adventures in instruction! my first attempt at making a photo-tutorial.
EXTREMELY image-heavy, as one might guess from the title:

the exposed tape binding in 140ish easy steps-- a photo-tutorial by molly brooks

cut covers to size
mark tape stations on the inside of each cover
cut graves into boards
cut slot to feed tape through
cut tapes to length
rough-cut cover papers / trim end papers
glue cover paper to board
attach tapes to front cover
glue end paper to front cover
press the cover under weight
punch holes through signatures
sew bookblock
glue cover paper to back cover board
attach tapes to back cover
glue end paper to back cover
press book under weight

a few people expressed an interest in getting a photo-tutorial for the binding technique i used on this project, so i thought i’d give it a shot!

the technique is an open-spine tape binding with each tape mounted into both boards. i learned it at school in honest-to-god bookbinding 101, and it’s my favorite. it’s a bit more labor-intensive than coptic, but not much more difficult, and quite a bit sturdier. it’s less likely to fray with heavy use, but it still gives you the flexibility at the spine that you get with coptic and other exposed spine bindings, so it will lie flat and close around a pen and double over itself like a legal pad and pretty much put up with all the abuse a coptic will, with even less risk of falling apart.

i’m going to attempt to make this as accessible as possible, so bits will probably edge on tmi/overly-simplistic for anyone who’s taken classes or bound a few books already. just ignore the stuff you consider obvious and skip to the bits that are interesting and new to you. hopefully i’ve managed to segregate the information in such a way that that’s easy to do.

in essence: the pink headers outline the basic sequence of steps, the photos show ordered actions within each step, the handwritten captions describe what’s going on in the photos, and the italic text scattered throughout are side-notes/further-explanatory.

ALSO, if anyone with a more advanced skill-set reads through this and identifies areas of improvement- a better way to do something pictured here than i’m currently using- i would LOVE IT if you shared- i’m by no means an expert, and i love learning new ways to improve my technique.

ALRiGHT, on to the tutorial (but first a few more pictures of what we’re aiming for):

some versions of this binding have stitches connecting the covers to the bookblock (that lead into a row of kettle stitches), but i’ve found that this can lead to fraying and general degradation of the binding, so i adapted a work-around and only use thread within the bookblock. the trade-off for this is that your covers will be able to flip further open than they would otherwise (see image above). some people find that off-putting, i guess, but it doesn’t bother me. personal choice. if you already know coptic, it should be fairly obvious how to incorporate elements of that into this if you want to, so i’m just going to go forward with the tutorial doing it the way i prefer, and assume that you’ll be able to adapt it to your own preference.


davey board (bookboard) — a layered acid-free grey cardboard specifically made for bookbinding

japanese paper for the covers

another thin paper for the end papers

strathmore windpower drawing paper for the bookblock (my source)

4ply waxed linen thread, in forest green (my source)

undyed linen tapes (my source)

cutting mat


mechanical pencil

bone folder

metal ruler — used more as a straight edge than anything else; i like to measure off the object, when i can.

straight blunt binder’s needle — i love curved needles for the coptic stitch, but they don’t make much sense on this one, since you’ll be going down the center of each signature rather than dipping between them.

scalpel — i haven’t willingly used an exacto blade since the first time i cut with one of these in class. crazy sharp, very cheap. if you haven’t tried it, i HIGHLY recommend. (my source)

glue brush — mine’s comically big, because i sometimes make large books. most people seem to use something more like (these)

awl — medium or light weight, if you’ve got options; this binding doesn’t require the puncturing of anything other than paper. (my favorite) (the one i’m using)

scissors — are easier than knife for a couple steps in here, but you can manage without in a pinch.

pliers — also not totally necessary, but i find them handy for pulling the tape through the thin slots you’ll be cutting into the cover boards.

ph neutral bookbinding adhesive — if you absolutely MUST, you can substitute elmer’s glue, but don’t come crying to me if your book rots of acid.

nipping press/ stack of hardcover books — anything smooth, flat, rigid, and larger on all sides than your project will work.

prop book — or something flat and the approximate height of your bookblock. it’s not absolutely necessary, but it makes attaching the back cover much less awkward.

