The process of taking apart a book before rebinding it.

Tearing down involves the removal of the cover of the book, cutting apart the signatures, and removal of any old glue and other material. All this must be done before one can sew the signatures together and rebind the book.

The first step, before one begins tearing down a book is to be sure that you really want to repair the book yourself, and not let a professional do it. Check one of the major web used book search tools, such as, to see what the book is worth. Be sure to check that it is the same edition, and keep in mind condition – the book you have that needs to be rebound, especially older leather bindings, can easily require $300 or more worth of repairs to make it worth anything. This is not to say that all binding work should be left to a professional, but just that one should know the value of what one is working with.

The next step is to be sure that the binding is sewn, not glued. It is very difficult to rebind a book with a glued binding, and I am not going to deal with such bookbindings in this writeup. A sewn binding is held together by thread, and then glued for additional strength, whereas a glued binding is held together solely by glue. Hardcover books may have glued bindings and paperback books may have sewn bindings.

A sewn binding may be identified by looking at the point where the pages are attached to the spine, at the top or bottom of the book. The pages of a glued binding will come together as a smooth line, or perhaps a bit staggered, something like this: (the spine is at the bottom of the image)

whereas the pages of a sewn binding will appear to be in separate sections, signatures, that come together in a U shape: (again, the spine is at the bottom of the image)
Also, a sewn binding will have stitching in the center of each signature – this can be seen when the book is open, as you would read it, generally every 8 or 16 pages. The stitching is in the center of the fold, so it may be necessary to force the book open a bit before the stitching can be seen.

Be sure that the book has a sewn binding before proceeding. It is rather annoying to start tearing down a book and then realized that it has a glued binding. (Yes, I have done this recently. Argh.)

To begin, with a hardcover book, slowly pull apart the front endpaper and the first page. There will usually be more glue holding them together than the following signatures. Once the paper has been pulled apart, it will be possible to see the cloth or linen cords or strips holding the book block to the front board. Cut this fabric, being careful not to cut the paper of the book block. (For this, I use a single edge razor blade. They are cheap, easy to control, and sharp. Others use Exacto blades, but I find razor blades to be the most effective. Scissors are not a good idea.) Repeat the process for the last page/back endpaper.

After completing the above steps, you will have the book block. For a sewn softcover book, simply pull the cover off, holding the book block in one hand, and peeling it off the spine.

Now that the book block has been removed, the process is the same for both types of sewn bookbindings. Open the book block to the last page of the first signature and the first page of the second. This can be found more easily by looking at the end, where the signatures are gathered at the spine. With the book open as it might be read normally, pull the first signature away from the book block, just enough to slip a razor between the two and cut the stitching and glue holding them together. Be careful to not cut the paper!

Repeat this process for the rest of the book, cutting apart each signature from the one before it. The signatures will stick together somewhat as they are pulled apart, from the glue that holds the spine together. Be sure to pull the paper apart slowly, so that it does not tear. The signatures will all have some glue left on them, as well as threads hanging from them.

To remove the thread, open the signature to the center and pull it out from there. If the thread is pulled out from the spine side, it will likely tear the paper, which is a pain to repair. Do it slowly, and be patient.

The glue used on the spine will either be a synthetic glue, for more recent books, or a water soluble glue, on older titles. The newer synthetic glue can be peeled right off, usually, without any damage to the paper. Synthetic glue that is older will often have hardened, and will be difficult to remove from the paper without tearing it. To remove this glue, first pick off what you can. Then, carefully cut the rest of it off with the razor blade. This works surprisingly well. A very small amount of glue will be left in the paper, but it will be clean enough to rebind.

For the water soluble glue, also pick off as much as possible, without damaging the paper. This older glue will have a stronger bond with the paper, and it will be easier to damage the paper, so be careful when removing it. If the paper is damaged, it can be repaired – see mending paper in books. To remove the rest of the glue, line up the spine and put the book block in a book press. Brush just enough wheat paste on the spine to get the old glue damp, then carefully pick it away with the non-pointy part of a dental pick.

Once the book block has been taken apart, the thread and adhesive removed, the book is just about ready to be rebound. If needed, erase any marks and repair any tears in the paper that need to be repaired.

Thanks to evilrooster for her help with this wu.

Part of a series about everything related to bookbinding. If you have any questions that you would like to see addressed, please let me know.

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