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Case Binding Case Study (Plus Some New Terms)

I just learned some new terms regarding case binding.

A print brokering client of mine will be producing a hardcover book for a prestigious university soon, and she asked me to bid on a book with an additional fabric wrap around the spine for support. She sent me a photo as well.

First of all, I'd like to encourage all of you to communicate in concrete terms with your print provider. My client took a JPEG photo with her cell phone and emailed it to me. What could be simpler? Or more effective?

I found a comparable case bound book on my bookshelf and then looked up bindery terms online. Case binding is not a universal art. Not every printer can do it. And with tablets, readers, and such, not everyone needs case binding work. But case binding is an art, and I soon found a glossary of case binding terms.

Using the drawings in the book binding glossary, I discovered two relevant definitions: “half-binding” and “quarter-binding.”

Half-bound books were described as those with a “buckram” (sized fabric) or paper covering over the binder's boards and then an extra layer (made of of leather, for durability) on the spine and corners. The drawing in the glossary showed the leather extending about an inch onto the front and back covers.

For the leather that covered the book corners, imagine little leather triangles on the apex of each edge. Clearly, between the reinforced spine and the reinforced covers—notable in courthouse record books and some accounting ledger books—durability and longevity were paramount.

Quarter-bound books were described in similar terms. The only difference was the absence of the leather corners.

To back up a bit and further define the case binding terms, traditionally the “buckram” noted above has been a fabric permeated with sizing to add strength and stiffness. In modern times this has included synthetic fibers and plastic-based fabric coverings—again, for strength.

With the photo and the new terminology, I contacted a number of printers. Based on the length of the book (600 pages), its format (6.5” x 9.5”), and the press run (5,000-10,000 copies), I included both sheetfed offset and web offset printers in my initial bidding list, but I expected the web printers to offer the best pricing.

Almost all of the sheetfed printers “no-bid” the book. This was useful information. I think it's wise to primarily approach web printers for longer run, multi-page trade books, but I just wanted to make certain, since it's not always easy to know where the cut-off is for determining whether sheetfed or web presses will be more cost effective. So I erred on the side of caution and cast a wide net.

Once I had the bidding list shortened to the local web printers, I decided to open the search to a larger area of the country. I usually like to look in the Shenandoah Valley (Virginia and West Virginia), the Midwest, and the South. It's often easier to find good prices in certain areas. I have found printers in these areas over the years and have developed working relationships with them.

With a longer list of printers, I started to find that for the length of the book and the page format, I would do better if I could keep the book pages to 6.25” x 9.25” (rather than to 6.5” x 9.5”). Book signatures would fit more economically on the press sheet. In addition, the printers that had expressed interest in the book said it would be cheaper if the text did not bleed. (Bleeding the text ink would require a larger press, and this would cost more.)

Granted, these caveats affected the design, and many clients would not have accepted this. So I presented the limitations to my client, noted that these restrictions would keep costs down, and asked how she wanted to proceed. We'll see what happens.

On another note, the terminology used to describe her book had apparently changed from “quarter-binding” to “three-piece case binding.” It had been very helpful to include a photo of my client's book binding technique along with the bid requests. The printers and I could communicate immediately, and I could adjust my description and terminology accordingly.

So for your own print buying work, the “takeaways” from all of this are the following:

  1. Communicate with your printer using a detailed specification sheet. Include photos whenever you need anything unusual. Then ask for the common terms for such a specification.
  2. Consider web offset printing for longer press runs of multi-page books. This may save you multiple thousands of dollars. However, it's better to ask a printer if he can be competitive on a particular kind of work rather than make the assumption that he cannot.
  3. Consider approaching vendors in other parts of the country for specialized work such as case binding of trade books. Larger printers with multiple plants may even do their own case binding (most smaller printers do not), and keeping this portion of the job in¬-house will save you money.
  4. Let your printer make suggestions regarding the most economical page trim sizes, page counts, etc.

More Case Binding Terms

Here are a few more concepts to consider regarding case binding.

The first is the choice between “tightback” spines and “looseback” spines. The difference between the two is that the spine of the tightback book is glued to the book block (i.e., the gathered book signatures). In contrast, the spine of a looseback book is not glued to the book block. Rather the bookblock is only attached to the edge of the endsheets. Looseback binding allows for easier opening of the book.

Nevertheless, it is my understanding that a tightback casebound book is a little more durable than a looseback casebound book (since there is more surface area to which the binding glue can adhere), but a looseback book will open more easily and lie flatter than a tightback book.

What is Edition Binding?

Edition binding is a particular approach to binding hardcover books. Unlike “library binding” (a durable, binding method involving pasting sized fabric over binder's boards) or commercial binding of trade books (a binding method involving pasting unprinted paper covers over binder's boards), edition binding uses the highest quality fabric and finishing techniques to create beautiful volumes. In edition binding, which is usually used for books with shorter press runs, the aesthetics and the longevity of the product are of paramount importance.

Edition bindings are often used for limited editions of literary works. Authors sometimes print these limited editions, and then sign the books and sell them at higher prices as collectables.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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