The Art of Bookbinding/Chapter 5

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The Art of Bookbinding by Joseph William Zaehnsdorf
Chapter V.



Flexible Work.—The "sewing press" consists of a bed, two screws, and a beam or cross bar, round which are fastened five or more cords, called lay cords. Five pieces of cord cut from the ball, in length, about four times the thickness of the book, are fastened to the lay cords by slip knots; the other ends being fastened to small pieces of metal called keys, by twisting the ends round twice and then a half hitch. The keys are then passed through the slot in the bed of the "press," and the beam screwed up rather tightly; but loose enough to allow the lay cords to move freely backwards or forwards. Having the book on the bed of the press with the back towards the sewer, a few sheets (better than only one) are laid against the cords, and they are arranged exactly to the marks made on the back of the sections. When quite true and perpendicular, they should be made tight by screwing the beam up. It will be better if the cords are a little to the right of the press, so that the sewer may get her or his left arm to rest better on the press.

Cross-hatched drawing of a sewing press. Flat base with two screw-threading pillars. A horizontal beam between the pillars holds up five equally spaced cords.

Sewing Press.

If when the press is tightened one of the cords is loose, as will sometimes happen, a pencil, folding-stick or other object slipped under the lay cord on the top of the beam will tighten the band sufficiently. The foreign sewing presses have screws with a hook at the end to hold the bands, the screws running in a slot in the beam: in practice they are very convenient.

The first and last sections are overcast usually with cotton or very fine thread. The first sheet is now to be laid against the bands, and the needle introduced through the kettle stitch hole on the right of the book, which is the head. The left hand being within the centre of the sheet, the needle is taken with it, and thrust out on the left of the mark made for the first band; the needle being taken with the right hand, is again introduced on the right of the same band, thus making a complete circle round it. This is repeated with each band in succession, and the needle brought out of the kettle stitch hole on the left or tail of the sheet. A new sheet is now placed on the top, and treated in a similar way, by introducing the needle at the left end or tail; and when taken out at the right end or top, the thread must be fastened by a knot to the end, hanging from the first sheet, which is left long enough for the purpose. A third sheet having been sewn in like manner,[1] the needle must be brought out at the kettle stitch, thrust between the two sheets first sewn, and drawn round the thread, thus fastening each sheet to its neighbour by a kind of chain stitch. I believe the term "kettle stitch" is only a corruption of "catch-up stitch," as it catches each section as sewn in succession. This class of work must be done very neatly and evenly, but it is easily done with a little practice and patience. This is the strongest sewing executed at the present day, but it is very seldom done, as it takes three or four times as long as the ordinary sewing. The thread must be drawn tightly each time it is passed round the band, and at the end properly fastened off at the kettle stitch, or the sections will work loose in course of time. Old books were always sewn in this manner, and when two or double bands were used, the thread was twisted twice round one on sewing one section, and twice round the other on sewing the next, or once round each cord. In some cases even the "head-band" was worked at

A sewing diagram.

Ordinary sewing. 2 sheets on 2 bands.

A sewing diagram.

Ordinary sewing. 2 sheets on 3 bands.

A sewing diagram.

Ordinary sewing. 2 sheets on 5 bands.
The thick lines shewing the direction of the thread.

the same time, by fastening other pieces of leather for the head and tail, and making it the catch-up stitch as well. When the head-band was worked in sewing, the book was, of course, not afterwards cut at the edges. When this was done, wooden boards were used instead of mill boards, and twisted leather instead of cord, and when the book was covered, a groove was made between each double band. This way is still imitated by sticking a second band or cord alongside the one made in sewing, before the book is covered. The cord for flexible work is called a "flexible cord," and is twisted tighter and is stronger than any other. In all kinds of sewing I advise the use of Hayes' Royal Irish thread, not because there is no other of good manufacture, but because I have tried several kinds, and Hayes' has proved to be the best. The thickness of the cord must always be in proportion to the size and thickness of the book, and the thickness of the thread must depend on the sheets, whether they be half sheets or whole sheets. If too thick a thread is used, the swelling (the rising caused in the back by the thread) will be too much, and it will be impossible to make a proper rounding or get a right size "groove" in backing. If the sections are thick or few, a thick thread must be used to give the thickness necessary to produce a good groove.

alt = Two sewing diagrams. The first is captioned "Manner of sewing on double cord" with a dotted line representing the thread above a solid line representing the sheet. The dotted line loops into a figure-of-eight below the solid line at either end, encompassing four circles, representing cords, in the loops. The second shows a similar arrangement of thread, sheet and cords, with five single loops each encompassing one of five cords.
alt = Two sewing diagrams. The first is captioned "Manner of sewing on double cord" with a dotted line representing the thread above a solid line representing the sheet. The dotted line loops into a figure-of-eight below the solid line at either end, encompassing four circles, representing cords, in the loops. The second shows a similar arrangement of thread, sheet and cords, with five single loops each encompassing one of five cords.

Flexible sewing.

If the book is of moderate thickness, the sections may be knocked down by occasionally tapping them with a piece of wood loaded at one end with lead, or a thick folding-stick may be used as a substitute. I must again call particular attention to the kettle stitch. The thread must not be drawn too tight in making the chain, or the thread will break in backing; but still a proper tension must be kept or the sheets will wear loose. The last sheet should be fastened with a double knot round the kettle stitch two or three sections down, and that section must be sewn all along. The next style of sewing, and most generally used throughout the trade, is the ordinary method.

