Whip Stitch Loose Leaf Book Binding

Posted: October 1, 2013 in Books

ws01 I really enjoy binding books.  In today’s world of PDF books, this is a really nice way of putting something on your shelf.  It doesn’t take much money in equipment or anything, just some skill and some glue.

Here is a great tutorial on building the book block that I found at http://www.alvenh.com/misc/projects/bookbinding/overcastsewing/# that describes an overcast sewing method for binding loose leaf pages (instead of signatures).  Its really neat and gives great results at home.

In the binding of single sheets or loose leaves, a plurality of methods is available to both the amateur and professional bookbinder alike. For those who bind loose sheets by manual sewing, commonly employed methods include Chinese or Japanese stab binding and, for printed material of lower value, simple side stitching. Such techniques, however, are neither suitable for high-value documents nor western-style bookbinding (in the case of Chinese/Japanese sewing).

The best method of binding single sheets is whip stitching. Also known as oversewing or overcast sewing, whip stitching is the oldest method of sewing single leaves in traditional western bookbinding. Leaves are sewn into groups (sometimes called signatures, though this term normally refers to groups of folded sheets rather than those composed of loose leaves), which are tied together into a single unit (called the text block), resulting in strongly secured leaves with a flexible spine allowing one to open the book without fear of snapping tightly tensioned threads. Disadvantages of overcast sewing include loss of gutter margin (margin on spine side of page), inability to open flat (a problem more pronounced in smaller books than those composed of larger sheets), and the time required to sew by hand.

Originally used to bind large picture books in Europe and the Middle East during the 1600’s and 1700’s AD, historical examples of whipstitched books are very rare as the technique is extremely time consuming and therefore, hardly profitable. By the end of the 19th century, single sheets were whip stitched by machine; however such machines were expensive and only commercial binderies were able to afford them. By the 20th century, more options became available for single sheet binding as cheaper and faster methods were perfected and better quality adhesives were developed. The various techniques of adhesive binding can be performed by machine, hand or a combination of both.

Despite the popularity of modern binding techniques, overcast sewing by hand remains superior to all other techniques of single sheet binding, including that of sewing by machine.

Overcast sewing can be employed in the binding of loose leaves, converting soft-cover and paperbacks into hardcover books, and rebinding of worn-out modern hardcover or paperback books that were factory-bound from single sheets by adhesive binding (i.e. most modern books). Also, damaged books that were sewn from folded signatures may be rebound as single sheets if its structure is too worn for traditional signature sewing. Procedures for overcast sewing are linked below.


To avoid confusion, a single sheet will be referred to as a “leaf” or simply a “sheet” rather than a page.  A page refers to one printed side of a leaf; thus, one leaf can have up to two pages: the front and back.  The process of overcast sewing involves building up the book, tearing it down, and rebuilding again.  After printed material has been selected for sewing, ensure pages are in order and that there are no missing sheets.  In the example below (left), a coil bound book with a soft paper cover was selected for rebinding into a leather-bound hardcover.ws02


The coil was removed and the side with holes along its edge was trimmed to provide an almost even edge (above right). The entire stack can be trimmed all at once by plough cutting, or 6 to 10 sheets at a time by hand using an Exacto knife and a metal straightedge as a guide. Use the innermost edge of the holes as a guide and don’t worry about the edge being perfectly even (but only IF the holes were even to start with). This step does not apply if you are binding unbound sheets, such as something fresh off the printer.

The leaves were then counted to ensure that the total number of sheets is a multiple of 8 or 16 (the traditional number of leaves per signature). If the number is not a multiple of 8 or 16, you can add blank sheets of matching paper or remove unnecessary leaves. Normally, I’d add no more than two sheets to the front and four to the back. Then, two slightly thicker sheets (you may use colored paper if you wish) are added: one to the front and one to the back of the stack, and are NOT counted. These cover sheets are used to form the end-leaves of the book. Later, decorative paper (marbled, colored or patterned paper) will be glued on top of these outer sheets, so at this time, the cover sheets should be plain. In this example, the blue paper covers were reused as cover sheets and were not counted. If possible, addition of leaves should be done before trimming to ensure evenly sized sheets.

The stack was then knocked up as evenly as possible and placed down with two of its edges against vertical surfaces perpendicular to the table top, with the spine edge exposed. I used a shoe box and an electrical transformer as the “walls”, and the stack was placed on top of an old textbook with a shiny hardcover to protect the desktop while gluing (below left). A metal ruler was also placed along the spine edge, and a railroad spike plate was used to press the ruler down gently.



