13 May 2024

Guest Post - Using Filofax Organisers as ring binders - Part 1

Thank you to Kevin for his two part guest post. 

This is the story of an obsession for creating manuals and inserts for ring binders. It's not about planning, or decorating planners, or deciding what inserts and dividers to put into planners, in what order, or washi tape, or stickers... I'm sure many of you will already have been through the same 'mini-epiphanies' as I describe here.

In 2012, I started volunteering with my nieces' school, to support Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, using my long outdoor experience. To help me remember things I thought I would need to do, I quickly put together a few notes, and printed them to eight A7 pages per A4 side. Just 11 pages of notes to start with; a little aide memoire, that slipped easily into a thigh pocket.

Hand layout to auto-generated, and growing

Being a bullet-point thinker, these notes grew; always simple, indented bullet-points. It started with simple rich text format, then moved to Word. Once it got to 26 pages, I wanted an easier way to impose those pages as A7 pages onto A4, for ease of printing. I've been hacking AWK and PostScript, and using AWK to create PostScript since 1990. I also have have experience of LaTeX document markup from around 1990, but I didn't need, or want anything that complex. 

I wrote an AWK script to compose PostScript pages from an input text file, using a simple bullet-point markup notation of my own devising... The composition script also included a crude page imposition system. At this point, the little aide memoire was hand-stitched at the top. I made the imposition code flip and shift even pages, so both odd and even pages could be read like a flip-book, without needing to invert the booklet. 

The limited space & size of the A7 format encourages pithy bullet point notes; a page will fit just 23 lines of about 40 characters and still be readable on A7. I quickly added an A4 output option, to support PDF use on electronic devices such as phones and tablets, and distribution to others (hundreds of people providing DofE now have copies of my Navigation and Expedition manuals this way). Another script can parse the source text to insert bookmarks into the PostScript, that appear in the PDF version. I'm looking into adding hyperlinks for cross-references within the documents.

As my DofE involvement and experience grew, so did the Aide Memoire; I added notes on assessment, navigation instruction & first aid. By this point, I had 114 pages, and the sewing required drilling first; fortunately, I'm an electronic engineer, and our lab has very fine drills for making prototype PCBs. It had also become a bit thick, and, with the obsessive improvement and addition, was becoming hard to keep updated. Some other binding method was needed; a ring binder.

114-page stitched A7

I searched for an A7-sized binder, with no luck (I didn't find the Mini for some reason, not that they seem to take A7 pages; too narrow). I did dig out an old software manual for the Sinclair QL, which has a Krause 3-ring mechanism in a vinyl & card binder, and pages that are wider A7; wider to allow an A7 text area, with room for a binding. But special page sizes are a pain, and my AWK scripting was intended to produce Ax pages for imposition to A4 for easy printing & slicing. And old vinyl is fragile...

My first purchase was a l'Oreal 6-ring binder (promo or staff?), from eBay. Its pages are Pocket sized, and I noticed that they are very close to an Ax aspect page (3 3/16" by 4 3/4", 81mm by 120.65mm, aspect ratio 1:1.49, vs the 1:sqrt(2) aspect ratio of Ax), so I could adapt my script to print four, slightly wider, 6-hole, Pocket-ish pages per A4 side, even though it would require additional trimming of the A4 page to remove the excess. The PocketA page (85.3mm by 120.65mm, keeping the same height to match the ring capacity) was born...

PocketA 6-hole imposed on A4 double-sided

As an aside here, it's worth looking at Ax page sizes. Starting with A0, the 'x' can be considered the base-2 log of the ratio of areas of A0 and Ax papers; i.e. x = log2(area A0/area Ax), or x = 2*log2(dimension A0/dimension Ax). Bx papers have an area sqrt(2) times their Ax counterpart; ie. Bx = A(x-0.5) e.g. B7 = A6.5. Using this approach, my 'PocketA' paper can be considered 'A6.615'; quite close to B7.

A couple of weeks after finding the l'Oreal binder, I found another eBay seller (cosmoszero, I think mentioned here at one point), selling 4-ring, 11mm, Pocket binders, These turned out to be from between 1989 and 1991, and the 1989 catalogue identifies them as the 'New Pocket Organiser', 'P5KL7/16': P5, kid leather, 7/16" (11mm) rings. 

I ordered one with a fastening & pen loop, and one without, at £6 each. They were brand new, in paper/cellophane envelopes, with a little QA slip in the pocket. The leather was still beautifully supple (but immediately conditioned with Nikwax). The 114-page (67 leaf) Aide Memoire fit beautifully. 

