A method of sewing a bookbinding, using linen, vellum, or other tapes (using Webster’s first definition) as a support for the signatures – the signatures are sewn to the tapes, which are later attached to the boards. This will deal just with the sewing and gluing of a binding done using tapes – there are many different ways to bind a book sewn in this manner, and they will be dealt wit h in separate writeups.

Once the signatures have been folded, the next step is to sew the binding. If the endpapers are going to be sewn to the book block, they should be chosen and cut to size at this time. For simpler books – printed books that I am rebinding, I tend to use very plain endpapers – a nice, lightweight paper of a color that matches the color of the paper of the book, usually Rives Lightweight. The advantage of using a paper like this is that I can make an additional quarto signature for the endpapers, and two sheets of paper are stronger than one, and more able to support the stress of sewing. When the sewing is finished, and the tapes are glued to the boards, the endpapers can be simply glued and folded down – this is generally neater and easier than attaching endpapers separately.

If I am binding one of my own books, or something that I really want to look nice, I will usually glue in the endpapers after the tapes are attached to the boards. This allows the use of a paper with a marbled or other printed design, which would not really be practical as a single sewn signature – marbled papers tend to be lightweight, and the stress placed upon them by sewing that would be tight enough to hold together the rest of the binding would be too great for it to support without tearing. As marbled or printed papers only have a design on one side, they cannot be sewn into a quarto signature. Thus it is generally easier to glue them to the boards later. If the endpapers are to be glued, it is generally good practice to add an additional blank signature between the endpaper and the rest of the book, to protect it from glue, in case the book might be rebound again at some future time.

Next, holes must be punched in the pages so that they can be sewn together. A cheap bookbinding awl is very useful for this. It can, alternately, be done using a needle, but this is much more difficult, and the time and agony are really not worth the small savings. A cheap bookbinding awl can be purchased for about $6, a medium quality one for $12, or a good one for $25. My experience suggests that it is best to stay away from the middle quality – they tend to break as often as the cheap ones, and are not that much easier to use. A bookbinding awl is different from a leather awl in that the point does not widen – it will not enlarge the holes in a piece of paper.

The number of holes in each signature = (number of tapes * 2) + 2. For a given signature, the holes, noted by X’s, will look something like this (not drawn to any scale, do not pay attention to distances between holes). The view is of the spine edge of the signature. The tapes are represented as H’s:

         H        H        H 
         H        H        H
         H        H        H
         H        H        H

The distance between the holes where the tapes will be must be just larger than the width of the tape. If linen tape is being used, this is a set value – linen tape only comes in a couple widths, and in most places, only one or two widths are available. If vellum tapes are used – vellum meaning animal hide, not the paper with a surface done to behave somewhat like animal vellum – the tapes can be whatever width is desired, which can be handy when working with a previously bound book, where holes have already been punched – the tape can be cut to the width of the previously existing holes. For small to average size books, vellum tapes should be about 1/2 inch (1.4 cm.) wide. Vellum is really preferable, if you can get it. It is stronger than linen, and has a much longer lifespan - easily a thousand years.

Determine the number of tapes to use based on the following formula, using the height of the spine: two tapes for the first 5 inches (14 cm.), and 1 additional tape for each 3 inches (8.4 cm.) after that. When using vellum tapes, fewer can be used – an additional tape every 5 inches (14 cm.), if the tapes are made wider – 3/4 to 1 inch (2.1 to 2.8 cm.) wide.

The length of the tapes should be at least 1 inch (2.8 cm.) longer than the width of the spine on each side – if the spine is 1 inch wide, the tapes should be 3 inches (8.4 cm.) long.

To determine the location of the holes, make a model, such that there is at least a half inch before the first and last holes, the same amount of distance between each of the tapes, and a half inch to an inch between the first hole and the first tape and the last hole and the last tape. Mark the locations of all of the holes on the straight edge of a piece of cardboard.

With this cardboard guide, there are several ways to punch the holes in the signatures. The easiest way is to use a cradle designed for this purpose – a V shape, with the bottom of the V cut out, so that the awl can be pushed through the paper. A simpler design is a flat board with a slot cut out of it, to allow the punching of the paper, and a guide to line up the edges. But these are not necessary – it is possible to punch the holes without building these tools.

