Tag Archives: book repair

The book chiropractor

Lately the title has described me. I come across a book with a spinal injury, and I give it care.

The descriptor feels somewhat odd thanks to my real-life experiences with chiropractic, neither of which inspire me to try it again. The first guy felt everyone should go to the chiropractor for everything, as the first point of medical contact. He was very entrepreneurial. The second guy was pulling a flim-flam on the insurance company; he also was very entrepreneurial. I know there are people who swear by chiropractic, and I am happy for them, but I probably will not be joining them soon. Feels too MLM.

What does make me happy is that I’ve figured out how to fix most broken paperback spines. It requires book tape, care, book glue, patience, waxed paper, a cutter that will make a very straight cut, q-tips, care, and great patience.

Why you should not…

Why you should not just use packing tape: because it will more easily crinkle, will age badly, will be completely unforgiving if you happen to begin sticking it down wrong, and because it’s not as thick. If you are serious about doing this, go to Vernon and get the right stuff.

Why you should not just use rubber cement, or Elmer’s, or some other glue you have laying around: because none of those will combine the properties found in book glue, and everything will work worse. If you use some other glue, and it screws things up, remember that I told you that would occur. Get it from Vernon.

Why you should not just use scissors: because the line must be absolutely straight, and you cannot reliably do that with scissors.

Getting going

There are two very common types of paperback spinal breaks. In the first, you can see the gap between portions of the pageblock (that’s the pages; the part you read). In the second, the gap is so wide you can get a clear look at the inside of the spine (which is probably badly creased and may be coming apart. Sometimes pieces of the pageblock are fully detached, or just individual sheets.

Before you start, cut off several 1″ wide strips of waxed paper. You will be wanting these and won’t want to mess with cutting them in mid-job.

The first order of business is to shore up the spine’s exterior. This must be done: to hold the thing together while you fix the pageblock connections, to confine any glue that could otherwise leak through, and because you would be having to do it anyway, so might as well do it first. A line of book tape down the spine, properly slicked down, will at least give you a bit of support.

The potentially messy part

Next, turn to the worst break in the pageblock. If there are several, go for the most hideous ones starting from back. Gently spread the block apart; for the milder sort of break, a line of glue along the middle third is probably enough. For the bad ones, be more generous. If there are several adjacent pages with breaks, start with the bottom one. Then take a q-tip, supporting the book with the other hand, and run it along the break to distribute the glue and push it into the break.

Don’t be too sloppy. It is almost inevitable that you’ll leave residual lines of glue above the q-tip on both sides of the break; take another and clean that off as best you can. You can’t get all of it off, but it is very important to remove all possible glue that is not down in the break; that is where you’re going to put the waxed paper. Your theoretical perfect glue line is way down in the break, just obscures its edges, shows little shine on the paper and no lines above where you ran the q-tip, and doesn’t leak out either end.

Why so fussy? Isn’t this waxed paper? Doesn’t waxed paper come right off? I’ve experimented and made the mistakes. It’s not true that book glue won’t stick at all to waxed paper; it is true that waxed paper can very carefully, very slowly be detached from small amounts of book glue. Do it too soon or too fast and the paper will tear, leaving tabs of it deep down in the crack where you’ll have to tweezer them out. You just fixed that crack; therefore, shoving a metal object into it, which will partly separate it again, runs counter to your entire intention. What is more, if you think about it, you’ve just cut the waxed paper. You’re shoving the unwaxed cut edge into the middle of the glue; the edge is the part to which the glue can take hold. And there’s no way around it, as there is no reasonable way to re-wax the cut edge. The glue will attach to its fibers and you will have to ease the paper loose or end up with a lot of remainder.

Would clingwrap work better for this? I think it’d be a pain to keep straight. I can barely even get a bowl of guac covered with that stuff. Foil would most surely tear at exactly the wrong times, as it always does.  I suppose if money were no object, one could use gallon ziplock bags without opening them, pushing them in bottoms first. I would certainly test them beforehand, lest it turn out they form a real bond with the glue that waxed paper does not. Book glue looks like Elmer’s but dries to a rubbery solid.

Anyway, with all that well in mind, and with excess glue mopped up, take a strip of waxed paper and slide it gently into the break almost as far as it will go. If there is a loosened page at the break, work it back into proper position. Close the book, which should now look as if some oddball decided that waxed paper would make a wonderful bookmark.

If there are more breaks, continue to fix them this way from bottom to top. How you decide which side is which, that’s up to you; what is important is that you don’t jump around the pageblock, but start from the lowest side and work to the highest (if the front cover was up, that would be from back to front). That way you will not need to disturb the breaks you have already glued.


When done, set the book someplace where nothing will mess it up, put a paperweight on it, and leave it.

If you let the glue dry at least three days, the waxed paper will be fairly easy to work loose. Open gently to the spot with the fixed break, and use a plastic tool like the back of a picnic knife to move back and forth along the inside, separating the waxed paper from the pageblock on both sides. When you sense that any further pushing on the plastic knife will begin to undo your repairs, stop and begin to ease the waxed paper out starting from one end. Be kind, and pull it upward where possible (almost directly away from the spine, slightly angled). Try not to let any pieces get detached, but it often happens near the middle.

Repeat all this for the next break you fixed.

Examine the book now as if you hadn’t fixed anything. Anything that still needs fixing, repeat the fixing steps and three days of subsequent waiting.

