02. The Basics of BookBinding

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The art of bookbinding utilizes several different materials, tools and equipment. This chapter presents a review of each of these.

Choosing Quality Supplies

The process of bookbinding requires many raw materials such as paper, threads, tape, boards and fabric. All these items are available in the market in different quality levels and grades. Only the best of these should be used because low quality materials may not achieve a fine binding, which would put both time and efforts to waste. Good quality materials may be expensive, but that should not matter so much because a single binding requires very little of each material. Hence, just a onetime purchase of these materials can be used for producing several bindings.

Paper

Closeup photo of unfinished ‘Rag’ paper to show texture

Paper is available in many forms in the market, and many of these can be used for bookbinding purposes. Rag content paper (paper made from a percentage of woven cotton fibers, normally around 25%, you can purchase online here) is a good choice over wood pulp paper because it does not yellow and possesses higher durability. If a blank book has to be made, then ledger, white wove bound or typewriter paper of around 16 to 20 points should be preferred. For the end sheets, both domestic and imported paper can be selected in any shade like white, cream, gray or ivory. The same type of paper can also be used for the cover board, boxes and slip cases.

The cover should be made from a medium weight paper that is strong and flexible enough to bear folding, pasting and joint fixing. It should also be an attractive shade so that any designing that is done looks beautiful and stands out.

One tip for selecting good quality paper is to inspect it by folding and turning with scraps. If the quality is not good, the paper will either crackle or tear apart. Advice from CreativePro.com on choosing paper.

Tape

Small Roll of Linen Tape

Bookbinding tape is made from linen, cotton or polyester. Polyester tape should not be used in any case because it is not strong enough to support the binding. Either linen or cotton tape should ideally be used, but both have their drawbacks. Cotton tape has a higher flexibility which makes pasting easier. Linen is stronger than cotton and more durable, but the flexibility is a little less. Many times, it has to be pasted twice to achieve the required result. – Personally, I would always use linen tape.

The width of tape comes in various sizes. Generally, one fourth and one half of an inch are suitable for most uses. In some cases, a 3/8 inch tape may also be required.

Thread

Colored, waxed (linen) Binder's Thread

Colored, waxed (linen) Binder’s Thread

The thread used for binding should be strong yet soft enough so that it does not cut and tear apart the signature paper. This just weakens the binding, and it does not last for a very long time then. A thread which possesses all these qualities is the linen binder’s thread, but it is not available easily from highstreet stores (buy it online here from Amazon). The No 16 and No 25 mercerized cotton thread can serve as good substitutes (what is Mercerized Cotton Thread?). The carpet and No 18 button threads can also be used. In most cases, a No 50 thread will also be just fine, which is often used for sewing cloth. The numbers associated with these threads actually depicts their fineness; a greater number indicates a finer thread, further information on Thread (Yarn).

Before sewing, thread should be waxed so that kinking can be prevented. This also strengthens the knot and increases the thread’s life.

Quick tip: You could always wax your own ‘Linen’ thread to save a bit of $$…

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Boards

Books with uncovered plain binding boards

A perfect board is one that is stable and dense, and does not allow the covering material to warp as it is pasted onto the board. At times, the material suffers from shrinkage after the paste has dried, which makes the board hollow onto one side. The same thing can happen with the end sheets as well when they are pasted onto the boards other side. Before pasting any of these, it should be ensured that the pull of the end sheet is the same as the cover material.

Of the many boards available, a binder board is the most suitable one for use (most common brands are Lineco and Davey Board. I often find good deals for BookBinding boards over at Amazon.com). Binders Board is made from pulp and is not made from any glue or lamination. The board is manufactured by hydraulically pressing damped pulp webs or blankets onto top of each other. The process removes water and compacts the fibers, reducing the dimension almost 50%. The board produced by this method is resistant to distortion and has a higher density than other boards of the same thickness, which makes it more suitable for binding.

Chipboard, which is similar to the back that supports paper pads, can also be used for books that are smaller than 7 by 9 inches. For books greater than this size, make sure the board is not stiff which can weaken the binding with time. In this case, a high quality illustration board can be used because it is stiffer and prevents warping. This board is made in a single ply, double ply or threesome ply. If the book is excessively large and requires even stronger covers then two illustration boards can be combined together and used as one. This can be done by pasting them onto each other and leaving them pressed between heavy weights for about 12 hours.

