Tag Archives: ethiopian coptic stitching

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

DIY Bookbinding – Stitch or Glue?

Photo of Mike Reading Paperback

Nothing like a good old fashioned paperback novel.

How many folks out there actually read any given paperback book more than once? I’ll wager that one of three things will happen to that paperback novel after the first read. It will be:

  1.  Discarded
  2.  Passed along (maybe)
  3.  Stuck on a bookshelf in a closet to be discarded in later years.

Most people get their information from the World Wide Web. Printed books are losing out to the more timely, convenient and less expensive electronic means of communication. The public is buying Kindles, Nooks and Ipads to aid in consuming current information.

But I know paperback novels still have their place. I have yet to have one crash or become useless because I can’t open it. It operates completely independent of the power grid. A paperback is not locked down by digital rights management (DRM). I can lend or give it to anyone, confidant that they will be able to access the information (assuming they can read). It will not be subject to hardware or software limitations.

Lovers of paperbacks are slow to adopt electronic books. Even those that do will confess there are times when a good old drugstore western, a detective story or even a romance novel in the form of a pocket-sized book with real paper pages is very comforting. No whirling fans. No flashing monitor. No keyboard. Just an independent stack of paper with printed words.

Then there are those folks, (my father, for one) who refuse to have anything to do with a computer or smartphone. They can’t be reached unless it is in conventional terms. By that I mean they haven’t advanced beyond television, radio and newspapers. If they read, it is from printed material (only).

I wanted to be able to do my own binding so that I could produce a handful of books to give to my friends and family. I was going for the mass paperback look. You know, the squared-off kind with the stiff paper cover that you see on the racks at news stands and at the drugstore. I figured it would be simple and inexpensive.

Photo of Common Paperback Book

Common Perfectbound Paperback Novel

A nicely perfectbound paperback novel will stand up to several readings during which time it will be dog-eared, bent, crushed and spilled upon. It will have spent time on the dashboard of your car, or in your backpack or purse, having its cover folded back so it can be read using one hand while you eat lunch. You will mark places where you left off with anything handy. For all practical purposes, it is a throw-away or disposable commodity. The information contained within is usually read only one time by any single person. Afterward, it is no longer needed and might be passed on to another or thrown away.

Producing small quantities of paperbacks has been prohibitively expensive until recent years. Now, with digital technology it is possible to get printing in small quantities at affordable prices. Binding is an extra step, that may not be offered by your digital printing service.

So why not do your own binding? It has some real advantages. You can use different types of paper for covers and dividers inside the book. You’re not restricted to standard sizes. You can bind as many or as few as you like.  You can bind special personalized pages in each book, in effect varying the content to suit.

Photo of Guillotine Cutter

Having an industrial paper-cutter is a real plus for binding your own books.

Being a lifelong printer by trade, I have always had access to an industrial paper-cutter. So, to make my own books all I really needed to do was to glue the edges of a stack of paper, wrap a cover around it (also glued) and then trim it out to look like a book. Simple idea? (Yeah, right).

During this journey I became more aware of paper characteristics and how much they affect the quality of the book. Smaller pocket-sized books are more sensitive to the paper grain direction and paper stiffness when it comes to mechanics. A stiff paper with the grain running contrary to the spine will make the book difficult to read because the pages will not stay open.

Photo of book with improper grain direction

Pages will not lie flat when the grain direction is perpendicular to the spine.

Another important consideration is the margin between the copy and the spine. This distance needs to be greater than the outside margins in order for all of the copy to be visible, because a portion of the page disappears into the spine. Skinny gutter margins will result in the reader forcing the book open beyond the intended limit in order to view the print. This weakens the spine and it ultimately fails.  Too much gutter and the type or image area becomes too small.

Photo of book with proper grain direction

When the paper grain direction is parallel to the spine, the book will easily lie open without damaging the binding.

I have explored different adhesives and applications thereof, all the while looking for a method/material that will provide the most durable and flexible bond for my glued bindings. One characteristic of dime store novels (back when paperbacks really were a dime) is brittle glue. If you can find one at a garage sale or used book store, the adhesive has probably yellowed with age. Opening the book to its limit is likely to break the spine. Pages will fall out easily.

More modern acid-free glues are designed to be flexible and to adhere to the paper with more tenacity.

Photo of Hot glue binder

A short-run tabletop hot glue perfectbinding machine.

People abuse books. Especially paperbacks. The very nature of the animal begs for mistreatment. Anything that a book binder can do to improve the longevity of a binding will enhance his product.

