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One of the benefits of over a decade of binding books is that I've learned a lot of tricks either on my own or from various instructors, students and friends. These tips will save you time, make you more efficient, save your tools and make your books tighter and neater.

Click any image for a larger view.

Hints from a
Book Artist
36 Tips and Tricks for Bookbinders and Artists

By Christine Cox

Sewing
  • Clean white thread
    Put talc (baby powder works) on your hands to prevent finger oils from darkening sewing thread.
  • Threading Needle
    Needle the thread rather than threading the needle. Flatten out or twist the end of the thread so that it will go through the hole easily.
    Put the end of your thread between the pads of your thumb and forefinger. Pull it down so that you can barely see the tip of the thread. See photo below.
    Now lay the eye of the needle over the thread and open up your finger and thumb a little, tiny bit. The thread should pop right up through the hole in the needle. This can take a little practice but it's simple once you have it.

  • Aligned Signatures
    Before you tie a kettle, Coptic or other "knotting" stitch, be sure to adjust the signatures so that the head, tail and spine edges line up with the other signatures and with the cover (if it's on the book at this point). Once you’ve tied a knot (or have sewn a kettle stitch) the placement of the signatures is permanent.

  • On the frame
    I love sewing books on a sewing frame as there is much more control over the shape of the spine.

    • When sewing on a frame, I like to use straight pins instead of keys or pushpins. They make it easy to string the frame and you don't have to make holes in the wood or worry about keys coming loose.

    • Some people will tie the ends of their sewing tapes or cords to string and then tie the string to the sewing frame. This saves on the more expensive cord or tape.

    • Stringing up a frame is a little time consuming. If your frame is tall enough, gang-sew text blocks for a very efficient time saver. When you finish one text block, tie your double kettle and then cut it off as normal. Now just start sewing your next text block, right on top of the last block.
      When you are finished sewing all the blocks you are going to, remove the blocks (and tape) from the frame.
      Carefully pull the blocks so that they are spaced out on the tapes, with enough tape on each side of each block to use for lacing or gluing on the cover boards.
      Cut the tapes between the blocks and you have the makings of several books ready to go.

    • Raise the text block up from the deck of the frame by placing it on top of a finished book. It gives your fingers more room to manipulate the needle when working down at the bottom of the stack of signatures, and it also raises your signatures up to where the tapes lie a little more neatly on the frame.

  • Off the frame
    When I’m making a small book (say, 10 signatures or fewer), a frame can be overkill. When sewing without a frame there are some simple things to do to maintain control.
    Remember: Beeeeeee the frame.

    • Sew your book on the edge of the table with the spine edge facing you and about ¼” hanging off the edge of the table. The less you move the sewn signatures the better. This position gives you a bird's eye view of your work and also gives your needle room to come out of the text block without running into the table.
    • Keep your non-dominant hand inside each signature while sewing. You'll find yourself depending on it to control thread tension, to hold the thread still while you form a knot, to hold your place between 2 signatures, to help feed the needle through a hole and for other helpful little tasks like removing twists. Use your non-dominant hand the same way when sewing on the frame.
    • Keep weight on the fore-edge of the book as you sew; either your hand or, if you are walking away, use a small, clean weight. I also keep a weight on top of the stack of signatures I haven't sewn yet to help keep them compressed while they await their turn.
  • One step kettle
    Most people form a kettle stitch in 2 steps; send the needle under the bridge of thread and then bring it back through the loop. You can do all this in one step by sending the needle under the bridge of thread and stopping before the needle is all the way through the gap between the signatures. Throw the sewing thread over the needle (the equivalent of reaching through the loop and grabbing the needle) and then pull it taut. It's faster and it's the exact same knot (essentially a half-hitch).

Measuring

  • Relative measuring
    When making a tight-back book, it’s important that your materials are the exact size in relation to one another. Don’t use a ruler to measure materials and then cut them all ahead of time. Instead, use spring dividers, calipers (or Vernier gauge) and Measuring Rules to measure and cut as you go. All your measurements, and therefore your materials, will be cut relative to one another. If something changes along the way, subsequently cut materials will evolve with it. For instance, the boards should be measured and cut only after the text block is fully sewn (including headbands), rounded and backed. It’s easy to slap down a 1/8” measuring rule and score a line for cutting the boards in relation to the size of the text block.


Rules make measuring quick!

