Can a Glued Binding Be Turned Into a Sewn Binding?

This week a reader e-mailed me to ask whether his Bible, which is only published in a glued volume, could be be turned into a sewn binding. His complain about the glued binding was that it wouldn’t open flat, so he was hoping the problem could be solved by having the pages sewn together. This question comes up from time to time, and I’m afraid the answer is no. You cannot sew the pages of a glued binding together. (Well, you can, but as you’ll see, you won’t be happy with the result.)

A sewn binding is made up of a series of folded booklets called “signatures.” Here’s an example:




This is a book block I printed, folded, and sewed together by hand. As you can see, the spine isn’t lined up to well, which is why I had it handy in the workshop: this example was a reject from a project I worked on a couple of years ago. If you count the individual signatures, you’ll see there are twelve. Every book you own which happens to Smyth-sewn is made the same way — except that yours are neater, because they weren’t made by my unskilled hand.

Here’s what an individual signature looks like:



It’s pretty simple, right? You can create one yourself by take a few sheets of copy paper and folding them in half. Each sheet now equals four pages: the outside front, two inside pages, and an outside rear. Again, if you pulled apart a sewn book, you would find that the basic building block looks more or less like this. In order to sew the signatures together, you punch holes in the spine, like so:



This sample is a piece of scrap in the workshop, so I only punched one hole through the spine. Depending on the sewing pattern, a real signature might have three holes, six holes, or whatever. The threaded needle will run back and forth, attaching the loose sheets together, and it will also connect this signature to the next.




The reason you can’t convert a glued Bible into a sewn one is that, when a glued Bible is prepped for binding, the spine is sliced off. After all, if you applied glue to the spines as-is, the inner sheets of the signature would simply fall out of the book. To get good adherence on every page, you need to be able to apply glue to each one. So a signature ready for glue might look something like this:




As you can see, there’s nothing to push a needle through anymore, which means remedial sewing isn’t an option. “Wait a second, Mark! I asked a bookbinder if my glued binding could be sewn, and he said yes.” Technically, he’s right. You could do something like this:



The thing is, since there’s no spine to run the thread through, he can only sewn the pages by poking through the sides, the way a stapler does. There are a couple of problems with this solution. First, the book wasn’t designed with this use in mind, so it probably won’t have the generous inner margins necessary to sewn the pages without obscuring the printed text. Second, the book won’t open flat any more than a stapled book would. If you ask me, it isn’t worth it, which is why a lot of bookbinders, while acknowledging the job can be done, won’t do it.

Some publishers offer nothing but glued bindings. My advice? Don’t buy their products. Slowly but surely, the Bible publishing industry is waking up to the fact that sewn bindings are a necessity.



8 Comments on “Can a Glued Binding Be Turned Into a Sewn Binding?

  1. Don’t know how flat the bible would lay after this procedure, but the YouTube clip shows a very interesting procedure for dealing with a glued spine. Very informative and knowledgeable gentleman, I recommend watching all of his videos.

  2. I had a friend who would cook his perfect bound books in the microwave for just a few seconds, to heat up the glue. Then he would work the pages. After a few minutes of working the pages the glue would cool, allowing the book to lay flat. However, he did overcook a book once and all of the pages fell out. It wasn’t a total loss, he just had a spiral binding put in the book. Though the spiral binding wouldn’t work well for a bible.

  3. I am inspired by your photo of the book you bound yourself. The thing I often don’t like about journals I purchase is that I am bound (pun not intended) to the number of pages within and size, cover, paper inside, etc..
    If I was able to bind my own books as you have done, I could decide when my journal was complete and put it on a shelf in a way I would be proud of.
    Is binding difficult, even if the finished product is not “smyth-perfect”?

  4. I have always wondered if you could take a bible that was sewn but did not lay flat and take off the glue, carefully undo the stitching, and redo the glue and stitching to get more of Jongbloed or Cambridge curvature to the spine to allow it to lay flat. Most of the LCBP bibles for example that I have are sewn but do not lay flat like an Allan’s or Cambridge bible do.

  5. I have heard of something called a “Paste Wash” in reference to removing glue from a spine, but I am not sure what that is exactly. I’ll have to do a little more research. I am in the process of rebinding a Lockman Large Print Thinline. I removed the glue on the spine with a butter knife (horrible huh?), and applied a layer of PVC Jade Thick along the sprine. Its drying now, so if it turns out I’ll write up an article and post it on the FP page.

    I wish I had thought of putting in the microwave. LOL. That would have gone smoother I think than the hair dryer and butter knife technique.

  6. Is there such thing as a glue-less binding?. I have several bibles (catholic and orthodox) that look smyth-sewn. But there is also glue to fix the liner to the spine. Some of these bibles are so tightly bound, that they won’t open flat. In a particular instance (“Bible of Navarre”, compact spanish edition, from the Midwestern Theological Forum), the bible has two editions, both smyth-sewn: proper hardcover, and a soft cover glued straight unto the signatures. The softcover version opens wider and so is more comfortable too read than the hardcover version.

  7. Apparently there is also a fan binding that allows a book to lay flat that can’t be smyth sewn, I can’t explain it very well, but the glued binding mentioned can be undone and binded the fan way

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