Photo of Worn Paperback book

A typically well used paperback. Broken and torn from age and use.

I have learned to score my soft covers close to the spine on the front and back of the book in order to provide stress relief.  A book made in this way will allow the cover to be opened without stressing the glued spine.

photo of Softcover with strain relief crease

Note the strain relief crease in the cover on the left side near the spine.

Even so, all these measures cannot ensure that the pages will not ever come loose at some time during the life of the book. But there are ways to make better books that will stand up to the wear and tear that they may receive in use (or abuse). Of course, extra measurements will require an extra investment in time/money.

So what’s the value of the content? More sophisticated binding methods should be reserved for more sophisticated or more valuable information. These are the books that you want to keep, open and view often over perhaps years or even decades. These are the poetry books, the art and literature works, the family albums and solid reference volumes. Don’t forget family bibles, music and recipe books, the ones that live out there where you can see and use them.

Photo showing side-stitched book pages

Side stitching produces a durable book, but it will not lay open flat

Paperback, or soft cover books can be stitched along the sides to improve durability. This method further encroaches on the gutter margins, but it makes for a rough and tough binding. Not too practical for anything smaller than letter-sized books and still, the book will not lie flat when opened. This is a consequence of binding flat sheets of paper to make a book.

So, what’s a book binder to do?

Hardcover books are not difficult to make. Of course, there are several levels of sophistication for these critters too.

Simply adding a hard cover to your creation will not necessarily result in a book that will work as desired. If you are still working with flat sheets of paper, you will always have the flatness issue to deal with. The pages will be subject to the glue and/or stitching integrity.

Japanese stab binding is a good way to get into hard covers. There are videos and how to’s readily available to illustrate this type of binding.

Photo of hardcover book - Kokapelli

Sooner or later, the DIY bookbinder will want to make nicer, more durable books.

But the most effective way to create a quality special book involves stitching folded signatures and then binding them into a hard case. This results in a book that is not only durable, but will function well. A properly constructed book of this type will lie open flat with no damage to the spine.

Photo of stitched and casebound book - Kokapelli

Coptic-stitched signatures bound into a hard case. The book easily lies open with no damage to the spine.

Photo of hardcover book Kokapelli showing decorative endsheet.

This book has pseudo-marbled endsheets printed on a digital press.

Learning how to stitch signatures is an acquired skill that is really an art. In fact, there are folks out there that create massive, intricate works of paper in various colors and styles to illustrate their abilities. After stitching countless volumes myself, I am humbled by their work.

Here is a good example. This one is really cool. Also check out Sarah Mitchell’s imaginative work, Book Arts, Rhonda Ayliffe, and Garlic Harvest Studio.

Next time I will talk about how I build some of my better quality books, including some hard lessons I have learned in the process.

Binding Better Books

Photo of hand-bound book

Over the years I have experimented with a lot of different ways to bind books. After learning to bind flat sheets with glue using the perfectbinding process, I moved on to more advanced methods involving folding and stitching signatures and attaching them to hard covers. Casebinding is a great way to add beauty and durability to books, and to protect the pages from unnecessary wear in normal handling. These sturdy and handsome books just feel really good to hold and to read. The coptic stitching and casebinding processes are lengthy compared to softcover perfectbinding, but the results are far superior.

Closeup photo of arched spine

Detail showing arched inner spine

A properly made book of this type should lay open easily without damage to the spine, and of course, close satisfactorily and remain so. The inner spine should form an arch, bending away from the case, allowing the leaves to lay over to either side.

Diagram of nested pages

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

Planning the text layout is the first step in building a book. Beyond all the regular page conventions regarding margins, gutters, type selection and formatting to position the text properly on each page, the layout must be imposed for the press sheet. This process locates each page so that when the press sheet is folded down into signatures, the pages are ordered properly. Four-page signatures are easily accommodated in most word processing programs by use of a booklet utility, which will order and position the pages automatically. Eight or more pages per signature are usually handled by the digital printer with special imposition software.Sixteen-page signatures are the most common, consisting of four sheets of paper inserted within each other. However, any number divisible by four will work.

Diagram of stacked 16-page signatures

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

The signatures are stacked and stitched into place next to each other by any of several methods. Coptic stitching binds the pages to each signature and the signatures to each other to create an assembly called the text block. The text block is glued to a flexible mull with wings that will attach to the cover boards.

