Bookbinding, and the Care of Books, by Douglas Cockerell

Chapter II

Entering — Books in Sheets — Folding — Collating — Pulling to Pieces — Refolding — Knocking out Joints


On receiving a book for binding, its title should be entered in a book kept for that purpose, with the date of entry, and customer’s name and address, and any instructions he may have given, written out in full underneath, leaving room below to enter the time taken on the various operations and cost of the materials used. It is well to number the entry, and to give a corresponding number to the book. It should be at once collated, and any special features noted, such as pages that need washing or mending. If the book should prove to be imperfect, or to have any serious defect, the owner should be communicated with, before it is pulled to pieces. This is very important, as imperfect books that have been “pulled” are not returnable to the bookseller. Should defects only be discovered after the book has been taken to pieces, the bookbinder is liable to be blamed for the loss of any missing leaves.

Books in Sheets

The sheets of a newly printed book are arranged in piles in the printer’s warehouse, each pile being made up of repetitions of the same sheet or “signature.” Plates or maps are in piles by themselves To make a complete book one sheet is gathered from each pile, beginning at the last sheet and working backwards to signature A. When a book is ordered from a publisher in sheets, it is such a “gathered” copy that the binder receives. Some books are printed “double,” that is, the type is set up twice, two copies are printed at once at different ends of a sheet of paper, and the sheets have to be divided down the middle before the copies can be separated. Sometimes the title and introduction, or perhaps only the last sheet, will be printed in this way. Publishers usually decline to supply in sheets fewer than two copies of such double-printed books.

If a book is received unfolded, it is generally advisable at once to fold up the sheets and put them in their proper order, with half-title, title, introduction, &c., and, if there are plates, to compare them with the printed list.

Should there be in a recently published book defects of any kind, such as soiled sheets, the publisher will usually replace them on application, although they sometimes take a long time to do so. Such sheets are called “imperfections,” and the printers usually keep a number of “overs” in order to make good such imperfections as may occur.


Books received in sheets must be folded. Folding requires care, or the margins of different leaves will be unequal, and the lines of printing not at right angles to the back.

Books of various sizes are known as “folio,” “quarto,” “octavo,” “duodecimo,” &c. These names signify the number of folds, and consequently the number of leaves the paper has been folded into. Thus, a folio is made up of sheets of paper folded once down the centre, forming two leaves and four pages. The sheets of a quarto have a second fold, making four leaves and eight pages, and in an octavo the sheet has a third fold, forming eight leaves and sixteen pages (see Fig. 2), and so on. Each sheet of paper when folded constitutes a section, except in the case of folios, where it is usual to make up the sections by inserting two or more sheets, one within the other.

Paper is made in several named sizes, such as “imperial,” “royal,” “demy,” “crown,” “foolscap,” &c. (see p. 283), so that the terms “imperial folio” or “crown octavo” imply that a sheet of a definite size has been folded a definite number of times.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Besides the traditional sizes, paper is now made of almost any length and width, resulting in books of odd shape, and the names folio, quarto, &c., are rather losing their true meaning, and are often used loosely to signify pages of certain sizes, irrespective of the number that go to a sheet.

On receipt, for instance, of an octavo book for folding, the pile of sheets is laid flat on the table, and collated by the letter or signature of each sheet. The first sheet of the book proper will probably be signature B, as signature A usually consists of the half-title, title, introduction, &c., and often has to be folded up rather differently.

The “outer” sides, known by the signature letters B, C, D, &c., should be downwards, and the inner sides facing upwards with the second signatures, if there are any, B2, C2, D2, &c., at the right-hand bottom corner.

The pages of an octave book, commencing at page 1, are shown at Fig. 3. A folder is taken in the right hand, and held at the bottom of the sheet at about the centre, and the sheet taken by the left hand at the top right-hand corner and bent over until pages 3 and 6 come exactly over pages 2 and 7; and when it is seen that the headlines and figures exactly match, the paper, while being held in that position, is creased down the centre with the folder, and the fold cut up a little more than half-way. Pages 4, 13, 5, 12 will now be uppermost; pages 12 and 5 are now folded over to exactly match pages 13 and 4, and the fold creased and cut up a little more than half-way, as before. Pages 8 and 9 will now be uppermost, and will merely require folding together to make the pages of the section follow in their proper order. If the folding has been done carefully, and the “register” of the printing is good, the headlines should be exactly even throughout.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

The object of cutting past the centre at each fold is to avoid the unsightly creasing that results from folding two or more thicknesses of paper when joined at the top edge.

A “duodecimo” sheet has the pages arranged as at Fig. 4.

