Archives for category: Book manufacturing

A film which wanders about a bit but ends up showing you how things used to be.

The amazing thing to me is the number of people in the works. Labour was king in the days of heavy metal.

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Nicholas Wier-Williams sends via the SHARP listerv, this Facebook link to a BBC Archive film showing the manufacturing of the 1951 printing of The Encyclopedia Britannica, which by this time had become an American book. (If you are asked to create an account, and don’t want to, just click “Not now” in the pop-up box.)

It’s hard to believe that this is how we were still making books just 14 years before I got into the publishing business. In 1951 letterpress was still king in British book making, so this sheet-fed offset lithographic run would have been fairly uncommon then I suspect. Truly change has been helter skelter since the sixties.

The Encyclopedia Britannica‘s logo is a thistle, recalling its origins in Edinburgh, the Athens of the North. It was first published as a 3-volume set in 1768-71, by a Society of Gentlemen in Scotland. It was actually owned by the printers, Bell and Macfarquhar. Ownership has dotted around. In 1897 it passed to America, though the Encyclopedia always strove to appear “British”.


The 11th edition was published by Cambridge University Press, though the editorial work was done in America. Apparently this edition lives on as the Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia, access to which can be gained via the Wikipedia entry. The title page is slightly misleading, no doubt intentionally as this copy was the part of the edition meant for sale in the USA: Cambridge had no branch in America till 1949. Since 1890 they had had a sales agency agreement with the Macmillan Company whose offices were presumably at 35 West 32nd Street. Strange perhaps that a British publisher felt the need to reassure American purchasers that a set of books really edited in America was OK for American readers even if it did appear to carry the authority of the ancient university. Still it’s always been about money in the Encyclopedia business. It costs an immense amount to create the thing, but you can change a lot and sell it for years. Doesn’t quite work like this any longer.


A nicely tilted 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica movie showing how it used to be done.

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I can’t really believe the printing plates were made of copper, but that’s what he says. Isn’t copper a rather soft metal?

In contrast:

This is Edwards Brothers in 2012. Naturally things have changed since then too.

Hardly really a binding style: all that needs to be done is drill holes down through a pile of loose pages along the spine edge, so they can be inserted into a ring binder. There are however quite a few publications which are supplied this way. These will mostly be in subject areas in which the data changes frequently, necessitating updates. The drilled pages will tend to be shrink-wrapped and shipped to subscribers who will have had the binder supplied along with the first edition of the pages, and will swap out redundant material. Law publishing is an example of the sort of subject area where this technique may be appropriate.

For other binding styles, please search for “binding styles”

You can do this type of mechanical binding yourself — if you buy the machine. They can be found lurking in forgotten corners of many offices. Holes get punched in the spine edge of the book block (in the office you’d no doubt be starting with a stack of loose sheets; in a bindery the spine fold will have to be cut off), and then the machine opens up the comb and fits it through the holes, allowing it to snap back and make a book.

1. The machine opens the comb

2. The comb ends go through the holes

3. The rings close

4. The finished product











Obviously, if you need an edition running into the thousands, or even hundreds, and it has to lie flat while readers consult it with hands full of the stuff they’re studying, you will want to go to one of the (relatively) few book manufacturers who offer this type of binding. For an additional cost you can get the book title etc. silk-screened on the outside of the comb, so it can be picked out on the shelf.

The pictures are from Wikipedia.

For other styles of binding search “binding styles”.

Wire-O books from Wikipedia

Generically called double-wire binding, because two metal wires go through each of the holes drilled through the book block, Wire-O sounds like a trade name, though I can’t find that it was.

Depending on thickness of book there are two “pitches” of Wire-O, meaning two different numbers of holes per inch. For smaller books 2 holes per inch, and for larger ones 3. Two-pitch wires will be used up to 9/16″ bulk, while 3-pitch can go up to 1¼”. As with all other mechanical binding techniques the folds down the spine will be chopped off and holes drilled through the book block.

Normally the cover is treated in the same way as the other pages: i.e. any cover spine is chopped off. But one of the neat features of Wire-O is that you can, by dint of cunning folding, do a book with a spine left in situ, so that when the book is on the shelf you can identify it, not just see an array of wires. This picture, from Print Finishing Specialities, shows the idea clearly.









For other styles of binding search “binding styles”.

Basically spiral binding just consists of a screwy wire passed though a series of holes up the spine of the book. This picture from MGX Copy in San Diego illustrates it clearly. Of course the inserting will be by machine, not in this handcraft fashion. Spiral is the most common type of mechanical binding.

