Bookbinding - A method of attaching covers to a book, using the ends of the cords on which the signatures are sewn. (It is rarely done with tape-sewn books.)

Lacing on is one of the earliest techniques of fixing boards, dating back at least to the Ninth century AD. That was when books began to be sewn on external cords. The ends of the cords, trailing off of the spine, were then laced through holes drilled in the wooden planks that served as covers and glued down. Any covering (leather or cloth, for instance) was then applied to the completed book.

The technique is still used by fine bookbinders. It has evolved over the centuries (becoming much easier when pasteboard was adopted as a cover material).

How to lace boards onto a book

This explanation assumes you have a rounded and backed book block sewn on external cords, and a couple of bits of cardboard cut to size.

  1. Drill holes in the covers.

    You'll need two holes per lace. One should be 2 cm or so in from the edge, even with where the cord itself comes off of the spine when the book block is in place (remember your square when you measure this up!) The second should be another 1 - 2 cm in and about 1 cm higher (toward the head of the book). Punch the first hole from the outside of the cover to the inside, and the second the other way round.

      |               |
      |   °           |
      | °             |
    s |   °           | f
    p | °             | o
    i |   °           | r
    n | °             | e
    e |   °           |
      | °             |
      |   °           |
      | °             |
      |               |
  2. Cut grooves

    Cut one set from the outer holes to the spine edge of the board, on the outside of the book cover. Cut another from the first set of holes to the second, on the inside.

    These grooves should be V-shaped, as wide at the top as the diameter of the cord. They should be no deeper than about halfway through the board.

            cross-section of the board
           __ _____ _____ _____ _____ __
     head |  V     V     V     V     V  | tail
          |                             |
  3. Nick the corners or chamfer the outside spine edge of the boards

    Laced-on boards always form tight joints, because the cords would make for a very odd hinge in any French groove. To make it easier to open the cover, it's a good idea to do a bit of shaping of the spine edge of the boards. Either chamfer the spine edge on the outside of the cover, or nick the top and bottom corners on the outside spine corners. Both operations can be done with a sharp blade.

    Chamfering the edge

              cross-section of board, spine edge
     chamfer -> /

    Nicking the corners

              outside of board, top spine corner
           top              cross
          view             section  
        | /             /
        |/             |          
  4. Lace the covers on

    Thread the cords through the first set of holes, from the outside in. The cords should fit into the grooves you cut earler. Then thread the cord back out through the second set of holes. Draw the cords so that the boards are flush with the turn-ups of your backed spine, but don't pull them tight.

      cord=======|   |==           
              |  |   |             | fore
            paths of the cords after lacing
       _______________           _______________
      |    =          |         |            _  |
      |==             |         |           //  |
    s |    =          |         |            _  | s
    p |==             | f     f |           //  | p
    i |    =    out-  | o     o |  in-       _  | i
    n |==       side  | r     r | side      //  | n
    e |    =          | e     e |            _  | e
      |==             |         |           //  |
      |    =          |         |            _  |
      |==             |         |           //  |
      |               |         |               |
  5. Hide the cords

    Now you've got the covers laced on, but you don't want the cords showing when you cover the book.

    First, fray the ends that stick out of the second holes. Fan the frayed ends out so they're flat and paste them down. Then brush paste along the exposed cords between the first and second holes, and between the edges and the first holes. Press the cords into the grooves with a bone folder.

    Slip some aluminium flashing between the covers and tbe book, wrap the book in waxed paper, and put the whole thing into a book press with just the spine sticking out for at least 24 hours. That will press the cords into the grooves. You'll end up with flat, smooth covers, laced onto your book, ready for covering. Only the very spine ends of the cords will stick up, making little V-shaped lumps right by the tight joint.

You can also lace the boards onto a book sewn on buried cords. The procedure is much the same.

How to Recognise Laced-On Covers

The best way to tell if a book has laced-on covers is to look at the spine edges of the covers.

  1. If there's a French groove, then the covers are not laced on.
  2. If the book has a hollow back, the chances are excellent that the covers are not laced on. (Unless the binder was pretty strange.)
  3. If there are little V-shaped bumps at the spine end of the boards, then the cover was laced on.

    These grooves may or may not line up with any decorated bands on the spine of the book. This depends on whether the book was sewn on exposed cords, which were then decorated, or on sunken cords with false bands added. (There will usually be fewer cords in a sunk-cord binding).

         Book sewn on exposed cords
       --^-----^-----^-----^-----^-- <- spine
      |  V     V     V     V     V  |
      |                             |
        Book sewn on buried cords, with
        false bands added to the spine
       --^-----^-----^-----^-----^-- <- spine
      |      V       V       V      |
      |                             |

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