The 4-ring Pocket P5KL7/16

Oh; those binders are pictured in an earlier post:


Now this brings us to hole punching. Standard desk punches are 6mm, or 1/4", and these are are too big for small binders, especially the 4-ring Pocket, as the punched pages flop around. I couldn't find a punch claiming to be less than 5.5mm, so I have used a hollow-core punch and hammer, onto a card backing, and a lot of tedious work. A better solution is required; more on that later...

The hard way to punch all those holes

The Aide Memoire and associated script grew; sections on Planning, and lots of Instruction notes. The source text is now split into individual sections, which can be collated (using a simple 'cat' script) to make different manuals, for different staff members, subjects, or for participants. 

The advantage of ring binding over sewing is, of course, that pages can easily be replaced or added. To prevent those replacements or additions upsetting too many page numbers, I switched to a section-based numbering; only the rest of the section needs reprinting. Unless I add an entire new section...

11 A7 pages grew to 348 A6 pages

The collection of binders also grew; an A5 Clipbook 25mm and Pocket Identity 19mm (£5 & £4 respectively from TK Maxx), a corporate-logo slimline Personal 13mm and Daiso B7 Pocket 15mm (£2 & £3 from charity shops), a couple of cheap, synthetic felt cover Personal 21mm from Amazon, and, most recently, Personal Patterns 23mm, Mini Saffiano 15mm & A5 Saffiano 30mm (again, from TK Maxx). 

I've also bought a job lot of 6 Pocket 15mm ring mechanisms cheaply from Amazon, with a view to making my own binders, perfectly suited to my needs.

The Personal organisers I have (barring the corporate slimline) will take an A6 page, with some space at top & bottom, so I switched to that. Much, much bigger than my little sewn A7 version, but better suited to field instruction. A6 is also simple to impose onto A4, with four pages per side (inability to print to the paper edge needs to be considered, or accepted). 

The biggest manual I create now is about 350 pages (175 leaves), so needs the 23mm rings of my Personal Patterns. Or more... I have only recently discovered the 'True A6' binder, with a 1.5" gap between ring groups. I will probably switch to PocketA as a good compromise, though this is likely to need the big, 350-page manual to be split into its individual Planning, Instruction & Operation chapters; Planning should not be needed in the field...

Clockwise from top left: Q7, Pocket 4-ring (x2), cheap Personal, branded slimline, A5 Clipbook, Personal 'Patterns', Daiso B7, Pocket Identity, L'Oreal Pocket, A7 stitched, unbranded Pocket mechanism

In the latest version of the AWK composition script, I have removed the imposition code to external scripts, as it was getting out of hand, and hard to maintain. Individual imposition scripts dedicated to each page size are much simpler, more logical, and consistent. 

The page composition script takes a page size parameter, and spits out A4 pages, except for Personal and Mini, which are A4 width and A4 height respectively. It can also insert PostScript and JPEG images, scaling them to fit in the available space (on up to three folded pages). 

Hole punching guides are printed for every eight leaves, because the hollow core punch could manage that. 

All the scripts are fairly basic; I'm an electronic engineer, not a software engineer, but they work, although the imposition scripts rely on the PostScript, being produced by my composition script, having some layout values and functions defined in the PostScript document header. 

The composition and imposition scripts can produce A4, A5, A6, A7, Personal, PersonalA (Personal height, A6 width), PocketA, B7, Mini, MiniA & Q7 page sizes. 

The imposed pages can be trimmed, cropped and simply stacked to form a correctly-ordered set of pages, without any need for manual riffling. 

To support updates to just a few pages, the imposition scripts can extract and impose a specified range of pages from within a complete document.

How to cut and stack imposed pages (I've since swapped L & R)

Three page inserted JPEG image

On to the holes. I have a nice, sturdy Velos Perforex 420, 4-hole adjustable punch, and can add another two punch heads from a second, but no-one makes smaller diameter cutters. 

I designed one, but it would be expensive to get six made. I started to investigate other methods. 

There are big, office punches (we have a Rapesco P2200 at work), that use 6mm, hollow punch heads, and can cope with 150 sheets at a time. But smaller diameter punch bits are not available, and the punch has a fixed 80mm 'A4' gap, so is no good for 0.75" spaced holes.

Velos Perforex 420 punch

Design for a 4mm punch insert

More googling revealed the 'paper drill'; a hollow-core, rotating drill with cylindrical cutting face. And then I found one on eBay for £20; a Japanese Lihit 2001A Auto Punch. It involved a day trip to collect, but was worth it. 

It came with a 5.5mm drill, but you can still get replacement drills, from 3mm to 6mm, in 0.5mm steps. More than I paid for the machine, but... The horizontal and depth adjustments are rather crude and stiff on this model, and intended for 80mm 'European' spacing. So I am working on a smoother bed, with indent positions for the common drilling positions.

