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Woman doing bookbinding at Roycraft Shops, East Aurora, New York. Photo by Frances Johnston. Image courtesy US Library of Congress.

Bookbinding is the process of physically assembling a book from a number of separate sheets of paper or other material.


The craft of bookbinding may have originated around the 1st century A.D. Romans of the time created a form of simple book called a codex by folding sheets of vellum or parchment in half and sewing them through the fold. Codices were a significant improvement over papyrus or vellum scrolls, in that they were easier to handle, allowed writing on both sides of the leaves, and could be searched through more quickly.

Later books were bound between hard covers, with pages made from paper, or parchment, but were still created by stitching folded sheets at the seam. Since early books were exclusively handwritten on handmade materials, sizes and styles varied considerably, and each book was a unique creation or a copy of it.

With the arrival (from the East) of rag paper manufacturing through Europe in the late Middle Ages and the use of the printing press beginning in the mid-15th century, bookbinding began to standardize somewhat. But page sizes still varied considerably.

Modern Commercial Binding

There are various commercial techniques in use today. Commercially produced books today tend to be of one of four categories:

  • A hardcover or hardbound book has rigid covers and is stitched in the spine. Looking from the top of the spine, the book can be seen to consist of a number of signatures bound together. When the book is opened in the middle of a signature, the binding threads are visible. The signatures in modern hardcover books are typically octavo (a single sheet folded three times), though they may also be folio, quarto, or 16mo. Unusually large and heavy books are sometimes bound with wire or cable. The covers of modern hardback books are of thick cardboard. Until the mid-20th century, those of mass-produced books were covered in cloth, but from that period onwards most publishers adopted clothette, a kind of textured paper which vaguely resembles cloth but is easily differentiated on close inspection.
  • A paperback or softcover book consists of a number of signatures or individual leaves between covers of much heavier paper, glued together at the spine with a strong flexible glue; this is sometimes called perfect binding. Mass market paperbacks and pulp paperbacks are small, cheaply made, and often fall apart after much handling or several years. Trade paperbacks are more sturdily made, usually larger, and more expensive.
  • A cardboard article looks like a hardbound book at first sight, but it is really a paperback with hard covers. It is not as durable as a real hardbound; often the binding will fall apart after a little use. Many books that are sold as hardcover are actually of this type. Notably, the Modern Library series is of this class.
  • A sewn book is constructed in the same way as a hardbound book, except that it lacks the hard covers. The binding is as durable as that of a hardbound book.

The rise of desktop publishing has brought a fifth form into the commercial market, as well.

  • A comb-bound book is made of individual sheets, each with a line of slits punched near the bound edge. A curled plastic comb is fed through the slits to hold the sheets together. Comb binding allows a book to be disassembled and reassembled by hand without damage.

Magazines are considered more ephemeral than books, and less durable means of binding them are usual. In general, the cover papers of magazines will be the same as the inner pages (self-cover) or only slightly heavier (softcover).

  • Perfect binding similar to paperback books is often used; National Geographic is perhaps the best known of this type.
  • Spiral binding is commonly used for atlases and other publications where it is necessary or desirable to be able to open the publication back on itself without breaking the spine. There are several types but basically it is made by punching holes along the entire length of the spine of the page and winding a spring-like wire spiral through the holes to provide a fully flexible hinge at the spine.
  • Stapling through the center fold, also called saddle-stitching, joins a set of nested folios into a single magazine issue; Playboy (before 1985) is a well-known example of this type, as are most American comic books.

Modern Hand Binding

When talking about bookbinding as a craft, hardbound books are most common. Any sewn book can be pulled apart and rebound into a hardbound book by adding a case. Cases are often cardboard and sometimes wooden squares adhered to paper or leather and formed around the text block. There are different methods of sewing, such as stab sewing. A traditional method that uses sashes allows the book to open flat and not break the spine.

Books can be bound in many different materials. Some of the more common materials for covers are leather and cloth. A common way to bind a book is as a halfbound book, which means that the spine and the corners of the cover are covered with leather or cloth, while the rest is covered with paper (normally marbled or otherwise decorated). When only the spine is covered with cloth or leather and the rest of the cover is covered in paper, the book is called quarterbound.

Restoration Hand Binding

In restoration hand binding, the pages and book covers are often hundreds of years old and the handling of these pages has to be undertaken with great care and a delicate hand. The binding archival process can extend a book’s life for many decades, and is necessary in order to preserve books that sometimes are limited to a small handful of remaining copies worldwide. It is vitally urgent that such books are cared for in the most loving manner befitting the books’ rarity and subject matter.

The first step in saving and preserving a book is found in its deconstruction. The pages need to be separated from the covers and the stitching removed. This is done as delicately as possible, all restoration is done at this point, be it the removal of foxing, ink stains, page tears, etc. Various techniques are employed to repair the various types of page damage that might have occurred during the life of the book.

