How Books are Made: From Print to Ship

Aug 16, 2010

I've had a lot of experience working in the "book" industry, for which I'm grateful. In college, I worked for a used bookstore for a year, and at the campus library for two years. But probably the most interesting book-job I've ever had was the two years I worked at a book bindery. I gained a lot of knowledge about how books are made.

If you've ever been curious about how your book goes from computer to book-on-a-shelf, read on! (Note that this is for paperback books-- I've never seen how they make hardbacks, and don't know how different it is.)

The first step is, of course, the printing. Books aren't printed on the little pages you'll read them from-- they're printed by gigantic presses on gigantic paper. I'm talking 2-3 feet square kind of paper, with 10 pages or more of the book on a single sheet. I never got a chance to work on the actual presses, but I did get to watch the workers-- and hear the noise. This is a typical press:
Speaking of noise, the next step is for the gigantic sheets to go to the folding machines. These things are so loud you have to wear earplugs to work on them.They fold the pages down to actual book size. Because each printed sheet contains many pages of the book, the folder spits out small sections of the whole book as a "signature." The signatures, or sigs, are then bundled into large stacks, loaded onto wooden pallets, and moved to the next machine. Here's an example of a folding machine:
The next step is sort of a combination on one big binding machine that does several things. First, each sig is placed in "pockets" that feed down to a conveyor belt. The machine pulls one sig from each pocket and gathers them into the right order so they're ready to be bound.

This is called the gathering unit, and it's something I worked on a lot. Workers are responsible for keeping the pockets filled with the proper sigs-- usually one worker to two or three pockets, depending on how fast they're running the machine. If it's running fast, so are you! It's not uncommon for a sig to stick and stop the machine, so you're also in charge of fixing it and getting the machine going again. Just picture yours truly as one of those people filling the pockets:

The books run from there into the binder. Glue is placed along the spine, and the book comes out the other end to have a cover put on the still-hot glue. Here's a look at the covered binding area:
From there, the book runs down the final conveyor and, at least at my bindery, onto a table. Employees are waiting to "catch" them and stack them onto a pallet. Catching involves a lot of paper cuts from the rough edges of the untrimmed pages and covers. A lot of times, you'll also do spot-checks at this point, to make sure the books aren't missing sigs or doubling them.

From there, the books go from there to the trimmer. An enormous blade slices the edges from three sides of the book, trimming the rough edges and getting the book down to size. These things are huge.
Interestingly, on the trimmer we used, there was a protection device to keep your hands from being sliced off. There are two buttons on either side of the machine, and both must be pushed, completing a circuit, for the blade to come down. A friend and I experimented and found that if she pushed one button and I the other, and then we linked hands in the middle, the blade would come slicing down.

Finally, the book is boxed and shipped.

So there you go. Now you're an expert on how books are made!

P.S. If you're interested, I just found this video on how hardbound books are made. It's actually pretty similar to the process described above-- although the machine they're working on is a lot more streamlined.


Emily White said...

Very interesting! I read a book once where it was missing a few chapters and those that were missing were replaced with another set of chapters 1-8. I now understand how that could have happened.

Angie said...

That's really interesting. I think it would be cool to work in a bindery, even with the risk of paper cuts. Thanks for sharing!

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