Bookbinding/Long stitch

Intro - Why? - Perfect - Japanese side stitch - Saddle stitch - Long stitch - Equipment - Materials

This module covers the making of a long-stitched soft-board binding. This style was recommended for small-scale projects by the book conservation lab at the University of Iowa.

If there are professional bookbinders in your area (and most large cities have them), you should be able to get your book bound for somewhere on the order of $20. Professionals have machines and supplies to do a case binding on fairly short order.



The cover for a long-stitched binding is made of cardboard -- specifically acid free two ply museum board. In determining the size of the cover, you have to allow for not only the thickness of the paper, but the thickness of the thread used to sew the binding, so now is the time to get the thread. The thread should be heavy, heavy enough that you might be as likely to call it fine cordage as you are to call it heavy thread! Thread diameters of close to a millimeter (when uncompressed and not under tension) are quite reasonable. The thread should compress to about 1/2 millimeter when successive turns are wrapped tightly around a pencil. See the section on thread for other criteria.

If you have 19 sections, as in DEC's 1973 Introduction to Programming, you'll need to add the thickness of 19 threads to the thickness of your book. To find this, wrap 19 turns of thread tightly around a pencil and measure the length of the wrapping, then add this to the thickness of the clamped spine of the stack of sections that will make up your book.

The museum board has the interesting property that it flexes fairly easily in one direction but it is fairly stiff in the other. You want your cover to flex easily from side to side, since that's the way you tend to bend the covers of a book when you hold it open to read. You want the book to be stiff from top to bottom, since bending in that direction should never happen. Taking this into account, cut a rectangle of museum board with the dimensions shown in Figure 4.1:

Basic dimensions of the cover. Starting with a rectangle the size of one unfolded sheet of the photocopied book, add the following dimensions to the width: P—the thickness of the stacked sections that will make up the book's body, compressed and measured away from the creased edges. T—the thickness of the thread.

Do not cut the cover oversize. The cover used with this style of binding is intended to cover the pages of the book in the way a conventional paperback cover does, with the edges of the cardboard exactly even with the edges of the bound pages.

I did all my cutting with a carpenter's square to guide a large X-acto knife. It took two or three scores with the knife to cut all the way through, and I used an old cardboard sheet as backing so I wouldn't cut into the top of the table I was working on. A paper cutting guillotine also works well to cut out the cover, particularly the type of guillotine that clamps the material being cut so that the blade does not pull the cardboard sideways as it cuts.

Having cut out a rectangular piece of cardboard, you need to score the creases where the cover will hinge to wrap around the pages. I measured twice to avoid error, then set my straight-edge along the planned hinge lines and used a blunt tool to score the crease. Traditional bookbinders would use a bone tool for this. I used the rounded and polished end of a metal ruler I found in my toolbox. Be careful not to cut or tear the fibers of the board when you score it; your goal is to compress the fibers in order to guide the crease. Figure 4.2 shows the cover with scored creases.

The cover, slit and creased.

Before you bend the cover, you need to cut a series of equally spaced square-ended slits in the cover, as shown in Figure 4.2. Typically, these should be about an inch apart, (anywhere from 2 to 3 cm will do) and the slits at the top and bottom should be a bit closer to the top and bottom edges of the book (about 1/2 inch or 1.5 cm is nice). Each slit should be about 1 mm wide, but the precise width is less important than the uniformity.

I cut 8 slits for this purpose, but 7 would be just as good. The ends of the slits should be about 1/2 the thickness of one section of your book from the creases that you just scored in the cover.

There are several ways to cut these slits. For my first effort, I used an X-acto knife, but I've found that cutting cardboard with a hammer and chisel is very fast and accurate. Use a broad-bladed wood chisel that's almost the length of the slit you want, and make sure it's very sharp. Place the chisel so the flat side faces the side of the slot you are keeping, and the beveled face faces the waste material you will discard. Always work against a disposable backing that won't damage the chisel; I use some heavy strathmore board for this. Practice a bit on scraps of your cover material before you attack the real thing.

