Create a Thumb Index

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How to create a thumb index for a Word document

Word users often ask how to create a “thumb index” in a document. This is sort of a loaded question, for two reasons:

  1. A real “thumb index” (like a real “watermark”) is not just something printed. Look at a dictionary or other large reference book and you’ll likely see carved indentations like a quarter of a sphere; at the bottom of each is a glued-on label. Clearly this is not something you can do with Word and your desktop printer.

  2. Even if what you mean by a “thumb index” is just a series of stacked “tabs” on the edge of the page (as described and illustrated below), you probably won’t be able to achieve all of what you want for these, either, because most desktop printers cannot print to the edge of the page.

If, however, you are creating a document to be sent to a commercial printer (perhaps as a PDF) to be printed on oversized paper and cropped (the only way even commercial printers can print “full bleed”), then the methods below will allow you to do so. You can also adapt them to create a thumb index just clear of the unprintable area of your printer.

There is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat, and doubtless there are other ways to create “thumb indexes” or page tabs, but the following method is one way to do it.

How it works

We are going to assume that you want one tab for each of several divisions in a document (chapters, alphabetical sections, etc.) and that you want the tab on the first page of the section, which will be a recto (right-hand) page or on all the recto pages. We’ll also assume that you want each tab to be black or a dark color, with white text reversed out of it.

The tabs will be created as a tall, skinny (single-column, multi-row) table anchored to the document header. The table will be the same in all the sections, but in each section a different row will be highlighted and have text in it (see Figure 1).

Pages with “thumb index” tabs

Figure 1. Pages with “thumb index” tabs

Prepare the document

  •  Word 2003 and earlier:
  1. Go to File | Page Setup and choose the Layout tab. If you want your tabs on just the first page of each section, check the box for “Different first page,” and make sure that it applies to “Whole document.” If you want the tabs on all the right-hand pages, check the box for “Different odd and even.” Note that you may need both boxes checked for reasons that have nothing to do with these tabs—for example, if you have different running heads on odd and even pages and no running head on the first page of a section. If you have little experience working with headers, you may want to read "Making the most of headers and footers" before proceeding further.

  2. At the beginning of each division (that is, each place that you want a tab), go to Insert | Break and select Odd page under Section break types, then click OK.

  •  Word 2007 and above:

  1. Double-click in the header of the document to open the header pane. On the contextual Header & Footer Tools | Design tab there are check boxes for “Different First Page” and “Different Odd and Even.” If you want your tabs on just the first page of each section, check the box for “Different First Page.” If you want the tabs on all the right-hand pages, check the box for “Different Odd and Even.” Note that you may need both boxes checked for reasons that have nothing to do with these tabs—for example, if you have different running heads on odd and even pages and no running head on the first page of a section. If you have little experience working with headers, you may want to read "Making the most of headers and footers" before proceeding further.

  2. Close the header pane by double-clicking in the document body.

  3. Select the Layout  tab. At the beginning of each division (that is, each place that you want a tab), click Breaks in the Page Setup group and choose Odd Page.

Insert the table

Word 2000 and above support “wrapped” tables, that is, tables that are not In Line With Text and can be placed anywhere on the page. So it should be possible to use a wrapped table for this exercise. Sadly, it’s not. For whatever reason, a wrapped table in a document header can’t be made to extend beyond the vertical midpoint of the page. Since you’ll want your tabs spread out down the length of the page, this obviously won’t work. So you’ll need to put the table in a text box or frame. A frame is a little easier to deal with, but most users are more familiar with text boxes. I’ll give instructions for both.

Note: If you have enabled both “Different First Page” and “Different Odd and Even” headers and footers, you will need to insert a text box or frame in both the First Page Header and the Odd Page Header.

Insert a text box

  1. Open the header pane by double-clicking in the header area. (In Word 2003 and earlier, if the header doesn't already contain content, you will need to use View | Header and Footer to open the header pane.) Make sure you are in the correct header: click Show Next or Show Previous on the Header and Footer toolbar or Next/Previous in the Navigation group on the Header & Footer Tools | Design tab as needed to get to the First Page Header or Odd Page Header.

  2.  Draw a text box anchored to the header. Don’t worry too much about the size; you can fine-tune that later.

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: Click Text Box on the Insert menu or the Text Box button on the Drawing toolbar and draw the text box.

  •  Word 2007 and above: Open the Text Box gallery/menu on the Insert tab and select Draw Text Box from the bottom. The sizing handles will look different from those in Figure 2, but the text box should behave the same

A simple text box (note dotted border and circular white sizing handles)

Figure 2. A simple text box (note dotted border and circular white sizing handles)

  1. Access the text box formatting tools:

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: Double-click on the text box border to open the Format Text Box dialog (Figure 3a).

