comments 9

Sewn Boards Binding

I’m at the point where I need a new sketchbook.  I’ve had my previous one for two years now, and it’s not just full, it’s really beat up.  I designed the last one to be durable, but I’ve been wondering if I need to try a different structure.  So I started making models of the sewn board binding, pioneered in the modern era by Gary Frost.  You can find his notes here (PDF).  I used Karen Hanmer’s notes from the 2013 Guild Of Bookworkers Conference which you can find here (PDF).  While doing this, I thought I might take some photos and make a tutorial of sorts.  So here it is:


Expect this to get a little image heavy.


I’ve already done some work here: I’ve gotten my paper, cut it down to size, folded it in the signatures (9 signatures of 4 folios each), made two endsheet signatures (2 folios each), and made two single folio signatures of 10 point cardstock.  I’ve then pressed it all in a bookpress overnight, taken it all out and punched the proper holes for the sewing I’m doing.



This is a shot of my sewing setup.  On top of a board so my hand has room to rest and hold the signature I’m working on, as well as a sewing weight to help me keep the signatures aligned.  The sewing I’m doing here is called a few things: I’ve heard it called web link stitch or lap link.  I call it invisible tapes just to add to the confusion.  It’s a lot like sewing all along, but there’s a twist.


End of the first signature looks pretty normal.  Enter from the outside at one end, exit, enter, and so on.  Add your next signature and do the same thing but from the opposite direction.  This picture also shows you what sort of sewing stations you need for this structure.  If your book is particularly large or small, you may want more or fewer stations, but those three pairs in the center always need to be in pairs.


Here’s the twist I mentioned.  At the first pair of stations, grab the thread with your needle like this.


Then go back inside the signature so your thread is entwined with itself.  Pull it tight.


At the end of your second signature it should look like this.  Tie off while you’re at the end of the signature with a square knot.


Add your third signature and keep going, linking back down at the center three pairs.


It should now look like this.  Time to do a kettle stitch.


So if you don’t know, a kettle stitch is an essential anchoring knot you’ll do at the end of every signature. To start, thread your needle through the loop formed by the thread between the two signatures below the one you just exited out of.


Pull the thread through to form a loop.


Thread your needle through the loop you just formed.


Pull it through and it should look like this.


Pull it tight and keep on sewing like that. Linking down at the three in the center, making kettle stitches when you reach the end of the signatures.


I’ve run out of thread here. I only take as much thread as fits between my outstretched arms to keep the thread manageable and with fewer tangles.


This is a diagram of a weaver’s knot I keep on the wall next to my bench. I’ve always had a hard time tying knots, so I refer to this a lot.  It shows the knot way better than I can with thread.


Form the old thread into a bend and put the new thread through it (I’ve already waxed the old thread.


Put a bend in the new thread and put it under and then over the old thread.


Put the end of the new thread over and under the old again and then pull it tight. You should probably look at that diagram up top again. It’s clearer than my stupid words.  Trust me, this knot actually does work.


Here’s the finished sewing. Pretty links, nice kettles. When I finish, I just double kettle at the last signature.


Time to stiffen up the covers. The single folio signatures of ten point will become the cover of the binding, hence the name sewn board binding. I suppose this is optional, but your covers will be a little floppy if you don’t stiffen them. We’re doing to tip another piece of 10 point to the inside of the signature, the part I’ve drawn a squiggle on here to help you see the difference between it and the nearly identical piece of 10 point I’ll be using here.


But first we have to trim the card away so it doesn’t hit the sewing. So get your card and make marks at the head and tail of the book where the sewing is.


We’re going to cut away the shaded part here.




Use a straightedge and a knife.


Alright, cool. Now to tip the ten point on. I’m going to glue up the shaded part on the piece to the right of the book.


Like this. Stipple your glue for better control. Do this on both sides and let dry.


Time to glue the spine.  Cut some scrap board the same size as the text block and put them on the front and back. Square up your text block and put under weight.


Flatten the spines of your signatures with a bonefolder so the glue doesn’t go too far into the spine. Here I’ve flattened the ones on the right but not on the left. Can you tell? It’s super subtle


Put on some glue. I’m using Jade 403 PVA. This is really how much I’m putting on. This amount covering the entire spine, not just one end. Let it dry completely.


Put on a little bit more PVA and put on a medium weight of Japanese tissue on the spine to line it.


Use your bonefolder to press the lining on. You can also use a stiff stencil brush to tamp the lining on.  Let it dry.


Onto the spine wrapper. This will cover up your beautiful sewing. First we’re going to cut the spine stiffener out of card. I’m using 20 point here, but 10 point will also work.  I’ve also taken my book to my guillotine to square up my edges in between these steps, but I haven’t included them because my guillotine requires several of my hands to operate and well, most people don’t have a guillotine.  Do your best to make sure everything is the same size.


Cut two pieces to the same size: Same height as the text block, about a millimeter shorter than the width of the spine. We’ll use one as the actual spine stiffener and one to help us with layout.


Grab a piece of bookcloth and cut it to two inches taller than the spine and four-ish times the width of the spine. I’m not being exact here. It doesn’t really matter how exact you are here, as none of it will show, but how wide you cut the bookcloth will determine how much cloth you have on the boards. If you want more cloth on the boards, cut the bookcloth wider.


Glue up your spine stiffener.


Put it in the center of your bookcloth. Flatten it with your bone folder to get out any air bubbles and ensure adequate adhesion.


Glue up the end of the book cloth and fold it over the end of the spine stiffener.