Another way to make these slots was suggested to me by Neil Tyler. He has done this with an inexpensive utility knife, the kind with a cast metal handle that is in two halves held together by a screw. Normally, you put only one blade in such a knife, but if you put two blades in, side by side, with a spacer between them, you can cut slots that are about as wide as the thickness of the spacer plus the thickness of one blade. There is one warning about this method! Be extremely careful! Wounds made by closely spaced parallel blades are nasty, difficult to bandage and slow to heal when compared with the commonplace cuts that most users of sharp tools have experienced on occasion.

Punching holes


Edit this section. Paper is hard stuff, and pushing a sewing needle through 8 layers is no fun; it is far easier to pre-punch each section for sewing! To do this, make a jig out of a scrap of cardboard with a very straight edge.

  1. Cut a shallow wide notch in the cardboard. The depth of the notch should be about the thickness of the 8 sheets of paper that make up your sections. The width of the notch should be the height of the spine of the book.
  2. Lay out the holes that will be punched, making a mark for each one on the edge of the cardboard. In the case of a long stitch binding, these measurements can be transferred directly from the cover as follows:
    • Put the jig parallel to the length of the part of the cover that will be the spine, so the notch just brackets the cover.
    • Carefully mark where each slot in the spine passes your jig.
  3. Make a V shaped notch at each mark. These notches show where the holes go in the crease of each section.
  4. It's a rare day that you can get the jig (or the slots in your spine) perfectly symmetrical, so mark one end of your jig as the top, so that you can punch all of your sections the same way. Always make the up direction point towards the top of the page, and your book will come out with even edges.

Figure 5.1 illustrates the finished punching jig, resting against the spine of the cover:

The punching jig against the spine of the cover.

The purpose of the V shaped notches is to guide the tip of an awl as you punch holes in your sections. Slide your jig into the center of a folded section until the notched edge rests in the crease, then hold the back of the section against a scrap of wood and use a good sharp awl to punch a row of holes, one per notch in the jig. Keep the section folded fairly tightly, and the awl will find the center of the crease in the section and the center of the notch fairly naturally.


This work includes text or images adapted with permission from Bookbinding: A Tutorial © 1995 by Douglas W. Jones, who has agreed to this use under the terms of the GFDL.



The long stitch I used is a fairly modern modification of an ancient style of bookbinding; the basic rules are simple: Sections of the book are sewn into the cover one at a time, in sequence, from the front of the book to the back, using a single length of thread to sew the entire book. In sewing each section, the thread runs once down the length of that section, alternately inside the fold of the section and outside the spine of the cover.

The thread is always sewn inside the fold of the section at each end of the book; except at the ends, the threads of successive sections alternate, so that the sewing pattern on the back of a finished book (with 4 sections in this example) should look something like is shown in Figure 6.1:

Figure 6.1: The sewn spine, from the back. B—The beginning of the thread. E—The end of the thread.

The book is sewn with a single thread, between the indicated points. Note that it takes a bit of cleverness to sew the ends of the sections, since the natural alternation of over and under brings the thread out somewhat randomly in one or the other orientation.

The thread should always pass over the end of each section and around the end of the spine. This helps prevent the pages from tearing out, because tears almost always begin at the end of the crease.

Before you start sewing, you need to measure out enough thread to sew the entire book. For a book with 19 or 20 sections, wrap the thread 10 times around the handfull of sections when they're clenched tightly in the cover. Then wrap one or two turns for good luck. It's better to have a bit of extra thread than to have to knot the thread in midbook!

Before you start sewing, it helps (but is not strictly necessary) to wax the thread with beeswax.

A note of caution: You do your final quality control check when you commit yourself to sewing in a section! Once the wrong section is sewn in or the right one is sewn in with a missing or inverted page, it's no fun to undo. Check what section you are sewing, and make sure it is all there and right-side up! As you gain experience, you'll find that you spend less time checking, but it's better to do too much checking than too little.

