Archives for category: Book manufacturing

Here’s an example of a gilt top only, from The Cornhill Edition of The Works of Thackeray published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1911. The gilt top is evident in the light: the fore-edge is untrimmed, which makes any gilding impossible as it requires a super-smooth surface. The bottom edge is bare too. The book has a portrait frontispiece guarded by that sheet of tissue paper. This is exactly the kind of book which would get such an embellishment: a sort of prestige sale. Feel good about yourself for buying such a “handsome” set of volumes (no doubt offered at an attractive set price too).

The poor man’s equivalent of top edge gilding is a sprayed-on color stain such as one finds on the top edges of the old Modern Library books. A variant of the spray-on is a splatter-pattern spray, often for some reason to be found on dictionaries. Here’s an example from the Cassell’s Compact Latin Dictionary I bought at Titus Wilson’s bookshop as a 13-year-old schoolboy.

Sprayed-on color was applied to a lift of unbound sewn book blocks. A dozen or so copies would be held by boards at each end and clamped very tight so that the top edge of the books could be sanded very smooth. Then the color would be applied with a spray gun and the book blocks left aside for a while to dry off, before resuming their progress through the binding process.

Apart from Bibles though you rarely come across gilt edges. Sometimes a dictionary and the odd de luxe series. It is therefore a bit surprising to find in The Bookman’s Glossary a entry for t.e.g. which apparently meant “top edges gilt”, and was allegedly used as an abbreviation on orders to the bindery. Can’t have been too many people using that term, surely. If I’d been ordering a book with a gilt top I wouldn’t have been trusting enough to assume the guy at the other end would recognize the abbreviation. Heck I even learned not to order a set of “f & gs” from the printer: you really need to say “trimmed f & gs” if you don’t want to have to get loose with your paper knife once in a while because some junior didn’t realize what you really wanted. You may have worked in the job for years but it’s not safe to assume that the person at the other end of your communication knows all the jargon.

The Bookman’s Glossary “Fourth Edition, Revised and Enlarged” was published in 1961 by R. R. Bowker Company. Mary C. Turner, the editor, informs us in the preface “In the summer of 1924 THE BOOKMAN’S GLOSSARY made its first appearance, in serial form in the pages of Publishers’ Weekly.” At that time Bowker owned Publishers Weekly which still had its inverted comma in those less daring days. They collected the columns into a book in 1925. Even in 1924/5 I suspect you’d have been a bit rash to assume that a bald “t.e.g.” would get your top edges gilded. The preface does allow that “Abbreviations that are perfectly clear to the seasoned veteran are often obscure to the novice” — precisely the reason to be cautious in throwing them around. It may be hard for today’s novice to believe, but back when I started out if there were a query about the specs on a job this would have been handled by a leisurely exchange of letters. After a few years the telephone did grow in acceptability as a medium of communication between publisher and printer, but the urgency provided by e-mail etc. was well beyond our expectation.

The book contains a fascinating section of Foreign Book Trade Terms where you can discover that Goldschnitt is the German for gilt edges. Danes would call them güldsnit. We aren’t told what the other languages represented, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish would say. Maybe they all said t.e.g.! The section is obviously directed at a not altogether uncommon problem back then: when you’d get a letter from abroad and have to figure out what the translation might be. I’ve participated in quite a few of these efforts: this glossary would have been a big help.

See also Gold leaf, where you can find a video of a gilding machine in action.

Touch this page is an exhibition currently taking place in Boston.

Here’s notification from the organizers, received via the SHARP listserv.

We are thrilled to announce the opening of our new exhibition “Touch This Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read,” launching simultaneously this week at Harvard University, Northeastern University, the Perkins School for the Blind, the Boston Public Library (Copley Square), and online at

“Touch This Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read” is a pop-up-style exhibition about multisensory experiences of reading. Its central objects are 3D printed replicas from historical books for blind and low-vision readers printed between 1830 and 1910. Most of these archival materials live at the Samuel P. Hayes Research Library at the Perkins School for the Blind. We hope that, by experiencing these 3D-printed objects, you will reflect on how touch, sight, and sound contribute to experiences of reading—historically and today. Simultaneously, the story of these tactile pages guides you through a particular slice of disability history and current barriers to access understood through the principles of universal design.