PVA glue (white glue) was smeared along the spine with a finger and allowed to dry (you can also use a paint brush). The stack was then removed from its objects and a line 1/8” from the edge was drawn along the spine side of the text block (above right). The line should be between 1/8” (2/16”) to 3/16” from the edge. The line was then marked for drilling at ¾” intervals, with about ¾” or more at the top and bottom between the edges and terminal points. For 8.5” by 11” sheets, I normally mark 14 points with 5/8” of space between top/bottom edges and their corresponding terminal points (points are still ¾” apart).

Note: There is a popular myth that PVA glue is non-acidic, which is NOT true. Elmer’s Glue-All and School Glue, both of which are popular PVA glues are acidic (pH of 5 and 4 respectively) and should NOT be used for archival projects. If this project is to be archival, be sure to use white glue labeled as “acid-free”, “archival quality” or similar.

The text block was then placed down flat on top of the junked text book (to protect the table while drilling) and the fore-edge (edge of stack opposite the spine edge) was knocked flat and even on a vertical surface perpendicular to the tabletop (the textbook in this case).  A wide area weight (in this example, a railroad spike plate) was used to press down the stack to hold in place, being careful not to cover up the marked line.  The book was drilled at the marked points using a 1/16” drill bit.  Be sure to hold the drill as straight as possible.  If using a hand drill, the hole will invariably angle off no matter how straight the drill is held; a drill press with a guide may solve the problem.  Angled holes, however, can be used to your advantage during sewing (explained later).  Even so, holes should be drilled as straight as possible as angling will occur to some extent so be sure to readjust the stack as necessary as you drill.


After holes are drilled, type of support for the spine must be selected: either cord or cloth tape.  Cloth tape is more common and very popular with many bookbinders, but cord was chosen for this example, and jute twine about 1/16” diameter was used (leather bound books made before the 20th century were almost always sewn on cords).  Unbleached common household twines made of either hemp or jute may be used, and are available at any hardware or department store; look for the best quality hemp or jute twine you can find.  If you prefer to use tape, linen tapes made especially for bookbinding are available from art supply stores.  Also, some commercial binderies are authorized to sell materials so be sure to check your phone directory for local listings.  Ordinary ¼” sewing tapes made of white or unbleached cloth may be also used and are available from dollar stores.



Because the cords will be recessed into the spine as they cross it, grooves were cut in the spine (above left and right).  This step does not apply if you are sewing onto cloth tapes.  The spine was first marked with a square.  Then the text block was held in a vise and cut with a saw.  The channels should be deep enough to recess at least ¾ the cord (diameter-wise), but no deeper than the diameter of the twine.  Grooves were cut between drilled points at every two or three sections.  For an 8.5 by 11 text block, I normally use six cords (thus, six grooves), though four is enough for a book of that size.  Also, I like to space the grooves evenly apart, with equal spacing between terminal grooves and top/bottom edges (see text blocks below).



Six pieces of twine were then cut. The length should be thickness of text block plus a few inches on BOTH sides (above right).

The book was then torn apart into 16 leaf sections (8 for text blocks with thicker leaves) not counting the cover sheets (with cover sheets, first and last sections have 17 leaves). Count up the leaves, and tear them out all at once together as a group and keep them together (below right) in the original order. Sections may be removed like sheets from a notepad or a knife may be used to reduce the chances of peeling the paper.



Stitching the block

At this point, the text block is ready for sewing. If bookbinding thread is used, there is no need to double the thread and length should be:

(number of sections + 1) x (height of spine + few inches)

If ordinary sewing thread is used, it will need to be doubled the above length. Either way, in most cases, the thread will be very, very long. A large needle was used for the sewing.

Note: the number of sections refer the number of “signatures” (groups of 8 or 16).

In determining whether to begin sewing with the first or last section, notice how the drilled holes were angled off. As you insert the needle into the holes from bottom up, with spine towards you, the needle points up and away from you. Thus, if drilling down from first through to the last section, and the holes angle towards fore-edge, begin sewing the first section. If the holes angle towards the spine, begin with the last section.

When a section was selected to be sewn first, it was placed on the table with blue cover sheet facing down.  Seated in front of the spine, the first terminal hole on the right was threaded, to which the end of the tread was secured with a hangman knot (below).  See below (right) for a schematic of the hangman noose.  Only one or two coils are needed and not several as the noose is not used for execution.  Keep in mind, however that it is a dangerous knot that should never be played with.



Bring the needle up the next hole (from bottom up), pull thread all the way out, and warp around the outside once by simply threading the needle up the third hole and repeating the procedure, working its way towards the terminal hole on the left (below). As you reach a groove, insert piece of twine and tape the bottom end of it to the edge of the work table.


When the terminal hole is reached, place the next section on top (before you thread through the terminal hole) and thread needle through both sections (below).


