Bookbinding II: materials


Paper is what it is all about. Almost. Industrial, hand made, rag paper, pulp. Printed, patterned. One thing about paper: there is a direction of fiber, and this should always go along the spine. If it doesn’t, things will crack. I promise.

Do you have any fancy coffee table books, that creaks; where the pages kinda stick up when you open it? Fair bet the fiber goes the wrong way. It hurts me every time. Very few books these days get it right, and i think it is about the formats of books in correlation with the sizes of industrial paper mills. If we had changed either just a little bit… this would be solved. And we would have better books, that lasted longer.

Here is a bookbinder’s secret tip: when gluing paper, it will stretch most across the fibres. Therefore you can counter this by cutting it a tad shorter. How much a particular paper will stretch with what glue is a secret passed only from master to apprentice.

Cotton, linen…

There is a lot of fabrics, threads. Most is linen (sewing thread, sewing tapes) or cotton (mull, shirting, book cloth, headbands), sometimes silk. Doesn’t have to be though. But fundamentally, natural fibers have properties synthetics don’t, that simply makes it easier. Such as “bite” – when sewing paper, a waxed linen thread will “sit” in the register. You learn with your hands.


Traditionally, boards would be gray bookboard, called chipboard; mainly 2-4mm. Basically hard pressed paper matter.

All crafts have conventions and traditions, usually limited by the accuracy and tools available, and often convenience. Bookbinders have not traditionally used plywood or MDF. But there is nothing wrong with these – it is just that the precision and tools needed for them is a hassle; you would need loads more tools, and skills as a cabinet maker, where you to use them back then. When you can use easily manipulated chip board. When you have a complete workshop, this makes sense. But I don’t. What I DO have though, is access to CNC mills and laser cutters.

It is easier for me to cut MDF or plywood, than to cut chip board.

The principle in bookbinding, that when you glue one side of something, you also must glue the other so to counter the pull of the glue and fiber of the first – this is then invalid; as the material (MDF) is strong enough to withhold the pull of PVA and most papers. It does NOT however, withstand wheat paste! But if i stick to PVA I don’t have to glue both sides. And covers can be plexiglass, bare plywood, wood, metal.


Pretty boring subject. I use PVA and wheat paste. No, i don’t cook my own paste. Why would i!? Basically: PVA will flex, paste will dry rock hard. PVA is much faster so things can go wrong at high speed; paste has a much much stronger “pull”, and will rip apart things if not careful. Paste gives you time, it also add a lot more moisture, so the paper will stretch much more than with PVA. PVA gives you one chance. You need PVA in at least two different consistencies. Here is a secret bookbinder’s tip: you can mix the two.


It is usually calf, goat, or sheep. Calf the most ordinary, goat of the potentially best quality. I also believe there are pig, but often it can be split leather (meaning the hide has been split in two) one side treated, so telling what it is by just looking at it can be nigh impossible. Sometimes leather is “restructured”; say a smooth calf gets added “dimples” that might make it look like more exclusive stuff. Bookbinding leather is vegetable dyed, so to allow for heat, tooling, pairing, gold, and foils. Here is a bookbinder’s secret tip: you cannot – CANNOT – work leather with PVA. It. must. be. paste.

Natural colour is the hardest to work with, so you don’t see it too often. The best i have worked with was maroquin – Moroccan goat.

Part of my final exam

I hate…

I have a special, dark, hateful corner in my heart for fake leather covering. In norwegian the general name is granitol, clearly it is not in english. I cannot be bothered to find out the english name. But I hate the product. It is basically cotton with a plastic coat, and here is the problem: with leather structure. I don’t mind plastics per se. I don’t mind buckram. I don’t mind plastic covers that are plastic covers. It is the pretend that annoys me.

Therefore‚ most of what i do will be shirting (book cloth), clear and simple, or leather. Or mirrors and acrylics.

Everything else?

There are many tools and materials i don’t have, and are not likely to get hold of: that list is insanely long, but perhaps the most defining stuff are brass and lead type. Nameless books are not so much fun.

So i have to use what i’ve got. And that is high-tech machinery, and modern materials such as plexiglass, mirrors, metal, glass, vinyl transfers, veneers, plastics. I can CNC-mill brass letters or blocks (clichées), use the laser cutter to engrave leather, and the vinyl cutter to cut printed transfers.

So we’ll see. I am always on the lookout for new materials. I have a stack of fine veneers i have no idea what to do with. Inlay perhaps. Watch this space.

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