While teaching in Germany one summer, my hosts showed me a copy of our book “The Joiner & Cabinet Maker.” The cover boards were warped, the pages were wavy and the book was scuffed all over.
I cringed and apologized. Did this happen during shipping? I was ready for a Teutonic tongue-lashing.
Instead, they just smiled. The book had survived in a workshop after the Danube River had broken its banks. The book had been soaked. It floated in dirty water for days. And it was beat up by bobbing workbenches and lumber. And it was still completely intact (if a little worn).
It’s not difficult to make a durable book. It just takes money. Some modern publishers are unwilling to spend the cash to ensure a book will survive dogs, floods and babies.
For a typical perfect-bound trade paperback or print-on-demand book, you might get to read it three times before the pages start falling out like leaves dropping from a tree in autumn.
For me, perfect-bound books are like assembling a table with no joinery or fasteners – just glue. Basically, perfect binding is where you take a stack of single sheets of paper and apply glue to one edge of the stack to stick the individual sheets together. When the glue gets brittle or too wet, however, there is nothing else there to keep the book together.
Just like with woodworking, there are mechanical ways to keep a book together for many decades.
The first method is to use signatures instead of individual sheets of paper. You create a book signature when you print multiple pages of the book on a big sheet of paper. Then you fold that big sheet multiple times and trim the edges. The folds prevent individual pages from falling out because each page is attached to a buddy in the signature.
The next mechanical trick to make a binding durable is to sew the signatures together with thread. The machine that does this sewing is insane to watch. It pokes thread through multiple holes in the signature, then sews the signatures of the book together into a book block. Think of the thread as the tenons that hold a chair together when the glue fails.
What else can you do? Well, we use lots of flexible glue, which seeps between the signatures. And then we apply a piece of tape (usually fiber-based) that reinforces the glue and helps attach the book block (basically all the assembled signatures) to the cover boards. There are also end sheets in the equation, which create the hinge between the cover and the book block. These end sheets can be flimsy or they can be heavy and backed by the tape on the spine of the book block.
Oh, and there is one mark of quality you should ignore. Many people look at the threads at the top and bottom of the spine of a book and assume that is an indication that the signatures are sewn. It’s not. These threads, which we call “headbands,” are the merkin or toupee of the book-binding world. They are merely applied. We pay about 3 cents per book to add them.
Why do we add them? They look nice and some people think they provide some protection for the spine. But they don’t indicate anything about the quality of the binding.
As always, it’s difficult to judge a book by its cover. Instead, don’t trust your eyes. Get a knife and dissect its binding.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. The disassembled book in these photos was a book that had been damaged in shipping then returned to us. We don’t just cut up books for fun.
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