A good video with some alternative sources you can use for boards:

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Mull

Applying the mull to the backbone

Mull is actually a word used for the cloth that is pasted to cover the tapes and the signatures after sewing is done. The main purpose of the mull is to assemble all the signatures together while ensuring that the backbone of the book remains flexible. An ideal mull is one that has enough weave space and durability. The first characteristic allows the paste to penetrate easily and stick it well over the tape and signatures, and the second feature lets the mull bear repeated flexing.

The most suitable choices for mull are white linen and muslin because of their high durability.  Muslin is available in the unbleached form as well but it can mar the appearance because it may appear as shadow through the end sheets, particularly if they are thin. As such, a white muslin cloth is more preferable.

A good little tutorial on gluing the book block can be found at CS Sparks – Gluing the Book Block.

You can normally buy ‘mull’ from arts and crafts stores or you can buy online here.

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Paste

Adding wheat paste to spine

Since traditional times, a paste made out of wheat flour has been used for bookbinding. This particular glue is not only inexpensive, but gives very good results as well, making the binding stay put for several generations to come. Moreover, it is safer than other modern glues that contain chemicals in large quantities, and so can react with the paper and other bookbinding materials, thereby shortening the life.

The wheat flour paste can easily be prepared at home. Pour almost one and a half cup of water into a saucepan. Add about four tablespoons of white flour in the water, but do this is in very small quantities. All the while, beat the mixture thoroughly with a fork or egg beater. Heat the mixture and stir it constantly until water begins to boil. Remove the saucepan from heat and let the mixture cool at room temperature. Remember that the stirring step is important because it prevents the mixture from getting burnt and sticking into the pan’s bottom. Once the paste has been cooled off, observe its consistency. If it seems too thick, then add more water.

This homemade paste can be stored at room temperature for a quite a few days. However, if it is refrigerated in an airtight container, its life can increase up to three weeks. If mold starts growing on the paste, then throw it out, and make some more.

Cloth

A fine example of buckram cloth work

Cloth may be available in a wide range in the market, featuring attractive hues, beautiful designs, varying textures and different weaves. However, not all of them can be used for bookbinding. This is because every fabric does not have the same suppleness, the same handling strength and behaves differently when pasted onto other materials. The last point is obviously the one of most concern because it depicts the strength and life of binding.

Before choosing any fabric, test it by two different methods as an assurance that the right one would be chosen. In the first technique, apply some glue onto the cloth and fix it onto a small piece of the board. Now put some glue onto the surface of the board, and then try to fix the cloth over it. Observe the paste: if it settles down and stays there while putting the cloth firm in its place, the fabric can be used. However, in other cases, the paste might just seep through the fabric, and appear on the actual cover. This creates a very prominent stain when the paste dries up. Moreover, if the quality of the paste or the fabric is low, the paste can dull the color of the fabric or change it due to chemical reactions with the dyes.

Considering all the factors, the most suitable cloth is binder’s buckram. It does have its drawbacks, but the fact that the fabric does not allow the paste to appear onto the outer surface compensates them. The buckram fabric is woven in a special manner such that the weaves prevent the glue from passing through. But the cloth is stiff and it cannot be easily manipulated or folded over. As such, it is difficult to stick it onto the board; the overall effect is good because no glue stains appear on the cover outweighs this. However, choosing a color might be hard because buckram is available in limited shades only. Find out the different types of buckram.

You can buy Buckram cloth from the following suppliers:

Selecting the Right Tools and Equipment

A large variety of tools are needed for bookbinding. Some of them are present in every household and others are easily available in the market. A few tools can also be prepared by simple methods, which will be discussed in another section of this website.

Carpenter’s Square

Carpenters Square

A carpenter’s square is a must have tool for cutting the paper and the board accurately. The recommended size is 16 by 24 inches. Squares in smaller sizes are also available, but using a professional sized model made of steel is more advantageous because it has a greater weight, and so does not slip or move from place during any cutting operation.

A little video I discovered displaying some interesting things you can do with a carpenters square (along with some basic techniques in the first minute!) – NB: it’s not really that relevant to bookbinding so watch at your own pleasure:

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Steel Ruler

Protect your fingers with a safety cutting ruler!

