How to Create a Thumb Index for a Word Document

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Thumb indexes are small cutout sections of a book that 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.

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

Prepare Your Document

Create one tab for each division in your Word document (such as chapters or alphabetized sections) using a tall, thin (single-column, multi-row) table attached to the Header. This table will be identical in all the sections, but in each section, there will be a different highlighted row with text.

  1. Open the Word document.

  2. Select the Insert tab.

    Word with the Insert heading highlighted
  3. In the Header & Footer group, select Header, then choose Edit Header. The header is visible, and the Header & Footer tab appears on the Ribbon.

    Microsoft Word with the Header and Edit Header buttons highlighted
  4. In the Options group, select Different First Page if you want the tabs to be only 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.

    Header and Footer options in Word
  5. In the Close group, select Close Header & Footer to exit the header and return to the document.

    Close Header and Footer button in Word
  6. Select the Layout tab.

    Microsoft Word with the Layout tab highlighted
  7. At the start of each division, go to the Page Setup group, select Breaks, then choose Odd Page.

    Word with the Breaks and Odd Pages options highlighted

Insert the Table

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

  1. Select the Insert tab.

    Word with the Insert tab highlighted
  2. In the Header & Footer group, select Header, then choose Edit Header. The header is visible, and the Header & Footer tab appears on the Ribbon.

    Edit Header command in Word
  3. Select Show Previous to go to the first page header or odd page header, depending on which option you selected.

    Word with header navigation options highlighted
  4. Return to the Insert tab.

  5. In the Text group, select the Text Box drop-down arrow and choose Draw Text Box. Draw a text box in the Header.

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

    Draw Text Box command in Word
  6. Select the Shape Format tab.

    Shape Format tab in Word
  7. In the Shape Styles group, select Shape Outline and choose No Outline.

    Shape Outline menu in Word with the No Outline option highlighted
  8. In the Shape Styles group, select Shape Fill and choose No Fill.

    Shape Fill menu in Word with the No Fill option highlighted
  9. To determine the required tab height, decide how much space your tabs will occupy on the page. Divide that space by the number of tabs you need. Then, add a bit more for the empty paragraph that Word automatically creates under the table.

    Height section in Word's Shape Format menu
  10. Right-click the text box and select Format Shape. In the Format Shape tab, select Layout & Properties and set the internal box margins to 0”.

    Format Shape menu in Word with the margin boxes highlighted
  11. In the Arrange group, select Wrap Text and choose In Line with Text.

    Wrap Text menu in Word with the
  12. Set the correct location of the text box. In the Arrange group, select Align, then ensure that the horizontal and vertical settings are Align to Page.

    If your tabs extend the full length of the page, select Align Top.

    Align heading in Word with the Align to Page option highlighted
  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 fills the width of the text box automatically.

  1. Select the Insert tab.

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

    Insert menu in Microsoft Word with the Table option highlighted
  3. Select the entire table and go to the Layout tab.

    Layout tab in Word
  4. In the Cell Size group, set the exact height for the tabs.

    Height and width settings in the Layout tab in Word
  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. Go to the Header & Footer tab and, in the Navigation group, select Previous to get to the first section.

    A Word document with the Previous button highlighted
  2. Select Next and choose Link to Previous to unlink from the previous page. Continue through the document and unlink each page from the previous one.

    Word document with the Link to Previous button highlighted
  3. Select the first row of the table, select the Shading drop-down arrow, and choose a color.

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

    Shading a table in Word