Like this. Do your best to make sure the fold is in line with the top of the spine stiffener. Do this same thing on the other end.


Put it between some boards. I’m using my plexi boards here so you can see, but wood is actually better as it absorbs moisture.


Put it between some boards. I’m using my plexi boards here so you can see, but wood is actually better as it absorbs moisture.


Once dry, use the other piece of card we cut to aid in layout. Lay it alongside the spine piece and draw a line against it.



Like this. So in this binding the spine stiffener floats loose away from the actual spine of the text block. To accomplish this we’re only going to attach part of the cloth to the covers of the book and leave some of it free. Everything below that line is going to get glue.


Do the same thing on the other side.


Glue up one side only like this. See how I have very little glue above the line? You can either eyeball it like that or use a piece of scrap paper as a mask to make sure your glue gets exactly where you want it.


Making sure the spine is properly aligned, glue it to one cover. Press it with your bonefolder. You can also see the mark I make to remember which side is the front and top.


Glue up the other side.


And attach the other side to the other cover.


Here I’m determining the amount of cloth that will show on my boards. I’m using that same extra spine stiffener to determine mine because it’s easy and I enjoy the modern look of very little cloth showing.


I’ve made two little marks, one at the head and one at the tail that will help me align my cover paper.


Here’s my paper. Some stuff I marbled myself a few years ago. If you can find a local arts center or workshop that offers paper marbling classes, I highly recommend it. It’s super fun and will supply you with some great paper. Also, when people inevitably ask you if you marbled the paper you can say yes.


We’re going to adhere just the one side first, like this. The paper is oversize, and it’s going to get trimmed.


Glue out just a little bit of the paper. This piece of paper is only going to be glued on at the edges and not fully laminated to the board. This kind of gluing is called “drummed on”.  Don’t use too much glue or it will squirt out onto your cloth and look gross.


Align the paper and put it down, using a bonefolder to get get out any air bubbles.


Do the other side and let everything dry under weight.


Here I’m trimming the oversize paper. My starrett ruler is exactly one inch, so it makes a nice amount for the turn ins. I’m not measuring anything here, just using it as a straight edge.


Do the foreedge, head, and tail.


Cut your corners. Corners are complicated bit that trips up a lot of people. I do something very specific that is nearly impossible to demonstrate here with boards so thin. I’ll make a corner tutorial some other time. For now, just do your best.


I’m propping the book up like this with two weights just to keep it out of the way.


Glue it up.


And fold it over. Keep those edges crisp by pulling the paper tight on the boards. Middle schoolers I teach have a really hard time grasping this concept.


Do both head and tail, then the foreedge.


Glued up.


Folded over.


Don’t forget to do the other side!



Moving quickly now, we’ll finish this book. We’re going to glue our endsheets to the cover so we don’t see any naked board.


Glue up just the edge, making sure you’ve inserted a piece of waste paper between the paper you’re gluing and the rest of the text block.


Put it down, remembering to use your bonefolder.



Put in fences to absorb moisture. If you don’t, you’ll end up with cockling from the moisture in the glue.


Do the other side and put under weight to dry.


Done! The sewn board binding is pretty pleasing. It opens pretty well and has a nice puffy quality that reminds me of limp bindings.  You can see here that there are some raw board edges showing.  I forgot to cover them up while making this book, but it’s easily remedied.  You can either paint the edges or cover them up before you put on the spine wrapper with a piece of thin paper or other material. You then proceed in exactly the same way.


  1. Thank you for taking time to make this great tutorial – I’ve been wanting to try this style binding for ages. One quick question – what’s the benefit to ‘drummed-on’ glueing? Or is just your personal preference?

    • Colin

      There are three benefits to drumming on I can think of.

      1. You’re using less glue, which is pretty nice. You’re saving materials and therefore, cost.
      2. Since you’re not gluing up the entire surface, you don’t have the outside material pulling and cupping your board, which here is not a stable, solid thing. That means you don’t have to equalize the pull on the inside!
      3. It makes the whole board kind of puffy, which is an interesting look that you don’t see that often.

  2. Oops – one more question: it looks like you use square metal rods to weigh down your book block when you’re working on it. Is that right? If so, what are they made of and are they from a regular hardware store? Thanks 🙂

    • Colin

      I do! I have a bunch of different weights that I’ve gathered over the years. The long metal square stock is called key stock, and I bought it online at Mcmaster Carr, but if you have a hardware store that stocks it, feel free to grab it from there. Mine are zinc plated steel so they don’t rust. Rust is generally bad when you want something to be clean.

  3. Wonderful tutorial. I’ve been interested in this structure for a while but couldn’t find a really good step by step walk through until coming across yours. The generous use of photographs really helps. Using your blog post as a guide, I gave this structure a try and am really pleased with the results. As a photographer, I think this flat opening is ideal for photo books.

    I do have a question or two: when you did your fold ins of the marbled paper, you turned in head, tail, then fore-edge (standard order for folding in). I did the same and wondered after if it wouldn’t make sense to do the fore-edge first to pull the cover paper tight across the face of the book. Is there a reason or benefit to following the order you did?

    Folding the book cloth over the spine creates and nice edge on the head and tail of the book but also creates a double thickness of material along the top and bottom of the spine. I used slightly heavy homemade linen book cloth on mine and the material is bulky enough when folded over to notice a difference between single and double thick areas on both the spine and the front and back covers. Do you have any advice in that regard? I’m considering using a very long piece of book cloth to create a full double thickness when folded over the 10pt card of the spine. Have you ever tried that?

Leave a Reply