Hyphen Press

Books that lie open

This is an introductory survey of a vexed issue of book-production: binding techniques. The intention of the piece is general enlightenment, and to support a process that is threatened with extinction, and to give information about a coming technique.

Aims and ideals

A book, when opened, should lie flat when placed on a table, and stay that way without help from its reader’s hands. It should open to its fullest extent, so that the whole of the page, or pair of pages, can be used: for photographs that might run into or across the central margins, for side-notes or other text that needs to occupy an inner margin. One might remark also that a book open on a table – while the reader holds a cup of tea in both hands (for warmth and comfort), or sews a button on a shirt, or carries a young child – is no more than a mark of decent civilization. So the binding should be strong enough to withstand this opening-out. The spine will of course begin to show signs of wear with this opening – that is in the nature of the materials – but it should not split, and the pages should not fall out.

The pages and the spine

We are talking here about paperbacks – our preferred medium of dissemination. For the moment, we confine the discussion to paperbacks in which the block of the book is glued to the spine. The method of the hardback book has been and predominantly is still to keep the block free from the spine. This principle enables good opening. The pages can be held minimally, by narrow tapes or some sheet of paper or cloth, and the thinnest layer of glue. The typical paperback, however, suffers from the inbuilt contradiction of the book-block needing to be glued to a sheet of protecting and enclosing material that, in this very thickness and material substance, resists the opening process. Then success in opening depends on the glue.

The pages of a book are made from folded sheets of paper, gathered to form the block of the book, then trimmed at the three outer edges. Simple principles of material construction suggest that these pages should, if possible, be trimmed only at these three outer edges. The sections can then be held together by thread at their fourth edge. The parts (the folded leaves of paper) then retain some integrity: can be disbound and rebound, without much further trimming. But when the inner edge of the pages is cut, double leaves become single leaves, and then it really does all depend on the glue. This is the method of the notorious ‘perfect binding’, which was routinely denounced when it was introduced (in the notorious 1960s?) as being far from ‘perfect’. Serious readers would crack open the binding, and the pages would fall out. Now that the bindings of that period have had time to age, we can see more clearly what was the cause of the trouble.

Again, it is the glue that is the major factor in the success or failure of the paperback binding. One can find books with sewn sections that can only be cracked open at a couple of places (choose them well, a third and two-thirds of the way through), because the glue is thick and unyielding. One can find perfect-bound books that seem completely strong, stable, and perfectly openable. One can find books with that characteristic layer of thick white glue that now, twenty or thirty years on, will crack in two at every point you open the book. The book stays open when you put it on a table, but only because it is damaged beyond repair.

1. Cold glue and perfect-bound in the 1960s: forty years after manufacture, the book is still a perfectly working artefact, though the edges of the pages show familiar stains from exposure to light. (Mary McCarthy, The company she keeps, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, reprint of 1966.)

2. Cold glue and sewn sections: an ideal conjunction, which would have been even better if the sections had been of 16 rather than 32 pages. (F.R. Leavis, The common pursuit, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962, reprint of 1969.)

3. Hot-melt and sewn sections of 32 pages: an unwieldy construction that only opens fully in a couple of places. (Roy Fisher, The long and the short of it, Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2005.)

4. A hot-melt disaster: a glue that quickly hardened, became brittle and cracked. It is the glue rather than the perfect binding that is the cause of the trouble. (Gregory Bateson, Steps towards an ecology of mind, St Albans: Paladin, 1973.)

A broad historical explanation can be attempted. Pocket paperbacks began to be made in the 1930s in Europe and North America. For the first twenty or thirty years, the methods of binding were adaptations of the existing model of the yet-to-be-bound paperback: most familiar in the French tradition, which persists still, of the full-size paperback book, published without any hardback edition. Then, around the 1960s and early 1970s, hot-glue processes were introduced. The exact workings of these processes remain unclear to an outsider, such as the present writer, but their effects are clear: a thick layer of glue that does not bend or give. The gains of hot-glue methods were with the producer rather than the user: quicker and thus cheaper to make.

The present situation

Cold-glue binding of paperbacks has almost disappeared. Enquiries here in the UK suggest that there are no binders able to do it. This must be a matter of ignorance and economic calculus. Those who know how the process works say that, with cold glue, the books have to be left overnight before finishing, and so this costs more than instant hot-melt methods. I have also been told that once machines have been turned over to hot-melt, they cannot be used for cold glue again. But there are perhaps a handful of binders on the continent of Europe who still do it (see the list of binders given at the end of this piece).

So one can, as we have done for some books, still get books cold-glued.

