Case Bindings, Pt. I


After spending a good deal of time exploring medieval book structures, the first years fast-forwarded a couple hundred years in bookbinding history to work on case bindings. Case binding is a general term referring to book structure in which the case (covered boards and spine) and book (textblock and endsheets) are prepared separately and later adhered together (Etherington & Roberts, 1981). Both Frost (1982) and Cloonan (1991) indicate that paper case bindings in form or another were popular in Italy and Germany as early as the 17th century; however, the cloth-covered variety that we are producing is very much a 19th century form (Frost). Case binding offers a distinct manufacturing advantage over in-boards structure in terms of mechanized processes, because the covers can be decorated (stamped) flat when they are off the book.

These book structures introduced a few new concepts and techniques to us, including rounding and backing, spine lining, sewn endbands, and hot-stamping. Practice is an important aspect of learning any hand skill, and, because case bindings are quickly produced, we churned out as many variations as possible over two or three weeks. In this first post, I’ll go over the three general types of case binding that we covered, as well as share a model of each that I produced.

All of our cases did have a few structural aspects in common, in order for us to speed up the sewing by batching textblocks on a sewing frame, as well as to actually feel how different endsheet structures and spine linings affected the way the book opened. These commonalities included using Mohawk Superfine for the text, trimming to the same model size (155mm x 115mm), and sewing all-along on Dutch-style linen tapes. Doing this allowed us to speed up the sewing by batching textblocks on a sewing frame. It also allowed us to actually feel how different endsheet structures and spine linings affected the way the book opened. Sheets of mohawk are rough-cut, folded into sections, pressed, and sewing stations pierced as I described in my post on Sewn Board Bindings. After rigging up a wooden sewing frame with tapes, we sewed six or so textblocks at a time – making sure to dress in traditional 18th century bindery-girl garb as we were doing it.

The textblocks are then squared up flat on a table with the spine overhanging the edge and a small weight to hold the book block in place. Hot animal hide glue (a rather pungent, water-soluble protein adhesive) is then applied to the spine. The adhesive is worked into the little “valleys” between sections and any excess glue is wiped off of the spine with a cloth. When the hide glue is dry enough to firm up, the textblock is gently rounded with a hammer. Rounding the spine of a book allows for the even distribution of the swell from the sewing thread and keeps it from eventually going into a concave round (Young, 1995). The rounded textblock is then placed in the job backer for backing, being careful to align it properly and evenly. The picture below shows off the department’s rather handsome cast-iron job backer, and features a portrait gracefully donated to the bindery by Jeff’s son.

Young (1995) rather concisely describes the purpose of backing as to “set the rounding and to distribute the remainder of the swell, and at the same providing shoulders to accommodate the thickness of the boards to be used in making the cover” (p. 102).

The backing job required depends upon the type of binding desired. There is plenty of excellent literature out there that describes how to successfully back a book for its intended function – so I will leave the subject well alone here. Besides, I’m not one to talk about quality rounding and backing; for every 10 backing jobs I do, only one or two look halfway decent. Just look at the set of seven below.

When the book is backed and dry, the endbands are put on and the spine is lined with various combinations of textile and paper. Spine lining is also a rather complex subject that I will not try to tackle in this post – but if you’d like to read more about it, I really enjoyed Tom Conroy’s 1987 paper on the movement of the book spine from the Book and Paper Group Annual (found here).

We focused on three styles of case binding: the built-in groove, the flat-back, and the pressed-in groove.

Built-in Groove

The built-in groove case is composed of two boards and a thin spine stiffening strip that are joined by strong paper before the case is covered. Peter Verheyen (2002) also calls this structure a Bradel binding and indicates that this method of case construction is particularly suited for amateur binders because it easily allows for a precise fit to the textblock. You can read the revised version of his paper describing the structure (including some very nice illustrations) here. For the first few models that I made, I tried to make use of scrap book cloth and siding up material – that way, in the event of an irreparable mistake, I could just toss it without feeling like I was wasting materials. This resulted in a rather strange combination of materials – one of those being the amusingly gaudy number pictured below.

This one has 2-color sewn silk endbands (bead on the front) on a kind of tall, square leather core. I admit, these are a bit too much on a lot of levels. Sewn endbands on a case binding are kind of like putting spinning rims on a $500 minivan: they might look nice, but why go to all the trouble.