Master bookbinders are qualified to undertake restoration and traditional hand binding, and use great care to make sure this process does not further damage the pages, then they are added to the various groups of page signatures, which when collated are beaten flat and pressed.

The preparation of the foundations of the book could mean the difference between a beautiful work of art and a useless stack of paper and leather.

The sections are then hand sewn in the style of its period into book form, and great care is taken to use the proper stitching of the period in which the book was made.

The next step is the creation of the book cover; hand-tanned leather, which is dyed using vegetable dyes, and hand-marbled papers can be used. Finally, the cover is hand-tooled in gold leaf. The design of the book cover involves the hand tooling, where an extremely thin layer of gold is applied to the cover. Such designs can be lettering, symbols, or magical sigils, depending on the nature of any particular project.

Terms and Techniques

  • A leaf is a single complete page, front and back, in a finished book.

    —The recto side of a leaf faces left when the leaf is held straight up from the spine.

    —The verso side of a leaf faces right when the leaf is held straight up from the spine.

  • A folio is a single sheet folded in half to make two leaves. The term folio can also be used in the same sense as leaf.
  • A codex is a set of folios nested together and sewn through the fold.
  • A signature is a large sheet printed with several pages, intended to form four or more leaves in the finished book. The pages are arranged on the sheet so that all of the pages orient the same way and are in proper sequence after the sheet is folded. Arranging these pages correctly is called imposition. (Signature also refers to a sequence number or code printed on the sheet so that the several signatures that make a complete book may be properly sequenced; this signature is often trimmed off after binding.) The signature may be folded in several ways, depending on the number of leaves it will form; it is then stitched together down the last fold.

    —A sheet folded in quarto (also 4to or 4º) is folded in half twice at right angles to make four leaves. Also called a 4-page signature.

    —A sheet folded in octavo (also 8vo or 8º) is folded in half 3 times to make 8 leaves. Also called an 8-page signature.

    —A sheet folded in sextodecimo (also 16mo or 16º) is folded in half 4 times to make 16 leaves. Also called a 16-page signature.

    —Duodecimo or 12mo, 24mo, 32mo, and even 64mo are other foldings of a signature. Modern paper mills can produce very large sheets, so a modern printer will often print 64 or 128 pages on a single sheet.

  • Folio, quarto, and so on may also refer to the size of the finished book, based on the size of sheet that an early paper maker could conveniently turn out with a manual press. Paper sizes could vary considerably, and the finished size was also affected by how the pages were trimmed, so the sizes given are rough values only.

    A folio volume is typically 15 inches (38 cm) or more in height, the largest sort of regular book.

    A quarto volume is typically about 9 inches (23 cm) by 12 inches (30 cm), roughly the size of most modern magazines.

    An octavo volume is typically about 5 to 6 inches (13-15 cm) by 8 to 9 inches (20-23 cm), the size of most modern digest magazines or trade paperbacks.

    A sextodecimo volume is about 4 ½ inches (11.5 cm) by 6 ¾ inches (17 cm), the size of most mass-market paperbacks.

  • A quire is a set of leaves that are stitched together. This is most often a single signature, but may be several nested signatures. The quires for a single book are arranged in order and then stitched together as a set.
  • Trimming allows the leaves of the bound book to be turned. A sheet folded in quarto will have folds at the spine and also across the top, so the top folds must be trimmed away before the leaves can be turned. A signature folded in octavo or greater may also require that the other two sides be trimmed. “Deckle edge” or “uncut” books are untrimmed or incompletely trimmed, and may be of special interest to book collectors.

Spine Conventions

In left-to-right read languages (like English), books are bound on the left side of the cover; looking from on top, the pages increase counter-clockwise. In right-to-left languages, books are bound on the right. In both cases, this is so the end of a page coincides with where you flip.

(As a side note, some English-language books are bound on the right side of the cover. By far the most common examples are English-language translations of Japanese comic books. Since the art is laid out to be read right-to-left, this allows the art to be published unflipped.)

In Japanese, literary books are written top-to-bottom, right-to-left, and thus are bound on the right, while textbooks are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and thus are bound on the left.

The title of a book is traditionally written on the spine. In Chinese and similar languages, this is naturally written top-to-bottom (as the characters don’t change orientation, and the language is generally written top-to-bottom), but in left-to-right (and right-to-left) languages, the spine is usually too narrow for the title to fit in its natural orientation, and conventions differ. In the United States and England, titles are written top-to-bottom; when placed face-up, the title is correctly oriented left-to-right.

This also underlies why multiple volume works are often shelved right-to-left: they’re arranged as if a stack.

In many European countries, the general convention is to write titles bottom-to-top on the spine. (But spines of books in Dutch are almost always written top-to-bottom; in Spain every publisher has his own preference.) This is unusual, in that no writing system goes bottom-to-top, and requires that the book be placed facedown for the title on the spine to be right-side up. However, it results in multivolume works being shelved (correctly) left-to-right.

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