Ch. 16 – Rounding or backing? – mulling it over

I mentioned yesterday that the prospect of doing something repeatedly – in my case, a hundred times – shifts your perspective: you ask not only if you can do it, but also if you need to.

My brief course at Robert Smail’s had produced a pair of blank notebooks that were pleasing to the eye and satisfying to make but as far construction went, they were pretty basic: the signatures were individually marked out and pierced with an awl, then sewn without use of a frame, and so, without tapes; and the interior was connected to the case solely by means of the end-papers.

I had subsequently learned in my internet researches that there was rather more to it than that – not only were there tapes, but there was also mull, a strip of muslin or similar cloth glued to the spine and overlapping the tapes, to be sandwiched ultimately between endpaper and case to provide a stronger hinge; and before casing in, there was the process of backing or rounding. Both involve manipulating the spine of the book so that its flat profile (when viewed from above or below) becomes rounded to a D shape, with the spine of the case being similarly curved to accommodate it, as illustrated in this admirable instructional video from the excellent Bookbinder’s Chronicle:

As can be seen, backing is the more complex operation, requiring specialist equipment – a specific hammer and a press with backing-boards; rounding, though done with a hammer here, can be accomplished with a strong pair of  hands.

But did I need to do either? I had to say that I found the flat back of my Robert Smail’s  note book pleasing to the eye – there was a cleanness of line about it. And a survey of books on my shelves showed that the practice was by no means universal – leaving aside paperbacks, which are not sewn but only glued, and are always flat-backed, there seemed a fair number of hardbacks that were not conspicuously rounded and some that were definitely flat, though the majority were rounded to some degree. On the other hand I did not doubt that the standard features of this ancient technology were there for a purpose.

In the end, I decided to put it to the proof: I would make one flat-backed, another rounded, then decide. I toyed with backing, using hammer and press, but not having the equipment ready to hand I settled for manual rounding only. If I was rounding, I reasoned that I might as well glue-off and mull. To prepare the spine of the case after I had covered it, I scored three lines down the inside with the point of my bone folder, one down the centre and one midway on either side of that; this allowed the spine to be arched using the fingers to squeeze it along its length.


proof copy, rounded and mulled


spine, curved to receive rounded book


another angle showing the curve on the spine

These operations – rounding, gluing, mulling, rounding, scoring the spine – though small enough in themselves, would certainly add up when repeated over a hundred books, yet in the end, I decided to incorporate them. It was as much an aesthetic decision as anything – yes, a flat spine looked neat and clean on a notebook or diary, but this was a proper book, and should look and feel like one. Besides, one thing I was learning was a respect for the whole process, and with that, a growing faith in the value of its individual procedures – if that was the way they did it, it would not be from mere whim.

And I was certainly proud enough when I finished my first proof – ‘that is a real book,’ I thought:


just like a real book


The red proof was left flat


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