The Format Text Box dialog, showing the Layout tab

Figure 3a. The Format Text Box dialog, showing the Layout tab

  •  Word 2007: Just selecting the text box will display the contextual Text Box Tools | Format tab on the Ribbon. Most of the tools you need to carry out the steps below appear on that tab (Figure 3b), but you can also a Format Text Box dialog pretty much identical to the one in Figure 3a by clicking the dialog launcher in the bottom right corner of the Size group.

The Text Box Tools | Format tab in Word 2007

Figure 3b. The Text Box Tools | Format tab in Word 2007

  •  Word 2010 and 2013: Selecting the text box displays the contextual Drawing Tools | Format tab, which also has most of the same tools. Clicking the dialog launcher in the bottom right corner of the Shape Styles group opens the Format Shape dialog, which provides access to more controls.

The Drawing Tools | Format tab in Word 2010

Figure 3c. The Drawing Tools | Format tab in Word 2010

  1. Remove the line border from the text box:

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: On the Colors and Lines tab of the Format Text Box dialog, select “No Line.” You may also want to select “No Fill,” though this is not vital.

  •  Word 2007: In the Text Box Styles group, click Shape Outline and choose No Outline. You may also choose No Fill for Shape Fill.

  •  Word 2010 and 2013: In the Shape Styles group, click Shape Outline and choose No Outline. You may also choose No Fill for Shape Fill.

  1. Set the desired height and width for your strip of tabs. Those in Figure 1 are 0.5" wide and 0.75" high. To determine the required height, decide how much of the page you want your tabs to occupy and then divide that space by the number of tabs needed. If you like, you can add a little bit for the empty paragraph that Word will insist on adding below the table, but if you don’t, it won’t matter. In Word 2003 and earlier, you will use the Size tab of Format Text Box dialog; in Word 2007 and above, the size can be set from the Ribbon.

  2. Set all the internal text box margins to 0". (The dotted lines inside the text box in Figure 2 represent the default internal margins.)

  •  In Word 2003 and earlier, this is set on the Text Box tab of the Format Text Box dialog.

  •  To access this control in Word 2007, you will need to click on the dialog launcher in the bottom right corner of the Size group, which will open the Format Text Box dialog. Select the Text Box tab.

  •  To access this control in Word 2010 and 2013, you will need to click on the dialog launcher in the bottom right corner of the Shape Styles group, which will open the Shape dialog. Select the Text Box tab.

  1. Set the wrapping to “Square.”

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: Select the Layout tab of the Format Text Box dialog.

  •  Word 2007: Use the Text Wrapping button in the Arrange group on the Text Box Tools | Format tab.

  •  Word 2010 and 2013: Use the Wrap Text button in the Arrange group on the Drawing Tools | Format tab.

  1. Set the correct location for your text box. This may require some trial and error, but both vertical and horizontal settings should be “Relative to Page.” If your tabs will extend the full length of the page, then you can use “Top Relative to Page” for “Alignment”; otherwise, you will need to use the “Absolute position” settings for both horizontal and vertical alignment. The horizontal setting will be the width of your paper minus the width of your text box (note that “Right Relative to Page,” contrary to expectation, places the text box just outside the right margin rather than at the right side of the page).

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: On the Layout tab of Format Text Box, click Advanced. In the Advanced Layout dialog (Figure 4), set the correct location for your text box.

  •  Word 2007 and above: Click Arrange | Position, then More Layout Options... on the Text Box Tools | Design or Drawing Tools | Design tab.

The Advanced Layout dialog

Figure 4. The Advanced Layout dialog

  1. Click OK to close any open dialogs.

Alternatively, insert a frame

  1. Open the header pane by double-clicking in the header area. (In Word 2003 and earlier, if the header doesn't already contain content, you will need to use View | Header and Footer to open the header pane.) Make sure you are in the correct header: click Show Next or Show Previous on the Header and Footer toolbar or Next/Previous in the Navigation group on the Header & Footer Tools | Design tab as needed to get to the First Page Header or Odd Page Header.

  2. Draw a frame anchored to the header. Don’t worry about getting the size exactly right; you can fine-tune it later. For complete instructions on inserting a frame in all versions, see the section “Insert and format a frame” in this article.

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: You can use the Insert Frame button on the Forms toolbar. You won’t find Frame on the Insert menu unless you are using an older version of Word (earlier than Word 97) or have customized your Insert menu to include it, but if you later find that you have a frequent use for frames, you can use Tools | Customize to add it (you may find it labeled “Horizontal Frame” or just “Horizontal”). Also, if you have inserted a text box but decide a frame would be better, you can click the Convert to Frame… button on the Text Box tab of the Format Text Box dialog.

