Making a Four-Fold Phase Box

originally posted August 14, 2015

Brittle Books

Most of the books I encounter fall into one of a four categories:

  • I can fix the book in house
  • I can send the book to the external bindery
  • The book is too brittle, but is in the public domain and available as a free e-book
  • The book is too brittle, and is not available online

That last category is the most problematic one. If a brittle book is available online and is not rare or valuable, we discard the book and replace it in our catalog with the free e-book. Usually, if a book is brittle it is over 100 years old, is in the public domain, and someone somewhere has digitized it and put it up for free online. However, sometimes books are brittle and are still in copyright (looking at you, yellowing 1970’s paperbacks!). We can have a facsimile made, but most books are not valuable enough for that kind of expense. We cannot digitize them and put them online ourselves, because of the copyright, and we also have to be careful about putting it back on the shelf. If it is so brittle it is breaking off as you turn the pages, the book isn’t much use to anyone on the shelf anyway. An (unimportant) brittle book on the shelf is ineffective, because it cannot be used, and it has to be discarded.

However, sometimes a book is too brittle to be fixed, but not too brittle to be used, and that is where boxes come in.

Brittle paper that only breaks along the back of a fold, and not completely off, is still stable enough for use.

A few days ago, I encountered a book like that. Titled The African in Latin America, the pages were too brittle for me to fix the book, but besides a broken spine the pages were in very good condition. While brittle, they only tore partly when bent, and the book could be read and the pages turned without damaging the book further.

How I determined it was worth a box:

  • In our online system, it said the book was our only copy, and had been used at least 6 times. For a large university library, for an older book (1970’s), it most likely was used more than that before our new online cataloging system.
  • There were only about 150 copies listed in WorldCat as owned by other libraries, and more than half of those could be in much worse condition than our copy. We can preserve it not only for our use, but international use.
  • It is still in copyright and is not available online
  • While still useful, it is not used often enough or valuable enough to warrant the expense of a facsimile or a double tray box from the external bindery
  • The text block (pages) were in very good condition besides the broken spine; a box would support it enough to sit on the shelf and protect it from deteriorating further.
  • The book can be handled without breaking further and the pages can be turned
Despite the spine breaks, the paper was not torn and in very good condition.

The Box

For items going onto public shelves (as opposed to closed collections), we use four-fold phase boxes. These boxes are made to the measurements of the book they are housing, so the book cannot shift and get “banged up” within the box. A four-fold phase box has four sides that fold up over the book to protect it and keep it secure. If we need many made at once, we can purchase handmade boxes from our external bindery as a time saver. But this is expensive, and we have the materials and tools in the department to make the boxes ourselves as needed within a few minutes.

A finished four-fold phase box, complete with an “Extremely Brittle” warning on the front to warn the user.

The picture below shows how a fold phase box is closed. It is made to close this way so that the top of the box has only one seam to decrease the chances of dust getting into the box. The left side, which is where the spine of the book is, has no seam because it is where the call number label will be placed so it can be found on the shelf. That side needs to look the cleanest.

How to close a four-fold phase box; opening it would be the reverse.

Making the Four-Fold Phase Box

Using our board folder to make the creases for the box to fold.

We use a blue, acid free, singly wall corrugated archival board from an archival supply company. Basically, it looks like cardboard, but with better quality paper fibers that aren’t acidic and won’t break down and disintegrate over time.

corrugated board
Single wall corrugated board diagram: two flat outer ply sheets with fluted paper in-between.

We use our board folder machine to crush the board in a thin, straight line to allow it to bend and form a corner of the box. The material is creased in strategic places that coincide with the measurements of the book, and the increasing thickness of the box as each of the four sides is folded over. The box should hug the book as close as possible so the book cannot slide around and become damaged while inside, but also not be too tight that the folds cannot sit at right angles to each other, as this puts undue pressure on the book. It is also good to leave the slightest bit of room (1/16-1/8 of an inch) to allow swelling of the book and paper in times of high humidity.

What the two strips of folded board should look like after all cuts and creases are made. Note the direction of the folds for each piece: the flutes in the board must correspond with your folds.

The box begins as two pieces: one for the top and bottom folds, which will rest on top of and inside the other horizontal piece, which will have the left and right folds. Two pieces are necessary because the creases in the board must follow the interior flutes in the board; they would oppose on two sides if it was all one piece.

The folds of the vertical pieces are made first, just as they are folded first, and then the horizontal piece. Each fold is made to accommodate an increasingly thicker object, to accommodate for the thicknesses of the previous boards that are folded down plus the book’s thickness. The images below show how each fold should rest when done correctly:

1) The first creases should fit so the board sits at right angles to the book.
2) The second set of creases should accommodate the book’s thickness + the first fold’s thickness.
3) Make the crease that will be on the right side of the book. It must accommodate the book’s thickness + two board thicknesses.
4) The final fold is from the spine side of the book/box. This must accommodate the book’s thickness + three board thicknesses.

After the folds are made, the vertical and horizontal pieces can be glued together on the bottom side where they overlap. It is important to glue them so that the first fold is on the bottom, and the last fold is on the left, when closing the book.

After the glue has dried, it’s time for the finishing touches. First, we round the eight corners of the box edges. This makes it less likely that the corners will get crushed, which lengthens the life of the box. The box also needs to stay closed, so we poke holes in specific parts of the box to add string and buttons. The string is added on the last flap of the box, and the buttons are on the fore edge of the right flap.

One pieces of string is used to avoid bumpy knots.
Then, the paper layer of a scrap piece of board is cut ripped off, cut to size, and glued over the exposed inner string.

After the string is glued in place, the holes for the buttons are made, making sure they line up with the string for a polished finish. Even in this, a polished box is all about crisp, clean right angles. The buttons are metal and plastic pieces that are pressed into place using a special press. After they are in place, the string is wrapped around the metal, underneath the plastic piece. This holds down the top fold of the box, and keeps the box in its shape.

The brass and plastic pieces are what make up the buttons. The black handled tool in the background is an awl, which we use to make the holes in the box.
The buttons right before they are pressed together slightly, and are solidly in the box.

The Final Product

All that is left is to put a warning label on the front of the box, to let a future user know that the book is brittle. Then the box is done, and ready to go back on our shelves. While the process seems lengthy, it only takes about 10-15 minutes to make a four-fold phase box like this. Such a small investment of time ensures that an item can go back on the shelf safely, and continue to be used by our community of students and researchers.

The finished product.

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