Mechanical binding. There are four primary types of mechanical binding: spiral binding, metal wire binding, plastic comb binding, and loose-leaf binding. One might argue that side-wire binding should be included under the mechanical rubric, but it’s not. The commonality appears to be the drilling of holes. It’s not clear where the term mechanical binding comes from: paradoxically mechanical binding is in essence the least mechanized method of binding a book. One might hypothesize that in the dim and distant there was a moment when these methods had been developed while most book binding was still hand binding. Not sure that makes any sense though. Maybe the term originates in the office where it might be regarded as more mechanical than just putting a rubber band round a bunch of pages, and the term stuck with the methods when they moved into the bindery. Just like “perfect” as an epithet is applied to the far from perfect perfect binding method, we may regard “mechanical” as unintentionally ironical.

The thickness of book you can bind via spiral binding is governed by the availability of wires, which may be metal, plastic or plastic-coated metal, so the fattest book you can spiral bind is ⅞”. This style of binding will be used for a book which has to lie flat when opened. However when the book is opened the facing pages will not align because the one on the left will be a little bit further up the spiral wire. If this is a problem, look elsewhere.

For other binding styles please search for “binding styles”.

One of the bugbears of perfect binding (well, more accurately of reading a perfect bound book) is the tendency of the book to want to stay shut, to mouse-trap. Unless you crack the spine — unsurprisingly something that I hate to do (as someone who’s spent so many hours trying to get these objects made perfectly, I seem to aim for my having read a book to remain undetectable to the next reader) — most paperbacks and many hardbacks will try to snap back. This is because the pages are glued to the cover all down the spine (or in the case of a hardback to a liner, more flexible than a paperback cover but still a force for rigidity) and the cover just doesn’t want to stay open unless you break the spine bond by cracking the book wide open. Cracking the spine will of course encourage pages to fall out. Printing the book cross-grain will exacerbate the mouse-trapping problem.

Ota-Bind picture from Edwards Bros. Malloy.

The generic name for the Ota-Bind solution to this problem is lay flat binding. (Should of course be lie flat, but that ship appears to have sailed a long time ago.) Ota-Bind, which was first patented by a Finnish firm, Otavia, in 1981, works by in effect applying a second mini-cover before putting on the main one, so that the individual pages are affixed to the inner, flexible cover, not to the cover proper. The cover proper is not glued in the spine area so that the pages of the book can rise away from the cover when the book is opened. Given this extra step Ota-Bind does cost more than basic binding, but for many books this stay-open-ness is important enough that the cost is justifiable. Things like lab manuals  have to stay open — you can’t be diving for the book as it closes while you are working with a bunsen burner — and Ota-Bind will probably be cheaper than Wire-O, or plastic comb binding. A good discussion of the method can be found at Hyphen Books. RepKover seems to have been an early trade name for the process in USA — why do we persist in these idiotic misspellings in trade names?

The Oxford hollow is another way of encouraging a book to lie flat, but like almost everything else, because it costs more and slows down the binding process, it is only used in the most de-luxe situations, e.g. leather bound bibles.

For other styles of binding search “binding styles”.

In order to increase the area available for glue adhesion in a perfect binding, people have experimented with various styles of notching, as illustrated below. The greater the area of paper in contact with glue, the greater the strength of the bond.

From A. G. Martin Finishing Processes in Printing (© Focal Press, 1972)

These notches don’t really constitute a separate binding method: they are a sort of addendum to perfect binding.

For other styles of binding search “binding styles”.

Photo from Campbell-Logan Bindery

This style of binding, a half-way house between Smyth sewn and perfect bound, is sometimes referred to as burst binding, which strictly speaking is slightly different, having holes rather than notches down the spine. At Maple-Vail they would call it fiber-bonded, which is descriptive. During folding of the sheets a wheel will grind out notches down the spine fold. The resulting notches are approx. 1″ long, and the cut goes all the way through to the innermost pages. The roughened-up fibers on the edges of the paper, though tiny to your eye, are ideal for the job of clinging to glue.

When glue is applied in the binding line it is forced through to the middle of the sig, and if you crack open a notch bound book, you will find little bits of glue down the central edge of the gutter. As opposed to perfect binding, a notch bound book keeps the strength of the paper as part of its structure, so that the first two pages retain a paper link to the last two pages, etc. In page pull and flex testing this style of binding will show as stronger than others. The center four pages will obviously be the weakest pair of leaves, and are the ones tested: the glue will (if properly applied) provide a stronger bond here than the thread used in Smyth sewing, which will tear through the paper sooner than the glue bond will fail.

Whether this is important or not (and I suppose there might be circumstances in which it was) a notch bound book, like a Smyth sewn one, will not end up narrower than it started out. In other words because it doesn’t get ⅛” ground off the spine edge as a perfect bound book does, a book printed as 6⅛” x 9¼” will bind as 6⅛” x 9¼”, not as 6″ x 9¼” as a perfect bound one will.

For other binding methods, please search for “Binding styles”.