Custom-made Turned Edge Binders: Judging a Book by Its Cover

Special Report
Custom-made Turned Edge Binders: Judging a Book by Its Cover

by: Brad Emerson

Winter, 2007

It isn’t easy being a custom-made three ring binder. You rely on the tastes of a total stranger, usually a graphic designer, to somehow make you look good. Then another stranger gets involved just to put you together. Your edges and corners must be true, your backside must look as good as your front, your spine must retain perfect posture, and if that’s not enough – your insides must stay bright and shiny. If all of these things come together properly, you may be cloned again and again. If not, you may be recycled into copier paper or a garden hose or thrown on a scrapheap  – alone and forgotten.

And you thought you had stress.

There is a plethora of custom ring binder styles from which a customer can choose today: heat sealed vinyl binders, diecut and scored polyplastic binders, corrugated binders…even alu-minum binders. All can be customized to satisfy a particular presentation need, each filling a niche.

I would, however, speak of yet another style:  the turned edge binder.

Artful Production
Custom loose leaf houses are consistently called upon to bring someone else’s creative concept to life.  There are no hard and fast rules to manufacturing turned edge binders to someone’s creative specification, other than the Big Five: glues, cover wrap materials, graphic decoration, binders board, and ring mechanisms. Some custom binder manufacturers specialize in large high speed runs of thousands while others specialize in smaller, shorter runs of less then a hundred. And of course, there are manufacturers who fill all of the cracks and gaps between. Regardless of their size, however, all manufacturers share a common process for manufacture, and that process is referred to as “Turned Edge”.

The manufacture of a turned edge binder is essentially the art of case making. Edition binderies and book binderies marry case made (or turned edge) covers with a book block, whereas custom loose leaf manufacturers marry their case made covers with liners, pockets, and ring mechanisms. It is normally up to the ring binder buyer to add his or her own loose leaf text block at his location, or request that the custom loose leaf manufacturer do it before the binders are packaged for shipping.

Simply put, a turned edge binder is made by applying a thin layer of glue to the underside of a book wrap, and mounting it to binders board (chipboard) by turning the edges of the book wrap over the outside perimeter of the binders board. This “case” is then passed through a smoothing press or hand boned to complete adhesion. After drying, the wrapped and turned case is lined with a glued liner sheet or sheets. The binder case is made.

The ring mechanisms are mounted to the spines or back covers (depending on ring shape and customer preference), boxed, palletized, and shipped.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? So does jumping on a Brahma Bull and lasting a mere eight seconds. What happens when the glue doesn’t set, or the board warps, or the foil doesn’t hot stamp properly on the front cover, or the customer wants a specially shaped pocket you’ve never produced before? And the binders are due next week? Or tomorrow? Good grief Charlie Brown!

Fortunately, there is a deep bench of intelligent, experienced turned edge manufacturers available for you to call on. Some of these companies are relatively new, while some have been the backbones (pun intended) of the industry for decades. All, however, have a staff that has learned the art of turned edge by being trained by a mentor – with a little trial and error thrown in along the way. The skill sets necessary to succeed aren’t available “off the shelf”. One must learn it, work at it, and pass it on.

Before the ever prolific vinyl binder caught on, and the RF technology necessary to heat seal them was developed, there were turned edge binders. Prior to the 1960s, ring binders were case made with canvas- or buckram-wrapped book coverings. We remember them as a standard issue blue or green. They were heavy, chunky binders made for archival and filing purposes.

In the 1980s, as the personal computer was introduced and the resulting need for software forged an entirely new set of consumer products, turned edge binders began to return to popularity. As adhesives were improved and developed, new book cloth and binder wrap materials became available, making turned edge a viable competitor to all other styles of loose leaf covers.

Please Be Tacky!
The turned edge, or case making process is a wet process. No tapes or dry adhesives can efficiently do a proper job. Most manufacturers use a hot protein, or hide glue (yes, THAT kind of hide…moo!), to mount the outside binder sheets to the binders board, and a white cold glue to mount the liners to the inside of the cases. There are many exceptions to this of course, but hide glue is generally perceived to run cleaner in high speed case making equipment and frankly, small producers like the ease of clean up it provides as well. Hide glue is the traditional bookbinders glue.

White cold glues are made of vinyl-based products, have a high water content, and adhere to almost anything. This is important for a custom house always under the gun with tight scheduling. Being able to adhere to almost anything takes the unpredictability out of gluing liners over the turned edges of the diverse amount of binder wrap materials available today. A liner sheet that has been glued with white glue will most assuredly mount over the various turned edge surfaces and adhere smoothly over the binders board as well. Good, good, good.

