How to Create a Thumb Index for a Word Document

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Thumb indexes are small round sections of a book that are cut out to make it easy for you to navigate the different sections. In Microsoft Office Word, you can create a digital thumb index for longer documents to make navigation easy.

Let’s say that you would like one tab for each division in your Word document (such as chapters or alphabetized sections). You want a tab for the first page of the section, and it will appear on the right-hand side. Finally, let’s imagine that you would like these tabs to be black or some other dark color, with white text.

You can create these tabs as a tall, thin (single-column, multi-row) table that is attached to the Header. This table will be identical in all the sections, but in each particular section, there will be a different highlighted row with text.

Instructions in this article apply to Word 2019, Word 2016, Word 2013, Word 2010, and Word for Office 365.

Preparing Your Document

  1. Open the Word document in which you want to create a thumb index.

  2. Select the Insert tab.

    Screenshot of Insert tab in Word
  3. Select Header in the Header & Footer group and choose Edit Header. The header will be visible and the Header & Footer tab will appear on the Ribbon.

    Screenshot of Edit Header in Insert Header drop-down
  4. Select Different First Page in the Options group if you want the tabs to be just on the first page of each section. Select Different Odd and Even for tabs on all the right-hand pages.

    You might have to check both boxes in certain cases. For instance, you may have different running heads on odd and even pages, but no running head on the first page of the sections.

    Screenshot of Different First Page and Different Odd & Even Pages check boxes
  5. Select Close Header & Footer in the Close group to exit the header and return to the document.

  6. Select the Layout tab.

  7. At the start of each division where you will put a tab, select Breaks in the Page Setup group and choose Odd Page.

Inserting the Table

Inserting the table in a text box or frame is the key to creating index tabs.

  1. Select the Insert tab.

    Screenshot of Insert tab in Word
  2. Select Header in the Header & Footer group and choose Edit Header. The header will be visible and the Header & Footer tab will appear on the Ribbon.

    Screenshot of Edit Header in Insert Header drop-down
  3. Select Show Previous to go to the First Page Header or Odd Page Header, depending on which option you selected.

    Screenshot of Show Previous and First Page Header
  4. Select the Insert tab.

  5. Select the Text Box drop-down in the Text group and choose Draw Text Box. Draw a text box that is attached to the Header.

    The size of the text box does not matter because you can alter it later.

    Screenshot of Draw Text Box in Insert Text Box drop-down
  6. Select the Shape Format tab.

    Screenshot of Shape Format tab
  7. Select Shape Outline in the Shape Styles group and choose No Outline.

    Screenshot of Shape Outline drop-down
  8. Select Shape Fill in the Shape Styles group and choose No Fill.

    Screenshot of Shape Fill drop-down
  9. Decide the height and width of the tabs. In our image, the measurements are 0.5” width and 0.75” height. You can figure out the required height for your tabs by deciding how much space your tabs will take up on the page. Divide that space by the number of tabs you need. You can add on a bit more for the empty paragraph that Word will automatically create under the table.

    Screenshot of text box size
  10. Right-click the text box and select Format Shape. Select Layout & Properties in the Format Shape tab and set the internal box margins to 0”.

    Screenshot of margins in Format Shape pane
  11. Select Wrap Text in the Arrange group and choose In Line with Text.

    Screenshot of Wrap Text drop-down
  12. Now you should set the correct location of the text box. Select Align in the Arrange group. Ensure that the horizontal and vertical settings Align to Page.

    In the case that your tabs are extending the full length of the page, select Align Top.

    Screenshot of Align drop-down
  13. Save the changes to the document.

Insert a Table and Text

Inserting a table with one column and the required number of rows inside the text box creates the tabs. The table will fill the width of the text box automatically.

  1. Select the Insert tab.

  2. Select Table and choose a one-column table with a row for each thumb index you want to create.

  3. Select the entire table and go to the Layout tab.

  4. Set the exact height you have determined for the tabs in the Cell Size group.

    Screenshot of Cell Size on Layout tab
  5. Enter the text for each tab into individual cells.

Create Separate Tabs

Go to the beginning of the document to make each tab separate.

  1. Select Previous in the Navigation group of the Header & Footer tab to get to the first section.

  2. Select Next and choose Link to Previous to unlink from the previous page. Continue through the document, unlinking each page from the previous one.

  3. Select the first row of the table and choose a color from the Shading drop-down.

  4. Go to the next section, select the second row of the table, and choose a color from the Shading drop-down. Repeat for the remaining rows and save the document.