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
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.