Cloud Atlas


most recent commission is a binding of David Mitchell’s “Cloud
Atlas”. I had read the book a number of years ago however given the
relative complexity of the storyline (or make that many storylines!)
it was necessary for me to sit down and read it from cover to cover
again ahead of coming up with a design to compliment it.

better explain how I came up with my design, for those who have not
yet read it (or seen the film version), I will start by trying to
briefly summarise the content of the book…

novel consists of six interconnected stories, each a completed tale
within itself, however with each being read, or observed, by a main
character of the next therefore forming a collective whole. The
main characters do not directly interact with one another but their
lives are infinitely connected and affected by the actions of the

first five stories are broken into two parts – each being interrupted
or halted at a pivotal moment. After the sixth story, which
is completed in one central section, the other five
stories are closed, in reverse chronological order, and each ends
with the main character reading or observing the chronologically
previous work in the chain. The
main characters are also linked in spirit through the reoccurring
image of a comet-shaped birthmark.

Mitchell has said of the book:

all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the
same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a
birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the univers
of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud
refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atl
which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall
be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on
individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes.
So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in
another context…”

wanted to think of a way to tie all the stories together into the
design of the book cover rather than basing the design on just one
theme or place. I deliberated for a long while over the best way of
doing this and decided to look up the longitudinal/latitudinal points
of where each story was set and plot these onto a map. I also thought
that basing the design on a world map would tie in well with the
“Atlas” theme of the book’s title. I set about working out the
coordinates and marking them onto an outline of a map of the world.


thought that it would be appropriate to chose a significant quote
from each of the stories to appear somewhere on my design – where possible trying to use the same font as on their title pages in the novel to depict the quote – plus a
visual element or shape to try and represent part of each story as
well (*this is further summarised at the end of this post). I decided to incorporate these quotes and visual elements into the latitudinal lines of each of the stories.

for the endpapers and doublures, from the start I knew I somehow wanted to depict clouds on these. As well as directly tying in with
the novel’s title and a number of quotes within the book, “What
wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant
ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”
it would also reflect the drifting nature of the characters and how they
cross in time, “Along
the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how
their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like
clouds across the sky.”

order to pattern the paper I applied very wet watercolour paint to
the surface of some Zerkall, then scattered large sea salt crystals
onto the surface and left them overnight to absorb the water. The
salt draws the water up and when brushed off leaves an attractive
surface pattern in the paint. I then stippled white acrylic paint
onto the surface to add a more “cloud-like” appearance to them. The
endpapers were then finished with a layer of paste to hold the
surface texture in place, then laminated in order to make up the


The text block is a signed copy of Hodder and Stoughton’s 2004 paperback publication (all page references for quotes in this blog post are therefore for this version), so I had to deal with individual pages rather than sections when rebinding. 


The pages were pulled from their original cover and then fanned from side to side and PVA glue applied to the spine edge before forming a round and shoulder. The spine was then sawn and cords glued in place at 5 points down the spine length.

The edges of the book were all sanded flat and leather endbands made up in two colours by wrapping two thicknesses of cord with two different colours of leather. It was not possible to sew headbands to this book due to the fact that there were no sections to sewn down into.


The endpapers were then sewn in place onto the cords at the spine and the boards were laced on by fraying out the cord and feeding them through holes made in the boards. 


The spine was lined – first with linen, then a one-on, two-off hollow and finally some leather (flesh side glued down) that was sanded flat when dry to flatten the bumps made by the cords and headbands.


The exact size of the design and covering leather could at this point be finalised. I read in one write up of the novel that it is a “cocoon-like structure of nesting stories” – like Russian-dolls that all sit inside one another. This got me thinking, I wanted to create “viewing holes” through the book’s boards to the clouds on the endpapers so I ordered a series of incrementally-sized brass tubing with the idea of insetting the tubes into the book boards at the locations of the stories on the map. The largest tube of 7mm (outer diameter) was to be used on the first story, working down to 2mm on the sixth.

When the brass tubing arrived in the post I thought that the company had only sent me the largest size – only on closer inspection did I see the other brass rods tucked neatly inside each other!


As with all of my bindings I work on a sample board ahead of the book. I first tested punching through this sample board as I was unsure exactly how it might look. I ended up purchasing a new “Boehm” punch from France as my existing Japanese paper punch only goes up in size to 5mm. Drilling the holes didn’t work as the lamination of the board, papers and leather was quite soft and therefore the hole created wasn’t as crisp as I needed it to be and “pulled” too much at the edges.


Brass tubing inset into the sample board…


Once this test had been done I was able to start on the embroidery, leaving space around where the holes were to be punched once the leather was on the book. This binding design actually incorporated far less embroidery than is “standard” for a binding of mine these days, “just” the outlines of the world map plus one quote…!


the leather was embroidered I was able to paste it to the book block.


The book was left to dry overnight. Once
dry I was able to paste the leather joints down and then infill the inside of the boards with a layer of watercolour paper and then Zerkall, before sanding them flat.


It was then time to actually punch the holes through the boards and to inset the
brass rods into them.


As with every binding I do that includes
metal elements, I don’t like to rely on glues over the passage of
time so chose to solder small posts to the tubing that would be hidden under the paper laminations.


Grooves were cut out from the reverse of the boards which the soldered posts would sit flushly into. 


Once all of the brass tubing had been inserted it was possible to stick down the paper doublures. Before sticking these down I needed to type one of the selected quotes onto them using a typewriter. 


Two of the stories had locations that fell on the spine, which of course weren’t going to have the endpapers behind them. Once the holes had been punched here for the brass tubing it was necessary to stick down small circles of the patterned cloud paper to be viewed behind.