REMEMBER (or HEAR NOW) — your paper has a grain, and that grain must be parallel to the spine of your book, or everything will explode. the board also has a grain! your cover papers have grain (except in rare cases with crazy rice papers, etc)!

grain is the direction in which the fibers of the paper are pointed. imagine your paper as a bamboo sushi mat – it is much easier to bend the sushi mat down than across. you will notice if you test your paper by gently bending it that there is a direction in which it prefers to bend. it’s more difficult, but also possible, to test your board in the same way. with board, i find it easier to tell grain by looking very closely at the surface of the board. that can be deceiving w paper, though, so in general i say stick with the bendy-test.

the bamboos must be parallel to the spine BECAUSE your book is going to go through changes in moisture levels- both in the process of building (glue) and in its use (seasonal humidity). each material in the book will expand in accordance with its grain, so it is much more likely to WARP if the materials are oriented in different directions. VERY important.

i start with big sheets and tear them into half sheets over and over until they’re the desired size (it’s almost always cheaper than buying sheets to leaf size, and you have more flexibility with size/grain). to keep at least one corner (and thus your book) squared, always line up the bottom edges and corners when you’re folding (rather than trying to split the difference vertically when one side is longer than another). fold the sheet over, line up those two bottom corners, keep them clamped down with your fingers and bonefold out to the fold to make your crease. tear down the crease. repeat.

get your paper torn down to spread-size, and then sorted into signatures. you should fold each signature together with itself (rather than folding each sheet individually and then combining them into signatures) bc it will compress the pages a bit at the spine and minimize the point at the fore-edge, which is especially important in this case, bc i’m leaving the torn edges, rather than giving them a machine trim. tap the signature down, bending it into a U shape and tapping the edges as well, to get the papers even and centered (rather than square on one end and fanned out on the other). pinch the two bottom corners together against the table surface, and bonefold firmly along the fold.

ideally, your cover boards will be exactly the same size as your bookblock. the papers you’ll wrap with will add more width than you think, and if you start off with boards much bigger than the bookblock, they won’t protect the bookblock any more effectively, they’ll just be more vulnerable to damage (bent corners etc) themselves. if you just really really want a size disparity for aesthetic reasons, an extra 1/16th of an inch on each NON-SPiNE side should really be the absolute max.

when you have both boards cut to size, flip them around until they line up best with each other and the bookblock (theoretically everything’s square and perfect, but in reality there’s usually an orientation that’s slightly better than another). when you have the boards correctly arranged, MARK THEM in pencil so that you don’t get confused later. I do ‘front out / front in, back in / back out’.

lay the covers side by side the way they would if the book was laying open flat– ‘front in,’ ‘back in’ facing up, matched up along the spine edge. if this part goes awry, your tapes will get crooked– it’s very important that the graves you’re about to dig match up. draw as many guidelines on the board as you need to make sure this turns out well- it’ll all be hidden by the cover papers; no one’s going to judge you.

the important thing here is that your book is structurally sound, with tape at the very least TOP, BOTTOM, and MIDDL-ISH. if your book is very small or narrow, you could probably get away with just a tape apiece at top and bottom, but the more tapes you have, the more sturdy the binding will be. I always place a tape 1/4” in from the top and bottom edge, and then fill in the middle area arbitrarily depending on size and whim.

the station only needs to be ever-so-slightly taller than the width of the tape — just enough for the tape to fit inside.

the exact widths here aren’t super important, but a couple notes: the line closest to the spine is where the tape is going to disappear into the cover, and the further it is from the edge, the more freedom the cover will have to wiggle in ways you don’t necessarily want it to wiggle. the next line out is going to determine the size of the tape section that’s getting pasted into the board. obviously if there’s not enough surface area glued in the binding will be less secure, but 1/2” is plenty.

lettering every tab is a huge help– again, despite what the rulers want you to believe, each rectangle isn’t the exact same size and shape, and you’ll want to be able to match them back up properly, later. believe me, you don’t want to be trying to force a mismatched tab into a too-small grave when there’s glue everywhere and the clock’s ticking.

this is where the composition of the davey board is really helpful– because it’s made in layers, it’s fairly easy to peel away sections once you have the edges cut.

the grave needs to be deep enough that the tape can sit into it and have a thinnish layer of the original (marked) rectangle glued back over top of it. ideally, the thickness of the tape will exactly displace the discarded board-material and when you put the grave’s tab back on and glue the endpapers down over everything, it will be invisible, rather than a lump (too shallow) or a dent (too deep).

if the slots are too wide, it will be more difficult to keep the tape lengths consistent when you attach the back cover; the tapes should NOT be able to slide easily in and out.

