Pretty Perfect Paperback Binding

A start to finish tutorial on building a soft-cover book (with content!) that holds together forever and looks good doing it.

Pretty Paperback Book

As a delusional overachiever, I originally promised Joyce Jodie Kim an edition of 110 hardcover volumes of Caterpillar Portraits. I am still grateful for how understanding she was in the face of reality: hardcover books are a lot of work, a lot of materials, and mostly, way too time consuming for large editions and a solo producer. Soft-cover to the rescue! I knew that nice soft-cover books existed, because I owned a few, but nowhere could I find a lesson for how to construct an aesthetically-pleasing, reasonably durable, soft cover book. Print-format book binding instruction manuals (the most relevant presentation for the material) omitted softcover entirely in favour of too many chapters on frankly gaudy leather finishing techniques. Online, I found youtube videos by non-artisans of how to bind your xerox-printed textbooks and save a buck. Yikes. From my peers I saw some lovely compromises, including hard and softcover coptic binding with an uncovered spine. Unfortunately, I was being a stickler for that “book title - author” info combo to be visible from the outside of a bookshelf, and so I needed something new. 

I’m a little apprehensive that this information is totally redundant, (how else could this be accomplished?) but three-years-ago-Brianna probably would have appreciated the tips, so here you go.


  • a text or other book content
  • a commercial print shop, or a home-printer and great deal of patience
  • thread (I’m a big fan of top-stitching thread. It’s heavier than your standard polyester-sewing-fare and lighter than linen “bookbinding thread”. Also, it comes in a multitude of lovely colours, if you’re into that kind of thing.
  • scissors (good ones, cut that thread cleanly or it will be a b* to put through the eye of your needle
  • a sewing needle large enough to fit the thread you choose to work with but small enough that it won’t put giant holes in your paper when you pull it through. Straight is great, in my opinion (an opinion that is limited to needles for bookbinding, jeez guys).
  • some sort of white glue, or gel medium, or mod-podge, whatever you’ve got lying around will do so long as it’s PVA based (poly-vinyl acetate, for the super nerds)
  • a glue brush (pretty much anything will do so long as you don’t want to use it for watercolour or oil afterwards)
  • a heavier (than your text) paper for the cover. I like Stonehenge because it takes relief printing well, has a little texture, is available in warm white, and is relatively cheap. Stonehenge is 110lb, and available at your local art store, probably. 100lb cardstock will also do, in a pinch, which you can get at your commercial printer, if you have been wise enough to choose to work with one.
  • a bone folder, or a small plastic ruler, or a pointy-er than usual chopstick.
  • an awl or other sharp, pointy and durable object, but really an awl because anything else will be a headache.
  • some heavy books (not the one you’re making).

Step 1: Organize your Pagination

I am only going to briefly outline what Pagination is and why it’s necessary. We actually hire the wonderful graphic designer Sienna Tristen (find them on our team page) so that I don’t have to deal with the headache of digital pagination.

Pagination is the organization of your printed matter so that when you group the pages together and fold them in half to make a signature, everything is in the correct order. Hopefully the diagram (Fig 1) below is NOT headache inducing. A signature is important because it’s really hard for your book to fall apart when you use signatures instead of the xerox textbook method of a stack of separate papers. It is important to use MULTIPLE signatures because their valence electrons make them unstable when not paired... just kidding. You use multiple signatures to create a squared-off spine (good for title-author info), instead of a pointy one that will disappear into your bookshelf.

Bookbinding Pagination Diagram Signature: a group of pages all folded down the middle and nested one inside the next. Grab a book from your shelf (better luck with hardcover) and look at the top near the spine. See the little "u"s? Those are signatures. If you've ever opened a page and seen a thread in the crack between pages, that means your book is sewn together instead of glued.


One gem I will share with those of you who are brand new to this: if you format your document into an 8.5 x 11” portrait orientation pdf with slightly larger text than you actually want, and then print it from Adobe Acrobat on the “pamphlet” setting, you’ll get a fully paginated signature with the content you originally had on a full-page living on a half-page. I’ve only ever noticed this possibility, never used it. When we started Penrose, Egor was right there, and so no layman's tricks were necessary. Before that, waaaaay back in 2016 I still had a functional version of Microsoft Word and I used the “text box” function to its fullest capacity. I would adjust the margins on my document to be the correct print size for a half-page (sometimes I used columns to get it looking even closer to correct) and math out the pagination in my notebook, see Fig 1). I would then create a new document with the same proportions, and draw text boxes to fit the margins. Then I would copy and paste the content according to my diagram. DON’T DO THIS. I’m only telling you to illustrate this crazy journey from incompetency to competency.

NOTE: it is best not to put your most important information on the very front or the very back pages of your book. You’ll see why, later.

Step 2: Sewing

Time to sew your signatures together and the beauty of bookbinding is that while a lot of techniques are less good, none are truly wrong! There. You have my permission as an imposter-syndrome-riddled-bookbinder to experiment! My preferred method is called Modified French Binding (probably… maybe… it doesn’t really matter what it’s called).