The brass could then be fixed in place.


Once all of the above elements were in secure it was possible to start the tooling using a variety of hand-made, linear and gouge-shaped finishing tools.


The lines were first blind tooled.


Glaire was then applied and 23.5 carat gold leaf tooled onto the leather into the blind-tooled impressions.


I decided to blind tool the ocean sections of the map – I was very pleased with the overall appearance of this but it did take a long while to achieve! Stylised “comets” were also tooled in gold to signify the shared birthmarks of the characters. These were placed at the points where the lines of each corresponding story met (ie. where the longitude and latitude lines of story 1&2, 2&3, 3&4 etc. met) – eleven in total.


I wanted to title the book so also punched holes into one of the longitude lines running down the spine and inlaid the title of the book into the leather. The lettering was tooled onto the cloud-printed paper.


Once all of the tooling of the lines was complete it was time to add the “extra” detail (further descriptions of which are at the end of this post). One such line was blind tooled with a circular pattern and small punched leather onlays were glued to the surface to mimic the layout of musical notes.


Once the tooling was complete I was able to then work on finishing the doublures and endpapers. I planned for the longitude and latitude lines to follow round from the cover design onto these and then added quotes relating to each of the stories. Two of the quotes were pierced from thinly pared leather before being stuck down onto the surface.


Fine gold lines were then cut from metallic paper and stuck down in place. Further detail from the cover design was added, including typewriter lettersets and symbols that had been typed onto leather backed with Japanese tissue.


Once the book was complete I was able to work on the box. The side panels of the box were machined from Rosewood and the lid cut from blue frosted perspex. The same longitude and latitude lines were applied to the perspex using wire, attaching it by drilling a series of small holes through the material and sewing it onto the surface.


The box lid was hinged onto the base before spacers and a box pad were added.


to the colour of the leather it wasn’t the easiest book to
photograph but here are a few of the final book and box together. Further photos and details of the binding can now also be seen on my website. On a closing note I urge you to read this book if you have yet to do so. I found it a challenging read but having picked the book apart for the purpose of coming up with a design for this binding now realise how cleverly it is written – one of the reading list!










The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

set in the Chatham Islands

what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

first section follows the traveling adventure of Adam Ewing, a young
notary from California on his way home from a business trip to New
South Wales, Australia. This section is written in journal format and
is set in the South Pacific during the mid nineteenth century.

VISUAL ELEMENT: The above quote features pride of place on the front cover, embroidered in metallic gold thread. It is the final line in the novel and I felt tied together well the concept of the book and all the stories. It is sewn in the script-like font of this story’s title page.

Letters from Zedlghem

set in Bruges

half-read book is a half-finished love affair”

second section is composed of a series of letters written by a
musician named Robert Frobisher
in 1931 to Rufus Sixsmith
his friend and lover. In the second half of the
Frobisher composes his own masterpiece, the Cloud
Atlas Sextet

Cloud Atlas Sextet” was actually composed for the film and the sheet music can be found online. I printed this out and broke it down into spaces and dots, the gold dots signifying the bars of the music and the grey the notes (minims and crotchets).

Lives: The First


set in California

if trying to avoid the future is what triggers it all?”

third section is the story of an investigative journalist and her
overthrowing of a corrupt power company in fictionalized 1970s
California. Luisa Rey befriends Rufus Sixsmith (former lover of
Robert Frobisher of Letters
from Zedlghem)
is subsequently killed, and many attempts are also made on her life.
It is also revealed that Luisa is the reincarnation of Robert
Frobisher and has a similar comet shaped birthmark.

1970’s journalist would have been quite at home on a typewriter hence
my decision to type letters/numbers onto thin leather and onlay them
onto this line.

The Ghastly Ordeal of
Timothy Cavendish set
in Hull

don’t offer real escape but they can stop a mind scratching itself

forth section is the memoir of Timothy Cavendish, an English vanity publisher in
the last half of the 20th century. Timothy is tricked into signing
himself up for assisted living in a nursing home in the north of
England. He is badly mistreated by the staff and after a suffering a
stroke still manages to befriend several other residents and they
escape together in a stolen Rove Ranger and flee to Scotland.

ELEMENT: Timothy travels between London and Hull by train so a train track features as part of this story.

The Orison of Somni-451
in South Korea

far enough, you meet yourself.”

the far future, corporations govern what is left of Korea. Fabricants
or clones are the primary workforce, providing services to the
consumer driven culture. Sonmi-451,
the main character, is a female fabricant at one of the largest
restaurant corporations. After her friend is killed for acting like a
consumer, Sonmi-451 begins questioning the role of fabricants and
concludes they are nothing more than slaves to corpocrasy.

ELEMENT: I sourced a futuristic digital font to depict this quote, adding extra quote marks on the cover design.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
in Hawaii

cross ages like clouds cross skies”

a post-apocalyptic future, young Zachry

and the Valleymen live on Big I, near modern Hawaii. Their tribe is
governed by a faith based set of principals that focus on the purity
of the soul. Zachry tells his life story to his children from age
nine when he witnessed his the death of his father by the wild Kona
tribe and ending with the destruction of his village years later.
a woman from the Prescients, the last civilized race in the world,
comes to Big I to study the ways of the Valleymen and to secretly
determine if the area is suitable for her people’s cohabitation.

and mountains tooled from gouges, showing the journey made by the characters in the story.

2 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas

  1. It’s absolutely amazing. The level of skill and dedication that was put into this work is simply astounding and humbling. I bow to the creator and I just hope that one day I’ll achieve half of such abilities. Oh my.

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