Photo of comparison between round and square backs

Flat vs. round backs

There are basically two kinds of spines: flat and rounded. The rounded spine is more traditional and was developed to reduce the added bulk offered by the cord used to stitch the signatures. The additional spread is fanned out at the spine, resulting in a book that is more uniform in thickness. The flat type, sometimes known as smyth sewn, utilizes finer thread and more stitches to overcome the same problem. Either method results in a durable binding that will stand up to normal usage for many years.

If you decide to bind your own books, a lot of your time will be invested in doing so. If you value your time, it only stands to reason that you should use the very best materials that you can lay your hands on. However, I would suggest that the beginner start with anything they can get for the purpose of learning. Good stitching technique takes practice. I know I made at least ten books from start to finish before I had anything that I was unashamed to show. My first efforts were crooked, too tight on one end or too loose. I missed stitches and tore out holes. I had big nasty knots that bulged at the spine, and my books didn’t open or close properly.

But now, with thousands of stitches behind me, I can say they are looking quite respectable. It takes time and patience to get it right. Learn when and where to tug on the thread, and how hard to pull so that it is just snug. Concentrate on consistency so that your stitching looks even and orderly. I spent a lot of evenings in a comfortable chair stitching signatures and listening to a TV or radio program.

Photo of stitching frame

Home-made stitching loom for Coptic stitching.

During this sojourn into stitching signatures, try out different types and weights of thread, different needles and spacing between stitches. Check out the difference between using waxed vs. unwaxed thread.  Read up on the various methods of stitching with cords or bands. Try your hand at ethiopian coptic stitches or try to emulate smyth sewing.  Any of these methods will produce good books. It is really only a matter of choosing the way you are most comfortable with and then practicing until you get it right.

I like waxed thread and stitching with bands made from scrap bookcloth. For my 6×9 journals I use three bands each 1.25″ wide. I punch eight holes into four sheets at a time making sixteen page signatures. I use the kettle stitch on each end and loop through the cross stitch over each band to tie the signatures together. I keep my stitches snug by tugging parallel and tight to the spine at the end of each course.

Endsheets go before and after the textblock. One leaf is glued to the cover board and folds to make the first and last loose pages. They serve as hinges between the cover and the pages.  Although many bookbinders will add the endsheets afterward using glue, I prefer to stitch my endsheets to the textblock.

Photo of first PVA application

Applying first coat of PVA

When the assembly and stitching of the textblock is complete, I apply a single coat of PVA cement over the threads and between the signatures at the spine, making sure that the block is nice and square and not twisted.

Photo of rounding the spine

Gently rounding the spine

Once the PVA has set up a bit (not tacky, but still workable), I round the spine by pinching the textblock and hammering lightly along the seams, driving the outside pages slightly away from the center ones. By gently working the spine alternately from side to side using the hammer and your hands, the spine takes on a rounded appearance, and the leaf side opposite the spine has a marked concave shape to the block.

I work the block until it is almost to the desired shape, but yet a little flat, and at this point I choose to trim the three sides on the guillotine cutter.  I then finish rounding of the spine, which results in a much shallower concave profile on the leaf side. Alternately, I could round the spine completely before trimming in order to produce a flat result.

Photo of headband as it is glued to the bookblock

I made a pseudo headband using a Post-It note wrapped around a piece of twine. The clamp is used to help maintain the spine’s shape as the glue is applied.

Photo of comparison between rounded and flat spines

Rounded and square bindings

When the spine is rounded and the block trimmed to my satisfaction, I apply another coat of PVA. To this I add the mull and attach decorative headbands. A final coat of PVA is applied over the entire spine and allowed to dry completely. I should mention here that up until now a lot of effort is made to ensure that the textblock is shaped properly. If it is not cut squarely or is lopsided it will be impossible to correct beyond this point.

Spine laminates and bookboards

The cover base is made from davey board and construction paper. I cut my boards the same width as the nominal page width and 3/8″ taller. The spine width is determined by holding the boards in place and wrapping a piece of paper around the spine. Score the paper by running a fingernail along the edge of the boards. Transfer this measurement to two pieces of construction paper and score them similarly. I made a jig for forming a round spine by gluing the two pieces together around a piece of PVC pipe inset between two boards. I assemble the two pieces of scored construction paper with PVA between, working them until they form tightly around the curve of the jig. You will have to experiment a little to find the right size pipe and inset specs to make it work for your book, or if you are a competent scrapbooker and crafter, you can just form the sandwich by hand and eyeball it to get the right shape.

