Dissecting Old Hardcover Books

Photo of old books

Lots of old worn out books can be found at garage sales.

Garage sales are a great source of antique books. These musty old relics hold a bit of information beyond the printed words and pictures… at least for book binders. For as little as fifty cents, you can find old books that can be dissected in order to learn how they were constructed.Photo of Old Book Disection #2

It is not uncommon to find books over a hundred years old, many of which were bound by hand. Books may have become damaged over time, their covers torn or missing. Pages are dog-eared and stained. These dinosaurs have outlived their usefulness as texts, but stand in the spotlight for the aspiring book binder.

Photo of Old Book Disection #4

This book has tapes that pass through slots cut into the entire text block, rather than sewn in.

Book covers have been made from all sorts of materials ranging from leather to fine silk book cloth. Most, however were made by wrapping and gluing some sort of fabric around a stiff book board. I have seen book covers made from wood and even woven mats of bamboo.

Covers are usually attached by gluing heavy end papers, supplemented by the addition of a cloth backing glued to the spine. The end sheets are sometimes decorative, and the paper may have been hand made or individually hand colored. Some striking examples of marbled papers can sometimes be found inside the covers of old books.

Removing the covers almost always involves severing the end papers from the text pages. In some cases, the end papers may be moistened and peeled from the book boards to release the cover and reveal the spine.Photo of Old Book Disection #3

Older book bindings differ in many ways. Each time I cut into one of these old volumes, I may discover another unique method of construction.

But there are many common elements too. Folded sheets are inserted within each other to form signatures. These are most commonly in fours to make sixteen pages. But it is possible to find instances where the bookbinder used other combinations anywhere from two to six sheets per signature.

Diagram of nested pages

Four sheets of paper nest to make a 16-page signature

Diagram of stacked 16-page signatures

Ten 16-page signatures stack to make a 160 page book

Each signature is stitched along the inside of the fold to bind the separate sheets to one another, and then each signature is in turn stacked and stitched along the spine.

Here is where I find a variety of stitching patterns. Coptic stitching is a general term applied to sewing all of the pages together into a text block. I find quite a few different patterns used, but most employ the use of a kettle stitch to connect the signatures to one another.

Coptic stitching using tapes or bands.

Once the signatures are sewn in place to make the text block, some sort of flexible material (mull) is glued over the stitches, leaving loose flaps on either side. These flaps are in turn sandwiched between the end sheets and the book boards.

The result is a sturdy connection between the cover and the text that will withstand repeated handling throughout the long life of the book. The paper will tear before a page will come loose in this type of binding.

Photo showing Endsheet showing mull backing

Endsheet showing mull backing on text block before assembly with covers.

Next time I will show how I construct and assemble hard covers for several types of books.

I am always open to new ideas about bookbinding and publishing and would relish some comments and suggestions from my readers. I love to share information and to teach my craft to others. So please, comment, call, come by or send me an email with your thoughts.

Michael A. Faris Bio Photo

Michael Faris

Michael

mfaris1950@gmail.com

541-954-6724

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Comments

  • drawingpins  On November 5, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    This is great stuff! My sketchbook binding has recently pulled apart and the signatures are now falling out too. Heart-breaking. I am now scouring your site to see if I can fix it myself.

  • dgwyther  On November 7, 2012 at 6:26 PM

    Mike: You could make a lot of money printing books and stuff for people and doing the formatting like you did for me – but many – maybe most – of us are not so interested in book binding! I can see how it would be fascinating, but I hope you’ll go after all the writers who want to get their books published, and make a lot of money! Call or email Bill Sullivan, for example – he is sending his books out of the area for printing. Eugene has a lot of writers and I hope you can get them to use your services. Bonnie

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