A glue’s “open time”- the time from glue application to glue tackiness to glue set up – is of paramount importance. Hide glue can be finessed into increasing or decreasing its open time more readily than white glue by adding or holding off on water in the glue chamber. White glues can be fine-tuned to a lesser degree, and some custom loose leaf manufacturers have become so adept at using white glues that they don’t use hot hide glues at all. Sometimes the glue manufacturers can produce a glue for a particular application or machine as well.

If the open time is not well considered, the turned edges on the case will curl and pull up or encourage the entire board to warp. The faster your equipment, the more important this element of production becomes. It is expensive and inefficient to run through several hundred cases only to discover an adhesion problem. Bad, bad, bad.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

As a method for customized loose leaf binder construction, the turned edge style is quite versatile. The outside covers and spines can be wrapped with a dizzying array of materials: bonded leathers, traditional fiber or book cloth, resin coated or resin impregnated book wrap papers, silky fabrics, and imitation leathers. There are digitally and offset printed litho label paper stocks that are film laminated over the printed side of the wrap sheet, and there are materials used as binder wraps that can be categorized only as “other”: kraft paper, crepe paper, uncoated printing papers, and man-made synthetic papers to name a few.

The outside material to be used on any particular project is typically driven by a graphic design “want” and a functional “need”. Uncoated kraft paper may make for a terrific raw looking binder, but only if it’s to be used a few times and then put on a shelf. Uncoated papers, of any kind, do not hold up well in the field and  weren’t designed to be glued and wrapped over binder cases. Uncoated papers can be employed if it’s discussed, and customers are able to manage their functional expectations.

Traditional book cloth wraps and book wrap papers can be screenprinted, foil stamped or debossed for elegant simple presentations. These materials are used by designers when the texture and overall look of the book wrap is crucial to the design. Sometimes they are agreed upon by consensus between the designer and the manufacturer after field use is considered. What the designer wants may not work with the functional need the binder will require.

The digital or offset printed litho label binder wraps are used when only a full color or precise graphic reproduction is necessary. Digital presses are great for smaller quantities, affording full color graphics on turned edge binders – at a competitive price point not available even five years ago. There are sheet size limitations on many (but not all) of these presses, requiring the binder manufacturer to be creative in satisfying his customer’s needs. A full color digitally printed front and back cover can each fit onto a press sheet of its own, while the spines can be over glued with a complementary book cloth, thereby completing the case wrap in what is sometimes referred to as half-binding. 

Four color process offset printing is the norm for longer runs and larger sized cases. The printing (as on the digital sheets) can bleed off the edge, but because offset presses can deliver larger size press sheets, graphics can be placed efficiently over the entire binder case. The liners can be included on the same press sheet if a matching, or graphically enhanced liner, is specified. 

Board is Not Boring
The binders board used in a particular production run is usually tied to the size of the case being made. The larger the case ordered, say a 2-3” capacity ring binder, the heavier the binders board should be, up to 120 pt. or more. The typical 1” or 1 1/2” turned edge binder case is usually made with 80 or 100 point board.

An extremely popular turned edge binder technique today is the creased spine. Powerful creasing machines allow the custom loose leaf house to wrap only one piece of binders board instead of the traditional three pieces (front, back, and spine), which increases production speeds. After the boards are wrapped and lined, the spines are creased into place. Customers usually can choose between flat spines (two creases) or rounded spines (multi creases). Not only does a creased spine provide terrific durability and stability to a binder case, but it offers another creative tool for a graphic designer to employ.

But Wait, There’s More!
A well made turned edge binder is a pleasure to behold. Not only can a turned edge binder be graphically designed to include multiple layers of decoration, but it can be fitted with eyelets, printed metal labels can be riveted onto the covers or spine, and finger rings can be added for easy removal from a book shelf. Turned edge binders can be made with a combination of materials, such as a laminated litho label front and back cover and a spine over glued with a bonded leather. Pockets can be face glued into the covers, and CD/DVD slots can be diecut and integrated into the inside covers. Turned edge binders can be made to hold any sized text or document, and can be done so in any  quantity…efficiently.

They can be dignified and elegant and made to look at home in the finest libraries, or they can be colorful and sassy and used for one presentation only. The turned edge binder is versatile, durable, and