  • Measuring rules
    Rulers sometimes have little notches where the tick marks are. When you run a knife down those tick marks you can dull it, or even chip the blade. Our rules don’t have tick marks.
  • Portable measuring
    Volcano Arts' measuring rules are the greatest time savers. The only problem is that the 18" set is too long to fit into my toolbox (see below). The answer? Either buy a 9" set, or cut your 18" set in half and carry one half in your toolbox. I cut mine on either a guillotine cutter or a cutoff saw (made for cutting metal, not wood). Use a belt-sander or grinder to make the cut ends match the uncut ends.
Adhesives
  • When using paper to cover board, mix PVA 50/50 with Methylcel to increase the time you need to smooth out any wrinkles. I have this great paper that has a flocked design on it. When it's wet the paper stretches but the flocked areas can't, so the paper gets very puckered. Adding (pre-mixed) methylcel to the PVA means that I have the time to work the wrinkles out before the glue dries.
  • This happens to everyone. You're squeezing your glue bottle, but it's clogged. Then suddenly whoosh! You have too much glue and it's where you didn't want it. Avoid this problem by putting a sewing pin in the cap.


Pin in glue cap helps prevent clogs
(a larger pin would be better)


Fred Sanford lives!

  • Bookbinding is close work and when we hit a certain age reading glasses can become our favorite accessory. Buy a pair of readers that is a little stronger than your normal reading magnification. For instance, if you normally wear 1.5s, put on a pair of 1.75s just for sewing books. Soon you’ll have a “Fred Sanford glasses drawer” just like mine. Naturally you'll want to talk to your eye doctor before taking my advise.

  • For removing knots or other super-detailed work I like to use an OptiVisor.


Marching kettle stitches

Little soldiers
When sewing kettle stitches (the stitches at the head and tail of the book, which hold the signatures together), it's important to pull the thread in the same direction every time so that the stitches all march in the same direction like little soldiers.


Leather weight and one-step kettle stitch


Ace Bandage around text block and finishing press

Glue Brushes

  • Clean glue brushes
    I've heard it so many times, "I forgot to clean my
    brush after using PVA (synthetic adhesive). Now I have to throw the brush out." No you don't!
    • The first thing to try when your brush is stiff from glue is to simply soak the brush in a dish of cold water (hot water may expand the metal ferrule on your brush, causing the bristles to fall out -- a great tip for painters too). Soak it for an hour or two (or overnight if you have a lot of adhesive to contend with). This will reactivate the PVA so that you can clean the brush normally. Once the adhesive is out, use a brush cleaner (a cake of brush-friendly soap in a deep jar) to get rid of any globs hiding in the bristles.
    • If soaking the brush in water doesn't do the job and the bristles are still stiff, try this excellent technique. Put a little white vinegar (maybe a teaspoon or so) in a glass and then fill it to the bottom of the brush's ferrule with hot water (I know, I know, I just told you not to use hot water, but we're desperate here). Hot tap water is fine. Put the brush in and let it soak for about 30 seconds. It will come out soft and supple.
      Now you have a brush with vinegar (3% - 6% acetic acid) in it. Any binder worth her salt knows that one of the most important things about bookbinding for posterity is to keep the pH as neutral as possible. To neutralize the acid in your brush (raise the pH), dump the water/vinegar out of the glass, rinse the glass and refill it with cold water. This time add just a little baking soda (a base). Use the glue brush to stir the neutralizing solution for about 30 seconds, pressing the bristles against the side of the glass to open them up and let the baking soda into the interior bristles. Rinse the brush thoroughly, again opening it up and rinsing the inside. Your brush should be ready to go back to work.
  • Rustless adhesives
    Keep brushes with metal ferrules as dry as possible to lessen rust contamination in your adhesives. Better yet, buy glue brushes with plastic or string ferrules and buy and store your adhesives in squirt bottles rather than dipping your brush into them.

Paring

  • Paring stone
    • Binders who pare leather (make it thinner) by hand do so with an incredibly sharp knife called a "paring knife" and they work on a stone. It's fashionable to use a litho stone, but I like to use a lovely piece of granite that's about 3" thick. They're a lot cheaper, easier to find and you can get them in whatever size and weight that you want. Check out your local leather store to see if they have any nicely polished stones. Be sure to get a heavy one or it could slide around.
    • Speaking of your paring stone sliding around, put a piece of that bumpy rubber shelf liner stuff under your granite or litho stone and sliding will no longer be an issue. Design binder Dominic Riley quipped once that binders in England drink beer so that they can hold their paring stones in place with their bellies.  ;-D
  • No more sharpening stones
    Brace yourself. I sharpen my paring knives on abrasive papers. These come in many, many grits and are better suited to the task than water or oil stones. I hear some of you saying, "Sacrilege! The old timers use stones so that must be right." Yeah, I used to think so too, but after taking a class with Book Conservator Ann Lindsey I learned that the portability and disposability of abrasive papers makes them far superior. They don't have to be soaked, oiled or trued (flattened), and when one piece of paper wears out you throw it away and use another. Just splash a little water onto your paring stone to hold the paper in place and then drip a little more on top of the paper for lubrication. Keep your angles true or you'll make a mess of your knives.

