Book binding basics • a primer from Book Design Made Simple

Like everything else, the ancient art of book binding is automated these days, and the array of available binding machines is amazing. This article aims to quickly explain the basics of book binding methods so you’ll be able to choose a book printer wisely.

Book binderies can be separate entities but are usually integrated with a book printing company. And in some instances, printing and binding are done right inside the same machine.

Hard cover book binding (casebound books)

With offset and most digital book printing, the printing is done on large sheets and then folded into 4, 8, 12, 16, 24, or even 32 pages, depending on the machinery, the paper stock, and the trim size of the book . The end result is a booklet called a signature, with all the pages in order. It’s quite ingenious.

Paper to be printed and folded into a 16 page signature for book binding..

One sheet is printed on both sides, folded, and trimmed to become a signature (16 pages in this instance).

Collating marks that result in a correct order of signatures for book binding.

The little collation marks at the back edge of each signature should line up as shown here in red.

Your book might end up with a few or dozens of signatures, so in order to collate them properly, a small marker is printed on the back side of each one. (Even more ingenious.) The signatures are then lined up into a “book block” for binding, smashed together with a weight, and trimmed to achieve neat outer edges.


Basically, stitching a book binding is the traditional method and is very durable. It’s done in two different ways.

Smyth (pronounced like “smith” but with a long i sound) sewing involves stitching from the middle of each signature to the outside and then over to the center of the next signature in a kind of looping motion. This results in a nice, easily-opened book and a flexible spine. The signature block can be glued to the inside of the spine or not—no glue results in a book that will stay open on its own (a “layflat” book).

Smyth sewing and side stitching for book binding.

Smyth sewing (left) goes from the center of each signature to the center of the next, making a more flexible binding. The thread or staples in side (or McCain) stitching goes right down through all the signatures at once. This makes a sturdier binding.

All parts of a casebound book.

Here’s how all the parts are put together in a casebound book.

Side (or McCain) stitching is often used for books that are destined to a hard life, such as library editions, children’s books, and textbooks. The signatures are gathered and then sewn or stapled from the side rather than through the folds (see above).

The endpapers are attached to the first and last pages of the book block with a thin vertical line of glue near the stitching, and then the back edge of the book block (plus endpapers) is wrapped with a cloth (the “backing material” in the illustration).

The wrap for the hard case can be cloth or a printable material. Wrapping the plain, foil stamped, or printed case is a separate operation. Once the wrapped case and the book block come together, the endpapers are glued to the inside of the case, leaving two free pages that are called the flyleaf. Sometimes a headband and tail band are added.

Two casebound books with different book bindings.

In the lower book, the backing material that wraps around the book block is glued to the spine. The upper book lays flat because the book block is free of the spine. Both books have headbands, though the black and white one is more noticeable.

A flexible hard cover can also be made with the same book binding equipment. Instead of a thick, stiff cardboard case, a thinner one is used. This results in a book that looks just like a hard cover one but that’s also bendable. This is called flex binding.

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Soft cover book binding

Once you know how hard covers are put together, you’ll quickly catch on to the concept of paperback book binding. The method is called perfect binding; I’m not sure how it got this laudatory name, as paperbacks used to fall apart quite easily. Perfect binding has come a very long way, though, and actually is nearly perfect these days.

Chopping and gluing for perfect binding.

First the signatures are chopped at the back end, then glue is applied.

Basically, after the printing is done the signatures are gathered into a block just as for a casebound book. Then the signatures are smashed, the folds are simply chopped off, and the back edge is flooded with glue. After drying, this glued edge is usually adhered to the paper spine, but if not, then the result is a layflat paperback. After this, the entire book is trimmed to a nice smooth edge.

Two different kinds of glue can be used in the binding. EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) and PUR (polyurethane reactive). The EVA is more traditional and costs less; the PUR is stronger and thus requires that less be used. This results in a book with a squarer spine that doesn’t crack when the book is opened. PUR may cost a little more.

Two perfect bound books.

A layflat perfect binding (top) and a more common type of perfect binding. You can clearly see where the first and last pages are adhered to the covers in both books.

Espresso Book Machine book binding

Espresso Book Machine.

The Espresso Book Machine at Village Books in Bellingham, WA.

An Espresso Book Machine (EBM) combines printing and binding all in one place. Some libraries and book stores own one for customers to print their own copies of out-of-print books or books they’ve written themselves. It’s hard to believe, but yes, you can give the machine two PDF files (one for the cover and one for the pages), and a perfect-bound copy will come out in just a few minutes.

Some POD printers also use the EBM. But most these days also use a more elaborate digital printer that resembles an enormous copier. They bind the books separately.

Other types of binding

In Book Design Made Simple, and also in a previous blog post, we described other interesting book binding methods. Check them out; one of them might be perfect for your book.

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We believe that all publishers should understand how their books will be put together. Knowledge is power!

Read more: Digital vs. offset printing » shows the pros and cons of each.
Read more: How much does it cost to self-publish? » includes all the various expenses including printing and binding.

Book Design Made Simple. You can do it yourself.

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