The Minimal Bindery

When I started, I wasn't sure whether bookbinding would be an addiction, or just a passing fancy. What I did know is that I wanted to spend my time and money binding books, not gearing up to bind books. Thus my obsession with making my own equipment - it was faster than saving up, ordering and waiting for shipment.

I was aware, even at the time, that many of these adapted and created items would not be precise enough for fine binding. But they were perfectly adequate for my early efforts. There is always an argument that poor equipment can make things harder for a beginning binder, but for me, handmade equipment was better than none at all. And even someone with occasional access to a "proper" bindery may want to do work at home as well, and need the equipment to do it.

Looking back, I can see that there are things I bought that I didn't need early on. If I had a chance to start again, here is a list of the items I would want to start learning to bind. Apart from trimming the pages, this list would allow you to bind any of the books in my Three Books description. As you can see, most of them are readily available around a normal house. The rest are easily obtained or made using the plans on this site. Only one (a leather paring knife) has no common alternative, and if you bind in paper or cloth, you don't even need it.

Any sort of scissors will do, if they are sharp. They will be primarily used for rough initial cuts; you'll use a ruler, knife and cutting mat for precision. If possible, you will want two pairs, one small and one large
Metal Ruler
A ruler is necessary both for measuring things (some people use dividers or strips of paper as well), and to guide your knife on your cutting mat. Because of the cutting function, a plastic ruler will not do. Special safety rulers are available, if you're prone to slicing your fingers thinner.
A triangle or square
Many steps in binding look awful unless they're perfectly square. Use something with a reliable 90° angle, whether it be a try square, carpenter's square, or basic geometry triangle. It doesn't have to be metal. You can obtain one in a hardware store or a stationer's.
Clearly, to sew bindings, you will need needles. They don't have to be specialist ones; tapestry or upholstery needles will do. They are also useful for punching sewing holes in the book, though for much punching you will want to mount one in an old bit of wood.
If you're going to round and back your books, you need a hammer. Opinions vary about whether a heavy one is better than a light one. Although "official" backing hammers exist, with broad, gently convex heads, any hammer will do to start with.
Many traditional book structures require the book block to be sawn for buried cords or kettlestitches. This allows the structural elements to sink into the back, rather than lumping up the spine. A small backsaw/tenon saw is ideal, though a "junior hacksaw" will do as well. Pull it rather than push for a gentler cut.
These are mostly used to spread adhesives. If you're willing to pick hairs out of your work, you can get decorating brushes and children's paintbrushes very cheaply. You'll want a large one (2 1/2" or 3" wide) and a smaller one (1/2" decorating or a largeish children's art brush). Wash them immediately after use, particularly after use with PVA.
Even professional bookbinders use X-acto knives or scalpels. They are used with a metal ruler and cutting mat for precision cuts on leather, stiff cloth, paper and cardboard. Keep the blade sharp, or change blades frequently.
Cutting mat
These plastic mats, generally green, are available from art supply stores and quilting suppliers. A "self-healing" mat is best, because it is less prone to developing grooves and misdirecting your blade.
Bone Folder
This is the quintessential bookbinder's tool, made of cow bone, polished wood, or Teflon. They are used for folding, poking, shaping, rubbing and scoring, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. If you haven't got access to one, the best alternative I have found is a bone-handled butter knife. The blade should be entirely dull, but useful for scoring, and the bone handle (if sufficiently rounded) can perform all the folding and rubbing operations. Other choices include wooden tools for sculpting clay (from art supply stores) and smooth egg-shaped rocks.
Grooving Rods
These are used to set French grooves. Use knitting needles - everyone else does. If you don't knit, you can often get knitting needles from secondhand or charity shops for practially nothing.
Your blades will only work if they are sharp. A good sharpening stone can be expensive, but even a mediocre one, well used, will keep your blades cutting well. Get as fine a grit as you can, and use a bit of leather as a strop for the final sharpening process.
Sewing Frame
If you're doing supported sewing (sewing on tapes or cords, as opposed to thread-only styles), you will need a sewing frame to hold the supports. I have descriptions of several home made frames, ranging in cost from free to very cheap.
Book Press
You'll need one of these for pressing things flat. Several low-cost variations exist.
Working Press
This is my own term for a device to hold the book block vertical. As with the sewing frame and book press, I have suggestions about how to rig one up with very little expenditure. You may need a "tub" for this, if the book is wider than the press. (A tub holds the press up, protecting any edges hanging down from its bottom). Any box will do for that, as long as one dimension is small enough to rest the press on the edges. I use a plastic storage box.
Leather paring knife
If you are working in leather, you will need this specialised tool. It's a knife with a roughly rectangular blade, sharpened on the end, like a very broad-bladed chisel. (the bevel is too long to simply use a chisel, unfortunately). It is used to thin the leather (e.g. to permit it to wrap around the edges of the covers). If you do not have, or do not want to pay for one, it may be easier to bind in paper or fabric instead of leather.

If you have the budget, there's one specialist binding item to buy early if you intend to do traditional binding.

Backing boards
These go on either side of the book before backing. (You can see from the link that I didn't have any when I did the three binds. I wish I did.) Each one has an acute angle at the top, so that when you form the shoulders and they spring back, they end up square. Get ones with brass tops, where the brass extends beyond the boards, so that they will rest on the press cheeks.