How is your book put together?


Folding the paper into signatures

Books are made up of signatures which are collections of sheets of paper folded together. When printers received a new book for binding they would come on large sheets of paper and they would then be cut and folded to make the pages. If you buy an old book and it has rough edges with some of the sheets still connected together at the top or the bottom it means that it was never ‘trimmed’ (see later) in the bindery and was probably a cheap binding.

The folded sheets are pressed using a bone folder which can be made of bone or nowadays tend to be plastic.

This folding starts the process of moulding the sheets together and I tend to fold four sheets together to help with that process.

Most signatures have four sheets but I have repaired some books with only three sheets per signature and others with 5.

Modern books are often just single sheets glued together which is called a ‘perfect’ binding although it is not very strong.

Step 2


In order to sew the signatures together you need to prick holes in them. These holes need to all be in line and need to be large enough to take the needle and thread whilst also holding the thread tightly.

Paper is remarkably strong and as long as you keep the tension in the direction you are sewing you are unlikely to rip the paper. However, if you pull against the direction of sewing you do run the risk of tearing the hole.

As I make a lot of books I have made up this template so I can do all of the holes at the same time in a pricking cradle. However, you can make the holes individually using a sharp bradawl.

Step 3


Books such as this are always sewn onto something, either tapes or cords. Older books are sewn onto books and if they are not recessed into the spine then you can see them underneath the leather which gives 18th and earlier books their characteristic bumpy spines.

Modern books are just single sheets glued together which is called a perfect binding although it isn’t very strong.

However, our book here is sewn onto tapes. You can use a sewing frame but I find it is just as easy to attach the sewing tape to the table and sew directly onto it. The technique is quite simple and the thread comes out of the signature, around the tape and then back in again.

You might notice an extra hole at the head and tail of the book. This is for the ‘kettle’ stitch and is a way of locking the signatures together at the ends. An alternative name for the kettle stitch is a ‘weaver’s’ stitch. If you look at your book or any older book and turn to the middle of a signature you can see the thread running along the inside of the signature.

The endpapers would also be added at this stage. I usually make a simple endpaper by laminating two sheets together to make both the book paper which covers the inside of the cover and then the first sheet of the book. There are many different end papers that you can make.

Sewing the book block
Step 4

Starting gluing and rounding

Once the book block is sewn together the next stage is to start to make the spine up and give it lots of strength. Eventually it will have two or three layers of glue plus some ‘mull’ and probably some paper. However, initially we add a layer of glue but importantly the glue is not put over the tapes so that they are free to continue to move. I use Bookbinders PVA glue but older books would use hot glue.

Just before the glue dries completely the book is trimmed and then the spine is rounded. The trimming has to happen at this stage and I use a large paper cutter.

Rounding is a process whereby the characteristic book shape is put into the book block. It is done gently and the front edge of the book is pulled up with the spine away from the binder. The spine is then gently pushed away which creates a slope on the spine. The same is done on the other side creating an even rounding. You can now see why the book needs to move on the tapes still as this freedom allows the rounding to happen.

Sometimes a hammer can be used to help with the rounding but it is possible to get a good shape just by using the heel of the hand.

Step 5

Second gluing and backing

The spine is now glued again but this time the glue goes right over the tapes to hold the book’s shape. At this stage the page ribbon is glued onto the spine.

Sometimes I sew the ribbon into the stitching on the spine as an extra secure fixing but this isn’t really necessary as the ribbon will have another couple of layers on top of it after this stage.

This is also the point at which the book might be backed. Backing is a process whereby the edge nearest the spine is bent over by a few millimetres depending on the thickness of the cover boards.

Larger books tend to be backed and it gives a much tighter opening book. If you want your book to open flat then you shouldn’t back the boards. As these are to be used as note books flat on desks I tend not to back my notebooks.

This would also be the time to add headbands which are decorative sewing techniques designed to protect the spine as it is pulled off the book shelves. Headbanding is an entire skill in itself and you can create some lovely patterns out of coloured silk. However, it is very time-consuming so I tend to use premade headband tape if I put headbands on a book. I do weave the headbands correctly for older books and special commissions.

Adding the ribbon
Step 6

Finalising the spine

The spine now has two more layers to add before it is complete. Firstly a material called mull or fraynot is added. This holds the spine together and when it is glued onto the back of the book it needs pressing into the grooves between the signatures to ensure it is moulded really well onto the spine.

You can imagine that once this mull is added the spine is going to be very strong and is unlikely to come apart without the use of a sharp knife or pair of strong scissors. However, the mull would show through the final spine so over the top of the mull some craft paper is added.

In times gone by the bookbinder would use any old paper lying around the bindery and so you often find magazines or bits of other books used for the spine lining when you are restoring old books. We have a 17th century prayer book which has an old will written on vellum being used to strengthen the spine.

The last thing is to cut the tapes so that they are flush with the mull and then the book block is ready.

The finished spine
Step 7

Making the case

As this is a case bound book the case is made separately exactly to size before being attached to the book block. Because this whole process is done by hand each book ends up a slightly different size (depending on the rounding and the trimming) so each case has to be made to fit the book.

In these photographs I have done a quarter cloth case whereby the spine has book cloth on it but the covers have paper. A half cloth book would have corners of cloth and of course a full cloth book would just be book cloth. Book cloth is specially treated cotton material.

The paper covers are remarkably robust and you can find 200 year old books with excellent paper still covering the outsides. The paper used to be marbled paper but now you can buy beautifully printed paper. However, the skill of the people who create marbled paper is wonderful and is a whole industry in itself. As with all paper in the book it is important to have the grain of the paper running top to bottom, or head to tail, of the book.

When lining the covers up it is crucial to take your time and you can see here that I use an engineer’s square to ensure that the covers will be exactly lined up once the book is complete.

The corners are cut at exactly 45 degrees with sufficient overhang to cover the edge of the book board; so if the board is 2mm you need 2mm over hang etc. Everything is boned down really well.

Finally, the inside of the book cloth where the spine will sit is lined with some thin card. This is to give the spine shape. My books are almost all tight back spines which means the spine of the book is attached to the case. However, you can also make hollow back books where you add a cleverly folded piece of card down the spine which opens up when the book is opened.

Step 8

Casing in

Finally, having made the book block, strengthened the spine and made the case the time has come to case the book in.

It is important to be patient at this stage. Whenever you add glue to paper or card it expands and it will expand in the direction of the grain. As it dries it will shrink back again making a good tight bond. However, if you open the book whilst the paper is still wet then you stretch the fibres and they won’t go back so you end up with wrinkles on your end papers. Sometimes this is unavoidable if the paper being used has a pattern on it meaning it must be used in one direction but it is against the grain, but usually you make the grain go head to tail.

The book block is carefully placed inside the case so it lines up perfectly. Then the fly sheet is pasted and the case is brought over onto the fly sheet and pressed down hard. This is where it is imperative to not open the book until it is dry as you are in danger of stretching the fibres. I put a piece of plastic inside to stop the glue coming through the paper but I must only open the case fractionally.

The book is then turned over, the spine and the other fly sheet are pasted and the whole book is then put into a press overnight to dry

Casing in

Hopefully that has given you a small insight into how a case bound book is made by hand. It is a series of steps each of which requires very few tools but a lot of experience and time. Well into the 19th century books were still sewn by hand although mechanical sewing machines were starting to come into use. Next time you pick up a book, even one from the 20th century, look for the mull and tapes under the fly sheet and also the sewing down the middle of each signature!

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