To tie the sections together, pull the thread all the way out and thread through the same terminal hole from bottom up, in through the previous section and out the newly added one.  Then, continue sewing by threading up the next hole through both the previous section and new one.  Wrap around by pulling the thread out and threading up the next hole, repeating the process until you have reached the terminal hole on the right at where you have started.  Then, before threading the terminal hole, place the third section on top and thread through all three sections (below).



Tie all three sections by looping around once (above).  As before, bring the needle up the same terminal hole but this time, through all three sections.  Now, to secure the rest of the third section, bring the needle up, in through the next hole of the previous section and out through the new hole, wrapping around the two sections in total.  The previous section is lifted in order to allow enough room to insert the needle (below).  It is a good idea to wear a metal thimble to protect your fingers as you push the needle through the holes.


Work your way to the terminal hole on the left, wrapping both the last section and the current one.  Before threading the last hole, place the fourth section on top and thread through all three sections (the previous section, one you just finished, and the newly added one).  Tie the three sections with a loop as before and continue sewing, wrapping the previous section and the new one (two sections) together by lifting the previous section and threading up into the old hole and out through the new one, again working toward the terminal hole.  Continue to sew in this manner as you add sections (below)…


… until the needle emerges out of the last hole of the last section (below).


After threading the last hole of the last section, it’s time to thread back once so that the whip stitch forms a zigzag pattern.  Pull thread all the way out and tie to previous section by lifting both the topmost section and the one underneath and threading up through both its terminal holes, looping a total of two (NOT three) sections together (below).


Then lift the last section only (just the topmost one) and thread up the next hole, looping only the last section (below).


After emerging out of the terminal hole on the other side, loop around the section once (below).



Before cutting the thread, the end should be secured with a lockstitch.  To make a lockstitch, thread the needle through one of the terminal loops on the spine.  Pull needle out and pull thread until a small loop is formed (below left), then thread the needle through the loop and secure with a knot by pulling thread all the way out (below right).  Repeat one or two more times and cut the thread, leaving a few inches of tail.  This completes the whip-stitching of the text block.




The closer the thread gets to the needle, the more holes it has to go through, thus the more likely it will fray.  Therefore, the thread is expected to break at some point.  If bookbinding thread is used, it may be simply tied back together.  If double thread is used, the broken off ends should be cut about 1” leaving one shorted end and each tread tied individually (i.e. not all four together) so that the knots are not beside each other (otherwise it would be difficult to pull through a hole).  In both cases, it may be necessary to pull the thread back out several holes to provide enough length to tie them back together.  If the tread is heavily frayed, it may be a good idea to tie new thread rather than reuse what is broken-off.



Prepare for binding


In order to bind the whip stitched text block, it must have something to allow the cover boards to attach to it, thus, cloth hinges were added.  The cloth hinge may be unbleached muslin, cotton canvas, starched linen, or book cloth.  In this example, buckram (a type of book cloth) was used for the hinges.  First, a line ¾” from the spine edge was drawn along the cover sheets from top to bottom on both sides (below left).  Two strips of buckram fabric 2.5” wide by height of text block were cut.  Then, PVA glue was evenly spread along the surface between the line and the edge (below right) and the buckram was glued-on ¾” in from the edge giving a 1.25” wide flap overhanging the spine.



The procedure was then repeated for the other side (below).  The excess twine (or cloth tape) protruding from both sides of the text block is also used for attachment of cover boards so DO NOT cut the twine until cover boards have been installed!


At this point, the overcast-sewn text block has uneven edges on the top and bottom.  Because of the alternating direction of the tension in the threads, the unevenness forms grooved edges (top and bottom) and will therefore have to be trimmed.  Bookbinders use plough cutters to trim edges; however, if do not have access to such equipment, click here to check out Bruce Sparks’ method of “plough” cutting using ordinary tools that can be purchased from your local hardware store.  The top, bottom and fore-edges of the text block were trimmed using this method.

After trimming, the spine of the text block was rounded, glued and backed in the same manner as if it were composed of folded signatures. When the glue on the spine was dry, edges (top, bottom and fore-edge) were colored with acrylic paints. Text block was gently pressed between two boards during painting to prevent paint from seeping into the pages. Headbands were wound by hand separately and then glued-on to the ends of the spine. At this point, the text block is ready for binding using any method of hardcover binding of your choice. You may choose to glue-on decorative paper to complete the end-leaves either now at this point or later near completion of the project.

Below, is an example of a different book also sewn by whip stitching, in which the decorative papers were pasted to the end leaves near completion of the book. A sheet of marbled paper slightly larger than the cover sheet was cut with at least one straight side (to be aligned with the inner edge where the cloth joint sits). Glue or paste was evenly spread on the cover leaf and sheet was pasted down with ¼” of overlap on the cloth joint. Excess was then trimmed.


Below: Inside cover of another overcast sewn book.  Note the exposed cloth (buckram) joint in the center.