The “inset” pages, 10, 15, 14, 11, must be cut off, and the rest of the section folded as for an octavo sheet. The inset is folded separately and inserted into the centre of the octavo portion.

Other sizes are folded in much the same way, and the principle of folding one sheet having been mastered, no difficulty will be found in folding any other.

Plates often require trimming, and this must be done with judgment. The plates should be trimmed to correspond as far as possible with the printing on the opposite page, but if this cannot be done, it is desirable that something approaching the proportion of margin shown at Fig. 2 (folio) should be aimed at. That is to say, the back margin should be the smallest, the head margin the next, the fore-edge a little wider, and the tail widest of all. When a plate consists of a small portrait or diagram in the centre of the page, it looks better if it is put a little higher and a little nearer the back than the actual centre.

Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.

Plates that have no numbers on them must be put in order by the list of printed plates, or “instructions to the binder.” The half-title, title, dedication, &c., will often be found to be printed on odd sheets that have to be made up into section A. This preliminary matter is usually placed in the following order: Half-title, title, dedication, preface, contents, list of illustrations or other lists. If there is an index, it should be put at the end of the book.

All plates should be “guarded,” and any “quarter sections,” that is, sections consisting of two leaves, should have their backs strengthened by a “guard,” or they may very easily be torn in the sewing. Odd, single leaves may be guarded round sections in the same way as plates.

When a book has been folded, it should be pressed (see p. 87).

There will sometimes be pages marked by the printer with a star. These have some error in them, and are intended to be cut out. The printer should supply corrected pages to replace them.


In addition to the pagination each sheet or section of a printed book is lettered or numbered. Each letter or number is called the “sheet’s signature.” Printers usually leave out J W and V in lettering sheets. If there are more sections than there are letters in the alphabet, the printer doubles the letters, signing the sections A A, B B, and so on, after the single letters are exhausted. Some printers use an Arabic numeral before the section number to denote the second alphabet, as 2A, 2B, &c., and others change the character of the letters, perhaps using capitals for the first alphabet and italics for the second. If the sheets are numbered, the numbers will of course follow consecutively. In books of more than one volume, the number of the volume is sometimes added in Roman numerals before the signature, as II A, II B.

The main pagination of the book usually commences with Chapter I., and all before that is independently paged in Roman numerals. It is unusual to have actual numbers on the title or half-title, but if the pages are counted back from where the first numeral occurs, they should come right.

There will sometimes be one or more blank leaves completing sections at the beginning or end. Such blank leaves must be retained, as without them the volume would be “imperfect.”

To collate a modern book the paging must be examined to see that the leaves are in order, and that nothing is defective or missing.

The method of doing this is to insert the first finger of the right hand at the bottom of about the fiftieth page, crook the finger, and turn up the corners of the pages with it. When this is done the thumb is placed on page 1, and the hand twisted, so as to fan out the top of the pages. They can then be readily turned over by the thumb and first finger of the left hand (see Fig. 5). This is repeated throughout the book, taking about fifty pages at a time. It will of course only be necessary to check the odd numbers, as if they are right, the even ones on the other side of the leaf must be so. If the pages are numbered at the foot, the leaves must be fanned out from the head.

Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.

Plates or maps that are not paged can only be checked from the printed list. When checked it will save time if the number of the page which each faces is marked on the back in small pencil figures.

In the case of early printed books or manuscripts, which are often not paged, special knowledge is needed for their collation. It may roughly be said, that if the sections are all complete, that is, if there are the same number of leaves at each side of the sewing in all the sections, the book may be taken to be perfect, unless of course whole sections are missing. All unpaged books should be paged through in pencil before they are taken apart; this is best done with a very fine pencil, at the bottom left-hand corner; it will only be necessary to number the front of each leaf.

Pulling to Pieces

After the volume has been collated it must be “pulled,” that is to say, the sections must be separated, and all plates or maps detached.

If in a bound book there are slips laced in the front cover, they must be cut and the back torn off. It will sometimes happen that in tearing off the leather nearly all the glue will come too, leaving the backs of the pages detached except for the sewing. More usually the back will be left covered with a mass of glue and linen, or paper, which it is very difficult to remove without injury to the backs of the sections. By drawing a sharp knife along the bands, the sewing may be cut and the bands removed, leaving the sections only connected by the glue. Then the sections of the book can usually be separated with a fine folder, after the thread from the centre of each has been removed; the point of division being ascertained by finding the first signature of each section. In cases where the glue and leather form too hard a back to yield to this method, it is advisable to soak the glue with paste, and when soft to scrape it off with a folder. As this method is apt to injure the backs of the sections, it should not be resorted to unless necessary; and when it is, care must be taken not to let the damp penetrate into the book, or it will cause very ugly stains. The book must be pulled while damp, or else the glue will dry up harder than before. The separated sections must be piled up carefully to prevent pages being soiled by the damp glue.

