Are you thinking of making some NO-SEW fabric projects like fabric covered boxes, or even fabric books, fabric albums that requires glue, but you aren’t sure what glue to use? This is a very common question I receive when I’m talking about making cartonnage fabric boxes. Then, I decided to write about it, so you can have more details and decide what glue is the best for you! Wait a minute…. Best for me? What did I mean? There isn’t the best glue for this? I don’t think so! It will depend on what do you want with your project…. Read more to see what I mean.
First of all, I’m a cartonnage teacher, and if you don’t know, cartonnage is the traditional “art of box making”. No sewing is required and with pieces of cardboard (chipboard) and other papers, like poster board and kraft paper covered with fabric (or paper), using glue we can make all sort of unique boxes, cases, fabric books and a lot more. If you want to know more about the technique itself and see how is the process of making a fabric box, check this post I wrote about cartonnage.
Ok, then let’s talk about GLUE. White PVA glue is the most common glue used to adhere fabric to the cardboard pieces. It’s a liquid (yes, liquid glue, no wonder under or hot glue!) but kind of thick glue that is applied using roller paints and paintbrushes. But there are lots of kinds of PVA glues out there, and here is when I say the decision can be personal. We have some very cheap glue, we have some stronger “thick” glue (like Elmer’s Glue), and we also have some options of acid free PVA glue (like Lineco, Hollander’s). So, let me share my understanding about choosing the right glue for you.
First of all, what is the purpose of your project? Are you making functional pieces to be used everyday and because it's used it will probably last around 5-10 years or less? Are you making fabric boxes, books or albums for yourself or for gifts that you want to last 10-20 years? Are you making special boxes using your embroideries and you want it to last more than 100 years? Are you making boxes, books, albums that you definitely want to last over 100 years? Then, that’s the starting point. In general, pH neutral and acid free PVA glue, or even archival quality glues are formulated for preservation projects, pieces that you want to last hundreds and hundreds of years. So, if that’s your case, then go for an acid free glue. It’s more expensive than regular PVA glue, but again, it’s your decision, if that’s your intention, I would say pay the price and you will be more comfortable. But…. Am I saying that if you don’t use acid free glue than your project will be damaged pretty quick?? Not at all….
Here is my point of view, including some researches and tests I made:
The glue I use and recommend to all of my students when making cartonnage projects it’s GLUE ALL (from Elmer’s). Really? Regular Elmer’s glue? Are you sure?? Yes, really, and I’m sure about that! Why? Because I have been using for a long time (keep reading to see that not only me but similar glues are being used in many other Countries for lots of years!), because it’s easy to find and use, because it works fine and it has a good price, because I have made some tests to support my “theory”, because I have lots of projects I made about 7 years ago that are exactly as in the day I made them (not a single damage to the color or another aspect).
But I have to tell you that today I use regular Elmer’s Glue All in my projects with confidence, but wasn’t like that in the past. I started using it, because it was similar with the glue used in Brazil (where cartonnage is very well spread and there are tons of people making wonderful boxes and other projects for over 10-15 years, using regular PVA glue). Then, I started learning that here in the US, scrapbook lovers and bookbinders only use acid-free glue, and I decided to try, to do research and see what could be different. So, I bought, not only acid-free glue, but also labeled acid-free board, and turned my kitchen into a chemical lab… what?? Yes, you may don’t know, but I used to be a Food Engineer, and I had worked for a long time inside laboratories… it’s kind in my veins to try to find answers…. So, to be short, I bought a small tool to measure acidity (pH) and started from there. You can see the pictures below. That was in May 2014.
After having all the results of the pH for all kinds of chipboard and different glues I could find, I also made some different projects and test pieces that I still keep in my studio, exposed to the light and environment to see the differences with time. So, I used “labeled” acid free board with normal glue and another one with acid free glue, and I used the board I normally use with acid free and not acid free glues. Tests pieces are side by side since them (over 5 years now), and guess what?? They are the same…. I didn’t notice any damaging in any of them. As I said, I also have lots of fabric boxes and books I made at that time using my normal board and Elmer’s Glue and they are exactly the same as in the day I made them.
Do you want more of my research? So, here we go….