Photo of rounded spine jig

Rounded spine jig for laminating

Photo of trimming the laminated spine

Trimming the laminated spine

Trim the wings from the bottom layer so that only one pair extends to approximately 3/4 to 1 inch to either side. Assemble the boards by gluing to the wings either side of the spine, leaving a small gap equal to the thickness of the bookboard between the spine and the boards. Adjust the curve of the spine if needed to approximate the textblock thickness by placing weights on the boards and allow to dry.

A simple but very nice effect can be added at this point by gluing paper cutouts to the davey board prior to covering with bookcloth, producing an embossed look. I like to glue bands across the spine to represent the cords used in medieval binding.

Photo showing cutouts glued to bookboards

Any sort of shapes can be used

Any number of shapes can be utilized to create depth. But there are limits. A bit of experimenting will help you to find the right thicknesses and shapes to use to achieve the right effect. To be successful at this bookbinding stuff, one has to dive in there and make a lot of books. Doing so will increase your knowledge of materials and methods. It will also increase your reverence for those that went before us in pioneering the art, develop your style and hone your craft to a more respectable level.

Photo showing the gluing of decorative spine bands

Gluing Decorative Spine Bands onto the formed spine.

Anybody can cobble a book together. It is the fine points and the details that set the novices apart from the true crafter. Choosing the right covering for your book is part of that experience thing. It took me a while to discover the right properties, mainly because I ignored the bookbinding suppliers at first, being mesmerized by the selection of fabrics at JoAnn’s. I used transfer adhesive to stick the fabric to the boards and they looked great! At first, it seemed the way to go because for one thing, the bb suppliers had a minimum order policy. What was I going to do with ten yards of the same material? I wanted variety, man! Besides, the dealers only had limited choices.

The fabric stores had a rainbow of colors and surfaces, and I could purchase small amounts. But as my journey continued, I began to see that my earlier books were starting to sag, looking tired and even wrinkled. I discovered that the adhesive I had used was starting to fail after about four years. This was not good. I had settled on transfer adhesive because it was not as messy as glue. Production orders could be processed in less time with no risk of damaging the books with glue on unwanted surfaces. It seemed a no-brainer.

But now I think that was a mistake. Bookcloth is designed for the purpose of covering books. It is stiffer than regular cloth and it has a coating on the back side that prevents the application of liquid glue from bleeding through to the front side. In comparing costs, I found that the cost of the transfer adhesive plus the fabric exceeded the cost of real bookcloth and liquid adhesive! (Dang! Those bookbinder guys really have it together!).

Photo of rubbing the cover with a stylus

Rubbing down the cover with a stylus to enhance the cutouts

But now I had to learn to use the liquid glue, despite the obvious drawbacks.  So I opened my mind and researched the process. To my surprise, I found it to be not so difficult and very beneficial. In fact, I kicked myself for taking four years to discover it. (Dang again!). The two main things that sold me on PVA were the much lower cost and its versatility. Once I learned to work with it I decided it was the only way to go. Here is a good tutorial on gluing by a master craftsman. In fact, I recommend watching all of his videos for dozens of good tips on bookbinding. Remember, it’s the details and fine points that set you apart from the others.

I like to have a one inch wrap margin for my covers. I start by coating the bookboards and spine with PVA using a roller. I then center the bookcloth and proceed to rub it down starting from the spine and working outward, being careful to push the cloth down into the crevices with my fingers as I go.  Once I have it fairly smooth and even, I trim the corners at 45 degrees and wrap the long sides first, taking care to burnish the surface well, and wiping off excess glue with a damp cloth. Then I crimp the corners and turn the short sides in.

Photo of burnishing leather spine

Using a bone folder to burnish bonded leather to the formed spine

Photo of Butterflies book

Paper and string beneath bonded leather bookcloth

To finish, I continue to rub and burnish the bookcloth, using a stylus and bone folder to work the surface to form around the cutouts, to produce the embossed effect. The finished cover should be placed under weights to ensure that the bookboards dry flat, due to the wet adhesive applied to only one side. Otherwise they will curl as the glue cures. Be sure that all the glue has set and the cover is dry and the boards are flat before proceeding to the final assembly.

Photo of Finished Half Leather Journal

Finished Half Leather Journal

Next time I will be covering the process of making and attaching end sheets as well as final assembly into a finished book.

I  welcome comments and any suggestions you might have for future articles. I love to talk and write about bookbinding and publishing, so hit me with some feedback!

Until next time,

Michael