damage the paper and cardstock, so I use a second tool to flatten the page. Jarret Crader recommended this next amazing device to me, a Cosmos 4-inch Rubber Brayer Roller. It's a little roller that does the job very quickly and neatly by running it along the front of the spine of the paper like so.

I do this process for the cover and every page of the zine, stacking up the finished pages until I have a complete booklet. Next comes stapling. I tried two techniques. Many folks recommended the Bostitch booklet stapler to me.

But I found it really hard to use so as to get a perfect staple right on the crease of the spine. This matters, because if it's not on the spine, then the pages of the zine don't turn properly towards either the front or the back. The technique I hit upon instead uses the more traditional longarm stapler. I'm using the Swingline model. It comes with a ruler and a guide. I calibrate the ruler precisely to the right distance and then line the zine up with the Score Pad as a rail to keep it straight. After stapling the top, I just rotate the zine and do the bottom. Although it's not 100% fool proof, I've found it works pretty well to deliver almost perfect staples even for someone clumsy like me.

The next step, which Jacob Hurst recommended to me, is to press the zines down under a weight in order to get the whole thing compressed into a really neat looking zine. His recommendation was putting fives zines, alternating front and back, between two pieces of cardboard, and then putting a cinder block on top of that. Since I'm an academic I don't have any cinderblocks, but I do have some excessively heavy books.

I knew the Complete Oxford Encyclopedia would come in handy one day.

Once you have your neatly pressed zines, the next and final step is to trim them. When you fold a whole bunch of paper over, the thickness of each sheet pushes the next sheet forward, so that the sheets closer to the middle stick out. This is not very neat or pretty looking.

So the final step, at least for perfectionist is to trim the zine. Now comes some bad news. Most affordable paper trimmers are not capable of handling the thickness of your zine. So if you have a 36 page zine (big but not so big), that's 9 sheets doubled over, for a total of 18 sheets you have to trim through. And it's even worse if you're using a heavier paper weight, like I am. Most cheap paper guillotine trimmers can handle 15 sheets. The ones that can hand 30 or 40 sheets are very pricey. Another thing you should know is that you really need to get a trimmer that has a clamp to hold the zine steady, or you might get an uneven cut. That means that for a lot folks on a lower budget, trimming might end up being too pricey. I've heard you can just bring your zines to a print shop and have them trim them for you, so you might want to look into doing that.

Since I'm planning on doing this for a long while, following Gabor Lux's suggestion, my major capital investment was a very fancy paper trimmer. So meet the Terminator of office trimmers, the Dahle 564 Paper Guillotine, capable of handling 40 sheets, with a handy clamp. It even has a laser to show you exactly where you'll be cutting.

Here it is in action. Did I mention it has a laser?

Be careful when you use a Paper Guillotine. The pricey ones all come with guards, but it's still very easy to cut yourself on them. And for goodness sakes, don't leave it where a child could get at it. Here's a before and after on the trimming. It makes a big difference.

And here's a pic of the finished product. It shows the map on the interior cover, the key, and the encounter card (propped up) all in action.

Now I just need to make 200 or so of these things. Not counting the time spent in the press when yo can be folding other zines, it takes me 4 minutes and 7 seconds to assemble each zine. With about another minute to stuff and hand-label the envelope, that's roughly 5 minutes a zine. So I guess that's 16.5 hours of zine assembly. See you guys in a couple of weeks.


  1. Cool write up. I will buy one when available.

  2. The images of this area have been firmly lodged in my head since reading your description - really excited to grab the zine!

  3. I love this build, but there is no way i can afford a laser guided guillotine.

  4. Zachary the good news is you can cut it yourself at a lot print shops or have them do it for you. Or not trim it, some people think it looks better (more artisanal and zine like) if it’s not trimmed.

  5. Wow, that was an informative post and the artwork is beautiful. Looking forward to reading it.

  6. Great news Ben! Will you make it available as a pdf? Either way I want it! I'm a few weeks away from starting play in Zyan, so it'll be of incredible use.

  7. Hello Ben!

    We have arrived at an impasse. You purposely wore a beautiful blue shirt with orange check to allure me to your blog and just as we are about to form a relationship you cast me aside because you are about to become famous and no longer wish to have your halcyon shirt exposed to the gaze of riff-raff.

    Remember recently how you wore unattractive blue spectacles in public? Consider how quickly you turn on your unattractive brethren.

  8. What size of paper did you use for your zine?

    1. I used sheets that were 8 1/2 x 11. The interior is French Paper Company Simple White 100 text weight. The cover is French Paper Company Kraft Manilla Yellow 100 cover weight.

  9. Very neat and a very interesting read. I often get pdfs of roleplaying products and print them myself. Especially short supplements are great to print on your own since the pdf can be modified if there are some pages you don't want included etc.
    I certainly have to look into getting some thicker paper, it really seems that it makes a difference in the final product. You also never specified how you obtained a detachable cover using staples. Do you just not staple the cover or is there some ingenious way I did not think of that does not include pulling the staple through all the pages or ripping the cover from the staple?

    1. The detachable cover is not stapled, just like the old AD&D modules.