Hardcover Book Production Coming Up Short

Back in the day, hardcover book binding was truly a craft. One had to be a certified book binder to even work in a hardcover bindery.

My friend, Professor Emeritus Werner Rebsamen (formerly) of RIT, has seen it all. He has had a long and glorious career in every phase of hard cover production.

In the ’50s, the race began to automate the process, with time-honored firms such as Kolbus, Smyth, and Muller Martini vying to produce complete, automated systems that could turn out 50 to 60 hardcover books per minute—an astounding figure for the times.

I can recall sitting through detailed engineering presentations from Berryville Graphics, one of the top hardcover plants of that time. Automation was of prime importance.

Over time, these new book lines got better and better, with quick setup via servos and computers, and quality that even a master book binder would envy. The goal was to produce high-volume, high-quality hardcover books with the minimal labor component.

But…times change. Now we are in the “book-of-one” phase. And those large machines, as automated as they are, are not ideal candidates for production runs of a few books or less. They still require crews of three or more people, and manufacturers prefer that the user “gang” book sizes together for these runs.

The new production model is a smaller work cell requiring only a single operator. While these modules will never be capable of turning out a few thousand books per hour, they can do a few hundred. The separate steps of building a case, casing-in the book block, and pressing and joint forming may be accomplished by four, three or even two separate machines. These units are manufactured by both domestic and foreign vendors, and require little floor space, little operator training, and little power.

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  • Paul Gardner

    Great perspective, thanks Don!

    As one who helped to build one of the first book-of-one hardcover binding operations, I’m seeing welcome signs that Kolbus, Muller and other traditional equipment manufacturers are beginning to understand this emerging market.

    I disagree with you on just one point. Even though many of today’s on-demand binding machines seem simple and easy to learn, the craft and skill of binding a book are as valuable today as ever. Without adequate training and skill, they will enable almost anyone to produce a poorly bound book.

  • Werner R

    Thanks Don, looks like you did read and quoted my article in HBI’s Endpaper. Having started 1950 as a bookbinder, we were privileged to see all those incredible changes. Wish you would have been with us during our Ann Arbor meeting in October, touring Thomson-Shore where Muller Martini showed off advanced hardcover bookbinding technologies, no matter if the runs are large or one of a kind, the latter done on a Sigma / GP2 line. Keep up the good work writing articles. Our industry need education in Print-Finishing. Just look below, I agree with Paul Gardner 100 percent. I’m one of those old world master bookbinders sharing knowledge. Happy Holidays. Werner

  • Kevin Waldvogel


    Is right I see a lot of poorly bound books. I disagree with you on the speed. We have a plant that is producing around 2000 photobooks an hour with variable spine widths this is for some of the most quality orientated clients on the market. So it can be done but you have to pay for a machine that is that good

  • Fastbind

    Thanks for the post and perspective. As a manufacturer of table top book binders and hardcover makers you are spot on in your observing the market growing quickly. Tow things we pay attention to on a nearly daily baisis which we believe has helped allow more printers into this space. Ease of use, cost of machines and supplies. If you are going to make 2 or 3 books at a time everyone should be able to do it. Secondly it needs to be very affordable to make the books. Not just the cost of the machines but also the supplies and labor involved.