Tag Archives: marbled endsheets

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.