One way to punch the holes is to line up the signatures and mark the position of the holes on one signature, and then draw a line, in pencil, on the rest of them. This line can then be used as a guide to punch holes from the outside, in. Some people swear by this method, but I find it very difficult to get right. Another method, the one I prefer, is to open the signature, mark the holes inside, in pencil, and then punch them, using several layers of corrugated cardboard as a backing, from the inside, out. It is not absolutely necessary to mark the holes with pencil first, it is just easier to obtain holes in the exact right position this way. I generally do not mark them in pencil first, and usually obtain very satisfactory results. Bookbinding, however, tends to lead to perfectionism, so YMMV.

Now begins the sewing! This style of binding uses the kettlestitch at the end of each row – see that writeup for a complete description of how to do that. The sewing pattern of the spine will look something like the diagram below, looking at the spine, where the T represents the places where the thread is visible. There would not be this much space between the signatures, and the thread would be in a kettlestitch at the end of each row, but other than that, this is about what the spine would look like:


      k      t        t        t     k
      e      a        a        a     e
      t      p        p        p     t
      t      e        e        e     t
      l                              l
      e                              e
      s                              s
      t                              t
      i                              i
      t                              t
      c                              c
      h                              h

It is easiest to sew by holding the signature open so that one half of it is flat, and the other half vertical:

|                        |
|                        |
|                        |
|                        |
|__________ or __________|
This way one can see both sides of the page, and, with one hand on each side, pass the needle back and forth quickly and with ease.

To begin sewing: get a heavy needle; linen bookbinding thread (don’t settle for some other thread – linen binding thread is relatively easy to get, and considerably sturdier and better to work with) and beeswax. Cut the thread to a comfortable length and thread the needle. Pull the thread through the beeswax, to lubricate it, so that it moves more easily through the paper.

One can either tie a knot in the end of the thread or leave some thread hanging out of the first hole and tie it to the second signature later – I prefer to tie it to the second signature, as this is stronger. Begin sewing as below. You do not need to try to sew the tapes in immediately – they can be put in after the stitching has gone through the second signature. This assumes that you are starting at the top of the signature – if starting at the bottom, just reverse the image. (note that this starts at the bottom, at “begin”)

      o       o        o        o
      u     i u      i u      i u    i
      t     n t      n t      n t    n


      b     o i      o i      o i    o
      e     u n      u n      u n    u
      g     t        t        t      t

Pull the thread tight, and insert the bands at this time if this has not already been done. If the thread was left hanging out at the beginning, tie in a square knot with the thread coming out of the end of the second signature. Begin the kettlestitch at this point. Continue with this pattern until all the signatures have been sewn together. Try to make the sewing as tight as possible without tearing the paper or thread. If additional thread is needed, tie it to the previous piece using a square knot, outside the band, so that it cannot be seen when the book is in use.

To finish the sewing, tie and additional two square knots using the end of the thread and the next to the last signature. Then you are done. With the sewing. Which is just the beginning.

For a non-adhesive binding, sew as above, but when the thread comes out, to go over the signature, hook it around the thread over the tape of the signature below it. This will take longer to sew, and make for a thicker spine, but will also be much stronger.

For a normal binding, the next step is gluing. First, bang the spine on a table to straighten out the signatures, so that they are all even. If top has a smooth surface (the paper does not have a deckle edge, bang that against the table to straighten it out too. If either of these are not perfectly even, this is ok, just so long as they are as even as possible right now. It is more important that the top be even than the spine.

Clamp the book as tightly as possible, while still having relatively even pressure, so that about 1/4 inch (0.7 cm.) of the spine is sticking out. A book press is best for this, but oak boards and at least 3 clamps will also work. It should be solid wood, not plywood, because plywood will bend under the pressure, which makes for funny shaped books.

Apply a liberal coating of wheat paste to the spine, both to the paper area and the tapes. It is important to use wheat paste made from pastry flour, and to actually use wheat paste, as described in my writeup under wheat paste. Rub the paste into the spine using fingers, then apply more. After rubbing in two or three (more if the paper is less absorbent), rub another layer in, using a bone folder. Use the bone folder to rub the ends of the signatures hard, so that they become flat instead of U-shaped. Rub in another layer of wheat paste using the bone folder and allow to dry, in the press, for about 15 minutes.

