Why paper grain direction is important

An Essay by Francis Atterbury

After the launch of Artisan Books in 2013, I was chatting to John Walters, the editor of Eye Magazine about our books. The conversation naturally strayed onto the binding and the fact that our books are traditionally sewn and hand bound in stark contrast to the majority of the low run book trade which prefers to single leaf bind using hot melt glue. In particular, I mentioned an adage told me by my father who used to say that you ‘know the trade is making poor work when the private press is doing well’ which led me swiftly on to my own personal hobby-horse of binding books in the UK and the importance of correct paper grain direction. And so a blogpost for Eye Magazine was born.

I sent John my piece last year and had pretty much forgotten about it. But its publication this month and the various comments it received (good and bad) made me think that how and why we make Artisan Books the way we do may be a good subject to talk about. Not as another rant, but just because I think it’s important and possibly because it’s interesting.


Quality matters

Although Artisan Books are all handmade, I am not a fan of making things by hand for its own sake; far from it. For example, I hate the idea that letterpress type originally cast on a ‘Monotype’ machine might be advertised as being ‘hand set’ as though that makes it somehow better. ‘Monotype’ cast letterpress type is designed to fit together. A combination of type designer and punch cutter ensured this. Assembled by hand or by machine amounts to the same thing, but the machine, for volume, is quicker. It’s much the same with binding. Our books are hand bound because that is currently the best way of making books in small numbers. If there were a machine that bound small numbers of books just as well, I’d happily use it.


Printed books are beautiful

Books are a brilliantly simple idea and, probably because of this, a beautiful object. Books, to me, are the embodiment of so much of what makes civilisation civilised. They have allowed, enabled and encouraged the dissemination and promotion of ideas and theories, thoughts and feelings for hundreds of years. When the power fails, when the operating system updates, when the technology changes, you can still open and read a book.

I know it sounds rather pompous, but I really believe that printing is a powerful and important medium and much of this power and importance is because of its ease of comprehension and permanence. So, when I make a book I’m determined that I will do everything I can to ensure that, content notwithstanding, it’s attractive, easy to open (and to read), and permanent.


Turning the pages

Grain direction, glues (hot or cold melt), page size, case covering, signature size and paper quality; these are all important qualities in a good book. But in my opinion, the only thing that it is absolutely essential to get right in a book is grain direction.

Paper is a natural product; it is made from fibres meshing together to make a smooth and regular surface upon which to write, draw, paint or print. Machine-made paper has a distinct grain direction. As the paper travels through the paper making machine, starting as 99% water and finishing as paper, these fibres align themselves in the same direction. I’m sure everyone knows that it is much easier to fold or to tear a sheet of paper along the grain, and how much harder it is to fold or tear across the grain. Grain direction affects a book in at least two crucial ways that go to the heart of what I think a book is for; ease of reading and permanence.

It is easier to open and therefore to read a book with the grain running parallel to the spine because the paper wants to open and lay in this way. Contrast that with a book bound cross grain and the pages do not want to open; the opened pages will flip closed unless held open. Not the easiest thing to read.



But grain affects permanence too. Paper is natural ‘living’ material and changes shape according to the humidity in the environment. As it becomes relatively wetter or drier, it becomes bigger or smaller always moving across the grain. If the book is glued and sewn with the grain parallel to the spine it will become wider, but no stress will be placed on the binding because the top and bottom edge of the page are not fixed, but a free to move. Conversely, if bound cross grain, the book will become taller or shorter, but, as it is only free to move on one side of the sheet, huge stress will be placed on the binding. We are talking about small movements, but it is the same process that sees mountains eroded and, in the same way, will see the binding destroyed long before the end of its natural life.


The invisible framework of quality

Binding a book correct grain shouldn’t cost more money. But it needs to be thought about and considered an important part of production. It has long irritated me that paper in the UK is not routinely stocked in both long and short grain. Lack of demand from printers I’m told. At Artisan Books we buy our paper in bulk in the correct grain directions – for those interested, that’s Mohawk Superfine Ultrawhite Eggshell 1020 x 720mm short grain.

Grain direction to me is like good typography, part of the invisible framework of quality. If it were your book, which would you want?


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