The Art of Traditional Bookbinding in a Fast-Paced World

by: Renée Varella

Companies that perform traditional bookbinding services are a rare breed indeed – and getting scarcer in our high-speed society. Here, we profile two businesses that still cater to time-honored bookbinding traditions – one that does a lot of handwork with short runs and another that’s found a niche offering traditional bookbinding services with highly automated equipment. You’ll also hear from a supplier who works with the full spectrum of binders.

The HF Group: Preserving and Conserving

For over 80 years, clients of The HF Group (HFG), based in Chesterland, Ohio, have ranged from the government and universities to public libraries and archives. “We’re a diversified services business with book-related and non-book segments,” said Jay Fairfield, company president. HFG book segments primarily focus on: 1) Library binding (rebinding of one-off monographs and hardcover binding of journals and periodicals); 2) Textbook rebinding (repairing textbooks for public and private K-12 schools); 3) Short-run edition and children’s bookbinding; 4) Digital print and binding on demand (as low as 1 per title production for publishers and specialty presses); 5) Conservation treatment (on valuable and historic artifacts); and 6) Digital conversion scanning (reformatting of books, manuscripts, maps, and art-to-digital format).

“The library binding niche is quite unique, and there are only 20 to 25 facilities in the U.S. left doing this specialty-type work,” Fairfield said. Libraries at large research universities, law schools, and small colleges, as well as public and special libraries, send their books to HFG for rebinding or repair or send their journals and periodicals to HFG for first-time binding. “We also do one-offs of old bibles, which requires a skilled-craftsman approach. Our equipment and our plants are geared to production runs of one to 1,000.”

Most of the materials HFG uses in its traditional bookbinding operation are preservation-sensitive, including acid-free papers and acrylic -coated woven and non-woven cover materials. “We also use genuine and simulated leather materials in our handbinding operation,” Fairfield said. Equipment ranges from hand tools and hot lead stamping equipment to semi-automatic machines that provide automation from station to station to computerized, unattended hot foil stamping machines. “In addition, we utilize digitally printed color covers with film lamination.”

On Demand Solutions
Fairfield acknowledged substantial growth in short-run edition binding and the digital, on demand print and bind segment of the book market. Binding methods include perfect binding, side sewing, and Smyth sewing. Case options include custom graphic printed and laminated covers, cloth covers with hot foil stamped lettering or custom die stamping options, and dust jackets. Case options for edition binding and prebinding include custom graphic covers or cloth covers with hot foil stamped lettering and custom, artistic die stamping options.

HFG also uses digitization and imaging technologies to produce archival-quality digital images from damaged or non-circulating bound documents and printed materials and loose pages. Its equipment can digitize bound volumes in black and white, grayscale, and color in sizes ranging from 4.5″×7″ to 19″×19″. The company also can digitize loose sheets and foldouts in black and white and grayscale up to 17″×23″ and up to 11″×17″ in color. Facsimile reproductions of all digitized books are available. Even large format materials such as atlases, maps, art on paper, and blueprints can be digitized and reproduced by HFG.

Preserving the Precious
One of HFG’s divisions includes Etherington Conservation Services, which offers preservation and conservation services for private collectors, libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and other collection-holding institutions. Donald Etherington, a world renowned conservationist, serves as president of the division.

Book rebinding treatments vary in complexity and may require aqueous treatment, some works of art on paper, vellum, and parchment may need matting and framing, while other projects require deacidification and polyester film encapsulation or custom-designed protective enclosures. Past projects of Etherington Conservation Services include the American University of Cairo’s collection of architectural drawings, the Czech Republic’s collection of medieval manuscripts, and the National Archives rehousing and display of the Charters of Freedom, which includes the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Tradition and Timeliness
In today’s marketplace, HFG must balance the need for high-quality, traditional-looking pieces with the increasing demand for fast turnarounds. “Our work and the types of customers we have vary greatly and, therefore, so does the expectation for turn times,” Fairfield said. “We have some customers who require – and pay for – a two- to three-day turn, and some customers that prefer – and pay less for – a four-week turn. In special cases, valuable or rare items can be in our possession receiving very specific and specialized treatment that can take months.”