  •  Word 2007 and above: You can add the Insert Frame button to the Quick Access Toolbar by selecting Horizontal Frame from the All Commands category in the Customize Quick Access Toolbar dialog.

A simple frame (note hashed border and square black sizing handles)

Figure 5. A simple frame (note hashed border and square black sizing handles)

  1. Click on the frame border to select the frame. Remove the border;

  •  Word 2003 and earlier: In the Format | Borders and Shading dialog, select None, or choose No Border from the flyout palette that appears when you click the arrow next to the Borders button on the Formatting or Tables and Borders toolbar.

  •  Word 2007 and 2010: On the Home tab, in the Paragraph group, click the arrow beside the bottom right button (by default its tooltip will display “Top Border,” but it changes to reflect the most recently used button) to the Borders menu; select No Border.

  •  Word 2013 and above: On the Home tab, in the Paragraph group, click the arrow beside the Borders button to open the Borders menu and select No Border.

  1. Double-click on the frame border to open the Format Frame dialog. As you can see from Figure 6, it is much simpler than the Format Text Box dialog.

The Format Frame dialog

Figure 6. The Format Frame dialog

  •  The wrapping will probably already be set to Around; if it’s not, change it.

  •  For the frame width, chose “Exactly” and enter an amount. The height may be left as “At least” or changed to “Auto” or an exact measurement as desired. For height and width determinations see the instructions above for text box sizing.

  •  As with the text box, you’ll need to set the position Relative to Page. Again, use Top for the vertical setting if your tabs span the entire side of the document; otherwise enter a specific measurement; the horizontal setting will be the width of the paper less the width of the frame.

  1. Click OK to close the dialog.

Insert a table and text

  1. In your text box or frame, insert a table with one column and the required number of rows. The table will automatically fill the width of your text box or frame. Depending on your default Table AutoFormat or table style settings, you may need to remove a border from the table as well. A quick way to do this (all versions) is the shortcut Alt+Ctrl+U.

  2. Select the entire table and go to Table Properties. (In Word 2007 and above, many of the controls mentioned below are on the Layout tab of Table Tools, which are active when a table is selected.)

  3. On the Row tab, set the exact height you have determined for the tabs.

  4. In each cell, type the text for one tab. Use Format | Text Direction to rotate the text if desired (see Figure 7). (In Word 2007/2010, the Text Direction command is on the Layout tab of Table Tools.)

Tab with rotated text

Figure 7. Tab with rotated text

  1. When you have inserted the text for all the tabs, select the entire table and use the Font Color button on the Formatting toolbar (or Format | Font: Font Color) to color the text white. (In Word 2007 and above, right-click to display the mini-toolbar, which contains the Font Color button.) All your text will disappear!

  2. If you inserted a text box or frame in both the First Page Header and the Odd Page Header, repeat steps 1–5 for the other header.

Make the separate tabs

At the beginning of this exercise, you inserted section breaks between your chapters or divisions. Until now, however, you have been working on a text box or frame and table inserted in the First Page Header (or Odd Page Header, or both) for all the sections. Now you will unlink them and create the separate tabs.

  1. Make sure you are at the beginning of the document. Click the Show Previous button on the Header and Footer toolbar (Previous Section on the Table Tools tab in Word 2007, Previous in Word 2010 and 2013) until the Header pane says “First Page Header – Section 1” or “Odd Page Header – Section 1.”

  2. On the Header and Footer toolbar, click Show Next twice (or three times if you have checked the boxes for both “Different first page” and “Different odd and even” on the Layout tab of Page Setup) to get to the next First Page Header or Odd Page Header.

  3. Click Link to Previous (or Same as Previous) on the Header and Footer toolbar (Design tab of Table Tools in Word 2007 and above) to turn it off (the button is not highlighted), which will unlink this header from the previous First Page Header or Odd Page Header.

  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you reach the last First Page Header/Odd Page Header in the document, then return to the beginning (Section 1).

  5. Display the Tables and Borders toolbar (Figure 8). (In Word 2007 and above, these tools are on the Design tab of Table Tools.)

The Tables and Borders toolbar

Figure 8. The Tables and Borders toolbar

  1. Select the first row of your table. Click on the arrow beside the Shading Color button and choose black or the desired dark color from the palette. Your white text will now show on the first tab.

  2. Go to the First Page Header/Odd Page Header in Section 2, select the second row of the table, and fill it with the desired color. If you’re using colors other than black, you may want to make each tab a different color; just be sure they’re dark enough for the white text to show up well.

  3. Repeat until you have shaded one table row in each section.

  4. Close the header pane. You’re done!

This article copyright © 2006, 2008, 2011, 2014 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.