Physical Locations

A pop-up style version of the exhibition is being hosted simultaneously at four locations: the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library (at Copley Square – open now), the Perkins School for the Blind (open now), Harvard University’s Lamont Library (starting tomorrow afternoon – January 29), and Northeastern University’s Snell Library (starting the afternoon of Feb 1). Note: it may be more difficult to get into private institutions, but the BPL exhibition at Copley Square is easily accessible and open to all. The exhibition will run from the week of January 28, 2019 through mid-April 2019.

In conjunction with “Touch This Page!” we have also curated a small exhibition of original books in Boston Line Type at Houghton Library. This exhibition—“Tactile Books: Making Sense of the Ways We Read”—will be on view until 15 April 2019.

Web Exhibition

The web-version of this exhibition hosts all content from the physical exhibition including the files of the pages from the Perkins archive at so that anyone with access to a 3D printer can reproduce the exhibition and its objects at


The artifacts for the exhibition were created in partnership with Enabling Engineering at Northeastern University, the Harvard Library, and the Perkins School for the Blind. The Digital History team of Harvard’s History Department lent us equipment that helped us produce these models.


The exhibition and symposium are sponsored by the Perkins School for the Blind, Northeastern University (the provost’s office, Enabling Engineering, the Northeastern Library, and the Humanities Center), and Harvard University (the Harvard Library and the History of the Book at Harvard University).

Previously, we announced the related event “Touch This Page! A Symposium on Ability, Access, and the Archive” taking place at Northeastern and Harvard on April 4-5, 2019. For more information and to join us, register for free at https://touchthispage.eventbrite.comWe have already received a robust registration response and are currently at about half capacity for these events, so if you are thinking of joining us, please register soon!

We hope to see you there!


Sari Altschuler, co-director of Touch This Page!, Northeastern University

David Weimer, co-director of Touch This Page!, Harvard University

Here is page 346 of the New York Review Books edition of Volume 1 of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, a massive work of fiction excellently translated from the German by Damion Searls.

See the little foldy-over bit at the bottom, trapped in the binding. (You can click on the picture to enlarge it.) The grey and black boxes (which are really off the edge of page 345) are the data the printer uses to check the ink density while the job is running, adjusting it as necessary to keep the ink balance uniform throughout the run. You can see the torn edge at the left edge of the box: follow it down and you can see where it continues to the edge of the book. The white area you see below that diagonal line near the bottom is in fact a bit of page 344. The diagonal is a fold. Because a bit of the sheet got folded in, the extraneous color bars didn’t get trimmed off as they normally would be.

Attentive readers of this blog will immediately recognize that given the way the fold dives into the spine, we should expect to see some more action 4, 8, 12 or 16 pages further on. And this indeed we do: here’s a picture of page 359 where the rest of this little folded-in quirk turns up.

The little flap secured in the middle by the binding must have suffered this tear sometime between the impression cylinder and the end of the folding line. The book was printed by Sheridan Press: whether by sheet-fed or web press I don’t know. If it was sheet-fed one might imagine a pressman picking up the top few sheets on a skid to riffle through for evenness of color and catching a finger nail on the next sheet, not noticing that the motion of his hand pulled the flap over, causing it to be folded down tight when the sheets above were dropped back. Once the fold is in there there’s really no reason why anyone would detect it till the reader, me, finds the last couple of words on page 346 obscured. I chose not to tear it back to read the words: manufacturing mini-flaws like this are fascinating. It’s really amazing how rarely something like this goes wrong: when we find an example we need to hold onto it as a reminder of the potential fallibility of all human endeavor.

However this fold over may have happened, it is unlikely to have affected more copies than mine: another reason to cherish such freaks of process.

A joint (not a very good one)

A hinge (from the same book)

These both refer to the same part of a hardback book, the bit between the edge of the boards and the spine, allowing the binding to flex open. Viewed from the outside it is the joint: from the inside it’s the hinge. Go figure.

