The book block is the meat of the book; all the pages in the centre. They can be blank or printed—whichever suits your fancy. I’ll be working with blank pages here, but someday I’ll get around to detailing how you can set up your own designed book into signatures and print them for your entirely self-made book.
The first part of making the book block is a lot of folding. You’ll need to fold every single page in half. It seems a bit daunting at first, but just put on a show in the background and you’ll fall into a nice rhythm and it’ll be done before you know it. Use your bone folder to create a firm crease. Once you have a nice stack of papers (in multiples of 4; each set of four is a signature), go back and re-crease every fold. When you’re done all the folding and creasing, your stack of papers should be perfectly square; you should not be able to tell which edge of the stack is folded. If you can, go back and go over the creases with your bone folder again.
Next up, make your signatures. Nest the folded pages together into sets of four, and then go over the bulkier folded edges of the signatures with the bone folder again.
Now choose two signatures. Any two will do. One is going to be the first signature and the other will be the last. These are the ones you will glue the end papers to. Your endpapers can be anything you want, but I would definitely recommend going with something colourful and contrasting, but with approximately the same weight as the rest of the pages.
Fold the end papers in half as you did with all the other internal pages. To attach the end papers to the two signatures, glue out a 5mm (no more!) strip at the folded edge of each end paper and glue it, edge to edge, to the top of the signature. Let dry. Here, as with everywhere you’re using glue on single sheets of paper, you need to be sure not to use too much glue, or you’ll soak the paper through and make it so delicate that it’s likely to tear or flop over and glue itself together.
Now it’s time to perforate the signatures in preparation for binding. There are several different kinds of stitching up a set of signatures, and each one requires a different pattern of hole punching. This entry is going to be about the most standard kind of stitching I know about. I’m not sure if it has a name or not, but I’ve always just assumed it’s the default as it’s what I learned first. You use three strips of binding tape to hold the book together, and sew around the binding tape.
The hole punch pattern for standard sewn binding is dictated by the binding strips. You’ll be using three strips, so you need three “slots” for those strips that are just a smidge wider than the strips. That’s six holes right there; one for each side of the binding tape, times three. Then you need two more; one to get you into the signature at one end, and another at the other end to get you out. The only requirements of those two final punches are that they’re far enough from the edges that they don’t accidentally get trimmed off or ripped out. 1.5cm is fine.
On one of the end signatures (one with an endpaper), mark out where you want your binding strips to be. Place one in the centre, and the other two more or less evenly spaced, one above and one below. All together the binding strips should span about 75% of the height of the book. Glue the last 2–3cm of the binding strips down to the end paper of one end signature. You’ve just dictated where 6 of the 8 binding punches will be. The last 2 should be about halfway between the top/bottom of the signature and the nearest binding strip.
Cut a strip of paper the same height as your book’s pages and mark out where these 8 punching spots are on its edge. This is your punching guide. You can now open up each of your signatures and use the awl to punch holes through all four sheets of paper at the centre fold of the signature. Now when you sew it is more a matter of threading than punching through paper. It’s much more enjoyable this way, I promise. When you get to the last signature (the other one with an endpaper), be sure the endpaper is facing the opposite way (up or down) of the other one when it was punched. This way your endpaper will actually be at the end of the book, and not sandwiched between the last and second last signatures!
Beginning with the end signature with the binding strips attached to it, you can now start stitching! To determine the length of the thread you’ll need, measure the height of your pages and multiply by the number of signatures you have (15cm high book + 10 signatures = 150cm) and then add ~20cm for flexibility (170cm in this example). Try not to use too much excess or you can end up with problematic knots or even a broken thread.
Start at one of the end holes and pull your thread mostly through, leaving about 3cm excess thread hanging out the hole. Take care not to pull it all the way through. Then sew through the next hole, and back up through the next one, taking care to wrap around the binding tape. Continue this through the signature and out through the top.
Then grab your next signature and this time start at the top and work your way down, being sure to wrap around the binding tape every time you go out and around. When you get to the bottom of the second signature, pull everything taught and firmly knot the loose end to the thread at the bottom of the second signature. Then pick up another signature and continue on your way, looping the needle through the top/bottom stitch of the previous signature each time you get to the end of a signature. Take care to keep your stitching tight and to firm everything up each time you finish a signature before tying off and continuing. You’ll quickly see that you’ve got a book emerging. Woo!
Once you’ve attached the final signature (the one with the other endpaper), tie off the thread and trim your loose ends. Trim the binding tape down to about 2–3cm excess and glue down to the end paper.
Now it’s time to glue out the spine. Right now the book block is very flexible. You’ll be able to shift the signatures a fair amount, and gluing the block out will firm them out. For this I like pure PVA glue, rather than the paste diluted version. This is the only part of the binding process I use pure PVA for. Hold the book block spine up, pages together, and run a good amount of PVA up and down the spine. Use your fingers to press and massage it between the signatures—really work it in there!
Let all that glue dry. Now it’s time for the optional trimming step. I happen to quite like the look of an untrimmed book block, with its uneven edges. I also don’t have access to a large paper guillotine, and I’ve found that attempting to do the job with an exact-o knife never improves the look of things… quite the opposite, actually. Ick. So, if you can get your hands on a paper guillotine, go for it. Be sure to set your square guides so you get a perfectly square block, and also take care not to sever your stitching when trimming the top and bottom.
Now’s a good time to attach ribbons (for bookmarks) and headbands. Use a bit of glue and tack them right on. You’ll probably need another dab for the headband that goes over top of a ribbon.
Et voila! Your book block is done! Next up, covers.
My 13 year old daughter was so excited to see your bookbinding article. She is attempting to make her first journal now. We are a little confused though. Are the end papers the same size as the unfolded or folded signatures?
Then do I understand this correctly. Once she has the endpapers, she glues just one edge to the signatures and lets it dry. Then she sews the book together.
Thank you for your help!
Hi Joyce! I’m so glad you found this old article 🙂 The end papers should be the same size as the pieces of paper that make up your signatures, and then yes, you fold the end papers in half and glue the edge of one to the edge of a signature (one for the front of the book and one for the back) before getting started.
One point: after finishing sewing and before trimming the binding tape, pull gently on the loose end of each tape, while pressing down on either side of it, to eliminate any slack in the tape. It helps tighten up the back, taking out a l9t of the looseness.