 The Lihit 2001A paper drill (minus drill bit...)

This got me looking more closely at the various hole spacings. All organisers seem to use a 3/4" (19.05mm) ring separation, but the difference is the number, and central gap between groups of rings. 

The gap is either a multiple of the ring spacing, or is 2" (plus another ring spacing for A5). So A5, Personal, A6 (with Personal holes) & 4-ring Pocket use 2" or 2.75" gap. The True A6, 6-ring Pocket, Mini & M2 use 3/4" or 1.5" gap. 

The change from 4-ring to 6-ring Pocket in the 1994 range (after the takeover of Lefax, in October 1992, maybe?) meant the Pocket pages would no longer fit in the Personal, but the Mini pages would now fit in the Pocket.

All paper sizes with ring holes lined up

2" & 2.75" centre gaps

0.75" multiple ring spacing

For my drill indent positions, this would mean a set of seven holes at regular 3/4" spacing, plus another four holes, with 3/4" spacing, offset at 2" from the third hole of the first set. 

However, the 'left hand edge' of the paper would need to be set individually for each page size, relative to these drilling positions. 

Therefore, either use fixed hole indents and adjustable left edge, or fixed left edge, and adjustable hole positions. 

Then there is the 'backstop', to set the drill margin; this seems to be 6mm for the larger pages, down to 4.5mm for Pocket and smaller. 

My design so far uses fixed left hand edge, and replaceable drill indent guide, and two position backstop. It's designed to use Rexroth aluminium extrusions, and some angle aluminium sections; fairly simple to build.

Thank you Kevin. In Part Two you will get to learn about the creation of the inserts. 


  1. Admiring your ingenuity in all this Kevin

  2. Kevin, your post is truly impressive, demonstrating your skill in adapting documents to different paper sizes, even in duplex! I'm really curious, could you share which operating system you're using for this: Windows, Mac OS, or Linux?

    Many years ago, I wrote several manuals printed in duplex on A4 but cut into A5 for use in an A5 Clipbook. This was relatively easy using MS Word on Windows. I then changed to a MacBook, and with tweaking, I could achieve the same results, but a few years ago, the MS Word for Macbook changed, and I lost the ability to do the above.

    I recently revisited this and found that if I use pre-drilled A5 paper, define the page correctly in Mac MS Word, and set the printer with the correct setting, then I can create documents in A5 and print them in duplex. However, this only allows me to use A5.

    I'm really hoping to find a solution that would allow me to print documents on A4 paper and cut them down to A5, Personal, Pocket, etc. Your guidance would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Robert, thank you for your kind comments; glad you enjoyed the article. You may be interested in tomorrow's Part Two, which covers the generation of inserts...

      The advantage of writing my own composition software (however crude, and special-purpose), and generating PostScript, is that I have full control over placement of pages on a printed sheet, and my imposition scripts allow me to make printing & cropping as easy as possible. Getting commercial WYSIWYG DTP packages to do what you want is somewhat harder, as they aren't really intended for producing imposed, print-ready output, other than for standard page sizes. In Part Two, I talk about re-creating the Free-Form insert booklet in LibreOffice Writer; that all worked nicely, generating Personal pages. That was all well and good until I wanted to impose three pages onto A4 for printing, as Writer does not produce nice, clean, human-readable PostScript that works with my imposition scripts. It's a bit of a drop-off in the DTP software that they don't include even basic imposition tools.

      For printing A5 on A4 paper, if you have a PDF document in A4, then the print dialogue in Acrobat has a Booklet print option, which will allow you to impose the pages as A5, onto A4, double-sided, and will do the imposition so that if you fold the printed stack (or cut and stack together), the pages will be in the correct order. That is the easiest way of getting A5 documents from a double-sided A4 printer.

      The other obvious difficulty is the different aspect ratios of the various paper sizes, especially for Filofax, where there is no obvious relationship between Personal, Pocket and Mini; they all have different aspect ratios. That means you cannot simply scale an Ax document to fit the desired page (well, not without distortion). That's why I chose to make all my documents Ax size, and not stick with the Filofax page sizes (hence my 'PocketA' page, and use of A6 pages in Personal binders). My composition script _will_ now output Personal & Mini pages, but I haven't used them beyond testing the code.

      As for my software, it uses tools provided by Unix/Linux; AWK, shell scripting, and ps2pdf. These can be found (or installed) on any Unix or Linux platform (including the BSD Unix that underpins MacOS, though I'm not sure if MacOS allows packages to be installed), or within the Cygwin utility under Windows (that provides a Unix command-line environment within Windows).