Unibind thermal binding for photo albums

October 6, 2013 by David

9 March 2009

What to do with those prints

Unibind thermal binding heater

For many people, the rise of digital has breathed new life into photography, especially for keen amateurs. It’s not just the hi tech gear or low shot-to-shot costs but also the ease of editing using programs like Photoshop and the convenience of desktop printing using inkjets. No more inconvenient, messy and smelly darkrooms full of noxious chemicals and the pain of stumbling around in the dark. Now we can shoot freely, process easily and print convenienly – much of the time without leaving the comfort of our chairs.

However, there is a price to pay for the ease by which we can churn out prints. And the price is not just monetary. In the old days, most people who printed larger than postcard size did so occasionally. For most of us, darkroom work was too time-consuming, hard work and inconvenient. Professional labs were too expensive to justify printing large numbers of prints. But inkjets have changed all that. We can print relatively cheaply and (mostly) effortlessly. And print we do. Sooner or later, a terrible truth dawns… what to do with all those prints!

The traditional home for the photographic print (with the exception of the lucky few that got framed and hung on the wall) was the family photoalbum or an old shoebox. Large inkjet prints are more difficult to deal with. There are a number of possible solutions both commercial and DIY including: boxfiles, portfolio boxes, loose-leaf binders with clear plastic pages, post-punched albums and the like. You could even get your photos professionally stitch bound – for a price. What is missing is an attractive way to affordably make book quality portfolios.

Enter thermal binding…

What is thermal binding? Thermal binding is a bookmaking system often used by businesses to publish short runs of reports, presentations and the like that are produced in small quantities that wouldn’t be economical to send out to a printer but which need to be of a quality not that far removed form traditional hardback and paperback books – where simple loose leaf binding won’t do. There are various systems on the market and this article looks at the Unibind system.


Unibind call their system “Steelbinding”. The heart of the system is a U-shaped section metal channel that forms the spine of the book. The outside of the spine is covered with the finish material of the book. The inside of the channel is filled with a thermal glue that is solid when cold but melts when heated. The spine is metal not just for stength but also for its thermal qualities.

To make a book, you need a steel spine, front and back covers (and of course the content pages). You also need a heat source. For the impecunious it is possible to use a hot plate or domestic iron to heat the spine but while doable, this is not recommended. The best solution is to buy one of the Unibind heaters. They are rather expensive for what they do but they make the process a lot easier. I don’t believe there is anything unique about the Unibind heaters so it’s possible that heaters from other manufacturers would work just as well if you can find a cheaper one [if anyone has experience of trying third party heaters, drop me a line and I’ll add your comments to this article].

Making the book

Take one steel spine in an appropiate finish. Take the pages (in our case, photos). Align the pages, then slide them into the steel spine. Insert a front and back cover board, tap gently to align everything then place the spine onto the binding heater. This heats the metal spine for a minute or so, which transfers the heat to the glue and melts it, binding the pages together and to the spine. You then leave the newly bound book to cool. It takes about 3-5 minutes to make a book and if you make a mistake or need to remove or add pages, you can re-heat the spine and start again.

It’s a simple process and after you have made a couple, very easy to do, even for novices.


Results are impressive: much more like a real book than any commercial album, binder, portfolio or post bind systen. You can get quite fancy if you wish, adding coverpages, artists statement, index, tracing paper separators, anything you like. With a bit of care the results can be very professional.


The main problem I experienced is the heavy, thick inflexible paper that is usually used for fine art inkjet printing. Once bound, it is reluctant to lie flat. You don’t notice this when the book is handed to you closed, it looks very professional. However, if you open the book and lay it down, the thick pages tend to spring upwards rather than lie flat. This is purely and issue with the paper used, rather than the steelbinding. You can print on thin flexible paper to overcome this issue but then the prints don’t look as nice. I’m told that there are paper creasers available that part score the paper to make a “hinge” – the pages will then lie flat. I haven’t explored this solution yet but I have tried a DIY solution that works but is less than ideal. I cut a centimetre strip off the right hand edge of each page and attach it with tape to the left hand edge. This makes a flexible hinge that allows the pages to lie completely flat.


Thermal Bound books

Unibind offer a number of options for covers. You can buy card covers, transparent plastic covers or hard covers with various finishes. You can even buy ready made spine/front/rear cover units into which you just insert the pages. For my use I have found the A4 landscape and A3 landscape versions most convenient. I picked up my binding heater as part of a job lot from ebay that included complete covers, separate steelspines, spines with transparent covers, in various formats, thicknesses and finishes so I was lucky enough to be able to experiment.

Information from Unibind:


The Unibind system offers an interesting alternative to cnventional photo albums. The system allows you to easily bind hardback and softback photobooks to your own design

There are a wide range of options for sizes, book thicknesses, book format, cover materials and colour. Very smart looking results.

Books can easily be unbound. Perfect for archiving a collection of prints, better than typical retail photoalbums. For thin, flexible paper, makes convincing alternative to tradtional bookbinding. For thick Art paper, a solution to the won’t lie flat problem is required.The cost for the steel backs and covers is very reasonable, the cost of the heating machines seems less so, given what they are.



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