The Basics of Book Binding Types

Perfect bound. Casebound. Softcover. Hardcover. Sewn signatures. Glued signatures. Case wrap. Dusk Jacket. Board book. Chapbook. Saddle-stitched. Spiral bound. These are a few of the book binding types available to the publisher.

What does it all mean? And what combination is best for your project? In this article, I will explain the basics of the most commonly used book binding types and the types of publications for which they are suited. In the next article, I will discuss book cover types.

First, what does it mean to bind a book? A book consists of the interior pages (called the book block), a binding that holds the block together, a binding that attaches the block to the cover, and a protective cover. Binding a book refers to the method used to hold the book block together and then attach a cover to the block. In sales and marketing, the book cover type is often used to describe the binding, but, as we will discuss, that can be misleading, for cover types and binding types can be mixed.

Important in the binding process are the signatures. A signature is a folded sheet of paper that makes multiple pages. A book block typically consists of multiple signatures. One signature can have 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, or 128 pages.

Saddle stitch binding

You will often find a saddle stitch binding in brochures, catalogs, programs, magazines, notebooks, comic books, or small booklets. To create a saddle stitch binding, a set of pages are folded in half, placed on top of each other, and stapled, or “stitched,” together along the fold line. This then creates a spine in the middle. A saddle stitch book binding is one of the fastest and cheapest book binding types. It is often used for publications with lower page counts, ranging from 4 to 64 pages.

The term “saddle stitch” refers to the fact that the folded pages are placed on a saddle-like device that holds them in place while they are stapled. Saddle stitch binding is a relatively simple and cost-effective method of binding, which makes it an excellent choice for small print runs or projects with a tight budget. The resulting booklets lie flat when opened, making them easy to read and handle.

However, saddle stitch binding may not be suitable for thicker or heavier publications, as the staples may not hold the pages together. In addition, the staples can damage some types of paper, such as thicker cardstock or glossy paper.

A word of caution, saddle stitch binding requires the book designer to take into account “creep” if the page count is much over 16 pages. If the book designer does not account for this in the book design, then the outside text margins will appear wider on the first and last pages and narrower on the center pages.

A saddle stitch binding. One of many types of book bindings available.
On the left, the first pages have a wider text margin. On the right, the center pages have a narrower text margin. This is caused by creep, an inevitable part of saddle stitch bindings. The book designer could have accommodated for this.

Spiral binding

Spiral bound book binding involves using a spiral coil to hold the pages of a book together. The spiral coil is typically made of plastic or metal and is inserted through holes punched along the spine edge of the pages. Spiral binding allows the book to lay flat when opened, making it easy to read and write in. As such, it is a popular choice for notebooks, cookbooks, manuals, and other reference materials.

Spiral bound books can be cost-effective, flexible, and durable. Sounds like a magical combination for the right type of book publishing project. Pages can be easily added or removed from the book. This makes it a good choice for books that may need to be updated or customized over time. The spiral binding also holds up to repeated use and handling, and it is less likely to bend or break than other types of book bindings.

However, spiral binding may not be suitable for books with a large number of pages, as the coil may not be able to hold the pages securely. The spiral coil sometimes gets in the way of the text or images on the page, making it difficult to read or view certain parts of the book. And pages can get hung up on the coil when a reader turns from one page to the next—an annoying feature, though Wire-O double loop bindings can solve this.

There are several types of spiral bindings available including:

  • Plastic coil binding: affordable and practical bindings, but not the best for frequently used materials.
  • Metal coil binding: like the plastic version, but metal
  • Double-loop wire binding (or Wire-O binding): These are often found on journals and other publications that will be used frequently. The double loop reduces snags and holds up well.
  • Comb binding: these flat combs are the classic spiral binding that I remember making in grade school. Also not the best for frequently used material.
A double-loop wire binding on a steno notebook.

Board book

A board book is a special type of book in which the book block and binding are made from the same heavy-duty paperboard. They are designed to be very durable and therefore are used almost exclusively in children’s books. The pages and cover of a board book are typically two pieces of paperboard or cardboard glued together, then the entire book is cut to shape (often with rounded corners for safety).

A board book’s chief characteristic is the thick, sturdy pages that are made of a sturdy board rather than paper. The pages are usually covered in a layer of laminated paper or vinyl, making them durable and resistant to damage from spills, tears, and bending.

