The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 11, Number 3
Apr 1987

Gebrochener Ruecken (Shaped Spine Case-Binding Techniques)

by Werner Rebsamen
Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology, School of Printing Management and Sciences. The author retains copyright of this article.

Bookbinders trained in Germany 'and Switzerland pride themselves on their "shaped" cloth bindings. Beautiful bindings can be made of cloth as well as leather. A one-piece or three-piece cloth case with shaped spine and joints may be just as pleasing and finely worked as a leather cover, and show the exactness of construction that marks the work of a skilled bookbinder.

Unfortunately, there is no literature or information available in the English language for this rather unique case-binding technique. During a recent workshop of the Library Binding Institute at RIT, this writer had the pleasure of demonstrating these casemaking techniques to approximately 60 participants. The interest generated was an incentive to share this knowledge with others, especially those who appreciate fine bookbinding skills.

"Gebrochen" in German means, literally, "broken." But "broken binding" is the last term we would want to use for this casemaking technique! A better translation is "shaped," because as the cover is made, it is worked to define the edges of the inlay and the adjacent edges of the boards.

Attractiveness is not the only virtue of these covers. They do not require the use of a heated joint creaser or pressing between boards overnight in order to form the joints, and their joint creases are better placed for easy working of the cover. In fact, pressing between boards does not give as good results, even with the best skill and equipment. Pressing boards merely settle into the most convenient groove, which may or may not be parallel to the board edges. A shaped spine is always 100 percent controlled and will result in flexing next to, and parallel to, the edges of the cover boards. This is where good craftsmanship starts. Furthermore, the fore-edge squares are always neat and precise. In the one-piece version, the board can be trimmed at the fore edge after the two beards are joined by the connecting paper; in the three-piece construction, the cover panels can be adjusted as they are attached.

The Shaped Case: One-Piece Construction

The bookblock is worked in a conventional manner with headbands, gauze, backlining and/or tubular liner (Oxford hollow). The cover boards are selected and cut to size as usual, in accordance with the physical properties of the book to be bound. Books with less bulk require thinner binder's boards. Heavier and larger volumes require thicker boards and slightly larger squares. Some skilled binders using this technique may cut everything slightly larger, without spending a lot of time measuring exactly, and custom fit the bare cover to a particular bookblock after it is assembled. Better yet, if all books are the same trim size,

bet vary in bulk, the only measurement that has to be taken is that of the spine width. The covers can then be made without handling heavy bookblocks. Best of all, with this technique, a good, exact and tight fit is always assured.


The inlay material is cut exactly to the width of the lined spine and the height of the boards. A piece of alkaline buffered paper, thin but strong, is cut to the height of the boards and about as wide as the inlay plus the two hinge areas plus two inches. One should make sure that all materials have the grain direction parallel to the binding edge. The inlay should now receive a thin coat of adhesive (PVA) and should be mounted into the approximate center of the connecting paper.

The width of the hinge area is dictated by the thickness of the boards and the kind of materials used to cover the boards. A quarter inch is sufficient for a thin covering material and medium thick board. A Grade "F" buckram and .110 caliper binder's board may require 5/16 inch. This is a judgement that is most difficult to put down on paper, as each situation warrants a certain "feel" for what is best.

The required hinge width is measured from the edge of the inlay on the connecting paper, and pricked off with a divider or a needle. The paper with the mounted inlay can now be glued to the boards, by the following method. The edges of both surfaces to be joined (board and paper) are shingled with about ½" of board showing, and glued up at the same time with a thin coat of PVA. When this has been done for both sides of the cover, the boards are joined with the paper, aligning then very carefully with the prickmarks on the paper. A straightedge may aid in the alignment of all three pieces.

Now the bare cover can be checked for exact fit. Older volumes which are often not trimmed in rebinding may not be square. With this kind of cover construction, the boards can now be fitted to the bookblock and trimmed (if necessary) at head or tail as well as fore-edge.

When covering these joined boards, the material is worked tightly into the joints with a bone folder before the edges are turned in. This will result in a small surplus of material that needs to be worked down on the turn-ins next to the joint. This operation will be easier, and the overall effect more precise, if thin cloth rather than heavy buckram is used.

After cover stamping, and before casing in, the covers are "shaped" with a bone folder, that is, the cover material is rubbed down next to the inlay. This step results in an unusually beautifully shaped cover. It gives a hand binding the handcrafted appearance it deserves, much different from a conventional cloth binding. This technique can be used both for rounded and backed and for squareback bookblocks.

The Inserted Shaped Spine Technique: 3-Piece Construction

This technique is especially useful for using up small leftover pieces of leather, for photo albums and for an unusual binding, one that will differ from the rest. It always turns out to be the most popular binding style among those students who participate in our annual two-week summer course on bookbinding.

Quarter and halfbound case bindings are the most common. Either way, the covering material used over the spine extends onto the inner surface of the boards. How far it extends is a matter of taste and design, the most common principle being 1/6 of the board width.

An inserted "shaped" spine cover is constructed in such a manner that the spine material is glued between the connecting paper and the board. The cover panels are turned in on all four sides, top and bottom turn-ins locking the spine material.


Schematic of "Inserted, Shaped" Spine

The inlay is measured as before. The connecting paper is allowed to extend approximately 1½" onto the boards. The hinges must be more carefully calculated, as the board covering material will be tucked under, that is, turned in on the binding edge as well. Generally, a little more space is allotted than with the one-piece construction, again taking into account the materials and board caliper used. Padded covers require even more space.

The connecting paper now receives a thin line of adhesive on its outer edges, 1/8" to 1/4" wide. The boards are laid onto the paper and carefully aligned with the prick-marks. The cover may now be checked and/or adjusted for fit. The material used to cover the spine is cut so as to extend approximately 3/4" under the board and 5/8" at top and bottom for turn-in. A thin coat of adhesive is then applied to the material. The cover is held in such a manner as to center the inlay exactly on it. The spine material is first tucked under the boards and then turned in over the connecting paper at top and bottom. The spine may now be stamped and shaped as before. Although the spine may seem to be tenuously attached to the boards with that thin glue line, the three-piece construction will not come apart during stamping, as long as it is handled with the "binder's touch." Those who do not possess this magic touch may temporarily reinforce this fragile bond with masking tape.

The boards may be cut to size on the fore-edges as necessary. The covering material used for the panels is cut to allow for a 5/8" turn-in on all four sides. Adhesive is applied to the cover material for each panel and the board

centered on it. The corners are usually cut in a conventional diagonal fashion. The side next to the binding edge is turned in first and the two corners are tucked in. Now, at this moment, and this important, a thin, even coat of adhesive is applied to the top of the turn-in just made. It has to be a thin coat because excessive adhesive will show! This connects the spine material with the turn-in of the panel material.

Top and bottom edges are turned in, the fore-edge side last. Slight pressing or a good size weight will assure a good bond. At this stage, the cover should be allowed to dry at least a half hour.

Note that the top and bottom turn-ins indeed lock in the spine assembly. A layperson will wonder how these parts are connected, as the spine material seems to disappear into or between the boards.

Padded panels are sometimes preferred for photo albums. Padding material is easily mounted onto the boards, and secured with paper turned in only at the binding edge and fore-edge. Only the turn-ins of the covering material receive an adhesive coating, making this technique ideal for the use of beautiful fabrics and prints.

Sample covers of each technique described, showing step by step procedures, are available for $17.50 by writing to Prof. Werner Rebsamen, Rochester Institute of Technology, School of Printing Management and Science, P.O. Box 9887, Rochester, NY 14623. Checks must be made payable to Prof. Rebsamen.

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