Pressing

  • Artist's tape for headbands
    After sewing headbands onto your book, glue the ends of the threads down and then use a piece of artist's tape to hold them down while they dry. The artist's tape won't ruin your paper (test to be sure), but it's strong enough to do the job. This is also a great trick if you're using glued-on headbands.
  • Artist's tape for press placement
    I can't explain it, but I used to really struggle with getting a book block into the finishing press. I'd end up with twisted, misaligned blocks and invariably one signature would be on a different plane than the rest. Given my retentive nature, this drove me nuts. Low tack artist's tape to the rescue! Now I jog the block until it is exactly how I want it to look after gluing. I then set my waste boards in place and hold everything tightly while I put a long piece of artist's tape around the whole thing; book block, waste boards and all. Once it's taped it's a simple matter to set the block into the press, ready for the first layer of glue. Once the glue is dry I remove the tape and move on to the rounding and backing steps.
  • Laminate under light weight
    When laminating 2 pieces of binder's board together, don't put them in a nipping press. The twisting motion of the press will rotate the boards and they won't be lined up when you pull them out. Use a board and a weight instead.
  • First aid for drying spines
    When you're working on the spine of your book while it's in a finishing press, you need a way to insure that everything is tight while the glue dries. An Ace Bandage is perfect when lining the spine or when adding a hollow tube. After gluing, just wrap the bandage around the whole book and the press and set it aside. The clips that come with the bandage aren't necessary. Just tuck the end under the press and the weight will keep it in place.
  • Passive compression
    For compressing signatures while I sew, I like to use the weights that surveyors (and others) use. They are 1 1/2 pound bags of shot (as from a gun) sewn into 2 pieces of leather, like a little pillow. After I spent $8 a piece on these, a friend of mine made me several more from her husband's lead shot supply. It's now illegal to hunt with lead shot because of its effect on the environment and this was a great re-use! Warning, double stitch the bags. You don't want lead balls all over the house.

  • Active compression
    There is no better tool for compressing signatures to reduce swell than our Volcano Arts Teflon Folder. The tool is heavy and wide so I find that the process is quicker and more efficient than with a bone folder.

Backing Fabric

  • YouTube treasure
    Here's a great video on YouTube that shows you how to use
    methyl cellulose to back silk with paper to make book cloth.
  • Backing upholstery fabric
    In craft bindings you might want to use upholstery fabric to cover your book (horrors!). Traditional binders use wheat starch paste or methyl cellulose for backing fabric (though they wouldn’t be caught dead using upholstery material), but it just isn’t strong enough to hold heavy fabrics. Use straight PVA rather than paste or a mixture of adhesives. Note, some upholstery fabrics have a moisture guard on them and may not stick even with straight PVA. Test a scrap.

Travel

Travel box
Personally, I sew books wherever I am so I have a bookbinding box ready to go at a moment's notice. To make one for yourself, find or make a great looking and durable box with a lid (a handle is nice too). Drawers and dividers are very helpful. Now fill it with everything you might need to make a book on-the-go, even if you're only going to the living room. Mine is now so well stocked that I rarely need hand tools that aren't in the box. I just set my box on the table next to me and start working. No more running here and there in the studio to find everything I need. I've made a little hobby out of finding the exact right containers for everything in the box. Mint and candy containers become tiny, colorful little holders for needles, scalpel blades, sharps, etc. See what's in my box in the list below.


Closed Box


Inside Box

Here's what's in my travel box right now
{{sounds of rummaging}}

Spring dividers
Glue brushes
Pen, pencil and eraser
China markers in light and dark colors
Pad of sticky notes
Straight pins for sewing frame
Needles of various sizes and shapes
Toothpicks
Wash cloth
Water brush
Bone and Teflon folders in several sizes and shapes
Awls in 2 sizes
Japanese screw punch and tips
Chisel for cutting holes for tapes
Small cutting mat
Ruler
Artist's tape
Baby powder
X-Acto knife and blades
2
Scalpels with straight and curved blades
Sharps container for used blades
Sandpaper
Tweezers
Slitting knife with cover
Small metal square
Scissors
Assorted
adhesive brushes
Squeegee for backing paper
Leather weight
Saddle square
Measuring rules cut in half
2 Lifting knives


Christine Cox teaches metalsmithing and bookbinding classes in her studio in Volcano, CA.