I don’t know this, but I wonder if this is another of these jargon quirks which originate from the language spoken in different departments of the print works — like signature/section.

The mechanism of the hinge originates as a part of the rounding and backing process, where the edges of the book block are splayed outward under roller pressure to create lips on either side of the spine.

This illustration comes from Hugh Williamson’s Methods of Book Design, Third Edition 1983, Yale University Press. A good book, and a good man. You can see rounding and backing being done manually in the video at the rounding and backing link above.




The shoulder created by rounding and backing will fit into that bit of the case without any board stuck to it: the black bit between the grey boards in the picture below. Without the board it is obviously flexible enough to bend around the jutting edges.

Before anyone starts correcting others, I should perhaps say that just like all technical jargon, hinge/joint usage may vary from plant to plant. I should perhaps also add that book binders, under pressure from publishers, have steadily cut costs by compromising on details. The profile of a trade hardback book today may tend to look more like the center drawing, maybe even the one on the left!



The case for a hardback book consists of four pieces of material. Three pieces of cardboard, binder’s board, are cut, two the same size for the front and back cover, and one the same height but only as wide as the spine of the book. The spine board will, unless we are dealing with a square-back book, be much thinner than the front and back boards. The spine on a square-back doesn’t have to bend, so can be the same thickness of board as the side panels. A bit of book cloth, cut to size, is glued up and the bits of board dropped into position. Nowadays, rather than a woven fabric which will be stronger and longer-lasting, we often use a paper product for covering material. It’s cheaper. The edges of the cloth are turned over and stuck over the edges of the board. The cases are transferred to the stamping department where the title etc. will be foil-stamped onto the spine, using pressure and heat. And lo and behold we are ready to stick the end-papered book block into the case in the process called forwarding and building-in.

A case (3 bits of grey board and one bit of black cloth) shown with a set of sheets, folded and gathered but not yet sewn.

A stamping die

Nowadays the cover is often a three-piece case which adds an extra step before case making where a wide band for the spine (in theory a stronger cloth material than the paper being used on the sides, but increasingly just another bit of paper) is glued to the two panels for the sides before we get to the point where the boards can be stuck to it.

A three-pice case, all made of paper. This one has deckle edges.

The three-piece case originated as a cost saving wheeze (what else is new?) by book publishers. If you put paper on the sides of the book you’d cut down on the use of more expensive book cloth. Leaving cloth on the spine would provide strength for what’s the most vulnerable bit of the binding, the top edge of the spine where one tends to use a finger to pull a volume out of a shelf of books. Now we’ve pretty much abandoned the use of  book cloth in trade publishing altogether, there’s nothing to save by using a three-piece case. But now it’s become a “look”: we, the public, are believed to expect a trade book to look like this, so publishers keep on doing it. This despite the fact that if you use the same material on front and spine a three piece case will actually increase your costs — you’ve got to cut and assemble the case cover out of three pieces. I used to estimate that the break-even on a three-piece case (the point at which the unit cost becomes less, when the material savings balanced out the extra makeready) was around 1,500 copies: not a large number for a trade book of course.

I started wondering if French flaps were invented in France, and if they weren’t — which is what I assume to be the case — why they got to be called French flaps.

I suspect this is one of these unruly wild geese which we can chase to exhaustion, and that at the end we’ll find there’s no real evidence for preferring one origin myth over another, rather like prefect bound. (See also the comments on the Perfect binding post.)

In the end I come down on the side of French fold as the origin of French flaps: but a misuse of the term rather than the real meaning. A real French fold is printed on only one side and folded into 4 panels. It is often used in invitations or greeting cards. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this to be called a French fold rather than a Welsh, an Argentinian, a Thai one — people often grasp for the French as a sophisticated sounding appellation (and often of course as an insulting one, as in disease, leave, letter, loving; which for tit-for-tat’s sake are labelled as Anglais by French speakers).

