[bookbinding/craft filter] Should I switch from PVA to wheat paste or some other adhesive?
December 24, 2010 11:20 AM   Subscribe

wheat paste vs. PVA for adhering paper and book cloth to binder's board

There is such a tragic dearth of bookbinding information on the internet for us serious amateurs!

I was wondering if any of y'all can explain the various benefits and drawbacks of both wheat paste and PVA for adhering book cloth and paper to binder's board (no leather just yet!).

For the past year or so, I've been using PVA exclusively, but I find it rather difficult. Despite being extremely careful, I always end up with an unwanted PVA smudge SOMEWHERE on my books... even if I only know it's there. I've heard wheat paste offers a little more flexibility and won't mark paper/cloth in the same way PVA does. But are there any reasons I shouldn't use it? Are there any other good adhesives I might want to consider using? Please, share your knowledge; I know nothing.
posted by faeuboulanger to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I use straight PVA when I'm working with cloth and paper. It dries fast, I'm pretty practiced with my fingers and not getting it everywhere, but if I need to take a second to stop and rub my hands together to get excess adhesive off, it'll still be workable. I also like that it doesn't introduce more moisture into a book I'm working on. It makes dealing with warping much easier for me.

However, I'm in the minority of the binders I work with. For most applications (casing in, covering a case in full cloth), my colleagues use a mixture of PVA and Methyl Cellulose. Methyl Cellulose gives a little bit more working time to PVA, allowing you to really be able to stop and clean your hands off on your apron/shop rag/whatever to make sure there's no extra glue. You can buy Methyl Cellulose premixed, but we buy ours in powder from Talas. We generally mix it about 60/40 PVA/Meth, but different people use it in different ratios for different purposes. Too much Meth and it's too slippery and doesn't stick to anything; too little and it doesn't slip at all and there's no point using it.

Others use something called Minter's mix, named after Bill Minter who uses it a lot. It's a third each of PVA, Methyl Cellulose and Wheat Paste. I've never used it, but supposedly it has excellent adjustability and still adheres nicely.

Whenever I'm working in leather or doing conservation work I'll use wheat paste. Since that's all reversible it's a good idea when something has significant value. It's a different beast altogether from PVA. You have to strain it before you use it or it's way too chunky. The lumps will show through your covering material when you're finished and it doesn't really look great.

Adhesives aren't created equal though. For PVA we use Jade 403. It dries to a flexible, clear film, which is exactly what you want. For Wheat Paste we generally use Aytex P, but sometimes we'll use Three Rabbits or Zen Shofu depending on what we're doing. You can also get cold mix paste, which you don't need to cook at all or even pre-mixed paste, although I've never used that.

Basically, PVA's greatest strength and greatest weakness is that it doesn't have much moisture. It doesn't introduce much to your book, but it has short working time. Wheat Paste creates a strong, lasting bond between materials, but it introduces a lot of moisture and isn't as flexible as PVA. The mixtures try and solve all those problems to varying degrees of success. Experiment, try things out and find what works for you.

Oh! A good trick for getting those glue spots out is a rubber cement pickup/eraser. If you notice the glue soon after it goes on the cloth, when it's semi-dry, those will pick it right up.
posted by clockbound at 12:42 PM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not a serious enough bookbinder to have an answer for this (and clockbound's is pretty impressive!), but you might also try searching the archives of the Book_Arts-L listserv for answers. If you feel like joining the list, I'm sure you could ask there as well, but this is probably something that's been discussed before, so I bet you'll be able to find something in the archives.

And if not, it's a great resource for the serious amateur bookbinder regardless!
posted by dizziest at 2:32 PM on December 24, 2010

Alright, back for more.

Dizziest's note about the book arts list is a good idea. I'm a subscriber, but most of the folks on there know way more than I do about this sort of thing, so I keep my mouth shut.

If you ever want a comprehensive, detailed lecture about adhesives and the chemical nature thereof, email Daniel Kelm. He has a degree in organic chemistry and really knows his stuff. That website is the school he runs in Easthampton, MA. You should be able to get in touch with him from there if you want to.

The governing principle behind adhesive usage in books that I bind is sympathy. That sounds weird. Let me explain. If I'm working with modern materials like cloth, machine made paper and some decorative stuff I pick up at my local Paper Source, I'm most likely going to be using PVA. It's a modern adhesive for modern materials and modern times. I know of at least one bookbinder who refuses to use PVA at all simply because it is so modern. Most adhesives we use have been used for hundreds of years and we know what's going to happen to them over a period of time, but that is not the case with PVA. We think it's going to be fine, but we don't know for sure, and for her, that's enough.

On the other hand, if I'm making a book covered in leather, with handmade paper (or nicely printed on nice paper), I'm going to be using paste. Sometimes, just sometimes, I'll use PVA with leather, but it feels wrong. And if you use PVA with leather you can't tool very well.

The adhesive I haven't mentioned yet at all is animal glue. There are a variety of animal glues out there, but the only one I've ever used is Hide Glue. It's basically ground up horses, and it smells like a combination of wet dog and old rug, but it's stood the test of time and is fully reversible. Some people swear by fish glue, but I've never used it. Both of those are hot glues, meaning that in order to be used, they need to be heated up, otherwise they're a solid. It's nothing too hot though, well under boiling, but still enough to give you a first degree burn if you're not careful. I would never use this for adhering cloth to board though. I use it strictly for rounding and backing. It's nice that I can glue up a bunch of spines at once and then go down the line and round and back each of them, reactivating it with paste as needed.

You might see rabbit skin glue out there, but that's not really a good idea for most bookbinding applications, as it's very brittle when dry, and books generally need something more flexible.

If you (or others) have anymore questions, feel free to send me a message. I'm a beginner when it comes to this stuff, but I kind of love talking about it.
posted by clockbound at 3:48 PM on December 24, 2010

Thanks to both of you for the suggestions... this was incredibly helpful!
posted by faeuboulanger at 3:32 PM on December 25, 2010

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