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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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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Book Printing: Perfect Binding and Saddle Stitching

Once you move from single-sheet print jobs such as flyers, brochures, multi-panel mailers, and posters to multi-page print jobs, you are faced with a number of binding options. How do you choose?

Here are some of your options and some of the considerations you might need to address. I will primarily focus on two of these (perfect binding and saddle stitching), but first here is a list of some of the remaining bindery technologies:

Case Binding: This is hardcover book binding. You see these print books in libraries (often covered in fabric, with and without dust jackets). You also see them in bookstores. They are high quality and expensive. If you go back a little ways historically, you even see hardcover books bound in leather (rather than in paper or fabric). These are durable (some are well over a hundred years old) and are made with strong binder boards. They are crafted for use and made to last.

Mechanical Binding: This includes double-wire (or Wire-O), spiral wire, screw and post, plastic coil, GBC or comb binding, tape binding, ring-binders, plastic grip, and VeloBinding (a narrow strip of plastic on the top of the book and one on the bottom, connected through the pages by plastic tines).

Mechanical binding usually involves hand work. It is expensive. That said, it is ideal for very low run projects (maybe a dozen to a hundred, or more, reports for distribution at a convention). In a few cases you can even add pages to, or remove pages from, mechanically bound print books.

Now for the workhorses of the binding world: perfect binding and saddle stitching.

Perfect Binding Options

Perfect binding is used for longer paperback books. Unlike a saddle stitched book, a perfect-bound book has a spine. The benefit of a spine is that you can print the title of the book on it. Without a spine, a saddle stitched print book will be less visible on the bookshelf.

Perfect bound books come in a number of different flavors. They can be lay-flat bound, in which the printed, folded, and gathered press signatures are attached to the edges of the front and back book covers. More specifically, the book block is glued to the covers at the front and back fold but is not actually attached to the spine. This is very similar to the process used for case binding. The book block is essentially “hung” on the folds between the covers and the spine. This allows the book to lie flat on a table. For a cookbook or manual, this can be very helpful.

Another perfect binding option is the original method, in which the stacked press signatures are ground off at the folds of the signatures, then slathered with liquid glue or hot-melt glue, and then set into the paper covers (a single piece: back cover, spine, and front cover). What makes this different from the next option (burst perfect binding) is that once the folded edges of the press signatures have been ground down, the pages are essentially glued against the spine as single sheets of paper (not as folded, connected press signatures). Therefore, it’s easier for individual pages to get pulled out than in the burst perfect binding method.

In contrast, burst perfect binding leaves the folds of the press signatures in place. Instead of grinding off these folds, the equipment cuts notches into the fold edges of the signatures. Hot melt glue or liquid glue can then be slathered into the binding side of the press signatures, and the glue will have more surface area of the paper to which it can adhere. (And the pages are still connected at the folds, decreasing the chance that individual pages can be easily pulled out.)

Here are two things to consider if you’re looking at perfect binding your print book. First of all, the process is expensive and time consuming. Your book printer may have to subcontract out this work.

The second consideration involves the length of the print book. I have been involved in printing some perfect bound books comprising only 64 pages. Other books have been hundreds of pages in length. If you’re designing a very short book (maybe 28 pages), there’s really not much room for a printed spine. Granted, you can leave the spine blank. Talk with your printer about the minimum page count his binding equipment will handle.

Side Stitching and Saddle Stitching

Before I address traditional saddle stitching, there’s an alternate option called side stitching in which the individual press signatures are first stacked. A powerful stapler (essentially) then secures these pages (the tines of the stitching wire go down vertically through all the pages and are crimped at the bottom). This kind of binding is remarkably sturdy. When I was growing up, my National Geographic magazines arrived this way. (Or, more specifically, they were first stitched in this way and then covered with an additional paper cover to hide the side stitches.) That said, side stitched books will not lie flat.

In contrast, saddle stitching, the other bindery workhorse (along with perfect binding), involves first nesting the press signatures (sliding one folded press signature into another, as opposed to stacking them on top of one another as is done in perfect binding).

Saddle-stitching wire (like side stitching wire) then goes through the open books at the fold (the trimmed wire stitches look just like staples), and then the print book is folded shut.

Saddle stitched books have no spines. However, almost any commercial printer or book printer can do this binding work in-house. Therefore, it’s cheaper and faster than the (often) subcontracted perfect binding work. You will usually see this kind of binding used for short magazines.

But here are some things to consider that make saddle stitching less than ideal.

First, the book has to be short. I’ve participated in the saddle stitching of magazines that exceeded 64 pages. That said, the paper was thin, and occasionally the center spread of the magazines would pull out easily. To avoid this, in most cases I would advise clients to perfect bind such a print book or magazine. But, to be sure, ask your book printer how many pages he can safely accommodate in saddle stitching without risking the loss (or loosening) of the center pages.

Second, there’s a risk of “creep” or “push-out,” as the saddle stitched books start to get very long. As noted before (and unlike perfect-bound books), the 4-, 8-, 16-, or 32-page press signatures are nested (one slid into the center of the other), not stacked. What this means is that pages closer to the center of the book stick out further than pages in the front or back of the book. Therefore, these center pages are actually trimmed slightly shorter than pages near the front and back of the book.

If your page numbers (folios) are close to the trim edge initially, they may wind up even more painfully close to the edge after trimming. (The process of trimming is not as precise as one might like.) In fact, the trimming blade could even cut through the folios. To avoid this, ask your printer about the possibility of creep or push out and ways to avoid it. (You may even need to adjust the page design ever so slightly in the center signature(s) to compensate for this.)

The good news is that saddle-stitched print books will lie flat on the table.

What You Can Learn From This Discussion

  1. You have many options.
  2. When it comes to mechanical binding, you are often paying a premium (for hand work) for a less professional looking product. If you’re producing a cookbook, this may be ok or even desirable. (Consider GBC, plastic coil, Wire-O, or spiral wire.)
  3. Your best options are often perfect binding and saddle stitching. In either case, consider your budget, the need to have a spine you can print on, and the length of the print book. Involve your printer early. Ask about the best book length (page count) for each option.
  4. If you’re considering perfect binding and want a book that will lie flat, ask about “lay-flat” binding or Otabind (the brand name for this process).
  5. If your book needs to be durable and highly attractive, consider case binding. You may even consider adding a dust jacket, or you may choose a special binding cloth, or even leather, to cover the binding boards. But expect this to be expensive and time consuming work.

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