All plates or single leaves “pasted on” must be removed. These can usually be detached by carefully tearing apart, but if too securely pasted they must be soaked off in water, unless of course the plates have been painted with water-colour. If the plates must be soaked off, the leaf and attached plate should be put into a pan of slightly warm water and left to soak until they float apart, then with a soft brush any remaining glue or paste can be easily removed while in the water. Care must be taken not to soak modern books printed on what is called “Art Paper,” as this paper will hardly stand ordinary handling, and is absolutely ruined if wetted. The growing use of this paper in important books is one of the greatest troubles the bookbinder has to face. The highly loaded and glazed surface of some of the heavy plate papers easily flakes off, so that any guard pasted on these plates is apt to come away, taking with it the surface of the paper. Moreover, should the plates chance to be fingered or in any way soiled, nothing can remove the marks; and should a corner get turned down, the paper breaks and the corner will fall off. It is the opinion of experts that this heavily loaded Art Paper will not last a reasonable time, and, apart from other considerations, this should be ample reason for not using it in books that are expected to have a permanent value. Printers like this paper, because it enables them to obtain brilliant impressions from blocks produced by cheap processes.

In “cased” books, sewn by machinery, the head and tail of the sheets will often be found to be split up as far as the “kettle” stitches. If such a book is to be expensively bound, it will require mending throughout in these places, or the glue may soak into the torn ends, and make the book open stiffly.

Some books are put together with staples of tinned iron wire, which rapidly rust and disfigure the book by circular brown marks. Such marks will usually have to be cut out and the places carefully mended. This process is lengthy, and consequently so costly, that it is generally cheaper, when possible, to obtain an unbound copy of the book from the publishers, than to waste time repairing the damage done by the cloth binder.

Generally speaking, the sections of a book cased in cloth by modern methods are so injured as to make it unfit for more permanent binding unless an unreasonable amount of time is spent on it. It is a great pity that publishers do not, in the case of books expected to have a permanent literary value, issue a certain number of copies printed on good paper, and unbound, for the use of those who require permanent bindings; and in such copies it would be a great help if sufficient margin were left at the back of the plates for the binder to turn it up to form a guard. If the plates were very numerous, guards made of the substance of the plates themselves would make the book too thick; but in the case of books with not more than a dozen plates, printed on comparatively thin paper, it would be a great advantage.

Some books in which there are a large number of plates are cut into single leaves, which are held together at the back by a coating of an indiarubber solution. For a short time such a volume is pleasant enough to handle, and opens freely, but before long the indiarubber perishes, and the leaves and plates fall apart. When a book of this kind comes to have a permanent binding, all the leaves and plates have to be pared at the back and made up into sections with guards — a troublesome and expensive business. The custom with binders is to overcast the backs of the leaves in sections, and to sew through the overcasting thread, but this, though an easy and quick process, makes a hopelessly stiff back, and no book so treated can open freely.


Fig. 6. — Dividers
Fig. 6. — Dividers

When the sheets of books that have to be rebound have been carelessly folded, a certain amount of readjustment is often advisable, especially in cases where the book has not been previously cut. The title-page and the half-title, when found to be out of square, should nearly always be put straight. The folding of the whole book may be corrected by taking each pair of leaves and holding them up to the light and adjusting the fold so that the print on one leaf comes exactly over the print on the other, and creasing the fold to make them stay in that position. With a pair of dividers (Fig. 6) set to the height of the shortest top margin, points the same distance above the headline of the other leaves can be made. Then against a carpenter’s square, adjusted to the back of the fold, the head of one pair of leaves at a time can be cut square (see Fig. 7). If the book has been previously cut this process is apt to throw the leaves so far out of their original position as to make them unduly uneven.

Accurate folding is impossible if the “register” of the printing is bad, that is to say, if the print on the back of a leaf does not lie exactly over that on the front.

Crooked plates should usually be made straight by judicious trimming of the margins. It is better to leave a plate short at tail or fore-edge than to leave it out of square.

Fig. 7.
Fig. 7.

Knocking Out Joints

The old “joints” must be knocked out of the sections of books that have been previously backed. To do this, one or two sections at a time are held firmly in the left hand, and well hammered on the knocking-down iron fixed into the lying press. It is important that the hammer face should fall exactly squarely upon the paper, or it may cut pieces out. The knocking-down iron should be covered with a piece of paper, and the hammer face must be perfectly clean, or the sheets may be soiled.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52