Bookbinding: How to.

This is going to be a work in progress. It’ll be somewhat sequential, but don’t bet on it.
Part one has got to be: how to prepare a download for binding. And I’d say either go HTML and take it into your word processor for manipulation, or go PDF and trust the writer’s setup.


  1. CJ

    Step one: download.
    Step two: choose a size of page, with a little allowance for trimming. Remember these have to be trimmed and stitched. More about that later.
    Step three: ‘imposing’ is the process of creating the page sequences. This used to be done by laying out pages on a table, (an imposing table). You will have the headache of figuring this sequence out if you are stitching and binding in folded sets, which is the hardest to figure.

    A paperback style binding [perfectbound] requires only clean edges, printed front and back in sequence, which most printing programs can handle [your processor has unguessed abilities]: then a jig (a wooden clamp that holds everything together) as you glue things and provide a paper or cloth spine strip. This is dead simple to do.

    A hardback style binding requires folded sets of pages stitched together. These are called ‘signatures’. The order of those pages, and what is on the other end of the folded page (beyond the stitching) is difficult to calculate—well, there are programs designed to figure this out; but those are pricey, and designed for big printing operations. The old-fashioned Imposing Table can do it without a computer as it has done for centuries—basically a big workspace where you stack free-floating numbered sheets to compose a ‘signature,’ starting with your front pages, title page, etc, and ending somewhere early in the actual text. You just have to do the figuring and take firm notes about which pages belong together on each other’s opposite side [across the stitching] and which pages are printed on which’s backside. A notepad and paper stapler are a good thing in this operation, plus one dummy run of your printout on cheap paper. You need to compose these sets in your printing one set at a time, or go stark raving mad. If you need an example, disassemble a really ratty hardbound book and take a look at the page order, including the ‘front matter’ and illustrations, etc. You now see you’re going to need a little elbow room for this hobby; but if you go set at a time, you’re going to end up with a stack of little sets that will then need to be stitched. There are special needles for this, and I would recommend protection for your fingers. These sets are stitched with special thread, and the whole spine is stitched with special stitches, which help form the strength and durability of a hardbound; doing it by hand actually produces a stronger book. Use a jig-clamp to assist…more on that later. You may choose special papers for the endpapers and such. You may also choose special papers for your actual printing, being careful to keep within your printer’s capability to handle size and thickness without glitching…and the ability of a spine to hold the quantity of page-groups you intend. A bindery has an array of special tools, but it is possible to improvise. Remember this was done in Renaissance workshops, and with only tools that somebody hand-made. You can order the thread and needles online, and for the rest, you can wing it.

    Then you start figuring the cover, which can be just about any sort of fabric or leather.

    This bit is only an overview of the process. I will try to search out more precise information.

  2. CJ

    I did this once today and lost it: but here’s the deal: everything in printing has a name, so if you will google printing layout terms, you will find things precisely named so reading the instructions has some help. And once you have done the first layout, subsequent books will not seem so complicated, because your notes will be your guide.

    Signatures. A group of pages printed front and back that folds together; is stitched down the middle and folds to make a section of the book; a group of signatures stitched together makes a spine and a book. In a signature produced by a regular printer, you will note a) the paper is huge [bedsheet is the term for such paper] some pages are upside down, and it folds not just one direction, but into a complicated foldover that, when stitched, is cut to make a thick signature with the pages all going the right way in sequence. Using a computer, you will be using computer paper, probably legal size, printed on both sides, and stitching down the fold.

    Laying out a signature:

    First, you need correct margins and page numbering, headers, maybe footers [to taste] and remember your gutter! The gutter [center margins] have to be big enough to be sure your book opens properly. The other margins will lose a little bit, too, in the final trimming before binding.

    Print out the whole book on one-sided printing, and start laying out the first signature: your table/worksurface is called an Imposing Table. Then staple your pages together in the right way and mark clearly which side is the front and which is the ‘back’ side. Order them and fold them to be sure they are setting up the order you want for your first signature.

