Pretty Perfect Paperback
A start to finish tutorial on building a soft-cover book (with content!)
that holds together forever and looks good doing it.
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 one-point-five-years-ago-Brianna probably would have appreciated the tips, so here you go
Step 1: Organize your Pagination
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)