A ruler is used for various purposes when binding books together. These include, measuring, cutting, trimming, folding and other tasks that require using a sharp and straight edge. Try if you can to get one with a lip or raised edge (like this one) to save cutting your fingers which I guarantee you’ll do multiple times if you get a standard steel rule.

Knives & Cutting Mat

Alvin cutting mat will last a lifetime

A rubber cutting mat & knife are essential for common bookbinding tasks. Your knife should feature a large handle which provides a strong and firm grip, whilst making the tool safe for use. The blade should be replaceable and/or be sharpened if it becomes blunt or wears out, a common Stanley knife is perfect. I personally use this one.

Your cutting mat should be as large as you can afford to purchase (or have room for). I normally go for Alvin Double Sided Cutting Mats.

A smaller knife set (like the X-Acto knife set) should also be purchased for more precise work.

Razor Blade

The sharpest things on the market, perfect for cutting paper of any thickness.

While you can use the knife for all sorts of cutting tasks, it is better to use a blade if you have to cut paper. Made of extremely thin and sharp steel, a razor blade cuts paper into pieces with very fine edges. If you can maintain a good grip on it, you can also use a blade for cutting boards. I use Feather razors to shave with as they are the sharpest and finest blades you can buy on the market (made in Japan!), I also use these for cutting paper, quite simply perfect. Available here from Amazon.com if anyone is interested.

There is just one issue that you might face. Until you hold a blade perpendicular to the surface, you would just put pressure on it, which can break the blade easily.

Shears

Full metal shears

Shears will be needed for cutting cloth. Look in the market for a size that is around 8 inches and has offset handles, which can make the grip better.

 

 

Flat Folder

A flat folder. aka, sanded piece of wood.

A flat folder would be required so that you can properly fold and crease the paper and cloth over the hinges. You do not need to buy this; you can simply make one. – It’s effectively a piece of flat sanded wood.

Folding Stick

A folding stick serves as a traditional bone folder. It is available in the market, but just like the flat folder, make one at home because you can do a better job and produce a more effective tool than the pre-made ones.

Folding Needle

Want your work to be extremely fine and of high quality? Get a folding needle, but just keep in mind that this is another tool you should make at home.

Right Angle Card

A right angled card is in the shape of a square that is utilized for shaping the book head into a square before attaching it to the mull. You can use a carpenter’s try square for the same purpose, but why not go for an option that is more convenient?

Squared Card

Just as the name suggests, you can use the squared card in all tasks that require a square. An example of this could be an inspection of the overhang of the cover boards.

Sewing Frame

Homemade sewing frame in use.

A sewing frame can make your sewing job a lot easier because it leaves both your hands free for sewing, and does not require you to hold the materials in one hand, and the needle in another. You can use a frame to fix the tapes taut in appropriate positions, and use the platform for laying the signatures.

You can make a sewing frame at home, but your tape tightening device would probably not function as well as the ones available in the market. So despite the significant increase in expenses, a commercial sewing frame is recommended because it can provide you with the convenience you would desire when binding books. If however you are interested in making your own, you can find plans here.

Press and Tub

Craftsmanship at it’s best!

A press and tub is probably the most vital binding equipment that you are going to need. Add it to the list of supplies that you want because you can do with no other substitute as there isn’t one. This is another tool that can be made at home for only a small percentage of the costs involved with a commercial product (example of a handmade one). However, buy a premade press because it is more effective and convenient.

A press has two types: a laying press and a finishing press. A finishing press can only help you with limited tasks, but a lying press can be used for all sorts of jobs that also cover the functions of a finishing press. So if you are buying a commercial product, a lying press should be your choice. A FINE example of a hand-made laying press or you can look for 2nd hand/antique ones on eBay.

Generally, hardwood is used for manufacturing a press. Store it in a cool and dry place, and it will always be as good as new; put it in warm and humid area, and it would soon become a subject of wear and tear. All the wooden parts are warped up, which particularly destroys the tuned wooden screws.

Finishing tub assembly:

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Paste Brushes

A Premium Paste Brush

Buy a paste brush, which is approximately 7/8 inches in size because it would be suitable for all general work. You should also purchase a No 5 artist brush for finer work. The bristles of this brush are shorter and stiffer, and provide you with neater results. For instance, if you want to paste the mitered corners of the turnovers, you can do a better job with an artistic oil paint brush than the general paste brush.