    Do the entire book in this fashion, checking page order carefully at every opportunity.

    Then use your computer to put the pages in order for the frontside printing. Then do the backside printing. Fold and clip, and do the next signature. When you get to the end of the book, you arrange any ‘back matter’ properly to take advantage of any ‘leftover’ pages in your last signature. [This is a part of typesetting that makes publishers crazy, because any ‘leftover page is expensive and doing nothing.]

    Now you are ready to start sewing. You need special thread, a special heavy-duty needle, and probably a pair of pliers.

  3. purplejulian

    I used to do a wonderful book-binding evening class every week in the book-bindery under the library at Newcastle University. they had all the latest machines, so you could be as high or low tech as you liked. I repaired my Dad’s 1939 copy of all the merchant ships registered at the time with their outline (very useful when sailing from NZ at the outbreak of war – his captain borrowed it! he was the electrical engineer) and smartened up a victorian imprint of a george elliot for my mother. I made a lot of plain paper books, then some arty ones using photocopies and interesting paper, and nice linen for the covers, and gold lettering pressed into it, book boxes, and all that. the most difficult thing is the book folding, as you describe it, with page order etc, but word or presumably pages, or anything like that will do it for you. and sewing neatly on the fold is not so easy! I loved it, but it’s hard to set up without a big free table/work bench space. I have a book-press so I oughta!

    • CJ

      I’d certainly appreciate your chiming in with advice to people trying to learn. I’m looking for a really good dvd or online video instruction that will give visuals of what we’re trying to describe.

      It’s my sense that while we’re a lot about e-books, here, there are a lot of people who would love to render these books into a tangible form they can pet and shelve.

      There are, as you point out, a lot of ways to do this. Simplest is to print out and run down to the copyshop to have it spiral bound, comb-bound, or perfect-bound (glued with a [usually] cloth or heavy paper strip holding the back on. These books are too fat for one of those bar-and-piercing clips you use for college reports. And they’re really too fat for the Ibico comb-type system [we own one, so I know whereof I speak.]

      The fanciest job involves stitching, and this is where you have to fold into signatures, stitch, then stitch the signatures together [using a jig/clamp to keep them tightly orderly.

      A hard cover can be as fancy as you want, even tooled leather if you want to learn that art. But very easily a cover more durable and finer than any you get on bought books, simply by using fancy fabric and paper. Many fine old books had illustration windowed on the front cover, and the cover we provide could easily be glued into that position, or used as a frontispiece inside the book. No dust jacket for these works of art: and you can buy leather or a really good facsimile to make your book as pretty as you like. There is a trick to doing the raised ribs on the spine, and another to doing gilt, even gilt page edges, should you want to go whole hog on your effort. All of these fancy things are actually hand-done, and most are accomplished by clamping, gluing, and rubbing with curved bits of metal or wood, not vastly different from a kitchen spoon or the wallpaper brayer (little wooden roller designed to flatten glued stuff to a surface) you can get at the hardware store. Endpapers can be very fancy figured papers from a fancy paper or art shop. And clamps and jigs are easy for even the most non-crafty to make from little pieces of wood and clamps you can buy at the hardware. Using needle-nose pliers to tug or push a resistent needle—yep. You can do that. You can also use a little mallet and a very sharp pin to get a good piercing to make sure the needle goes through nicely. This is something artisans have been doing by a variety of methods since the codex (book with pages) and shelves replaced the scroll and pigeon-hole.

  4. CJ

    And photos of your finished product, please, and of your process, not just of my books, but of any you do. Photos can inspire someone else.