Dekker Bookbinding: Serving Book Printers from Coast to Coast

Founded as a library binder in 1928, the family-owned and fourth-generation Dekker Bookbinding, Grand Rapids, Mich., offers highly automated edition binding services today. However, in the late 1800s, John H. Dekker used state-of-the-art hand tools he’d brought from the Netherlands when the Dekker family emigrated to the U.S. Early customers included public libraries, book collectors, professional organizations, schools, and small publishers.

“The early hand bindery relied on manual sewing, cutting, hot stamping, gluing, and pressing,” said Chris Dekker, a sales executive at Dekker. “The materials used were basic – the bookbinder often purchased full cowhides to produce leather cases for books. I remember my grandfather measuring a hide to get as many pieces as economically possible without blemishes. A blemish might result from the scar left when the cow bumped against a barbwire fence. The process worked because the bookbinder was able to control the quality and craftsmanship of each book as he built the components and assembled the final product.”

New Techniques, Similar Expectations
Although Dekker noted that quality, schedule, and price are still key considerations for customers in 2010, the company’s range of services has changed dramatically over the years. “Our business today is focused on partnering with print customers by providing estimating, specification and planning review, prescheduling, and material purchases,” Dekker said. The company also custom cuts its own board and cloth to expedite schedules and control quality; utilizes the internet whenever it’s convenient for a customer; and estimates and plans layouts for printed end sheets, covers, and dust jackets.”

“Casing in is the final step, where all the components come together to make a book,” he added. “While our specialty is hardcover bookbinding, new equipment and new adhesive options, as well as process innovations, have allowed us to offer additional services such as PUR gluing for coated adhesive binding, in-line ribbon gluing, flexible cover options, flex boards, and lined turned-edge covers for mechanical binderies.”

Dekker reported that on June 28, 2010, the plant had 242,000 books (spread over 70 titles) in production, consisting of 24 trim sizes, quantities from 105 to 18,000, text bulk from 1/8″to 2″, 37 adhesive bound, 33 Smyth sewn, six ribbon jobs, two edge-stain jobs, 23 with printed case wraps, 47 with stamped covers, 16 book jackets, and four with slipcases. “All jobs are on schedule,” he said, “and the parts and pieces of each job are on a fast-track schedule, with similar components from different jobs running together.”

Equipment, Materials Make the Project
Dekker runs two complete Kolbus binding lines in its 93,000-square-foot facility. The company generally uses Smyth sewing on books requiring high-quality, long life, and excellent lay flat characteristics, including text books, library books, law books, and high-end coffee table books. Dekker now uses four Astronic Auto Sewers, plus an Astor 2000 sewer with thin-paper attachment running at 12,000 cycles per hour. A high-speed 24-pocket Kolbus Systems Binder and a 20-pocket Kolbus Ratio Binder produce adhesive bookblocks for hardcover case binding and perfect binding for soft cover.

“Over the years we have continued to upgrade and expand our plant to meet customer needs, and to maintain and improve quality and schedule,” Dekker said. “As an independent bookbinder, the only thing we can control is the process, the equipment, the materials we supply, the components we manufacture in-house, and the learning environment that involves all the people. We survive because we take charge of the product outcome, just like our founders did.”

Marketplace Transitions
The backbone of Dekker Bookbinding’s business has always been servicing book printers – a group that Dekker refers to as “print-bind partners”: “One of the shifts we see in the marketplace is the growing number of commercial sheetfed and web printers who are printing book signatures for hardcover books,” he said. “With a stronger presence in the four-color markets, we see a growing number of quote requests for bookbinding from commercial houses for everything from trade books to oversize coffee table books. Our emphasis on quality throughout the bookbinding process, as well as equipment upgrades and, most important, developing people skills and learning, has positioned Dekker to survive as an independent bookbinder.”

At Dekker, the production processes are the same whether customers supply printed text from web presses, sheetfed presses, or digital sources. “We have found that schedule concerns are not the turn times, but the fact that print customers and publishers want reliable schedules, and that’s where we are today,” Dekker said. “The majority of bookbinding is not on demand. However, we are seeing shorter quantities but more reprints.”

Dekker added that turnaround times are based on what the publisher wants. “On demand printing has its place; however, the typical case bound book project, with all its components, is scheduled based on overlapping press time and bind time,” he said. “We have to be constantly on alert to produce the exceptional quality and schedules that publishers and printers have come to expect. Traditional book manufacturing is alive and well as long as we as manufacturers continue to improve the craft with better materials and processes.” (See the Fall 2008 binding spotlight on Dekker Bookbinding at