Tag Archives: perfectbinding

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.

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DIY Writer-Bookbinder

Real do-it-yourselfers have a craving for knowledge about how things work. We aren’t satisfied accepting things “off the shelf”. We have to take them apart to see what makes them tick, and in many cases we wind up modifying or even building a better version using the knowledge gained. Once the basic principles have been learned, the true DIYer will look for ways to make it faster, cheaper, more appealing or whatever. The satisfaction gained from these journeys nourishes the creative fires and feeds the soul of these DIY creatures.

Photo of Michael Faris sitting in chair

Why not do it yourself?

A printer for more than forty years and a writer for the past twenty-five, I have always looked for ways to print and bind some of my work… in small quantities.

The digital press opened the door, at least to the printing part. Finally –an affordable way to print books. I could even print a single book if I wanted. Digital printing is the writer’s dream come true. The work comes off the press already collated and in order, just like a real book! Zowie! The only thing missing to make it actually be a book is the binding part, something I felt could do for myself.

After all, what could be so difficult about gluing a stack of paper, right?

My first perfectbinding effort using Goop silicone adhesive.

So I tried it, using some scrap paper and some silicone rubber. I placed the stack between two boards, put the sandwich in a vise and smeared some Goop on the bind edge and it worked! I was able to wrap a pretty respectable cover around it in a separate operation.

I was elated! My home-grown process worked so well that I bound my first run of my first novel that way. The process took me the most part of a day to bind five books, but they came out perfect! I had perfected perfectbinding in my garage!

Later, I learned to score the edges and scrub the glue down into the book block to penetrate and form a better bond. Later still, I bought a table top hot-glue binder that bound the cover to the edges in a single operation. However, I have to say that the hot glue holds no better than the silicone rubber did.

So now I could make my own paperbacks. Big deal!

Perfect results!


Once I got over how cool it was, I decided to try a hard cover version as it seemed to be just an extension of skills I already had developed with my paperbacks. I was sure I could do it.

And so began an adventure!

My first few efforts were laughable. They were uneven. Some of them wouldn’t stay closed, and most of them wouldn’t lie open without suffering damage to the binding. But I didn’t lose heart. I was determined to find a way to use modern materials and adhesives to produce a nice looking and durable book. I tried this and that idea, trying to emulate the common hardcover book with the tools and knowledge I had at my disposal.

You see I was tired of the look of production books, the mass-produced paperbacks and bookstore hardbacks. But by trying to ignore the old ways, I missed all the important things that traditional bookbinding could teach me! Duh!

So I started taking old books apart to see how they were constructed. I bought a few manuals on book binding and book repair and I read all the articles and watched all the video tutorials on traditional bookbinding. Then I began to see the process in a different light.

There are two major categories or methods to bind pages: flat sheets or folded signatures.

Perfectbinding flat sheets by the application of various adhesives is the most common (and cheapest) way to bind books. This binding method lends itself very well to digital printing, as there is virtually no complicated bindery tasks like folding and stitching required. Hot glue does a respectable job on uncoated paper. Additionally, holes can be punched or drilled near the bind edge for the purpose of stitching coated or glossy papers. The result of gluing and stitching is a very sturdy binding. However, stitching from the side robs a lot of margin from the gutter or bind side. Allowances in the book layout must be made for this. Also, the paper grain should run parallel to the spine to favor the book construction.

Punching Cradle

Folded signatures are stitched in any number of ways before attaching the pages to a flexible cloth backing. This is a much more durable way to bind books, but it is more time-consuming and uses more materials, because this method generally involves a hard cover or casebinding.

But the most important lessons were in the hands-on experience I got while attempting to follow the traditional methods to bind my work. I was surprised at how much easier it was to use tried and true materials… especially adhesives.

Beforehand I was convinced that modern non-water based materials were stronger and easier to use. I thought it would be more efficient to use transfer adhesives and hot glue to produce my books. But I was dumbfounded to learn how wrong I was! Those materials are more expensive and far less forgiving than using water-based liquid glues.

Home made stitching loom for Coptic stitching.

With practice, I learned how to judge how thick and wet the glue should be, how to apply it and how long I can work it before it sets up.  I learned which surface to apply it to and how to rub out all the bubbles and burnish paper to board. I have to say I am sold on PVA, a relatively modern water based glue that lends itself to traditional (and modern) bookbinding methods.

One thing I was able to do was to make many of my own tools and equipment, a truly satisfying thing that fed my inner desires to create. The more conscious I became of exactly what I was trying to create, the more comfortable and capable I felt about making it happen. I began to look at the world differently. I saw bookbinding tools in everyday items — spatulas, putty knives, tweezers, carving knives, knitting needles. I saw bookcloth in fabric prints, batiks, old blue jeans, vinyls for sign making , placemats, old maps.

I have now lost count of how many books I have bound for myself and others. But I feel like my work has improved considerably over the years. Though I built myself a couple of book looms to aid in stitching signatures, I am just as comfortable stitching a book in my lap… and stitching is a trip!

So many ways to do it! I experimented with several stitching patterns until I found a couple that suit my style and I have worked to refine my stitches so they are now looking uniform and just tight enough to hold things together.


Closeup of Coptic stitches

I will often experiment with new ideas using scrap or discarded materials. Once I get the method down, I progress to quality materials. In servicing my customers, my philosophy is to use the best  I can afford, as cheap materials are not worthy of my time.

Traditionally bound 160 page embossed casebound journal

I will be posting some more information on how writers can bind  their own books in a variety of unique and interesting ways, including some of my experiments in hot foil tooling and blind embossing.

Another journal - 320 pages. These covers are bonded leather bookcloth.

DIY Perfectbinding

Not long after I finished my first novel, I decided to have a few printed. I formatted the work in MSWord to simulate a paperback that I had on my shelves. I copied the margins, typestyle and general look of my sample. I was able to fit 3 books up on a legal-sized sheet with a little extra room to spare. I generated a PDF of my 3-up book and took it to the printer.

I had the printer trim out the job so that I had three unbound books. The layout was such that I had additional paper margins on the top, bottom and leaf side of the stack. The bind edge was trimmed to the finished edge. I now had three stacks of paper.

Perfectbinding utilizes an adhesive that is forced into the edge of the book block to hold the pages together. A wraparound cover is applied before the glue cures. Once it has set, the other three edges of the stack are trimmed along with the cover to produce a nice neat squared-off product.

Equipment designed for perfectbinding utilizes hot glue, a process that lays the adhesive in a thick, even coat across the spine of the book. It solidifies almost instantly, which works in a production environment rather well. However, I needed a glue which would allow more working time. After all, I was only binding three books, and I wanted to be sure the pages would not fall out. Also, I would probably have to attach the cover in a separate operation.

I chose Goop, a silicone-based shoe repair adhesive. After clamping the bookblock so that approximately 1/4″ of the binding extended beyond edge of the boards. I was able to work the glue down into the space between the pages sufficiently using a very stiff brush and a putty knife. After working the adhesive well into the spine, I let it cure for a few hours before removing from the clamp.

Goop levels out in a pool as it cures, leaving a smooth rubber rubbery surface. Then, by creasing the cover stock to allow for the spine thickness and applying more of the cement, I was able to attach the wraparound cover to the spine.

When all the glue had cured overnight, I took my three books back down to the printer and had the three sides trimmed for a nice clean job. The result was a professional looking book every bit as good as the mass produced ones.

Next time I will talk about hardcover binding and what it takes to produce one yourself.

Michael Faris

About Time Publishing

DIY perfectbinding Diagram

Two step gluing process for DIY perfectbinding.