Book binding

Design and Craftsmanship in bookbinding

When you first start making books, I think the initial attraction for many of us is to make something that looks beautiful and feels beautiful to write in. This is true for almost all art forms – the aesthetic plays a big role in how we perceive any artwork. How it looks, the idea it is trying to convey, how that artwork makes us feel.

What’s unique about bookbinding though, is that not only is it a work of art that can be admired for its design aesthetic, it is also a physical structure, that needs to be crafted to perfection, both in form and in function. A book, no matter how beautiful, is not great unless its form has been crafted to achieve one of its key purposes – to be read (and to be written in, in the case of a journal or a notebook).

A bookbinder therefore not only has to be a good designer, but has to have a thorough understanding of the structural mechanics of a book – how well does it open? How sturdy does it feel in your hands? How solid does the binding feel? How flat does it lay when opened? Is the book too big or too small for its function? Do the signatures keep slipping around or do they stay in one place?

As I’ve spent time binding books, I’ve come to realize the importance of small details, and how tiny details can have an impact on how good the final product feels. I recently made a journal using case book binding, and while I’ve used case binding for making numerous journals in the past, I was acutely aware of how the journal’s binding could have been better. The book looks gorgeous, but its binding can be improved.

For example – My boards are not cut straight, and are a bit short width wise – making the inner paper visible when the book is closed. My binding of the signatures is good, but perhaps a bit too flexible. This means that my signatures tend to slip around a bit. The book no longer feels “solid” in my hands. Even something as small as the gap that you leave between the spine and the cover boards makes a huge difference – if the gap is small, the book does not open fully and your book will not lay flat, making it hard to write in. If the gap is too much, it looks bad and the covers can feel a bit “disconnected” from the rest of the book. They hang loose when opened.

Both these books look amazing by the way, and I love them! 🙂 It’s just that I know that their binding could have been better.

Pauline Johnson describes this really well in her book “Creative Bookbinding” – “Although the artistic value of a book is determined by its design qualities, even a good design that reflects the originality and creative ability of the designer is rendered ineffective by poor craftsmanship. The reverse is true also, for all the technique in the world cannot substitute for inspiration. Technique, unless accompanied by artistic form, is lifeless and has no real appeal. Craftsmanship and design are both essential to the success of a book, and one depends upon the other. Sometimes the designer and the craftsman are the same person, but often a book is planned by one person and bound by another.”

Pauline Johnson in the book Creative Bookbinding

She goes on to say “The standards of craftsmanship should be raised with increasing experience. In all problems, it is desirable that thought and care go into execution. Paper should be cut as straight as possible, paste should be applied with minimum of confusion. These are things that can be learned. They require patience and persistent effort, but the results are rewarding, and the pride experienced from a thoughtfully produced book is well worth the effort.” “High standards of excellence must be the aim not only in the finished product but in every part of the operation, for it is the striving of accuracy at each step that contributes to the total achievement.”

Pauline Johnson in the book Creative Bookbinding

In almost anything new that you learn, after the initial rush of learning something new, comes a long period of honing your craft. In bookbinding too, after the initial step of learning some of the fundamentals of bookbinding, the next step in a binder’s journey is learning how to hone their craft to perfection. I am currently in this phase, and this is perhaps the toughest phase. It requires unlearning any bad habits that we may have picked up in the initial phases, and learning the right way to do things. It requires paying a great deal of attention to the smallest of details.

Coming out on the other side as someone who has really mastered their craft is perhaps what makes this worth it. Onward we go! 🙂

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