Book Collecting Guide

Book Binding: Repair, Rebind, or Recase?

How do you decide whether or not to rebind a book? What other options are there to protect a rare title?

The binding of a book takes the brunt of the wear over time. Years of rough handling, careless falls, and countless careful readings all take their toll. For a book of any special value, this poses an important question; is it time for rebinding? The answer to this question is very much dependent on the book; its value to you, and its intended future role.

The two main considerations are cost and value. The cost of bookbinding varies drastically depending on the type of binding applied. Rebinding can cost less than USD $100 for an unadorned binding up to hundreds of dollars and more for a binding designed by an artisan. That cost may well be worth it, but the other important consideration is the value of the book you are considering having rebound. As a general rule, rebound books do not have as high a value as a book in it’s original binding. Remember that in general, book collecting tends to be a striving for the original. Book collectors value the earliest form of the book the highest. Alterations tend to devalue a book.

Why rebind?

The impetus to rebind tends to arise from two related but different sources.

Imagine you have a scarce book in rough shape that could be more valuable but for its present condition. A thorough understanding of the book and its demand in the market helps to make an informed decision whether to rebind or not. Take, as example, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s classic work. The first edition of this book is scarce and collectible, but scarcity is a relative term. There were 75,000 copies of the first edition printed. A copy of that book, in the original dust jacket in reasonable condition, tends to sell for $500 or more. Sometimes it sells for much more, especially for signed copies. A copy that has been professionally rebound might sell for half as much. It might not make economic sense to rebind if you take into consideration both the depreciation in the collectible market and the cost of paying a book binder.

That leaves the other most common reason for considering rebinding: the personal or emotional value of a volume. Family bibles that carry important genealogical records through the generations, self published works that can’t be easily replaced, or cherished childhood loves are some examples of books that might have little value to anyone other than the book’s owner. There is no guide to the right amount to spend to preserve and restore those items.

Repair vs rebinding

Almost without exception, repair is preferable to rebinding. Keeping the original material and original appearance is the best option. Paper conservationists can perform small miracles with torn paper. They can even replace pieces that have gone missing. That level of skill comes with a cost, but it’s especially worth the investment for maps, illustrations, and other items that carry the majority of their value as an item to be displayed.

A common point of failure in a book is the spine. It bears the years of flexing as a book is opened and closed. The stress from careless pulling during improper removal from shelves and the occasional fall to the floor can cause the spine of a book to weaken and tear. When the front and back covers of a book (referred to as boards) are still reasonably solid but the spine and hinges (the joints that allow the cover to open and close) are damaged, it may be a good candidate for rebacking. Libraries often use a utilitarian rebacking process, using a specialized cloth tape to cover the spine material of a book which joins the front and back boards firmly. While practical, this is not the most aesthetically pleasing option.

Professional book binders can match the original material of a binding with a substantially similar or complimentary material, keeping the majority of the original binding material. Often costing less than a full rebinding, rebacking preserves the majority of the original book material. The spine label can often be removed from the original spine strip and attached to the new spine to further preserve as much of the book’s originality as possible.

Choosing a binder

Bookbinding is a traditional craft that has become somewhat uncommon in recent years, but there is a chance that you can find a book binder near you. One of the best ways to start your search is to consult local booksellers. They would be the most likely to have firsthand knowledge of professional bookbinders in your area.

The process for choosing a bookbinder includes the same steps you would undertake in hiring any skilled craftsman to help with repairs.

Check references: The best reference always comes from someone you already know and trust. Your local independent bookseller is an invaluable resource but most binders will also be able to supply references from satisfied clients.

Look at examples of their work: Most professional binders will have examples of the bindings from which you may select. They may also display pieces that they are especially proud of.

Check their qualifications: Binders should be able to provide some details on their education and experience in the field. A few schools offer degree programs in disciplines related to bookbinding. It’s not uncommon to find an accomplished bookbinder who acquired their skill set hands-on by apprenticing for an established binder.

Choosing a binding

If rebinding your book is the right decision, you will need to work with your binder on the binding type. You must decide what binding best fits your needs and the book itself. A simple buckram or leather binding is the perfect remedy for aging and ailing bindings, or you may choose something that is more elaborate.

One technique for preserving the originality and market value of a rare antiquarian book is to recase it in a binding of a vintage contemporary to the book. “Recasing” describes the process of replacing the outer portions of a hardcover book. It does not involve modifying the textblock. Recasing a book in a contemporary binding is almost always going to be a costly process. To maintain the proper aesthetic, it will use the binding of another antiquarian book of lesser value as the donor for the materials. If the value of a volume is largely related to the appearance of the binding over the contents of the book, it may be a perfect source of a fine binding for a more valuable text. A binding of a similar age to the rest of the book can drastically improve it’s market value over a new binding.

A protective case is a non-invasive way to improve the appearance of a degraded binding and offer protection from further wear. Options here can range from ready-made archival solutions from a library supply company, to custom made, decorated cases that share the same materials and techniques as fine binding. A case can give visual appeal to important and valuable items without affecting their original state in any way. Unbound original authors’ manuscripts of published books are often great candidates for this option.

The range of new bindings available is limited only by the imagination of the binder and your budget. Artistic binding is a niche of the bookbinding craft. It elevates the binding of the book to be equal to, or in some cases, more important than the contents within. Bookbinding is a one-of-a-kind work of artistry executed by a skilled professional. To engage a binder is to commission an original work of art. As such, the artist is going to charge for their time. Enjoy displaying a visually arresting piece that captures the attention of everyone who sees your shelves. This appreciation of a fine binding can add a new dimension of value to the pages within.