When looking around for an artistic brush, just make sure that the bristles are stiff enough and not too long. They should also be slightly springy because a limp brush does not spread any paste.

Piercing Awl

Piercing Awl especially made for bookbinding

Easily available at the shops (buy the one in the picture to the right at Amazon.com here), but this is another tool that you should make at home. Ensure that it is slender enough and has a sharper point. You might also come across a carpenter’s scratch awls, but avoid using them because are too rough and too wide.

Beeswax

A beeswax is used for the treating the thread. Just buy one fourth of a pound, and it will last a long time.

Sandpaper

Buy a 120 numbered sandpaper made from silicon carbide. Cut the sheet into four pieces, and these would be enough for several books.

Needles

You can either buy the 1/5 sharp needles of the 3/9 milliner’s needles. Ascertain that the eyes are such in which you can easily pass the thread. Quality bookbinding needles here.

Wastepaper

Might sound surprising, but you actually do need wastepaper so that you can easily do the pasting and then dispose of the trash. A clean paper sized 14 x 17 inches is a good enough choice for this.

Rubbing Sheets/Vellum Paper

Vellum Paper example

Rub all your pasted materials on a sheet made of vellum tracing paper (not standard tracing paper! – The difference between Vellum Paper Vs. Tracing Paper) because it has a smooth surface and is nearly transparent. Once again, the recommended size is 14 x 17 inches. You can buy vellum paper in arts & craft stores and also online on Amazon or PaperCrafter.co.uk.

Please take note of one thing: avoid using newspapers as wastepaper and rubbing sheets because the ink smears can appear on your work, and these can be very difficult to clean.

Workbench

A pretty good work-space layout

The most important feature of the workbench which you use is that it should have a flat and smooth surface. You can either use a single long wooden table as a workbench, or join two or three smaller tables together to serve the purpose. Now cover the surface with brown paper such that there are no creases or wrinkles. Tape the paper tightly on all sides.

Though you can use any part of the bench for any task; it is recommended that you divide it into three portions, and dedicate each of these to a specific job. This would ensure that all your materials and equipment are available in their appropriate places at all times, and that your work is not spoiled by pasting waste or doing any other thing. As an example, you could use one end for cutting and folding tasks and devote the other end for pasting work. The centre of the table can be used for sewing. Make sure that you cover the cutting section with an additional sheet of thick cardboard so that the surface of the table remains protected, and sharper and cleaner edges can be made when cutting paper.

Taking Note of a Few Additional Points

Place your table in an area where there is ample light. You can make the room appear more illuminated if you use a 4 feet fluorescent tube light or a pair of clamp drops. Also keep a large trashcan or carton box near your table so that you can dispose of waste. You should also keep cotton clothes and a water jar nearby so that you can clean your hands, tools and the surface when you are finished with pasting work.

Keep a few weights on your table at all times, which you would need when pressing materials on top of one another. You can either use about eight heavy books or six bricks for this. If you are using bricks, make sure they are clean or cover them with a clean paper so that your work is not spoilt.

When you would be done with your work, you would need a place where you can let it dry. Try to reserve a separate table for this, otherwise just use your existing workbench.

With these things out of the way, you can now move onto the basic bookbinding techniques… await the next post. Any questions and comments please direct to the comments section below, thank you.

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About the Author:

Paul Thomson

Hello and welcome to iBookBinding. My name is Paul Thomson, I'm a retired bookbinder with over 40 years of experience. I have a passion for the written word and love all things Japanese.

I developed this website in order to pass on some knowledge to people new to book binding. This website will remain free for everybody to use, if you find it useful, please share. Follow me on Google+ for updates and posts that will not published on this site.

3 Comments on "02. The Basics of BookBinding"

  1. Danny boy says:

    I didn’t even realize half of these tools existed…

  2. Suzy says:

    In your photo of “applying paste the spine”, that actually looks like someone cleaning a spine. There’s old glue on the spine, and paste (and/or methylcellulose) is often used to soften the old glue to make it easier to remove.

    Also, microwave paste is MUCH easier for a beginner. Just combine a 1:5 ratio of paste to water. Stir with a whisk to get out the lumps, then pop into the microwave and stir every 8 seconds or so until it turns translucent.

  3. Suzy says:

    Also, there’s more than just two kinds of presses! A bookbinding/nipping press is also essential for making case-bound books.

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