Volume 4 - Autumn 1997


Some Thoughts On Book Production

by Philip Smith

So many publishers' printers and binders, especially in this country, impose their books so that they end up with what is known amongst hand-bookbinders 'as wrong way of grain' in the machine made paper. There is really no practical excuse for this practice, which produces ugly books; books which do not handle or work well. The impositions of book pages are usually printed on wide rolls as a web with the grain running down the roll. Impositions may be designed either way on the cylinder or by other print scanning methods which would avoid this anomaly. When the separate impositions of say 32-page sections for a novel are folded and gathered the back or spine folds are cut off and the pack of single leaves are then applied with a glue, the leaves virtually being embedded in a more or less flexible layer of, usually, hot melt adhesive, and the paper-back cover is drawn on while the glue is still tacky. The above commercial habit of binding wrong way of grain may have a good reason in the view of the commercial binders. Perhaps the binder assumes that the glue would be more likely to run into the end-grain and embed the edges of the leaves more thoroughly than into the longitudinal sides of the grain fibres presented if the grain is down the leaf (Parallel to the spine). But a single reading of the book causes the spine of the book to becomes distorted and concave. This concavity and distortion is more pronounced when the grain of paper runs the wrong way.

Observation of this effect caused James Brockman to design a binding using this spine concavity as a starting point. Many novel binding structures begin from some fault which occurs in book performance. Observation of the behaviour of a book is also the reason for the invention of the OTABIND system, where the paper cover is not glued to the spine and the first few millimetres of the sides are not glued at the hinge. Case bindings often come unstuck due to stress along the hinge line. I have used an adaptation of this set-back hinging to obviate the use of the glued-on hollow back for hard-back and fine bindings. The stress of the counter forces in the hollow tube and the hinge are avoided. The fact that board hinges are an invariable break-down point led me to invent and patent the Lap-Back book structure with its self limiting board opening. A book need only open flat for reading. If one can make a structure which does not require back linings it is more easily reversible in the future when materials begin to deteriorate, it also prevents acids in linings migrating into the sewing and paper of the book.

Open Book

Generally the excuse for bad practice is financial economy. It is often a short tern (or short-sighted) measure. The fact remains that the leaves will find greater resistance to bending open against the grain. The book will cockle across the leaves with changes in humidity and the book will require two hands, clips or weights to keep open. It will break down into chunks of leaves more easily as the book if forced open. Such books also act like the proverbial mouse-trap!

I have noticed that most American paper books are sensibly bound with the grain down the leaf, and these are so much more pleasant to handle. They are also an encouragement to purchase! An example of the completely wrong structuring of a book is the AA Members Handbook over the years since it was sewn. It is not the only culprit. This monstrosity of book production actually crackles and buckles across these transverse leaf-cockle waves as one tries to open it. If ever a book needs the grain right way it is a reference manual which has to remain open when holding in one hand, or is referenced lying on the cook's kitchen table or next to a computer keyboard (Reference books should also be sewn, and printed on acid free stock. It is deplorable that expensive hard-back books should be given the so-called 'perfect' or adhesive-only binding, instead of being sewn.) As a general principle books work well only if the grain of machine-made paper is parallel to the folds.

Every book structure requires some compromise. A solid spine-whether concave, flat or convex opens well towards the middle of a book-block and with thin paper will behave well throughout, but is less suitable for thick papers, which require freely moving hinges, such as stub-guards, unlined spines , or the various ring and comb binders.

A structure is designed to effect a comfortable opening of the book. It is also designed to prevent friction on materials and reduce stress on the hinging mechanisms. There are structures which prioritises one or other of the advantages without introducing too many disadvantages. There is a movement afoot to re-consider all the available books structure and to invent new ones in learning how to overcome the problems. Many structures and practices adopted through tradition and habit over the past two hundred or three hundred years are being discarded by binders and conservators today. Modern bindings for example are losing kettle-stitches, spine linings, decorative endbands, square and other features. Gary Frost (Who drew my attention to the Otabind style), and others in the USA, together with J A Szirmai and others in Europe, are making considerable advances here. This is all happening at a time when the new technologies are introducing new ways of communication. These new technologies will similarly be needed to be re-assessed from time to time, to overcome electronic failure and magnetic interference problems, and the problem of the general decomposition of plastics. Polyester (exemplified by such materials as TYVEK) will, perhaps with further buffers against chemical pollutants, prove to outlast the cellulose fibres of tradition papers. The book form looks set to last long into the foreseeable future alongside digital/electronic forms, but commercial book production needs to get its act together to do so, and to learn from the experimental work of the hand- bookbinders.

© Copyright: Philip Smith 1997

Philip Smith trained at the Royal College of Art in drawing and graphic design and in bookbinding with Roger Powell. Subsequent work with Sydney Cockrell, enabled him to work on flood damaged material with the British Museum Team in Florence during 1966-1967. These experiences reinforced his interest in visual language and experimental book structures. He is a Fellow of Designer Bookbinders and was its President from 1977 - 1979. His books of been exhibited extensively both in the U.K. and abroad.


Skin Deep - Volume 4 - Autumn 1997

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