Bookbinding with needle and thread

I am teaching a class in book design and bookbinding this quarter. I have 30 students in the class; they are working on their manuscripts and will soon be working on their book blocks and book cases. This involves printing, hand folding, hand sewing, hand gluing and much patience. It’s really fun.

The course is largely about book typography, complex find-and-replace strategies, book composition and imposition.

This is a quarter-bound book, one where the spine fabric is different than the other cover material. The origin of this was books that were bound along the spine in leather, and the body bound with book cloth, a less expensive material.

In preparation for this course, I have been making hand-bound books with blank pages so that on the day when the students will be making theirs. I have had a lot of recent practice.

Building a hand-bound book takes several hours over a period of two days, and it requires skills that are not taught in a typical program in the graphic arts. Sewing is one of those skills. Bookbinding requires a simple stitching technique that starts in the first signature, with the needle going in and out of the spine of the folded paper through pre-punched pinholes. When you add the second signature, each stitch must “catch” the parallel stitch on the previously-sewn signature. The ends get either a catch stitch, or a knot.

This is a diagram of the stitching, and catch-stitching of several signatures in a book block. The result of this is a sturdy book, held together with thread and glue.

Sewing the signatures results in a block of signatures that are sewn together in a firm, but flexible book body. That block gets the endpapers – these are the connection between the book cover and the book block – and a gauzy fabric called the mull which strengthens that connection. The mull is glued to the spine of the block.

At the edges of the book block are the colorful sewn headbands whose purpose is strictly decorative. These bands are glued to the block, and end up nestled into the book case spine.

All of these parts are held together with water-soluble PVA glue, applied with a brush as the book block and case are built. It’s an interesting and fun process, but it requires discipline and an acute attention to cleanliness – the PVA cannot get on anything it’s not supposed to touch. This requires the insertion of wax paper sheets into the endpapers while the glue dries (to prevent the book from being glued shut), and against the table top while the case dries (as the PVA glue can seep through the bookbinder’s cloth, and can glue that cloth to the table).

We have all of this stuff on our dining room table at the moment. Stacks of scrap paper sit at the back, book blocks are held between wrapped bricks while the book dries. My wife and I will finish our books today, and I will be “current” in my bookbinding teaching skills. Then next week my students will repeat the process in our lab at school, and I will begin the process of overseeing the construction of many lovely hand-made books.

This is an exciting project for the students, whose finished books (they build three books each) are entered in the annual Publishing Professionals Network scholarship competition (previously called Bookbuilders West). Our students have done exceptionally well in this competition in previous years, winning cash awards in many categories.

I will oozing PVA glue in the coming weeks, and will be working with my talented students to guide them through this ancient craft to make their beautiful volumes. I am looking forward to seeing the results, which is the core of my “Final Exam” for this class. It’s more like a book show than an examination, but I assure you – there is a lot of cramming for the test!

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and was a Guest Professor at Hochschule München from September, 2021 to September, 2022. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
This entry was posted in Art, Bookbinding, Education, Imposition and Pagination, Printing and Printing Processes, Typography. Bookmark the permalink.

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