End bands or head bands: those things on top of the book

End bands or head bands: those things on top of the book
Discussing this small but important part of book binding
17 November 2015

I was lucky enough to win a Kenneth Binns Travelling Fellowship in 2012 to attend the London Rare Book Summer School. During the five day course on historical European bindings, I learned about endbands. An endband sits at the head (top) and tail (bottom) of the spine of a book.

During a visit to the rare book stack I took the opportunity to see what different types of endbands I could find.

Italian style endbands with many tie downs on the spine

In principle endbands and headbands are pretty much the same thing; they are a decorative element that sits at the head and tail of the text block to add design flair and some protection. At one time however, they were used to add strength and support to a binding. More specifically, you could say that a headband is located at the head (top) of the book. And sometimes books are made with only the headband and no endband at the tail (bottom) of the book.

Most commercially bound books will have stuck on endbands. This is by no means a new invention. Stuck on endbands, made of woven cloth were used as far back as the 1800s.

A stuck on endband of woven cloth

Today, fine binders will either sew endbands around a core, or make one out of folded leather, cloth or paper, again around a core.

This core can be thin cord or cane, and is sometimes wrapped by Japanese tissue to give it strength before being used.

As a bookbinder I find endbands fun, if not somewhat tricky to sew. The first few steps are critical; as you wrap the thread around the core and loop to the front, the core may move. I found a good trick was to use a pin to secure it down, until such time as you have "fixed" it.

You can "fix" the endband to the bookblock in the middle of every section. This means sewing through the back of the spine. The number of times the endband is fixed determines how much time was taken; when time equals money this means that fixing might only happen three times across the spine, whereas a good quality book might be affixed every section.

We find all types of endbands in the National Library. Here are a few examples:

Single core, single colour wound around a core 

Single core, double colour with bead on edge

Double core, single colour, wound around

Double core double colour, bottom core larger than the top core, with bead on edge

By this small sample you can imagine the endless variety you might find while walking down a stack aisle. In an effort to help researchers, our staff are always adding details to the catalogue record of books. If you search for "endbands" you will find an entry for a seven volume set on theology by Cardinal Bonaventure, printed between 1588 and 1596.

Next time you go to a bookstore, check out some hard cover books; most will have some sort of endband, it will probably be a machine made stuck on endband. Some might not even have any.

For further reading try Jane Greenfield's Headbands and How to Work Them or look for Arthur's Johnson's Manual of Bookbinding in our collection.