  5. purplejulian

    I have a few books – one on japanese binding, which is simpler and lovely for a drawing book, or an album. but it’s 12 years since I did those classes. my take on it is – if you are good with your hands and neat, if you can handle glue without making a mess, cut card without a big guillotine (my downfall – at the class we had the huge hand one, and the laser protected machine that would chunk through a whole book and take your hand off without you noticing it if it weren’t for the laser – such a boon not having to hand cut) and sew some big stitches neatly, you can make a book that’s just beautiful in a couple of evenings. it’s nice to have a book press, but a big dictionary with some weights on top will do the same job.
    and yes, any PHD student will tell you perfect binding can be done quite cheaply at the printers and give you a very nice paperback book too. and you could probably make a nice hardback cover for that, as CJ says, with some pretty paper to cover the book boards (the cardboard innards of the hardback cover) and pretty end papers.
    in france you can buy your book all stitched together, but without a cover and take it to your binder to be given a cover to match the rest of your library!

  6. CJ

    I’ve seen even sanding with fine sandpaper used to even the outside edges, once the book is in a press. At that point the edges are so closely compressed they have become wood again, and can be ground down to an even level. You can also get that Cricket cutter from a hobby store, or simply get one of those paper cutters every school had; or a picture mat cutter. They also make, nowadays, some very clever little plastic clamp/vise thingies that are very adjustable, with the flip of a lever, and can be had at Lowe’s or Home Depot. Holding your work steady during a cut is a must.

  7. Hanneke

    Has anyone got advice for getting the edges of the bookblock nice and smooth?
    I’m trying to teach myself bookbinding from a how-to book (tried to sign up for a local short course but the teacher doesn’t respond).
    I’ve got Jane’s first Ring book nicely printed into 5-sheets-thick ‘signatures’, the signatures stitched together and the back strengthened with bookbinders glue. I pressed the resulting bookblock under 70 cms of big heavy books while glueing, to make it as tight as I can at home.
    After that, I asked the printers at work to cut the slightly ruffly edges smooth with their big cutting machine, but that didn’t work out well. Because it’s about 3 cms thick, and the back (with the binding thread and the ‘signature’ folds) is a bit thicker than the rest, the big cutting machine compressed it crookedly, and now my top edge has a 2-3 mm ridge in the middle. Is there anything I can do about that?
    My how-to book talks about scraping and sanding it, but I’m a bit leery of making it worse. I haven’t got a big press, just a couple of glueing clamps, and ordinary sandpaper.
    What can I do, and what do I need as tools for doing it?
    Or should I just start over, and accept slightly ruffled edges as a consequence of home-binding?

  8. smartcat

    One of the things we learned in book making was if you don’t have access to a good cutter go in the other direction with a deckle edge. We had a guillotine cutter that was amazing. We never did find a thickness limit! I had a corner brace that I used with a jig clamp. With a steel angle square and a*very* sharp knife I could do some pretty nice trims. Also when stitching books I predrilled my pages using the smallest bit I had. Again a corner brace and clamps are essential to prevent shifting. I suppose a drill press with a small enough bit could do the job as well. I’m trying to find my old notes to see what else I did/ used.

  9. smartcat

    PS. I seem to recall that Staples will do cutting jobs; that may have changed.

  10. CJ

    Hanneke is in Holland, so she’s got to find it
    If you use sandpaper, get the grade used for furniture finishing, 000 or something of the sort, or emery paper, and use a very light touch. Many times over softly rather than fewer with pressure.