If the spine is completely even, rub in another coat of wheat paste, and allow to dry completely – 1-2 hours. If it is not completely straight, take it out and bang on a hard surface – it will become more even, while still staying glued together, if one does not bang too hard. Once the spine is even, put back the press and apply and rub in another two layers of paste. Let set until dry.

The final step is to apply rice paper to the spine, for additional strength. Rice paper has extremely long fibers, and is very strong for the weight. Cut rice paper to the size of the gaps between the tapes, the width of the spine, with about 1/8 inch (0.4 cm.) overlap onto the front and back page. The grain of the rice paper must be in the same direction as the spine! Place the book in the press again, leaving 1/2 inch (1.4 cm.) of the spine sticking out. Apply another later of wheat paste, then the rice paper, forcing the rice paper into the cracks on the spine, and then apply another layer of wheat paste over that. Paste the small amount that hangs over the end to the front and back endpapers. If additional strength is desired, additional layers of rice paper may be added in the same manner. This is not necessary for most applications.

That is it. The book block is now ready to be bound in any number of styles of bindings, to be described later.

Most of the materials described in this writeup are available at better art supply stores. In the USA, all mentioned materials are available at Utrecht Art Supply.

Part of a series of writeups relating to bookbinding. Questions, issues? Let me know. I will try to deal with them now or in future writeups.

Bookbinding is not so much a single art as an array of options over many steps. cbustapeck’s techniques are sufficiently different than mine that I will be describing the process afresh rather than annotating his description.

Required Materials
  • signatures to stitch (either blank, or after tearing down) If you're going to use sewn endpapers, these should be added to the book at this point.
  • strong thread, either white or unbleached
    For archival work, this should be linen. Bookbinding thread is described using two numbers (eg 16/40). The first number refers to the number of strands making up the thread, and the second is the gauge of each strand. This means that a 16/40 may be the same thickness as a 4/10, but it will also be substantially stronger.
    For non-archival work, polyester button thread or strong cotton thread will do. Using thread that is too weak will either lead to numerous breakages (and a frustrating amount of re-tying) or loose stitching and an untidy book block.
  • a piercing tool
    A bodkin or bradawl may be used (I use a bodkin), but if you want a finer hole, a thick needle will do. To make the needle easier to use, get a 1 inch diameter dowel and saw it into a convenient section. Drive a finishing nail partway into one end, then pull it out. Glue a thick needle into the hole using epoxy.
  • tapes
    Archival bookbinding should be done on unbleached linen tapes. However, anything you don’t mind deteriorating in the next century or so can be sewn onto cotton tapes, available from sewing shops. The tapes should be about 1/2” wide and as thin as possible. I don’t tend to use parchment, both because I don’t have any and because it is thick enough to show at the hinges of a case-bound book.
  • needle
    You’ll want a long, thick one – something you can get a good grip on. It is sometimes useful to have a curved needle, usually sold for upholstery repair.

