Book binding

Book binding jargon 101

When you start learning book binding, you start hearing terms that you’ve likely not heard about before. In this post, I’ve collected the definitions of a handful of terms that you’ll come across on a regular basis, as you learn this age old craft.

  1. Signature – This was one of the first terms that I heard in book binding. A lot of book binding tutorials would ask me to take my “signature” and do something with it. But what is a signature?

To explain this, you have to first understand the building blocks of a book. In its most basic form, a book is made by taking sheets of paper, folding each sheet into halves, and then sewing these folded sheets together. Now, if you try and fold 20 sheets of paper together and insert them into the folds, the result would be a very uneven and thick spine, due to the thickness of the individual sheets of paper. This is why, only a few sheets of paper are folded together to form a “signature”, and multiple signatures are then sewn together to build the book. The more pages you want in your book, the more signatures you can sew together. You can imagine these signatures to be the building blocks of a book.

Here is a photograph of loose signatures, each consisting of 4 sheets of folded paper.

Loose signatures

2. Folio – Now that you know what a signature is, you can understand a “folio”. A single sheet of paper that’s been folded into half and is a part of a signature, is referred to as a “folio”.

Single folio

3. Leaf – Each folded side of the sheet of paper is called a “Leaf”. A folio has 2 leaves. If you see the photograph, the folio has two sides – left and right – each one referred to as a “leaf”.

4. Page – Each side of a leaf is called a “page’. In the photograph above, the folio has 2 leaves, and each leaf as 2 pages. A folio has 4 pages overall.

If you make a signature using 4 sheets of paper, it will have – 4 folios, 8 leaves (4 x 2) , and 16 pages (4 x 4). If you make a book with 5 signatures, it will have 80 (5 x 16) pages to write on.

5. Text block – Once the signatures have been sewn together, but the book hasn’t been covered yet, what you have is a “text block”. A text block is still fully functional for all practical purposes. It just doesn’t have a cover yet. Its binding is exposed.

Text block – the sewing is still exposed since its not covered yet. Ignore the rock on top, that’s simply to help keep it closed!

6. Spine – The back portion of a book’s binding which is visible when a book is shelved in a bookcase; the portion which is attached at the joints to the front and rear covers. A book’s spine is one of its most important parts. A binder can spend a lot of time thinking about how to make a spine that’s beautiful and catches attention on a book shelf. The spine of a book also plays a big role in ensuring the strength of a book’s binding, while also making sure that the book is flexible and opens and closes with ease.

7. Binding – Binding refers to the method that’s been used to sew the book together, including its cover, so that it stays together for a long time! Many different methods have evolved over the centuries for how books can be bound together, such as coptic stitch binding, long stitch binding and case binding. A big part of learning book binding is mastering these various techniques.

This is an example of long stitch binding

8. End pages – When you open the cover of a book, have you seen how there’s usually a decorative sheet running across the inside, and that it is this sheet that comes before the rest of pages of the book? These are called the “end pages”, and they typically help combine the text block with the covers of the book. The end pages are also a great place to experiment with adding some personality to your book, they can serve both a functional and decorative use!

Foxes on the end pages! Note – ideally the end pages should be on top of the covers, not underneath. I’m learning too! 🙂

9. Mull – As a book gets used, and opened and closed multiple times over its lifetime, the joints where the end pages are attached to the cover of the book, are exposed to a lot of repeated stress. To avoid these joints from breaking and coming apart, traditional binding methods attach a strip of “mull” around the text block, to give some additional strength and support to the joints. Mull was traditionally made of starched cheesecloth, but regular cotton works just as well. Anything that’s flexible can be used. I’ve seen paper being used in some tutorials but in my opinion this is not a great idea – paper makes a noise when turned, and is not as strong as fabric.

10. Head bands – Head bands are small strips of cord or thread or some similar material that are typically found on the ends of the spines of hard bound books. They provide both structural reinforcement, as well as a decorative element to the book. It’s nice to have a head band that are contrasts with the cover of the book 🙂

11. Bone folder – A “bone folder” is a tool used to crease, score and burnish folds. More on bone folders in this post!

Bone folder

12. Awl – An “awl” is what book binders use to punch holes into paper. Binders then use needle and thread to sew paper together, taking their needle through these holes. It’s essentially a pointy tool that can make holes in paper.

Awl and thread

13. Page grain – Page grain is a pretty specialized topic, and I think I’ll have to do some research before writing on this topic. Suffice it to say that understanding page grain is an important part of the book binding craft. Not only do you want to select the right kind of paper for your books, even when folding paper, there’s a “right” and “wrong” direction of folding your paper. These small details separate the professionals from the amateurs I guess! 😀

14. Book board – This is the material used for the covers of a hard bound book. You can use anything for the board as such – cereal boxes, cardboard, chipboard, and very high quality book board. I used cardboard for one of my books, but it ended up making my book feel “light” and “cheap”. I’m using chipboard right now, but I’m hoping to graduate to high quality book board soon.

15. Waxed thread – While you can use any thread to bind a book, since the thread needed to bind a book can be quite long, it’s very likely that the thread gets entangled as you move your needle in and out of your signatures. Professionals binders often recommend waxing your thread with beeswax to make it easier to work with. Even better, you can simply buy waxed linen thread that’s been waxed beforehand and makes the process of binding a lot easier. Book binding thread is also supposed to be strong, so that it doesn’t break by the extended use of the book.

As with any creative endeavor, what materials you use and what structural elements you use to make your book, is completely up to you 🙂 But hopefully this glossary acts as a helpful reference if you’re new to this craft!

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