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Bookbinders and Bindery Workers

Significant Points
  • Most bookbinders and bindery workers train on the job.
  • Employment is expected to decline, reflecting the use of more productive machinery and the growth of imports of printed material that is already bound.
  • Opportunities for hand bookbinders are limited because only a small number of establishments do this highly specialized work.
Nature of the Work

The process of combining printed sheets into finished products such as books, magazines, catalogs, folders, directories is known as “binding.” Binding involves cutting, folding, gathering, gluing, stapling, stitching, trimming, sewing, wrapping, and other finishing operations. Bindery workers set up, operate, and maintain the machines that perform these various tasks.

Job duties depend on the kind of material being bound. In libraries where repair work on rare books is needed, bookbinders sew, stitch, or glue the assembled printed sheets, shape the book bodies with presses and trimming machines, and reinforce them with glued fabric strips. Covers are created separately, and glued, pasted, or stitched onto the book bodies. The books then undergo a variety of finishing operations, often including wrapping in paper jackets. In establishments that print new books, this work is done mechanically.

In firms that do edition binding, workers bind books produced in large numbers, or “runs.” A small number of bookbinders work in hand binderies. These highly skilled workers design original or special bindings for limited editions, or restore and rebind rare books. Library binders repair books and provide other specialized binding services to libraries.

Some types of binding and finishing jobs consist of only one step. Preparing leaflets or newspaper inserts, for example, requires only folding. Binding of books and magazines, on the other hand, requires a number of steps. Workers first assemble the books and magazines from large, flat, printed sheets of paper. They then operate machines that first fold printed sheets into “signatures,” which are groups of pages arranged sequentially. They then assemble the signatures in sequence and join them by means of a saddle-stitch process or perfect binding (where no stitches are used).

Bookbinders and bindery workers in small shops may perform many binding tasks, while those in large shops usually are assigned only one or a few operations, such as assembling sheets in a specified sequence, performing perfect binding, or operating laminating machinery. Others specialize as folder operators or cutter operators, and may perform adjustments and minor repairs to equipment as needed.

Working Conditions

Binderies often are noisy and jobs can be fairly strenuous, requiring considerable lifting, standing, and carrying. Binding often resembles an assembly line on which workers perform repetitive tasks. The jobs also may require stooping, kneeling, and crouching, but equipment is now widely available, such as scissor lifts, that minimize such activity out of concern for ergonomics.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most bookbinders and bindery workers learn the craft through on-the-job training. Inexperienced workers usually are assigned simple tasks such as moving paper from cutting machines to folding machines. They learn basic binding skills, including the characteristics of paper and how to cut large sheets of paper into different sizes with the least amount of waste. Usually, it takes 1 to 3 months to learn to operate the simpler machines but it can take up to 1 year to become completely familiar with more complex equipment, such as computerized binding machines. On letterpress equipment, as workers gain experience they advance to more difficult tasks, such as embossing and adding holograms. As workers advance, they learn to operate more types of equipment.

Formal apprenticeships are not as common as they used to be, but still are offered by some employers. Apprenticeships provide a more structured program that enables workers to acquire the high levels of specialization and skill needed for some bindery jobs.

High school students interested in bindery careers should take shop courses or attend a vocational-technical high school. Occupational skill centers also provide an introduction to a bindery career. To keep pace with changing technology, retraining is increasingly important for bindery workers. Students with computer skills and mechanical aptitude are especially in demand.

Bindery workers need basic mathematics and language skills. Bindery work requires careful attention to detail; accuracy, patience, neatness, and good eyesight also are important. Manual dexterity is essential in order to count, insert, and fold. Mechanical aptitude is needed to operate the newer, more automated equipment. Artistic ability and imagination are necessary for hand bookbinding.

Training in graphic communications also can be an asset. Vocational-technical institutes offer postsecondary programs in the graphic arts, as do some skill-updating or retraining programs and community colleges. Some updating and retraining programs require students to have bindery experience; other programs are made available by unions to their members. Four-year colleges also offer programs, but their emphasis is on preparing people for careers as graphic artists, educators, or managers in the graphic arts field.

Without additional training, advancement opportunities outside of bindery work are limited. In large binderies, experienced bookbinders or bindery workers may advance to supervisory positions.


In 2004, bookbinders and bindery workers held about 81,000 jobs, including 7,200 as skilled bookbinders and 74,000 as bindery workers. More than 3 out of 4 bindery jobs are in commercial printing plants. Traditionally, the largest employers of bindery workers were bindery trade shops, which are companies that specialize in providing binding services for printers without binderies or whose printing production exceeds their binding capabilities. However, this type of binding is now being done increasingly in-house, and is now called in-line finishing.

The publishing industry employed nearly 1 in 10 bindery workers and the advertising industry an additional number. About one in twenty work in the employment services industry, which supplies temporary workers to companies that need their services.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of bookbinders and bindery workers is expected to decline through 2014 as demand for printed material slows and productivity in printing and bindery operations increases. Contributing to this situation is the trend toward outsourcing of work to firms in foreign countries, where books and other materials with long lead times can be produced more cheaply. Most job openings, however, will result from the need to replace experienced workers who leave the occupation, many of whom will be retiring in the next decade.

Computers have caused binding to become increasingly automated. New computer-operated “in-line” equipment performs a number of operations in sequence, beginning with the presses’ output and ending with a finished product. Technological advances such as automatic tabbers, counters, palletizers, and joggers have reduced labor requirements and have induced printing companies to acquire in-house binding and finishing equipment and maintain a permanent staff to operate them.

Growth in demand for specialized bindery workers who assist skilled bookbinders will be slowed as binding machinery continues to become more efficient. New technology requires a considerable investment in capital expenditures and employee training, so computer skills and mechanical aptitude are increasingly important for bindery workers.

Because the number of establishments that do hand bookbinding is small, opportunities for hand bookbinders will be limited. Though experienced workers will continue to have the best opportunities for these specialist jobs, the work done by hand bookbinders is being replaced by other activities in the binding-and-finishing field.


Median hourly earnings of bookbinders were $13.71 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.22 and $18.14 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.67, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $21.50.

Median hourly earnings of bindery workers were $11.31 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.92 and $15.06 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.38, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $19.30. Workers covered by union contracts usually had higher earnings.

Related Occupations

Other workers who set up and operate production machinery include prepress technicians and workers; printing machine operators; machine setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic; and various other precision machine operators.

Sources of Additional Information

Information about apprenticeships and other training opportunities may be obtained from local printing industry associations, local bookbinding shops, local offices of the Graphic Communications International Union, or local offices of the State employment service.

For general information on bindery occupations, write to:

For information on careers and training programs in printing and the graphic arts, contact:

  • Graphic Arts Education and Research Foundation, 1899 Preston White Dr., Reston, VA 20191-5468. Internet: http://www.makeyourmark.org/
  • Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, 200 Deer Run Rd., Sewickley, PA 15143.
  • NPES The Association for Suppliers of Printing Publishing, and Converting Technologies, 1899 Preston White Dr., Reston, VA 20191-4367. Internet: http://www.npes.org/education/index.html
  • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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