  11. Hanneke

    Thanks for all the good advice, and sorry for not responding promptly. I’ve been rather busy off the internet.
    I now have 4 quite respectably neat bookblocks of the Ring books, bound and glued and cut.
    Hand-cutting and sanding didn’t give a neat edging, and trying to deckle the printed pages didn’t look good. The solution turned out to be the big guillotine-machine at work, but using extra cardboard layers below and on top of the bookblock but staying a few millimeters back from the bound-and-glued back edge. That meant the pressure when cutting didn’t deform the back, and kept the cut sides neat.
    Also, gluing the bound ‘signatures’ while clamped in the real clamp-press at work gave a tighter bookblock to start with, easier to keep lined up and neat than piling 3/4 meter of heavy books on top at home; and drying overnight in that was long enough for the synthetic bookbinders glue to set real solid.
    Next month I’m going to make the covers. Has anyone got ideas about how best to do that?
    I’ll try printing Jane’s cover images and protecting them with some UV-resistant varnish, and maybe making a back and spine with similar lettering and colour; or maybe keep the back just the plain linen (I’ve got some colours that I hope should go well with Jane’s cover images). Probably letting Jane’s cover in to a linen-covered surrounding frame (maybe use 1 thin cardboard layer extra for the frame?) would be better than gluing it onto the linen?
    The only method for getting lettering on the linen spine that my how-to book explains is using gold or silver foil and a heated lettering-tool; I don’t know anyone with that kind of tools so that’s out op the question. Does anyone know alternative methods?
    I fear that for the big (multipage: what’s the correct English adjective?*) books that Jane writes, binding the cover in paper might not be strong enough: my handbook says only to do that with thin books that won’t put a lot of weight or stress on the spine.

    * I fear to use the wrong word and give a totally unintended impression of referring to the story when I only mean the heft of the physical object, if I use something like fat or thick, which I’d normally use for this. Big should be more a length-and-breadth indication, which I don’t mean here. The story would merit adjectives like complex or rich. I get the impression that the weight-based adjectives can also be used in book reviews as pejorative comments on the contents or writing style (heavy = heavy going, hard to get through; and if a person is called thick he’s not a fast thinker and may be rather stupid) so I don’t know if those can still be used as a value-neutral indication.
    These sorts of flavours-and-connotations beside the original bare-bones meaning of words are easy to get wrong for foreigners, so if I make mistakes in this usage please excuse them and understand that they are not meant unpleasantly.
    It’s one reason I don’t write book reviews: it feels like walking on eggshells, making sure I don’t say anything unintended in the ‘subtext’, and that makes my language even more stilted than it already is.
    Your advice is appreciated.

  12. Jane

    I feel so honored!

    We use the term “meaty” around Tau Ceti. Not sure anyone else understands, but we do. 😀 😀 😀 And I think you always express yourself wonderfully.

    I think your plan for the cover sounds great, OTOH, I had a weird idea. I haven’t tried the ink transfers yet, like for Tshirt transfers, but I just wonder what it would look like actually printed on fine linen and mounting that on the cover board? If you need a higher res cover file, just drop me an email. I don’t know what ended up in the file.

  13. brennan

    The ideal tool to make the holes for sewing would be an arbor press with an awl or punch tool. It looks and works much like a drill press without rotation. The rotaion of the handles or spokes provides a strong and controlled down-force on the tool. If one had ambition and skill or skilled acquaintances, one could build a jig with mutiple awls and an anvil with matching holes so the awls or punches and chads would have somewhere to go once they are all the way through. In that case, I would recommend putting a slightly longer blunt locating pin at one end of the jig so that the holes can be precisely spaced on longer bindings.

  14. Hanneke

    That is a very good idea, Jane!
    I hadn’t thought of it, but there are lots of shops that print photos on linen canvas. If I can convert the wrap-around cover PDF to JPG at 300 dpi, that could be printed just like a photo. I’ll ask the nice printer-lady at work if she can convert my cover from PDF or Word to a JPG image. If she can’t, something like the transfers might work, eventually.
    I’ll mail the wrap-around cover of Alizant to you first, so you can see if it looks alright or needs a higher resolution. You can also see if what I’ve put on the back is OK by you: I’ve copied some of the ‘about the book’ texts and quotes from your website and Closed Circle like a cover ‘blurb’, and put on Closed Circle’s logo and all. I used the most prominent colour from (the edges of) your cover images, and multiplied those for the background to match the front as well as I could, and filled in 1/2 to 1 cm around the edge for what needs to be glued around the cardboard edges. I hope after all your good work on the cover images what I’ve done with it doesn’t look too bad to your artistic eyes, as I’m not an artist at all!