5 & 6. Cold-glue and sewn sections of 16 pages: immaculate and unpretentious results.
(Peter Burnhill, Type spaces, Hyphen Press, 2003. Bound by Matthieu Geertsen in Nijmegen.)

(Chris Villars (ed.), Morton Feldman says, Hyphen Press, 2006. Bound by De Haan in Zwolle.)

In the past few years a new process has come into use: on the European continent this is known as Otabind, after man who devised the process. (A British printer once spoke to me about it, referring to it as ‘Eurobinding’!) Otabind is credited to a Mr Ota, owner of the Finnish firm of Otavia; the original patent is dated 1981. The license for the process is now with the Dutch firm of Hexspoor – and they are its main practitioner and proponent. Go to the Hexspoor website (Dutch only), for more about this, especially the afwerkingscollectie page, which goes through all the processes the firm can offer, and the film, which gives glimpses of the Otabind process.

The principle of Otabind is that the book-block is not glued to the spine, but instead to a sheet of substrate. The block is then fixed to the cover sheet by glueing it to the first and last pages of the book-block. These first and last leaves then loose much possibility of use – a significant portion of the inside-edge area is eaten up – and on the front and back cover the inside edges are scored to assist opening. A cover design will have to take account of that. When glueing is good (the cold-glue process can be used here too) and the sections are thread-sewn, Otabind can give nice results. Although I find the way the spine acts as a platform for the book, laid open on a flat surface, a bit disconcerting.

7. Otabind: this is the simplest form of the technique. (Robin Kinross, Modern typography, Hyphen Press, 2004.)

8. This is a more complex construction, with end-papers inserted. (Richard Butz & others (ed.), Bäuchlings auf Grün, St.Gallen: VGS Verlagsgemeinschaft St.Gallen, 2005. Bound by Buchbinderei Burkhardt in Mönchaltorf.)

In North America, a variation of the Otabind process goes under the name of RepKover. Among users of the technique, the publisher of computing books O’Reilly has made quite a noise about it. Clearly, for text books that have to stay open on a desk, while the reader/user is busy at a keyboard, such a technique is useful. See this discussion.

9. An O’Reilly book with RepKover binding. This is a 600-plus page book, and the weight of the pages do let it lie flat when opened in the middle portions. (Chuck Musciano & Bill Kennedy, HTML & XHTML: the definitive guide, fifth edition, Sebastopol CA: O’Reilly, 2002.)

Recommended binders

These are binding companies able to do good work, especially in cold-glue processes and in the Otabind technique. They are fully commercial binders, working on an industrial scale. The exception is Mathieu Geertsen, which describes itself as a ‘hand’ binder; though Geertsen too will bind an edition of thousands, as well as one of smaller numbers.

Boekbinderij De Haan
James Wattstraat 4
8013 PX Zwolle
The Netherlands
+31 (0)38 4656160

Mathieu Geertsen
Gerard Noodtstraat 70
6511 SX Nijmegen
The Netherlands
+31 (o)24 3220337

Binderij Hexspoor
Ladonkseweg 7
5281 RN Boxtel
The Netherlands
+ 31 (0)411 657157

Boekbinderij Van Waarden
Pieter Lieftinckweg 14
1505 HX Zaandam
The Netherlands
+31 (0)75 6703948

GGP Media
Karl-Marx-Straße 24
07381 Pößneck
+49 (0) 3647 430

Buchbinderei Hendricks–Lützenkirchen
Ackerstraße 50–56
47533 Kleve
+49 (0)2821 26403

Kösel GmbH
Am Buchweg 1
87452 Altusried-Krugzell
+49 (0)8374 580

G. Lachenmaier GmbH
In Laisen 31 + 34
72766 Reutlingen
+49 (0) 7121 1496-0

Sigloch Gruppe
Am Buchberg 8
74572 Blaufelden
+49 (0)7953 8830

Buchbinderei Burkhardt
Isenrietstrasse 21
8617 Mönchaltorf
+41 (0)44 949 4444

Schumacher AG
Industriestrasse 1–3
3185 Schmitten
+41 (0)26 497 8200

Terminology, sources, acknowledgement

In Dutch, the cold-glue process is ‘koudlijm’. In German it is referred to with the term ‘Dispersion’. And in other languages? A helpful brief summary of present methods of binding, from a North American perspective, can be found in this article by Brandon Rasch. What I have written here derives largely from trade sources, such as this, which I have been able to find on the internet. Please do get in touch if you have corrections or comments. I would like especially to add to the list of binders who still do cold glue, and who now do Otabinding.

The original impulse for this article goes back to conversations with Karel Martens, who first told me about cold glue.

Now see this discussion.

Update [October 2009]: De Haan is now part of Wilco and only binds books printed by firms within that group.

Robin Kinross / 2007.05.02