Because of their durability and ease of use, board books are a popular choice for babies and toddlers who are just learning to handle books. They can withstand rough handling, chewing, and drooling, making them a good choice for books that will be used in daycare centers, libraries, and the generally rough-and-tumble life of having an infant and toddler.

Board books are typically small and lightweight, with a simple binding that allows them to lie flat when opened. The binding is usually sewn or glued to the spine of the book. The pages are often die-cut into shapes or embossed with textures to make them more tactile and engaging for young readers.

A board book.

Perfect bound

Perfect binding, or adhesive binding, is the most popular of the book binding types used (it is also used in some magazines). It is also the fastest and cheapest method. To create a perfect binding, pages of a book are glued together at the spine edge. Then the glued pages are attached to a cover made of heavier-weight paper or cardstock.

Perfect binding is often used for books with a higher page count, such as novels, magazines, and catalogs. It is a popular binding method for paperback books and is seen in many commercial printing applications.

The process of perfect binding begins by printing the pages of the book on large sheets of paper, typically with multiple pages printed on each sheet. These sheets are then folded in half to create the individual pages of the book (a folded group of pages from one sheet is called a signature).

Next, the folded pages are gathered together in the correct order and glued together at the spine edge. In some production processes, the ends of the signatures at the spine are cut off before the glue is applied. While in other processes, the signatures are glued together intact. In the latter case, sections of the signatures are milled or roughed up to allow the glue to penetrate into the spine of the block and thus better adhere to each page. Fully cut signatures are what you will see in most Print-on-Demand solutions. They are less durable than the alternative but cheaper.

If the book block is going into a softcover (a.k.a. paperback), the spine of the cover is most likely glued to the book block, and then both are trimmed to size once assembled.

Hardcover books can have a perfect binding. Often the book block is glued to endpapers, which are then glued to the inside of the front and back boards. Print-on-Demand hardcover books are printed this way.

One of the benefits of perfect binding is that it is a cost-effective binding method, particularly for books with a higher page count. It also offers a professional and polished look, making it a popular choice for commercial printing.

However, perfect binding has some limitations. It is not as durable as other binding methods, such as a sewn binding or stitch binding. The glue can become brittle over time, causing pages to fall out. This makes it unsuitable for archive-quality books. Additionally, it is not the best option for books that will be frequently used or handled, such as textbooks or reference materials.

The most common of book binding types, perfect binding.
Perfect binding.
Perfect binding with intact signatures.
Perfect binding with intact signatures.

Sewn bindings

There are different types of sewn bindings, including oversewing and Smyth Sewing. Note that sewn bindings can have either hardcovers or softcovers. Softcover books with durable sewn bindings include nature and outdoor guidebooks, which need to be both durable and portable.

A Smyth sewn binding is a commonly used book binding method that involves sewing the pages of a book together with thread. As a production process, it dates back to 1871 and the Smyth Manufacturing Company. This method creates a strong and durable binding that can withstand frequent use and handling.

The process of a sewn binding begins with folding large sheets of paper into signatures. The folded pages are gathered and sewn along the spine edge using a needle and thread. The thread is passed through the center of each signature and looped into any additional signatures, creating a series of loops that hold the pages together.

After the pages are sewn together, a layer of glue is applied to the spine to reinforce the binding and to attach the endpapers, which are the first and last pages of the book. The cover is then attached to the book block via the endpapers.

A sewn book binding offers several advantages over other binding methods. It creates a strong and durable binding that can withstand frequent use and handling, making it a good choice for books that will be used as reference materials or textbooks (single pages won’t fall out over time). It also allows the book to lay flat when opened, making it easier to read and write in.

However, a sewn binding is more expensive and time-consuming than other binding methods. It may not be practical for books with a lower page count, and it may not be cost-effective for small print runs.

Softcover with glued and sewn binding.
Softcover with glued and sewn binding.
A hardcover, case wrap, with sewn binding. Another common choice among book binding types.
A hardcover, case wrap, with sewn binding.
Cloth hardcover with dust jacket and sewn binding.
Cloth hardcover with dust jacket and sewn binding.

Further Reading

Book Design: A comprehensive guide by Andrew Haslam is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to dive further into the art and engineering of good book design and production.

Excerpt from Haslam's book on book design.
Excerpt from Haslam’s book.

Cover Types

But what about hardcover, softcover, case wrap, and dust jacket? I’ll discuss those in the next post.