The Art of Bookbinding, a Mini Documentary

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Americans at work. In an art that is the preservation of all arts. The making of books. These men are masters of their tools from the most primitive instruments to the latest equipment on the machine age. With other craftsman, these are the people that make the pen mightier than the sword.

History itself began only when men carved their exploits and visions in stone and clay and traced them in crude ink over parchment and papyrus; striving to live in eternal memory through the written word – as history began with writing it is continued with printed records. Books were the great treasures of the earliest civilizations. Today they are a great means of communication between people and nations.

Even in the most modern bookbinderies, Americans pursue a craft steeped in the tradition of ancient guilds. Although the books most of us buy are machine-made, all qualified journeyman bookbinders must know how to take apart, and put together a book, by hand.

Books from collections of an earlier day must be restored; and this is a loving art, regarded almost with reverence by its practitioners. The well worn inheritance must be carefully undone: Remove the broken cover, unstring the worn-out threads. Take the precious publication back to the beginnings of a book.

This is a work of infinite patience. Of painstaking attention to detail. A fingered skill that is equal to the occasion. Good books are constantly given rebirth by workers like these.

Put the pages back together again. Sew them again for another generation of life. Everything must be redone except for the printing – this must be kept as it was for the typography may make the book a collector’s item. This is a happy marrying of antique values with modern practicality and these workers know that the wearing out of a book from rereading is a truer estimate of its worth than any review by a critic.

A bath is prepared for marbleizing the pages of the ancient book. Any one of a number of patterns may be created by spattering spots of colour, deftly placing them, just so.

The design is transferred to the book by dipping its trimmed edges, top, bottom and side for exactly the right length of time in exactly the right manner. It would be impossible to get the same effect by any known printing process. If you think it’s easy try it – but please not on a cherished first addition.

A new cover is applied in the same style as the original, perhaps with certain modern improvements. Boards, the bookbinder calls them, covered with cloth and leather, fabricated for prolonged life.


Before being ready for recirculation this assembly of literary material must be pressed into final shape.

Then the most fascinating part to the uninitiated, lettering the back. With nothing to guide him but his mind’s eye and the skill of his fingertips the artisan lays on the gold leaf.

With quick expert strokes he stamps the title and other pertinent information.

A masterpiece of a modern bookbinders art. The restored volume is ready for the reader who would make the most of his literacy inheritance.

Today large sheets bearing several pages come off the printing presses. Traditionally these sheets are just about the size of the skin from one sheet used for printing long before paper was a practical possibility. The uncut sheets go to the folding machines which fold them to desired size is called folio, porto and octavo, depending on the number of folds.

These machines can fold from four to 72 pages as fast as you can turn a page. The folded sheet is called a signature.

Almost faster than you can follow the action, nimble fingers gather the signatures in the proper order and by foot action other woman operator feed them to a sewing machine. It is here, almost miraculously, that the various sections of the book are fasten together from back to front. These seamstresses of the printed word can make no mistakes or the book will be entirely out of kilter. Since the resulting sewn portions of the book form a spongy collection of pages they are put in a mashing machine to press them more tightly together in uniform thickness.

A trimming machine shaves the edges of the pages to give the clean smooth look and feel that you know in the finished book. This tumble type trimmer somewhat resembles the cold cuts slicer of your butcher. It is this process that makes it possible to thumb through a book to the allotted page for that elusive fact of quotation that you need so badly at the moment.

While the body of the book is in production, the cover is being prepared elsewhere in the plant. First the boards, as they’re called, are cut to size. These will become front and back parts of the covers. As they proceed on their way to becoming covers the boards may be imprinted with title and artwork.

Now the total job must be given final shape the complete assembly of pages and cover is put into a press where it is kept until thoroughly dry then the book is ready for you.

Not only books but pamphlets as well are important part of publishing. These women are gathering the pages in the correct order and placing them on a fast-moving saddle for subsequent stitching or gluing.

A large publishing house may have as many as 10,000 jobs going through it at any one time.

Making the ruled pages of notebooks and ledgers is a fascinating aspect of this trade. The paper ruler here has an arsenal of implements at his disposal. For some forms the user’s disks, for others he uses pen points to spread the ink that divides the page into countless different patterns. A seemingly endless river of paper may be printed on both sides simultaneously; when this craftsmen makes an ingenious adjustment of either disks or pens above and below it is doubtful that the bookkeeping afar industrial world could be carried on without this activity.

The art of bookmaking is older than printing by many centuries. Yet today’s members of the brotherhood a bookbinders, artist of the AF of L CIO are able to supply the demand for the most important ingredient are the modern world, literacy. Following a craft as ancient as cave drawings, these union workers of the book industry are second to none in keeping pace with progress. The ingenuity which has been passed on to the folders, gatherers, sewers, trimmers, liners and case makers in a proud profession is constantly at work for you to produce our greatest treasure, knowledge.

Americans at work, presented by the AF of L CIO. Next week another interesting story of Americans at work, Americans whose skill and effort help keep our country great.

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