  15. Hawke

    I just found my way to this site, and when I saw this section about book binding, my ears (metaphorically) perked up: I just recently finished making a small book of my own. I had done only a small amount of research, and rather stumbled my way to finishing the project…though if I had known of this site and the information shared here, it would surely have been easier!!

    I’m very proud of my tiny book, anyway: only sixteen pages long, but a work of heart! If I ever get the mad notion to do this again, with a larger book, I know just what to do.

  16. dhawktx

    Waking up a necro-thread here with a little bit of input.

    Lots of great quality bookbinding supplies can be had from, including proper Daveyboard.

    Additionally, you can have designs custom printed onto fabric at for use on book covers.

  17. Hawke

    It’s me again! I’ve been re-reading this thread, and researching, and I have a couple of issues.

    My current project is a book of fairy tales for a very dear friend, who’s just had her first child. I worked up the book in a word processing program, and managed to get some of the formatting done. I don’t have a functioning printer, so I took it to my local copy shop…

    And they were unable to print the thing, even into pages that I could alter myself for a dummy run. I was quite disappointed, but as I watched them wrangle it, I realized that their software was demanding formatting that neither they nor I understood.

    They tried getting it to print in “book fold” format, which got us some very weird results even printing on ‘tabloid’ size paper (which, I am given to understand, is what is regularly used for magazines and the like). The shop doesn’t have access to bedsheet sized paper. I should probably point out that this is a copy shop that deals mostly with business needs and not “real books.”

    Now, I suppose I could go on a hunt for a “real print shop.” Or just break down and buy yet another printer. But I was hoping to solve this formatting problem, at least just to get the mystery out of my head! I haven’t had any luck researching this specifically, probably because I’m using the wrong words…

    Does anyone know offhand what sort of formatting might work? I did manage to get so far as using a sort of “imposing table” method, in desperation, using the bad copy I did get hold of…

  18. dhawktx

    If you have MS Word (or any other layout program that will do what I’m describing) there’s a rather clunky work around that I’ve used making miniature books where I print a full signature on a single sheet of paper, double sided, then cut the sheets down and assemble the signature. In your case, you’d use full tabloid sized ‘virtual’ sheets for your layout on your computer.

    Make a mockup of the signature you are going to use. A simple example is a 4 sheet (not page, sheet) signature. Stack the 4 sheets and fold them in half. Now mark what will be the printed (imposed) pages in the middle of each sheet; 1, 2, 3, etc, finishing on page 16.

    Open your signature and admire the relationship between each page number as well as how they would feed for manual double sided printing – trying to figure out how format it so a generic copy shop’s duplex copier can do it automatically will make you suicidal.

    Now to Format your document. Set your sheet up in Landscape, decide what your margins are going to be and place two appropriately sized text boxes set relative to the page, not the margin. Now duplicate this page until you have eight pages.

    MS Word has a ‘bucket’ icon that allows you to tell it where to place ‘overflow’ text if there is more than the first text box can display. To set up the template I simply created a document with the 16 page numbers each on an individual line. Drop this text into the right hand text box of your first page. Size the font so that the number “1” fills the box and then use the text flow tool to redirect the overflow to each of the appropriate text boxes. Once you’re done, print a test set, odd pages first, then even pages. Fold it and make sure the page numbers are in the right places.

    Rinse and Repeat until you’ve got it straight. Now you can delete the previous text and pour your text into the signature starting at Text Box 1, which SHOULD be the right hand box of the first page in your document, with the last text of the signature flowing into the left hand box of the first page.

    In your case, you need to decide ahead of time how many signatures you are going to need, and how many sheets in each signature. That will tell you where you need to break your text, as I’ve found it is easier to create a separate file for each signature rather than trying to juggle them in a single file. Smaller signatures are more work and bother to sew when binding, but don’t have as much ‘creep’ when you fold them, larger signatures have enough creep that you will need to adjust the ‘gutter margin’ to keep your text blocks lined up. In my case I twitch things manually until my template works, then I just keep reusing that file.

    I found this tutorial for Adobe InDesign that might help you visualize what I’m describing.

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