The label “French fold book” appears to have evolved to mean something like this, where there are obviously no French folds involved — a French fold would demand that the top bolt was also left untrimmed, which would make any binding impossible to open. A seemingly knowledgable source says that such a binding style should really be called Japanese stab binding or French binding — though I was always familiar with French binding as a sewing term involving covering the raw edges of a bit of fabric with a ribbon or bias binding folded over the raw edge and sewn through. But again, why French? As far as I can see from this time-lapse video of a Japanese stab binding, there’s no inherent need for the uncut fore-edge element to be involved in this binding style. But of course if “everyone” is referring to a book like the one illustrated with uncut fore-edges and a stabbed spine binding as a French fold binding, then French fold binding it rapidly becomes. Maybe whoever came up with the idea of a French flap cover had recently seen one of these, and figured that the uncut fore-edge was what “French” was all about.

My habitual source of all knowledge on word origins, The Oxford English Dictionary is silent on the subject of French binding, French folds or French flaps. They even give the go-by to French joint which OUP tells us via their 2-volume Oxford Companion to the Book is a joint slightly wider than normal to allow a thick or heavy book to open more easily. Ingenious folk those French.

Later: On the subject of French . . . compounds here’s a delivery from yesterday:

Publishers like to use French flaps to give a paperback a de-luxe look, and justify a higher price. They are quite fashionable these days as are all sorts of embellishments to our books. (Once upon a time there was a more general consensus that the content was what would sell the book, though I guess even back then we did try to make our jackets pretty.)

French flaps are just like the front and back flaps on a book jacket transferred onto a paperback cover. They do increase your costs, partly because they use more cover board, but mainly because they split the trimming process into two steps. The fore-edge of the book block has to be trimmed before the cover goes on — if it wasn’t you’d end up with handy bookmarks in the front and back of the book when the guillotine chopped off the edges. Then after the cover has been applied to the spine, the book gets trimmed again to chop off the top and bottom margins. Not every book manufacturer is set up to provide this option, so price and scheduling can be issues. There’s always a risk of over-trimming the fore-edge so that the cover overlaps a bit too much. The opposite effect, leaving the white pages sticking out beyond the cover is so awful that the safety margin is moved inwards. Be it said, the manufacturer of the Very Short Introductions series does a pretty good job in this regard.

In the olden days when book production involved Letraset, X-acto knives, screen finders, loupes, Pentel pens, and pica rules I used to ask interviewees if they sewed.

While I’m not a mad-keen sempster (or seamster according to the Oxford English Dictionary) I can do it. I grew up in a wool town, where the putting together of garments was not regarded as any kind of a mystery. I’ve made an overcoat, shirts, skirts, chair-covers, and most recently curtains. My last batch of curtains, made with rather expensive fabric, ended up with just enough material left over to cover a little stool, 12″ x 20″. Now there’s purchasing management for you!

Cost estimating is an essential skill of the book production person, and this calls for confidence and accuracy with numbers and with measurements. Sewing things for yourself suggests a somewhat parsimonious attitude towards life, and the doggedness needed to bring a job to its conclusion — both qualities to be valued in book production. Sewing is not just a matter of measure twice, cut once, or pinning a paper pattern to a bit of cloth and chopping away (caution is another good quality for the production person): there’s also an aesthetic element involved. Visualizing how this material will look in that pattern is an essential part of the parcel. For book making we (should) value aesthetic judgement. Perhaps most obviously sewing involves manual dexterity, something which, before computers, we were all called upon to exercise daily in putting a book together.

Maybe I’m now just a tearful old carpenter standing by the sea wondering if those seven maids with their seven mops can still get it done.

Publishers Weekly reminds us it’s twenty years since Lightning Source Inc., a division of book wholesaler Ingram, started printing books on a Xerox DocuTech in La Vergne, Tennessee. I remember visiting in those early days when the machine was sitting in a disused loading bay. Visit now, and banks of machines covering a hangar-like workspace confront you, in multiple locations around the world.

Photo: Nashville Public Radio.