I told you it took patience.

Achieving dominance over book repair space and time

When you’ve fixed them all, though, the best description of the feeling is that one has resurrected a book. It was doomed, on its way to fall to tragic pieces. Now it can be read, enjoyed, studied, laughed at, scowled at, disagreed with, and passed on to other readers. And as you keep at this, you will get defter at all of it.

It may fall apart someday, but that isn’t going to be today or next year.


The pure joy of repairing books

That I love books is probably no great surprise. Who else took a 15′ x 20′ room of his house and made the whole thing into a library? Three aisles…’the stacks.’

There is a continuum of thought about book care. At one extreme is the “they’re made to be read, not worried about or nannied” viewpoint. My mother is a good example of this. With any paperback book, her first act was (I presume still is) to break the spine–and I don’t mean halfway. I mean in such a way that the book would begin to fall into halves if it received any sustained use. At the other extreme is the hardcore preservationist viewpoint, which laments every scrape, every crease, and every corner. This viewpoint will die in a ditch defending the spine.

If you assign these views to 1 and 10 on a scale, respectively, I’m about an 8.5. The question of usability vs. perfection touches many aspects of our lives; the best example I could offer would be computer security. At the 1 extreme would be complete flexibility and usability, at the risk of security and support nudity. (If everyone gets to use whatever they want, however they want, IT support is problematic. And if no one ever makes you change your password, or even makes you use a password, you’ll get hacked.) At the 10 extreme would be security so tight it would defend the system from any risk of being useful. (If you had to change your password every hour, for example, and your browser refused to let any script run without approval from some security guru.) As in most endeavors, neither extreme is a good idea. Thus with books.

So, yes; I take very good care of books, the best care I can arrange. As I read, by habit, I will press a paperback book into a shape that from directly above me would look like a {, using my fingers to support the spine. That first crease in the cover bothers me, and you can imagine how I feel if I spill beer on the book (such as that time I anointed my copy of Joyce’s Dubliners while sitting on the can in a B&B bathroom in Ballymote, Sligo). Since I like to fix things almost as much as I hate waste, for many years I have done my best with scotch tape.

Those days are over. Thanks to my wife, I now have equipment that gives me dominance over more amateurish book repair souls. For Christmas, she got me a wonderful device called the C-27 Taping System Applicator. I keep wanting to call it the C-27 Space Modulator in the Looney Tunes Martian voice.

This thing is badass.

“What’s the big deal,” you ask? “Why the hell can’t you just put some quality packing tape on it yourself?”

The problem with that is getting the tape lined up, especially while fussing with a handheld dispenser. With tape on paper, you don’t get a second chance. What is not obvious from the picture is that this C-27 thing has several key moving parts. For starters, the tape sits but is not spindled, and those black guides you see are movable (see the grooves in the metal roller). This allows one to use multiple tape widths, move the tape left or right. In the picture, the end of the tape shows the tartan pattern, but that white thing just right of it is a sliding cutter. The long table with the deep groove down the middle hinges at the front of the device, so you can lay the book on it, press down at the tape end of the table, and rest one end of your book at a level below the tape cutter. Pull out the tape to the correct length, line it up to your satisfaction, and stick it down going back toward the roll. Your hands don’t have to hold the tape or manipulate a handheld cutting device. Slick down the tape all the way to just before the cutter, run the cutter across (only takes one hand, leaving you a hand to hold the book in place), free the book from the table, and slick down that last end of the tape. The stainless steel bars on either side of the table swing outward to support larger books. Here is a short video of it in very simple operation.

As you can see from the legs, one could bolt it to a desk. One could drive two screws into a desk designed to anchor it, leaving the other side free to move it at need. My favorite move is to first run a strip of tape down the spine, then turn the book 90° and run a single strip all the way along the top cover edge–slick down the first side with the spine toward the roll, pull out far enough for enough tape to finish the second side, take joy in the way this thing lets me line the tape up so perfectly, slick it down, cut it off, trim any excess.

The other part of the secret is book repair tape, which looks like clear packing tape but is somewhat elastic; enough that one has to be careful not to stretch it out of shape, but that it molds and tightens and adjusts and forgives. It also lasts much longer than scotch tape or packing tape. She also got me a supply pack including book glue, a bodacious plastic tape-slicking device that looks like a Jethro version of the 3-4 plastic picnic knives I break every time I eat at Chipotle, and sheets of vinyl wings and corners designed to fix frayed spines and torn edge/corner problems. Bubble I can’t slick out? I make a tiny stab with an exacto knife at one end of the bubble, and slick the tape toward it. Bubble? What bubble? Add in a set of bitchin’ sharp scissors I already had–great for trimming excess so that no one will ever know that I stuck the tape down 1/16″ off line–and I’m loaded now. No book in this house is safe from being assessed, repaired, and protected.

Since a lot of my books were in lamentable shape and some would be problematic to replace (do you have a handy source for big thick Bantam-Megiddo English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English dictionary two-volume sets, each the size of a hefty Bible? Didn’t think so), this brings me enormous joy. Those that were deteriorating will deteriorate no further. Those that are venerable but have been preserved by gentle, affectionate use will receive reinforcement. And I won’t have to look at a book and think, crap, what a shame that’s falling apart, but I don’t see what I can do about it.

Yes, they are meant to be read. And thanks to an effort that brings me fundamental joy, they will be readable for my lifetime, and well into someone else’s.