Optional Materials
  • sawing clamp
    This is a small book clamp, basically two boards with a threaded rod at each end to hold them together. It keeps the book block stable while marking and sawing the back.
  • small saw, such as a tenon saw
  • sewing frame
    This is a frame to stretch the tapes like the warp threads in weaving. It consists of a flat plate to hold the book with a bar above. The tapes are stretched from the flat plate to the bar, and the signatures are then stitched to the vertical, stretched tapes.
  • beeswax
    This makes the thread less likely to tangle as you stitch (there is very little more annoying than a knot in the thread when you’re halfway through stitching a book). It can be obtained wherever quilting supplies are sold.
What to Do
  1. Line up and mark the book block
    Stack the signatures up in the correct order. Check they’re all facing the right way. Now check again. If one signature is upside down at this point, your entire binding effort will be wasted. Stack them carefully, tapping the bottom against a flat surface so that all the signatures are square with each other. If you have a sawing clamp, put the book in now and tighten the screws. Otherwise, hold it tightly to keep it from shifting.
    Mark the book block along the spines using a pencil. There should be a single mark at the head and tail for the kettlestiches, then pairs of marks for the tapes. Each pair of marks should be a tape width plus about 1 mm apart. Small books can be bound with two tapes, and larger ones (7” tall and over) should have three. Make sure the marks are perpendicular to the signatures or your book block will be crooked.
    It’s a good idea to make the tape placements asymmetrical. That way, if a signature gets turned upside down before you stitch it into place, you’ll notice before you mess up.
    You now have a book block that looks like this:
  2. Saw the kettlestitches (optional)
    The single marks at the head and tail of the book are for kettlestitches. Traditionally, kettlestitches are sewn into grooves sawn into the spine of the book at the, to reduce bulk. This is a stronger treatment than doing them on the surface, but may be too damaging to use on delicate papers or archival works.
    If the kettlestitches are to be sawn, use the tenon saw to create the grooves. The cuts should just reach into the inner page in each signature. I find that pulling the saw, rather than pushing it, gives an evener cut and prevents tearing of the outer signatures. Be sure to cut from both sides, since your groove will tend to slant away from you.
  3. Punch the holes
    Use your piercing tool to punch holes where you’ve marked on either side of the tapes. If you haven’t sawn the kettlestitches, use the piercing tool to create these holes as well.
  4. Thread your sewing frame (if you have one)
    Set the book block on the base of the sewing frame, and use the holes to determine the placement of the tapes. Fasten the tapes to the upper bar of the frame (I loop the tape over the bar and secure the end to the rest of the tape with a single stitch). If you have a proper sewing frame, drop the tapes through the slot in the base and use tape keys to hold the tapes tight. Otherwise, use masking tape or thumbtacks to hold the bottoms of the tape. However you do it, you want the tapes tight.
    If you don’t have a sewing frame, cut your tapes about 4” longer than your book block is thick and lay them out. You’ll need the extra length to tighten the tapes after you’re done sewing
  5. Start stitching!
    Take the first signature of the book. The thread should travel as follows:
          __________        _________________        ______
         /          \      /                 \      /      \
    ====/============|====|===================|====|========\====== <- signature
       /             |====|                   |====|         \      <- tapes
     end              \__/                     \__/           needle
    Be sure the stitiching goes around the tapes, not through them. Do not catch the tapes with any of your stitching.
  6. Add the second signature
    The needle and thread will have emerged from the hole at one end of the first signature. Lay the second signature down the right way up (aren’t you glad you did the holes asymmetrically?). Use the same stitching pattern as above. You want to sew in a back-and-forth fashion, so the needle should travel from right to left this time. When you get back to the extreme left, tie the thread to the end you left hanging out when you started. Pull the stitching as tight as you can without tearing the signatures before you tie it off.
  7. Continue sewing
    After the first two signatures, every time you get to the head or tail of the book, do a kettlestitch (see the write-up there for instructions). This is your chance to draw the stitching in the latest signature tight and lock it in place. It will take some time to learn how much tension to put on the thread; if you break the thread, unpick the stitching to the last tape and tie it back onto the thread.
    Every four signatures or so, it is a good idea to bind the stitches together at the tapes. This pulls in any excess slack in the thread that you didn’t manage to get with the kettlestitches. To do this, bring the needle out at one side of the tape. Pass it under the threads over the tape for the three signatures below the current one, looping the current thread around to create a knot. See the diagram below for clarification.
             | tape        ^ <- needle|
             |            //          |        
    ========o------------//--         |o============= signature =
             |          //   \        |
    ========o-----------------\--------o============= signature =
             |        //       \      |
    ========o-------------------|------o============= signature =
             |      //          |     |
    ========o------------------/-------o============= signature =
             |    //          /       |
             | __/___________/        |
             |   -                    |
    The knot will look like this:
             | tape                   |
             |                        |        
    ========o---------\     /----------o============= signature =
             |         \   /          |
    ========o----------\\ //-----------o============= signature =
             |          =@=           |
    ========o----------// \------------o============= signature =
             |         /   \          |
    ========o---------/     \----------o============= signature =
             |                        |
  8. Finish stitching
    Tie off the thread by doing kettlestitches to the three or four signatures below the final one. Then cut the thread off short enough that it won’t hang off the end of the book when it’s stood upright.
  9. Tighten the tapes
    Even if you’ve used a sewing frame, you’ve probably got some slack in your tapes. Get a firm grip on one end and gently pull it through the stitching. DO NOT PULL IT ALL THE WAY OUT. Then gently pull it the other way to finish tightening them.

Go on now to rounding and backing your book.

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