In the tests I made, I found out that the board I was using (and still use today, a chipboard 100 point thick), it is actually acid free even it wasn't labeled as. So, some chemistry here (sorry, it’s stronger than I can handle!):
Acid-free refers to paper and products with a pH value of 7 or a bit higher. pH is a standard, scientific scale from 0 to 14 used to measure the level of acid in a substance. Values between 0 and 7 are considered acidic and values higher than 7 are basic. So, let’s say my board is acid-free but my glue it is not! What happens next? Then, I have to explain “acid migration” what is the transfer of acid from an acidic material to a less acidic material or pH neutral material. Acid migration may occur directly, when two materials are in intimate contact. So, acid may migrate from the glue to less acidic paper/boards. Then one of my conclusions, and the reason that the small acidity in the glue I use is not affecting the quality of my projects is that the reserve of alkaline in the boards I use, neutralize additional acids in the glue as they migrate to the paper (makes completely sense to me…hope to you as well!) This way, that acidity of the glue does not change the color of the fabric or make any other changes.
Ok, enough chemistry for today!
Let’s see what other crafters are using around the world. I asked Sophie Liu from Taiwan what glue she uses. She has authored 2 amazing books about cartonnage with unique and beautiful projects. I exchanged my book (Cartonnage Basics & Beyond) with her and since then, we keep in contact. She told me that they use a PVA glue that is not acid free (like me!). And the reason is because acid free glue there is so expensive…. She told me her pieces are the same since she made them a long time ago. The only thing she said is that she noticed a little changing in color one time when she used plain white color fabric, what she avoids using now. She said she is planning to test acid free glue, but she knows that the price will be a problem for her students and followers. Check her books and her profile on Instagram, I do recommend her amazing work.
Then, I also exchanged my book with Diana Peltikhina from Russia. Her book is also amazing (even though I don’t understand the language, the pieces are great and it's easy to understand the processes). She told me that in Russia they use a white PVA glue that is acid free and very thick. I also recommend you to check her book and her work on Instagram.
Here in US I know traditional bookbinders and other cartonnage teachers, like Hollander’s and Nancy Akerly from Liberty Grove Paper Arts use PVA acid free glue.
In Brazil, as I said, cartonnage is a huge thing right now. Heloisa Gimenes is the best cartonnage teacher there (in my opinion). She said that the glue used in Brazil is a white PVA glue that is not acid free. The reason for that is the same as Sophie said in Taiwan…acid free glue is not easy to find and very very expensive, which makes it very difficult using it. Plus, she said that most of the projects are functional to be used everyday and they will not last enough to notice eventually changes that the glue could make. She also said that she made her first boxes more than 10 years ago and they are the same as in the day she made them, no noticeable changing.
Also, in Brazil I contacted Monica Colocci, who is a bookbinder teacher. She said that for very specific projects she uses some acid free glue, but same difficult here, she mentioned the high price of a small bottle of acid free glue. Other than that, for her normal projects and her books and albums she uses regular strong white PVA glue and she has albums and books she made more than 10 years ago and are just perfect as they are when she made them.
So… long post right? But I was waiting for the day I could share my researches and my opinion about glue. I know those of you that only use acid-free will may not agree with me….and that’s ok, because as I said… glue is also a personal preference. See what is your purpose with the project, check your pocket to see what glue you can afford, and go from there.
If you are like me, having fun making the fabric boxes and books that will be used, and will last enough (actually will last long, believe me...), then you can also use the same glue as I use….the regular Elmer’s Glue (Glue All), be happy and proud of your projects!
Additional tips for using Elmer's Glue:
- Do not use regular School Glue, it's too liquid and not strong enough;
- Use Glue All as it is, do not dilute with water;
- Keep your glue in a dry place, in the original bottle, or transfer for small bottles that are clean.
Hope you enjoy your reading, and if you are using a different glue and want to share with us your experience, please do it, comment below, let’s share information and grow together! Oh, and just in case one day I change my mind, I will let you know (but most likely I will not!!)
Plus, if you want to make beautiful fabric boxes, start with DIY kits, it's much easier and fun. You will find great options on my shop.
Happy crafting time!
From your cartonnage friend,