Also, with each section, check that all the pre-punched holes line up with the slits in the cover. If they don't you've probably got the section upside down. If they still don't line up, you've done a bad job punching the holes, and you'll have to repunch a few.

Figure 6.2 shows, in some detail, is a cross section of the knotting at the end of a thread:

Figure 6.2: Cross-section through the first or last section of the book. T—The thread P— The pages being sewn in C—The cover K—The knotted end of the thread

Try to keep the knot and the loose end on the inside of the book. A tight square knot will do well here. Start by making the knot at one end of the first section, and finish sewing the first section to the spine. At the end, you'll face a problem -- how to finish one section and start the next.

Here, in some detail, is the sewing pattern used to change from one section to the next. If the thread emerges from the end of a section in the crease of that section, go outside the cover and down into the first prepunched hole in the next section, then out the crease, over the spine, and through the same hole as you begin sewing the length of the next section.

If the thread emerges from the end of a section outside the spine, go around the end and down the crease, re-using the last hole in the same section before going outside, around the end of the next section, and up the crease.

In both cases, the above sewing pattern will produce the result shown in Figure 6.3.

Figure 6.3: Detail, looping from one section to the next.

Here, dashed lines are used to show threads that are tucked into the crease of a section, while double horizontal and diagonal lines show the threads visible from the outside of the spine.

Whenever you use the same hole twice, always be sure not to sew the thread through itself. Pull the thread that goes through the hole off to one side, then thread the needle through to the other side of the same hole. If you do accidentally sew through the thread, it will make it difficult to tighten the thread when you're done sewing.

As you reach the end of the book, it will get hard to squeeze the last few sections in. You'll have to press hard to move the already bound pages down the spine to make room for the last sections, and as you work on the very last one, you'll have to squeeze the book again each time you try to get the needle through. If you measured the spine width correctly, you'll just barely manage to fit the last section in -- that's the test of a perfect fit.

If you run out of thread before you reach the end of the book, follow the instructions below for tightening the thread before you tie on a new length of thread, then tie the knot (a square knot) as close as you can to the last hole the thread passes through, Keep the knot on the inside of a crease! Do not back yourself into the situation where you have a knot that you need to pull through a hole in the sewing when you try to tighten the thread later.

Before you tie the final knot in the book, tighten the thread, working along the spine from the initial knot towards the end, pulling out any slack until the thread is uniformly tight throughout the sewing. I use a sharp awl (the same one I used to punch the holes in the sections) to do this, since it is easy to insert the tip under a tight loop of thread and pull the slack forward to that loop, tightening the previous loop. You don't need to pull too hard, but you don't want to leave any slack in the binding.

Finally, when the sewing is uniformly tight, tie the final knot, and you have a book! If the pages aren't in the right order at this point, though you'll have trouble fixing the order without cutting the thread and re-sewing!

The spine of the finished book is shown in Figure 6.4. Note that the end sewing and the threads holding the center sections of the book match almost perfectly with the pattern illustrated in Figure 6.1. The pattern of the threads holding the very first and last sections is somewhat obscured by the tighter packing of these lines of sewing.

Figure 6.4: The sewn result!

The book shown in Figure 6.4 has seen several years of use, and the impact of this wear is quite visible. Repeated flexing of the fold where the book front meets the spine has torn some of the surface fibers. Should this crease ever begin to tear, it would be a simple matter to thread linen tape through the sewing and glue it to the front and back covers in order to reinforce the spine and hinges. The photo shows no wear on the threads, and the torn fibers along the crease are very clean; this is because the book has been protected by a dust jacket since it was bound.


This work includes text or images adapted with permission from Bookbinding: A Tutorial © 1995 by Douglas W. Jones, who has agreed to this use under the terms of the GFDL.