Pretty Paper Adventures: Adding a Tube Spine

Yesterday, I was presented with a unique bookbinding challenge at my library. Two new books received by cataloging were published without a typical spine covering. Instead, the book had soft front and back covers, and the text block stitching was exposed, protected only by a thin layer of rice paper. For a personal library, that would be fine, and with care the books would last a long time. For our academic library, these books wouldn’t last 5 loans.

The exposed sewn spine covered with rice paper, and the marbled paper for the spine.

My task was to protect the spine in some way. The obvious choice is to add an external spine covering. With paperback books, the cover is usually glued directly onto the spine. This makes the book less flexible and more difficult to open flat, and with use the spine becomes creased, bent and broken- not the qualities we’re after when bookbinding here in Preservation. With hardcover books, cover spines are usually unattached to the text block itself, and are instead connected freely to the cover and have loose hinges (find a hardcover book and you’ll see). The cover is then connected to the text block with folded end pages. This leaves free hanging space between the loose spine and the covers that give the book and its spine the flexibility needed to open it.  On these books, however, the soft covers were glued directly onto the text block, with no way for me to add a typical hardcover spine. So, in an effort to add more strength to the sewn signatures and add a minimalist spine, I opted for a tube spine.

The finished product. It’s a modified tube spine binding.

A tube spine is exactly how it sounds. It’s made with a piece of strong paper that is folded into three equal parts, with the two ends glued together to create a flat tube. The tube is made to be the exact thickness of the spine it is covering. A tube spine has two sides- one is a single sheet, and the other is the doubled sheet thickness where the end folds are glued together. The single sheet side is glued to the spine of the book to give it strength and stability while still allowing for flexibility. The doubled side is glued to the spine  because it is stronger and stiffer. When the book is closed, the inner tube space is wide and thin, as each side is almost flat. When the book is opened, the inner space becomes more round, as the sides bend away from each other to accommodate the bowing text block. In this way, tube spines mimic the mechanics of hardcover spines, without having to depend on hinges for free swinging flexibility.

When the book is opened, the two sides bend away from each other, forming a wider interior space.

In preservation, a tube  spine is normally an unseen, interior fix for books. It’s made shorter than the text block so it isn’t seen from the outside. All that is seen is the pre-existing cover, and it’s the bookbinder’s secret that a tube is holding everything together on the inside. In this case, there was no existing cover for me to glue the tubes to, so I modified the design a bit.

How I Did It

First, I chose our thickest rice paper and re-lined the spine of each book, as their original lining was very thin. The thicker rice paper can still get into all the nooks and crannies of a sewn text block, while also creating a smoother, more even surface to the spine with less dips and valleys (between stitching and signatures). The smoother the surface, the better adhesion between the text block spine and the tube.

If you compare this to the first picture, you can see that the dips between stitching and signatures is less pronounced after adding a thicker rice paper lining.

I chose a very strong paper for the tube spine, almost of card stock stiffness. This is thicker than usual, but I needed something that was strong enough to hold up as an external spine. I found some old marbled paper, and was pleasantly surprised to find we had color schemes that matched the book covers quite well. I cut strips that would wrap onto the covers just enough to keep the spine securely in place (about a half inch on each side).

After I cut the tube to height and glued it onto the marbled paper, but before I folded those end tabs in for the outer spine. You can see that the wings are cut to cover height.

I used my ruler and calipers to create folds the exact width of each book spine. I folded them, and glued the two end folds together to form the tube. I cut a piece of wax paper to fit within the tube to preserve the interior space and make sure the sides remained separate. When the tube was dry, I cut it down to the exact height of the book. The tube was then glued double-side down onto the marbled paper. I cut the excess paper above the tube so there was a tab to fold over the outer layer for aesthetic. The ‘wings’ of the marbled paper (that would be on the from and back covers), were cut to the exact height of the book. Because the covers are glued onto the text block, there was no way to fold the wings over the cover edges for added stability.

A close up of the folded tab. Use a microspatula and pointed bone folder to help press this flat from the inside. After this step, reinsert the wax paper strip into the tube.


At this point, the tube spine and marbled paper were finished and ready to adhere to the book. I applied a PVA/methyl cellulose mix to the tube and wings, laid the piece flat on the table, and lowered the book onto it. Then it is just a matter of pressing and molding the paper onto the book with a teflon folder and your hands. The wax paper is still in the tube, so I can press down with the teflon folder to fully adhere the inner spine without worrying that the tube sides will stick together. Once the tube feels fully molded onto the spine, I can concentrate more on the wings and make sure there are no air bubbles or wrinkles, and that the paper is fully adhered to the covers (especially the outer edges!). Using a glue mix instead of straight PVA gives you a longer drying time, so you have more time to work the paper onto the book.


The wax paper is there to prevent the tube’s exterior side from sticking as I use the teflon folder to press the interior side onto the text block.

Finally, the book is loosely wrapped in wax paper and put under weights until the book dries! A few hours later, I was able to test both books and see how they came out. (A tip: If the wax paper strip isn’t sliding out easily, use a flat micro spatula from the top and bottom, on both sides of the wax paper. The micro spatula will separate the wax paper from any interior glue, and it should slide out with no problem.) Once the wax paper was out, I could check out how the books looked and worked- and they were great! The paper was fully adhered and not peeling off anywhere, and the books still opened very flat without harming or tearing the new spine. And not only did the books function beautifully, but the colors were gorgeous as well! This was a really fun and aesthetically pleasing bookbinding project- I hope we order more books like this in the future!

The finished products

For more pictures, you can visit this project’s Gallery page.

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