better to have excess to trim off later than to realize after sewing your whole bookblock that your tapes aren’t long enough.

trim the endpapers to exactly the size and shape you need. i usually do mine about an eighth of an inch in from the edge of the bookboard on each side. measure against the board itself, and mark top and front/back on the back of the paper, because again, geometry will trick you and it won’t fit quite as well upside down. also keep in mind that some papers, esp thin tissues, may stretch quite a bit when wet with glue, and you may want to compensate for that by cutting them slightly smaller than you would otherwise.

don’t use too much glue- it’s going to be a bit tricky doing the next few steps quickly enough to keep the board from bowing before you can get it under weight, and the less moisture is concentrated on one face of the board, the better.

the scrap paper is to keep the bonefolder from burnishing the surface of the paper, or (if it’s particularly delicate or gluey) stretching or tearing the material.

make sure your blade is VERY sharp, or you could potentially tear and drag the paper, because it’s a bit soggy with the glue right now, and really apt to tear. once the slot’s cut in the paper, go back through it from the front to widen it a bit and make sure it extends to both corners of the grave.

i find it easiest to get the corner in with the blade, then pull the rest through with pliers.

make sure the tapes are extended straight out from the edge of the board (rather than folded over or under it), and leave it under weight for an hour or so at least. overnight’s even better. better to be safe than take it out while it’s still wet and risk a bowed cover.

each hole should be just outside the width of the tape- if you give the tape too much room, the signatures will shift around, and if you don’t put the holes far enough apart the tape will bunch up and not look awesome.

use the innermost sheet in the first signature as a guide for punching the others- add it to the next signature, making sure it’s lined up with the other sheets along the bottom and pushed in with them at the spine, then hold the signature so one side is flat against the cutting mat and the other is held up from it at a 90° angle. push the awl trough at a 45° angle, inside to out. punch every signature, put the guide leaf back where you found it, and prep to sew!

the actual sewing for this binding is SUPER easy. it’s called ‘link stitching’ or ‘french sewing,’ and it makes a really pretty lattice pattern over the tapes. the only thing remotely tricky here is the row of knots you’ll be doing along the top and bottom tapes. note: unlike a coptic stitch, you will end up with patterned ‘gaps’ along the inside spine of each signature where the thread goes out and travels over the tape. it only doubles over itself to fill those gaps at the top and bottom.

this shows you the first three signatures — after that, the third signature repeats until you’re all sewn up.

the ‘gently’ is no joke– if you get too enthusiastic, you risk tearing the paper between the holes. i speak from (repeated, aggravating) experience.

unlike coptic, there’s no drama at the end of stitching. there’ll be plenty of drama attaching the back cover, but the thread itself just goes quietly down into the last signature. i end by wrapping it (and also the front tail) around the nearest stitch along the spine and making a small knot (as pictured below).

now’s a good time to tug and adjust the tapes to make sure there’s no slack, and also that they’re not too tight. the cover should rest flat on the bookblock, rather than popping up at all.

the back cover happens exactly the same as the front cover, except this time the tapes are already attached to most of a book, which makes things awkward. it’s especially tricky to glue- i recommend finding a prop/book the approximate thickness of your bookblock that you can use to make the back cover lay level beside the rest of the book. work as quickly as you can without getting sloppy — the earlier you get the gluey bits under weight, the less likely they are to end up wiggly and bowed.

a potentially tricky thing here- the tapes all need to end up pretty much exactly the same relative length, or everything will get wonky and some will puff up while the others are tight. i suggest getting them all through the slots, pulling them very tight and then closing the book (as pictured below)- they should adjust themselves to the correct length, just don’t let them slip further when you open the cover back out (having very narrow slots helps with this).

i use the scissors for this step, because when i try to cut the tapes with the knife they tend to shift around more.

putting scrap paper between the bookblock and the back cover is important bc otherwise the moisture in the glue will make the nearest page of the book buckle.

and that, in several dozen nutshells, is it! best of luck in your bookbinding adventures!

i didn’t invent any of the techniques pictured here, and i’m certainly no bookbinding expert or teacher, but i hope i’ve managed to describe the process in a way that makes sense to someone who hasn’t encountered it before. it’s the first time i’ve ever attempted a tutorial, so i’d appreciate feedback on its quality!

feel free to share the tutorial by linking to this page, but i would appreciate it if no one copied or linked directly to any specific image, bc that’s not classy.

Bookarts: Exposed Tape Binding (Tutorial!)

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