Simple Bookbinding

A progression in search of a terminus

From time to time I end up with very long documents which I decide are worth keeping for a while. Normally, that simply means I save the document in some electronic form – usually as the original file if I have it, or as a PDF file if not. There are times, though, when having paper in my hands is comforting, and for such situations I have taken to printing and binding the document in a book format. This section describes some of the techniques I have used to do this. If you already know how to bind books there probably isn’t much here to hold your attention – but constructive comments are always helpful. You should also be looking elsewhere if you intend to produce a large number of books – this is all about making personal copies rather than running off a self-published best-seller. As well, this is a work in progress, so visit from time to time to see if anything useful has been added since last time.

There are several caveats to be kept in mind when printing and binding at home. I’m going to ignore the elephant in the room — copyright issues — and look at some practical items first, but I will return to copyrights a little later.

Just a final quick note – I work in the metric system, but since I live in North America, most of the paper sizes available to me are in the old Imperial measures of inches and feet, so almost all sizes are quoted in those units. For those of you who live in the modern world, think of it as one more of those quaint Americanisms. Like tepees and log cabins.

Paper size

How big a book should we make? The answer is determined mostly by available paper sizes, but the ease-of-use of the final output should be considered. If we make a ‘book’ consisting of 2000 pages each of which is 5×4 inches it will probably break along the spine of the book, while a 200-page book of 20×10 inches will have the same paper area and will be easier to open, but will still be rather difficult to carry around (it might make a decent coffee-table book, though).

In North America, most home and office printing is done on so-called Legal or Letter sized paper — 8.5 inches wide and either 14 or 11 inches long, and for wide printers we may see a Tabloid size of 11×17. Obviously other sizes exist, and in other parts of the world there are other standard sizes used for legal documents or letters. If you are reading from one of those locations or happen to have a non-standard size handy, please make adjustments accordingly.

A book the size of a letter or legal document is awkward to read while hanging onto to a strap mid-commute, but we can produce other sizes from these starting points by folding in half. From a letter size page we can fold to get 5.5 x 8.5 while from a legal size page we can fold to get 7 x 8.5. These are convenient sizes, while alternate folds of 4.25 x 11 or 4.25 x 14 are possible, but not too useful unless you fold them a second time to give 4.25 x 5.5 and 4.25 x 7.

Paper grain

Paper is an oriented material. That is, direction matters. You can demonstrate this by taking a piece of paper and placing it at the edge of a table or desk, allowing a specific amount — say, 15 cm — to hang over the edge. The paper will not lie flat, but will droop slightly. Make a note of how much the paper droops, then turn the paper 90°r; and allow the same amount of paper to hang over the edge, and measure the droop again. The ‘grain’ of the paper lies in the direction of the edge when the paper has the greater droop. In essence, the paper is slightly stiffer in one direction than the other.

As a result of the stiffness variation, folding across the grain is also slightly more difficult and may result in a more ragged-looking fold. Aside from stiffness, grain also affects the behaviour of paper when damp so that the paper curls across the grain. This is a problem when gluing, since the paper may ‘ripple’ when the glue is applied cross-grain, as it would when a book is bound with grain short leaves. For both these reasons it is preferable to print the sheet so that resulting pages will be bound grain long.

Paper may be (and usually is) manufactured with the grain in the direction of the long edge of the paper — “grain long” — but may also be ordered with grain in the direction of the short edge of the paper — “grain short.” A single fold of a sheet of grain long paper across the grain produces two leaves (four pages) of grain short and a second fold can then be used to create four leaves (eight pages) of grain long.

Booklet and Segment sizes

One common way of binding a book is to assemble the loose leaves in order and form them into a block of paper, then apply a layer of glue along the spine and place a heavier sheet of paper or card around the whole thing to finally form the book. This is ‘perfect binding’ and is the most common form of paperback binding. It usually is neither very strong nor very long-lasting, being more influenced by the strength of the glue than the strength of the paper. Luckily strong and flexible glues are available today, so perfect bound books are more viable than they used to be.

A more lasting method has the folded paper assembled into sections which are then sewn together through the fold and further sewn together so as to tie the individual sections together. Strips of cloth are often used to reinforce the sewn “signatures” and help to tie all the signatures together. The signatures are then glued to cloth and heavier boards, and the whole thing is assembled to produce a finished book of “sewn-in” signatures. Books made from sewn-in signatures are frequently very strong and durable, deriving their overall strength from the individual strengths of sewing materials, glues, and paper.

Imposing solutions

When we read a book we expect the pages to be in order. For a perfect binding this can be fairly straightforward since we can print the sheets individually and ensure that each page follows the other in strict numerical sequence.

Image to come: Page 1 on one side, page 2 on the next side, page 3 on one side, page 4 on the next side, and so on….
However, we often print more than two pages to a sheet, and in that case we have to be sure that two pages in sequence are printed on each side of the same sheet after the cut.

Image to come: Page 1 and 4 on one side, page 2 and 3 on the next side, page 5 and 8 on one side, page 6 and 7 on the next side, and so on….
For folded sheets placed in signatures the situation becomes even more complicated, since the pages must be properly sequenced across the folds and within the signatures, and may require a page to be printed upside down to accommodate multiple folds. In the most complex cases we have a number of folded sheets combined into a multi-page signature.

Image to come: Page 1 and 8 on one side, page 2 and 7 on the next side, page 3 and 6 on one side, page 4 and 5 on the next side, completing a two sheet signature of 8 pages — and so on in ever more complicated fashions….
The process of ordering the pages is called imposition, and may be described mathematically and codified in a computer program.

Link to Java, Python, or PHP program to come.
To be continued

‘Soft’ or ‘hard’ covers


To be continued

Sewing and gluing


To be continued

Handmade and purchased tools

To be continued


Copyrights (a little later)

Obviously (or perhaps not) the problem of copyrights has to be considered. If I am working from my own entirely original work, copyrights are not an issue, but if all or parts of a document came from an outside source then I have to consider whether or not I am violating someone’s rights in a legal or moral sense when I print that document, and if so, whether I am prepared to continue doing that. Die Gedänken sind frei! — sort of. Authors and performers have a right to profit from their work, and also to transfer that profitable interest to others. However, I believe that right should not exist in perpetuity and should instead be considered to have a finite lifetime which is independent of that of the creator of the work. Legislators have surrendered to pressures from large corporations to extend the term of those rights virtually indefinitely, but I see no moral imperative supporting such an extension in a carte blanche form. If a publisher has purchased the works of an author, sooner or later the exclusive right to print and sell copies of those works must expire — the issue is one of when, rather than whether.

For images I am in something of a quandary. Walt Disney is long dead, and I believe sensible people would probably agree that rights to copy Steamboat Willie should have expired long ago. Should a company other than the Disney company wish to create a copy of very early Disney works they should be allowed to do so. However, should they be allowed to use very early Disney works to sell, say, steamboats? or fish? or any other product?

Leave a Reply