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Lay-Flat Binding Options

A print brokering client of mine is producing a 550-page (approximately) cookbook. She heard somewhere that spiral binding would be cheaper than perfect binding and would lie flat when open.

Although everything I had remembered about mechanical bindings led me to question her assumption, I spoke with a printer to confirm my belief. No, in fact, spiral binding would be much more expensive because it is handwork (i.e., not completely automated).

To give you an idea of my client’s options, in case you need to consider mechanical bindings for one of your print projects, here’s a rundown:

Spiral Binding

Spiral binding is a metal coil that runs the length of the bind edge of a print book. It goes through pre-punched holes in the covers and text block of the book. You have probably seen this binding method when buying spiral notebooks for yourself or your kids.

Unfortunately, metal spiral binding is easily crushed. And after being inadvertently bent out of shape, it does not return to its original form. However, if you choose plastic coil binding (which comes in different colors and is quite attractive), this plastic product can be squeezed, and it will return to its original shape. (This is called the “memory” of the binding material.)

Another problem is that facing pages, when spirally bound, do not lie exactly opposite one another. Due to the nature of a spiral, one page is slightly above the other.

“Wire-O” Binding

You may have seen notebooks bound this way, as well. The difference is that instead of a continuous spiral, this binding method comprises a stack of parallel wire rings (like “O’s”) attached to one another with wire. The rings go through pre-punched holes in the book covers and text blocks. Wire-O books lie flat. In addition, their facing pages align exactly, unlike the spiral bound book pages. This is also expensive hand-work.

Plastic Comb Binding (GBC Binding)

My client could choose GBC binding. The binding material is a coiled plastic comb. The tines of the plastic comb are fed through pre-punched holes in the covers and book text blocks and then curl around into a coil. Like spiral wire and plastic coil binding, this option requires hand-work and is therefore expensive. Personally, I have found that the book pages sometimes get unhooked from the plastic comb, which causes problems.

In addition, GBC binding will lie flat when the book is open. You can also add or remove pages by opening the tines (not always an easy task, but still possible).

Lay-Flat Perfect Binding

Not all printers can do this, but it is worth discussing. Some bindings of perfect bound books are similar to case bound books in that the text blocks are attached to the paper covers at the corners of the spine (running vertically down the book’s length). Just as you would “hang” or “suspend” the book block within a hardback case made of binder’s boards, in this instance you would hang the text block from the paper book cover. Another way to describe this is to say that the spine of the text block is not actually glued to the spine of the paper cover. As you open the book, the spine of the cover moves away from the text block (as it does in a case-bound book), allowing the book to lie flat.

There are many names for this kind of binding, two of which are “Lay-Flat Binding” and “Otabind.”

Concealed Wire-O Case Binding

This is what my client’s printer suggested for her cookbook. It is expensive, but it is actually the most attractive of all mechanical bindings mentioned so far. You may have seen a lot of cookbooks bound this way. They lie flat and are durable.

In short, a concealed Wire-O binding is a cross between the Wire-O option mentioned above and case binding. The spine of the case, or the edge of the back cover, is pre-punched to accommodate the parallel wire “O’s” that also go through the pre-punched holes in the text block. The Wire-O-bound text block then sits in the hard-cover case (wired to the binder’s boards that make up the cover). You could say that the book is bound in two different ways, which is what makes it so strong. It also lies flat. (To understand this better, look at the books in the “cooking” section of a bookstore.)

Overall Impressions

From my own experience, if you’re producing only a few copies of a softcover book (such as a professional report for a seminar), then I would look into GBC, spiral (metal or plastic), and Wire-O. As you get past 200 copies or so, I’d start looking at cheaper (automated) binding methods.

If you’re producing a soft-cover book that you need to lie flat, I’d look into the various lay-flat bindings such as Otabind. The ones I have seen look a little flimsy compared to regular perfect binding (in which the text block spine is actually glued to the spine of the paper cover), but I have never heard of an Otabind text block falling out of a paper cover. They are stronger than they look.

If you want a case-bound book that lies flat, consider the concealed Wire-O binding option. Alternatively, keep in mind that case-bound books are usually more likely to lie flat than are paper-bound books. Think about the dictionaries and thick law books in libraries.

One way to increase the chances that a case-bound book will lie flat is to request a “loose-back” as opposed to “tight-back” case binding. In this case the “crash” (the liner attached to all text signatures of a case-bound book) is just “hung on” or “suspended from” the front and back binder’s boards of the case-bound book (much like the aforementioned Otabind or lay-flat binding for perfect-bound books). In contrast, in a “tight-back” binding, the crash is actually glued back against the spine of the case. A case-bound book with the text block glued to the spine of the case is stronger than a “loose-back” book, but the book will not lie flat.

Gang Up Your Products

Another client of mine has been producing multiple book titles in China. She would like to bring them back to the United States to be reprinted, but she must lower the overall cost for local printing to make sense financially.

That said, if she has four of her six titles produced overseas, she can have them all shipped back to the United States in one container (i.e., the shipping containers you see stacked on ocean-going freighters).

The state-side version of this would be to have the local printer produce all four titles in the United States and then drive all four book titles to my client’s warehouse in one truck.

In either case, ganging up the work saves money. If you have an LTL job (less than truckload), you must share the truck, and you usually pay a premium for using less than a full truckload. Apparently, the same goes for less than a container load, when you’re printing overseas and importing the finished product.

The moral of the story is that the more individual jobs you can group, the more of an overall discount you can often reap on the price of everything.

You may have heard the same thing in reference to print jobs. If you can get a rack card and a business card, for instance, on the same press sheet and produce both jobs at once, you will probably pay less, overall, than you would pay for two individual jobs. Anything you can gang up saves time and effort, and your printer can reflect this in your price.

Finally, the same is true for larger jobs. My print brokering client will be producing four book titles at once. Although she has been printing them in China, a multi-title press run of multiple thousands of books is very attractive to a local printer looking at four jobs that will print annually. This gives my client serious pricing leverage. In your own print buying, consider asking your printer for a discount if you can provide multiple jobs at the same time. You may be pleasantly surprised by his answer.


[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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