Print-on-demand was a tough sell in the early 90s when I was laboring in this particular vineyard. You didn’t so much have to demonstrate that you could do the job and do it well, you had to get down to basics and persuade management that this ludicrously expensive unit cost would actually end up saving them money in the long run. Printing books which we would never sell was what publishers were used to doing — though of course we never put it just like that. We were all vastly experienced at walking this tight-rope between understock and overstock, and were proud of this special skill. “What are you talking about? We know how to run our businesses, and doubling the unit cost is just silly.” Now I would be amazed to find any book publisher of any kind who didn’t think print-on-demand was a “good thing” — OK, I have to make an exception for high-quality specialist bibliophile publishers.

Now here’s Mike Shatzkin scolding us that publishers are not using LSI as much or as well as they should. He suggests that if every book were made print-ready at LSI nary a sale would ever be lost. He reassures us that although “It is rationally counterintuitive for publishers to spend time, let alone money, to set up with Lightning to print books on which they intend to maintain inventory in their warehouse” this is exactly what we should be doing. Many publishers are indeed doing just that. We quite often used to set up a defensive POD version of books we thought might “suffer” from rapid initial demand, though most of the books I myself set up for print-on-demand right at publication were not intended ever to be printed by offset and stored in the warehouse: we had 11,000 or so titles set up here and there for POD. (And this all refers back five years.) I wouldn’t be surprised if this early defensive POD set-up is already happening more and more frequently, in more and more publishing houses, and quite probably we’ll soon get to the sort of routine defensive POD set-up that Mr Shatzkin envisages. It all just takes time and money.

Optimistically he opines that set-up charges could be minimized by integrating LSI set-up into your workflow. He says “Although it would seem the cost would be near zero if the Lightning set-up were done as a part of delivering any book to publication.” Not quite sure what he means here. The cost of setting up a book at any digital printer does involve creating a file, and almost all publishers now do this routinely as part of their production process. But LSI, or any digital printer, has to do some work to massage the file into their system: they are unlikely to give this service away free, as why should they? A cautious publisher will want to see a sample, a proof copy, and this also represents a cost. But this spending is all all right because their charges aren’t immense, and can be regarded almost as an insurance policy.

As I’ve said before, I think any non-trade publisher setting up today, specially one doing academic books, would be crazy to invest in a warehouse. There are quite a few warehouse-less traditional publishers around — the smaller and more academic they are the more likely that state will become. LSI and their competitors in the POD business have enabled this.

Perhaps in noting LSI’s twentieth anniversary, one should note too that the POD book business was really pioneered by IBT (recently shut down) in conjunction with Bridgeport National Bindery.

Squares are what we call those little bits of cloth showing (in a hardback) around the edges of the endpaper where the endpaper is glued into the case holding the book in the binding. In the picture below, the squares are the blue bits showing around the green endpaper. In an ideal world the squares will be an even all around, about 1/8″ in a 6″ x 9″ book. As a book comes off the binding line the glue is still wet and the book block can be squished around to even up the squares, but because this costs it’s not much done now.

In this photo you can see that the squares are not exactly even, which is a little embarrassing because this is Volume 2 of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The printing press as an agent of change. Still, not too bad, and let’s assume all the others were perfect. Book loving production people will also make sure that a slightly faulty book doesn’t get into stock. This they do by selflessly taking the “faulty” book home to read. I am embarrassed to confess that I have indeed heard a colleague offer to hurt a book for me. (I’d usually say I’ll take it uninjured!)

You can also make out by the shadows the edges of the cloth where it’s folded over the board forming the case. Along the spine you can also discern by its shadow the mull liner which adds strength to this binding — it is glued to the spine of the book block and held between case and the endpapers at front and back. There’s a useful diagram at my earlier post Hardcover parts.

Very rarely you’ll see a big fat book bound with almost no square at the bottom, so that the bookblock isn’t hanging within the case, tempting it to tip forward towards the fore-edge, weakening the bond at the top of the spine. Not sure whether there’s a mechanical reason why we don’t do this, or whether it’s just habit (or more darkly a desire that the book should fall apart, necessitating replacement with a new copy).

Like so many things we used to spend our working days caring about evenness of squares is hardly a matter of concern these days. The book market, certainly the trade book market, is price sensitive, so little quality touches tend to fall away in an attempt to preserve margins.