Bookbinding Punch Guide Diagram  Make a punch guide (Fig 2). Take a piece of paper that’s the same height as your page but narrower, and fold it in half, hotdog style. Mark an even number of holes in the fold, (at least 4) with the top and bottom ones one inch from the top and bottom. You use this to punch all the holes in your signatures, to make sure they all line up on the outside of the book. Line up the folds and the bottom edges and punch through the guide with your awl, and from the inside of the folded signatures.


Thread your needle. (Bring the needle to the thread, not the other way around). Pick up one signature (keep all the pages lined up) and sew through the bottom hole from the outside to the inside. Leave a short tail at the bottom and don’t let it pull through. Sew out and in till you get to the top hole. You should be on the outside of the signature now, if you’re not, double check that you punched an even number of holes and try again. (Fig 3) Pick up the second signature and begin at the top, lining it up in front of or behind the first signature as needed (I like to sew from back to front but I guess that’s weird). Sew in and out as before, but this time, when the thread is outside the signature, hook it once around the thread on the outside of the first signature and then proceed. (Fig 4)This holds your book together in the middle as well as by the top and bottom edges. When you get to the bottom, pull gently on both your full thread and the tail you left until the binding is snug (I find that pulling along the spine, instead of against it reduces the potential for paper tearing Fig 5). Then, make a balanced knot (a double knot where the knots mirror each other) and add the third signature. Continue sewing in the same way, up to the top of the book, catching on the outside threads from the previous signature. At every end, make a knot, and when you’re done your book (even if it has twenty signatures), you won’t have to go back and tighten them up.

Sewing the First Signature Diagram

Basic Bookbinding Technique Diagram

Book Binding Best Practises

Note: It's good to try holding the book in a variety of ways during this portion which can feel a bit awkward. I find that I often use my knees as a kind of vice to hold the book so that both of my hands are free to adjust tension etc. Experiment!

Part 3: Spine Reinforcement

You may notice that no matter how snugly your stitched your signatures, there is a bit of a looseness to them when you open the book up wide. We’re going to fix that. First, get some heavy books. It will help if these heavy books have a similar footprint to the one you’re making. Sandwich your book between the other books with a decent amount of weight on top. If you like, you can protect the other books with wax paper.  Make sure the spine of your books is facing out and protrudes past the other books a little bit (about an ⅛ to a ¼ of an inch). Get some glue on your brush and apply it along the spine of your book. Push into the grooves between signatures, it won’t hurt it. Let dry and repeat for 2-3 layers. This is what makes it perfect binding, to my view: the glue on the spine. You can also glue a spine that’s just a stack of papers with no signature and no sewing, but it will be a lot less strong and more susceptible to losing pages.

Bookbinding Strategy Photo

Step 4: Attaching and Finishing the Cover

Prepare cover. You need a piece of paper that is twice as big as your book, plus the width of the spine. It will be much easier to design before you apply it to the book. Remember, the front of the cover goes on the right hand side. I’m sure you can figure out the rest.

Remove your book from the book pile. Don’t open it wide. I usually let mine cure for a day first, but it is plenty dry to apply the cover. Take your cover. If it already has images or text on it this is important: score a line with your bone folder (or substitute) along the proposed fold where the spine of the book meets the front cover. Measure the depth of your book at the spine = X. Score a second line on the cover, X distance over from the first. Pre-fold the score lines to about 90 degrees (not all the way over) and unfold again. Using your glue brush, apply a line of glue onto the cover just to the side of the front fold, on the front side (so, not on the spine at all). Place your book face down with the front spine edge matching the line of glue. You can fold up the cover to make sure the the corner of the spine is in the fold correctly, but once the position is perfect, unfold it, stack a bunch of books on top and let dry (about 45 min).

Applying the Book Cover Diagram

Remove the books. Apply glue to the cover on the spine and just a little bit past it, so the back cover will stick to the back page of the book. Place one hand at the fore-edge of the book (opposite the spine) and hold it there so the book block doesn’t skew. With the other hand, fold over the cover and pull it toward the fore-edge. Push with the first hand to create a snug fit. Stack a bunch of books on top and let dry (about 45 min)

You may have figured out that since you're applying glue to a small portion of the very front and very back pages, they won't open quite as flat as all of the rest of the pages. This is why it's a good idea not to put any really important information or beautiful images here.

Bookbinding without a Book Press

Using Books as weights during bookbinding

Bookbinding Desk

So your book is nearly done and I’m afraid that this is where I will disappoint you. You need to trim your book to make the edges all nice (just don’t trim off the spine or this will all be for nothing) and a utility knife-ruler combo is just not going to cut it (...). But seriously, you may think, oh it will be fine! It won’t. Alternatively, you can bind everything REALLY NEATLY and not trim off anything, but if you have the power to be really neat, your really neat brain may not be satisfied, you know? I was lucky enough to find a stack cutter listed for free on facebook during someone’s studio move. But that’s not helpful to you and I’m sorry. This is where your friends at the commercial print company have got your backs (hopefully) with a stack cutter or guillotine.

That’s it! Look at your beautiful book! (and I mean, while you’re at it, check out our beautiful books, too) ​​



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