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The People's Journalism ("J") School

Bind Your Own Books

By Kirsten Anderberg (
Written on May 11, 2006

Make sure to check our BINDING PAGE out too, as it has pics and info about many kinds of bindings you can do yourself...

I recently spent a good amount of time researching my personal book binding options. I came up with a collection of book binding techniques, each with unique attributes. The types of book bindings I found I could do myself at home were 1) Perfect Spine Bindings (Paperback Books), 2) Stab and Sew Bindings, 3) Coil Bindings, 4) Book Board & Cloth Bindings and 5) Miscellaneous Art Bindings, such as Altered Books. Most people don't think much about book bindings, even though they regularly use books, but now that I have spent time researching this, I look at the bindings of books really differently. I see binding itself as an art form now.

The earliest "books" were written on stone, clay, wood, bark, animal hides, and other natural materials. Scrolls were a common form for books prior to the first century AD, when more elaborate book forms began to proliferate. By the Middle Ages, books in the form of a hard cover with pages inside and a bound spine were common. Gems and jewels, glass and metal clasps, often adorned the covers of these books, as well as expensive fabrics such as velvet or silk. There was a push for mass binding methods via Islam and Christianity early on, and that also has some history within book binding's past. By the 19th century, industrial production of books had come upon us. This switch to industrialized book binding, as with many other things, turned book binding and its covers into a functional protector, rather than a decorative art. The 20th century saw the book become a mass consumer product, and yet, in the 21st century, I am pursuing hand bound books as an art form, as a writer and publisher. Things come full circle in art at times.

The types of book binding that I have tried each meet different needs (and I am just beginning to explore this art form and am no expert, by any means). The coil bindings are appropriate for calendars and cookbooks, but a novel is more appropriate in a perfect spine binding for bookstore shelves. The book board and cloth bindings can look very stately, creating a hard bound book. And collecting unique fabrics and papers for the covers and insides is really fun. Some bindings have more functionality to them, such as the coil and perfect spine bindings, while the stab and sew and altered books are more compatible with artistic texts. There are books that come with boxes they fit into, there are books that have golden engravings on their leather spines, there are books with elaborate ribbon endbands under their spine. There are books with pages made of different papers to add to their aesthetics as well. You can buy papers made with seaweed, flowers, and other things visibly within its pulp. You can buy translucent paper, metallic paper, hand-stamped paper...I have found since I got into book binding as an art form, I am fascinated with paper and all materials having to do with binding, from awls and bone folders to book cloth and binders' board to gold leaf, glues, and endband ribbons. I am especially interested in old and ancient book binding tools, such as early awls, engraved bone folders, handmade endband ribbons, etc.

I make perfect spine bound books, or paperback books, with a computer, laser printer, hand paper cutter, epoxy, and a handmade press that is really just a clamp and two pieces of wood. I write up the text, print it out to half letter size, and print it out in pages side to side. Then I cut the pages in half on the paper cutter, a few at a time, by hand. Then for stability, I have come to stapling near the end of the spine, then I put it into the clamp and add the glossy cover I printed out. The glossy cover is from a legal size page, then cut down, to accommodate the spine width. I use a paintbrush to spread epoxy on the spine, then paste the cover to it, then take it out of the press and put it under something heavy to dry for 24 hours. Once done, the pages are never perfectly even, but a useful hand-bound paperback can be had in however many copies you want to produce. The freedom to produce small batches of books is one of the things that lure me to self-binding.

Stab and sew bindings use the premise of stabbing a few holes at measured intervals through the cover and pages, then sewing through those holes to secure the bindings. This type of binding has its own art form in the stitching used on the spines. I have several books full of book binding stitches, that look like embroidery pattern books. They show elaborate sewing patterns to adorn a book's spine, with patterns that can reflect a region or culture, a time period, one person's fancy, etc. Stab and sew bindings have unlimited potential for artistic renderings. The tools necessary for this type of binding primarily are an awl, waxed thread and a book binding needle (aside from the cover and inside pages).

Coil bindings require a small machine and plastic coils that are pretty inexpensive. The machine I have is pretty basic. It does not even use electricity! With this machine, you put the paper in, then pull down a handle and it makes a lot of small holes. Then you feed the pages and cover into the machine, with a plastic coil ready to bind inside, and it threads the coil through all the little holes, ending with a spiral bound book. These books do not look particularly artful or professional, and often just have a printed card stock cover, but they are functional. Thus they are useful for workbooks, cookbooks, calendars, etc.

I am not sure why, but this form seems to have the greatest potential for professional looking, yet very artistic, book binding. Stab and sew books are very artsy, but not professional looking. This form has some very grand potential, thus it draws me in the most. Most traditional hard back books are of this type of binding. This type of book consists of a hard material such as book board, which is like a very thin, stiff cardboard, and some type of covering for the board, such as fabric or paper, and then glue and some type of cloth, such as book binding cloth, to adhere the parts together. This type of binding is exciting as it can be highly decorative, from the material used to cover the board, which can be quite exotic, to fancy accoutrements such as handmade silk ribbon endbands, or embossed spine titles. You can even color the pages' long side with gold. The possibilities of beautiful books are endless with this binding method.

There are many ways to bind that are somewhat off the charts. One of my favorites is ""Altered Books." This is a process where you take an old book, and totally rework it for your own purposes. For instance, I took an old Dr. Seuss book and cut a square hole in the front cover. This left the crazy animal-like figures inside the cover, staring out. I then glued other things over the cover, and even some trinkets around the hole. Then inside the book, I ripped out pages, then started doing things to the pages in a theme with my book, not the original book. I painted some pages, then glued collaged messages over them. Other pages I added things to the original pictures, embellishing them. I love altering books like this. And again, the possibilities are endless. There are also different ways to fold and cut/tear paper to make accordion books or little mini-zines. You can make scrolls in decorative boxes as books, or books with pockets full of things. You can make books out of objects, such as an old accordion I saw, which pulled out like an actual accordion, but where the folds are, it exposed old photos of accordion players and accordion history. That was very much an "art" piece, yet also a book.

Whatever you end up doing to bind your books, you certainly can come up with something more original than the mass-produced glossy covers lining the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble bookstore! Books are not just about the information presented within. Presentation matters too! I look forward to learning more about the ancient art of book binding in the future and feel a certain freedom with each step I take towards making books that look as good as they read!

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