For this book, I also made my first attempts at foil hot stamping with the Kwikprint. I made sure to choose an italic sans-serif typeface to build upon the terrible “wow-factor” of the endbands. Getting a clear impression that is actually straight down the spine turned out to have a pretty high learning curve. And as you can see, I didn’t quite pull it off on this one.

But as monstrous as this book turned out to be, someone must have liked it, because it ended up selling at one of our fundraisers. Hopefully it will age well.


The second style of case that we made was the flat back. For this structure, the spine is glued and lined without rounding so that it remains flat and the case is constructed with a piece of board as the spine piece. Unlike the pressed-in groove binding, the boards and spine piece are assembled as the case is covered. The groove is then pressed in with brass-edged boards. The example below has stuck-on endbands of rolled bookcloth and silver stamping on the front cover.

I should say that I find it pretty difficult to come up with anything witty or interesting to stamp on these blank models. The only way I am going to learn is to stamp as much as possible, however. So instead of wasting my time trying to be creative, I realized that I can rely on the ancient art of bibliomancy to “divine” my titling. The process goes like this: grab the largest dictionary, encyclopedia, or sacred text you have at your disposal. We have an absolutely massive unabridged Webster’s in the bindery that worked out rather well for this. Lay the volume, unopened, on a table. After performing an invocation/sacrifice or pouring a libation to the deity of your choice, close your eyes and, as the “spirit” moves you, open the book and place your index finger on a page. I would either pick the closest adjective/noun combination to the spot on the page or perform the operation twice to get a suitable adjective and noun.  I had a pretty expansive list of titles after about 10 minutes of using this method.

Pressed-in Groove

The last version of the case binding that we made was the pressed-in groove. This structure combines a couple different aspects of the methods of assembly for the other two. In this case binding, the textblock is rounded and backed and the case makes use of a thin, flexible spine stiffening strip like the Bradel; however, the case is constructed as it is covered like the flat back. Brass edged boards are used in the press after casing the textblock in to give it that nice French groove. The most exciting model that I made was the one I like to call “The Bulletproof Book”.

This one is covered in a paper-backed ballistic nylon bookcloth called Techno. Unfortunately, Techno has been discontinued by the manufacturer, but you can still get small quantities through Talas. This stuff is pretty crazy – it’s tough to cut and impossible to stamp. Techno does fray out very easily, so after covering the corners at the fore-edge, I had to burn the exposed edges of the cloth with a lighter to seal them up. This cloth has a very pronounced texture that, after casing in, gets pressed straight through the pastedown. But it is shiny and feels rather nice in the hands.

I’m pretty sure this would stop a small handgun – but of course I’ll have to wait for the field test results before I start marketing books as body armor.

That’s all for my general overview. Next time I’ll share photos of a series of more “polished” case bindings.


Cloonan, M. V. (1991). Early bindings in paper : A brief history of European hand-made paper-covered books with a multilingual glossary. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall.

Frost, G. (1982). Historical paper case binding and conservation rebinding. The New Bookbinder, 2, 64-67.

Roberts, M. & Etherington, D. (1982). Bookbinding and the conservation of books : A dictionary of descriptive terminology. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.

Verheyen, P. D. (2006). German case (Bradel) binding. Skin Deep, 22, 2-7.

Young, L. S. (1995). Bookbinding & conservation by hand : A working guide. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press.


11 thoughts on “Case Bindings, Pt. I

  1. After spending the weekend on my own attempts at case binding, with a few texts by my side to reference, your post was a delightful Monday morning greeting! Always appreciate your recommended reading and images.

    1. Glad you like them, Abigail. Let me know if you have images of your own work up somewhere.

  2. I am interested to know if your bulletproof book worked, was thinking about a similar project when I came across your awesome blog. Beautiful work. Please reply, Henry.

    1. Well I was living in Boston at the time, so did not get a chance to test it out by actually firing a gun at it. I ended up selling the book and they have stopped making that ballistic nylon bookcloth. I’m sure similar nylon could be sourced and backed with paper for covering books… Share some pictures if you actually get around to testing one!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s