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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.