Ordinary Sewing is somewhat different, inasmuch as the thread is not twisted round the cord, as in flexible work, when the cord is outside the section. In this method the cord fits into the saw cuts. The thread is simply passed over the cord, not round it, otherwise the principle of sewing is the same, that is, the thread is passed right along the section, out of the holes made, and into them again; the kettle stitch being made in the same way. This style of work has one advantage over flexible work, because the back of the book can be better gilt. In flexible work, the leather is attached with paste to the back, and is flexed, and bent, each time the book is opened, and there is great risk of the gold splitting away or being detached from the leather in wear. Books sewn in the ordinary method are made with a hollow or loose back, and when the book is opened, the crease in the back is independent of the leather covering; the lining of the back only is creased, and the leather keeps its perfect form, by reason of the lining giving it a spring outwards. Morocco is generally used for flexible work; calf, being without a grain, is not suitable, as it would show all the creases in the back made by the opening. This class of sewing is excellent for books that do not require so much strength, such as library bindings,[2] but for a dictionary or the like, where constant reference or daily use is required, I should sew a book flexibly. Some binders sew their books in the ordinary way, and paste the leather directly to the back, and thus pass it for flexible work; but I do not think any respectable house would do so. A book that has been sewed flexibly will not have any saw cut in the back, so that on examination, by opening it wide, it will at once be seen if it is a real flexible binding or not.

Intelligence must, however, be used; a book that has already been cased (or bound and sewn on cords) must of necessity have the saw cuts or holes, and such a book would show the cuts.

There is another mode called "flexible not to show." The book is marked up in the usual way as for flexible, and is also slightly scratched on the band marks with the saw; but not deep enough to go through the sections. A thin cord is then taken doubled for each band, and the book is sewn the ordinary flexible way; the cord is knocked into the back in forwarding, and the leather may be stuck on a hollow back with bands, or it may be fastened to the back itself without bands.[3]

However simple it may appear in description to sew a book, it requires great judgment to keep down the swelling of the book to the proper amount necessary to form a good backing groove and no more. In order to do this, the sheets must from time to time be gently tapped down with a piece of wood or a heavy folding-stick, and great care must be observed to avoid drawing the fastening of the kettle stitch too tight, or the head and tail of the book will be thinner than the middle; this fault once committed has no remedy.

If the sections are very thin, or in half sheets, they may, if the book is very thick, be sewn "two sheets on." The needle is passed from the kettle stitch to the first band of the first sheet and out, then another sheet is placed on the top, and the needle inserted at the first band and brought out at band No. 2, the needle is again inserted in the first sheet and in at the second band and out at No. 3, thus treating the two sections as one; in this way it is obvious that only half as much thread will be in the back. With regard to books that have had the heads cut, it will be necessary to open each sheet carefully up to the back before it is placed on the press, otherwise the centre may not be caught, and two or more leaves will be detached after the book is bound.

The first and last sections of every book should be overcast for strength. With regard to books that are composed of single leaves, they are treated of in Chapter III. They are to be overcast, and each section treated as a section of an ordinary book, the only difference being, that a strong lining of paper should be given to the back before covering, so that it cannot "throw up."

When a book is sewn, it is taken from the sewing press by slackening the screws which tighten the beam, so that the cord may be easily detached from the keys and lay cords. The cord may be left at its full length until the end papers are about to be put on, when it must be reduced to about three inches.

Brehmer's patent wire book and pamphlet sewing machine is an introduction well adapted to the use of the stationer, where thick and hand-made paper will bear such a method. It will not, in my opinion, ever be found eligible for library or standard books. Its high price will debar it from the trade generally; but it is to be feared that a sufficient number of really good books may be sewn with it to cause embarrassment to the first-rate binder, who will be baffled in making good work of books which may have been damaged by the invention of sewing books with wire.

Line drawing of a large, floor-standing sewing machine.

Smyth's Sewing Machine

The novelty of this machine is, that the book is sewn with wire instead of thread. The machine is fed with wire from spools by small steel rollers, which at each revolution supply exactly the length of wire required to form little staples with two legs. Of these staples, the machine makes at every revolution as many as are required for each sheet of the book that is being sewn—generally two or three, or more, as necessary. These wires or staples are forced through the sections from the inside of the folds; and as the tapes are stretched, and held by clasps exactly opposite to each staple-forming and inserting apparatus, the legs of each staple penetrate the tapes, and project through them to a sufficient distance to allow of their being bent inwards towards each other, and pressed firmly against the tapes. With pamphlets, copy-books, catalogues, &c., no tape is used, the staples themselves being sufficient. About two thousand pamphlets or sheets can be sewn in one hour.

Another machine, and I believe the latest, is the "Smythe." The sewer sits in front of the machine and places the sheets, one at a time, on radial arms which project from a vertical rod. These arms rotate, rise, and adjust the sheets, so as to bring them in their proper position under the curved needles. As each arm rises, small holes are pierced, by means of punches in the sheets, from the inside, to facilitate the entrance and egress of the needles. The loopers then receive a lateral movement to tighten the stitch, and this movement is made adjustable, in order that books may be sewn tight or loose, as required. About 20,000 sheets can be sewn in a day, and no previous sawing is required. Thread is used with this machine.

Decorative image

  1. As each thread is terminated, another must be joined thereto, so that one length of thread is, as it were, used for a book. The knots must be made very neatly, and the ends cut off, or they will be visible in the sheet by their bulk.
  2. This is not to be confounded with public library bindings.
  3. See chapter on Lining up.