Leather Case Bindings


Having just returned from a bookbinding pilgrimage to London, I’ve got loads to share about the many wonders we witnessed across the seas. But in the meantime as I sift through the trip photos, I’m going to try to get through a few quick posts about recent projects.

I thought an appropriate sequel to and co-mingling of the posts on case bindings and paper marbling would be to share the two leather case bindings that I finished using the textblocks with marbled edge treatment. In both cases, I used siding-up paper pulled from the same tray as the edges to get a marbled-all-over look. The results are a little over the top in that 19th century account book sort of way, but exude a certain degree of, shall we say, opulence.

I started out with the same basic form of textblock that I’ve used in other case bindings. The sections are sewn on flattened cord with a thick enough thread to get some swell. For these books I used an endpaper structure that included a waste sheet. As the leather is worked damp, I wanted to avoid any dye transfer to the endpapers during covering.

After sewing, the textblock was glued up and rounded and backed. The textblock forwarding did distort the edge marbling a bit: I ended up with a bit of stair-stepping on the fore-edge that produced some white lines through the pattern. I imagine this effect would be reduced if my rounding and backing were better. Practice, practice!

The case is constructed in much the same way as the “built-in” groove or Bradel-style case: a stiff spine strip adhered to strong paper that is attached to the boards before covering, with enough space between the spine and boards for an open joint. The leather-covered case structure has two adaptations: increased joint spacing to accommodate the thicker leather and a bit of a headcap “cheat” known as the Bart. To achieve this feature, the spine strip material is trimmed slightly longer than the height of the boards and given a rounded shape with many, small darts. The final shape looks like Bart Simpson’s head – thus the nickname. I failed to get a picture, but here is the diagram from my notes to illustrate.

A horizontal score line at the tips of the darts allow the shape to fold over after covering – but more on that later.

Arthur Johnson’s Manual of Bookbinding (1978) has a nice description of covering a quarter or half binding with an open joint (pp. 108-114). The method I used for covering and finishing these case bindings was similar, except for the formation of the headcaps and, of course, being done off the book. As a first year, I’m still grappling with the very basics of leather paring and covering. Quarter or half-style covering are excellent starting points for me because most of the paring can be done on the Scharf-Fix, and the pieces of leather are not very large – so any mistakes aren’t all that expensive. After flat paring the leather for the spine and the corners to the same thickness as my in-filling material (~0.5mm), I further pared the turn-ins German-style to a thickness that would easily hold a fold. Linda Blaser and Frank Mowery’s handout from the 1998 GBW Standards seminar has a good description of German paring with the Scharf-Fix (found here). As a final step, the head and tail turn-ins of the spine strip are further shaped and “feathered” out with the knife.

The leather is evenly dampened from the hair side with a sponge, thickly pasted up (with flour paste), and set aside for a moment. The paste is then carefully scraped off with a bit of board and a new thin layer of paste is applied. The corners and spine of the case are then covered and the headcaps set with the textblock in the case.

Of covering with leather, Johnson (1978) says, ” Leather is an amenable material: it can be modeled while wet and will retain its shape on drying. However, it is marked easily in its wet state and excessive use of the folder will cause scoring” (p. 108). I learned this lesson all too well while covering these books, and lo, it was a painful one to learn.

The headcaps made with “the Bart” are satisfying because they hug the endbands well, although I’ve got some improvements to make on mine.  Like many aspects of bookbinding, unrefined work early on compounds as you go along; Uneven and asymmetrical paring with the knife results in headcaps that are puffier on one side than the other.

The same headcap from the back.

When the leather has had ample time to dry, the case is then ready for siding up.  I did not edge pare the leather that goes down onto the board, and because it is quite thick. The face of each board must be in-filled to the same height so as to avoid unsightly lumps in the transition from leather to siding up material.  As a finishing touch to these case bindings, also I tooled thin, blind lines where the leather meets the siding up paper at both the corners and the spine edges. The image below shows some detail.


In the queue, I’ve got split board bindings, German paper bindings, a portfolio production, limp leather bindings, and our trip to England. Your patience, Gentle Reader, soon will be rewarded!


Blaser, L. & Mowery, J. F. (1998). “English and German Style Leather Paring. Guild of Book Worker Standards of Excellence Seminar, Greensboro, NC.

Johnson, A. W. (1978). Manual of Bookbinding. New York: Scribner.

Paper Marbling Workshop


Recently, we spent a fun-filled couple of days with the Chena River Marblers, Regina and Dan St. John. With over 25 years of experience marbling, Regina and Dan have been coming to NBSS for some time now to teach the first years the basics of marbling and to instruct the second years in more advanced techniques. They also often teach one and two day workshops at their studio in western Massachusetts (see their website for details).

Marbled paper has a long and rich history, with various materials and techniques employed across Asia and Europe. At present, I know very little about that history, but have been finding Richard Wolfe’s book on the subject to be a handy reference (1). Regina and Dan instructed us in a modern method of marbling that makes use of surprisingly simple materials. Described briefly, acrylic paint is dropped onto the surface of an aqueous solution of Carrageenan (a polysaccharide extracted from seaweed) and manipulated to create a pattern. Next, paper coated with alum (the mordant) is laid onto the surface to transfer the pattern. Marbling is such a fun and fascinating process; I took quite a few pictures of the demonstrations and the many  papers that I produced.

The following photos will outline the process for a kind of swirled pattern. First the surface of the bath is cleaned with a strip of newsprint.

Then colors are dripped onto the surface…

… and swirled with a stylus.

The paper is then applied to the surface with a smooth motion. I managed to take a load of sequential photos of Regina placing the paper and thought it would be fun to make a simple animation using state-of-the-art technology from 1995. Click here to watch!

The paper is pulled from the bath, set on an angled board, and rinsed with water. The water drains into the waste tray and into a bucket placed below. I also made a simple animation of that action (why, I don’t know…) that you can view here.

So many patterns and styles of marbled paper have evolved over the centuries, but Regina only had time to show us the most basic of them. By far, the easiest to produce is the stone pattern – in which the paint is either dropped directly from the narrow spout of the bottle or tapped from a brush to create many overlapping circles of color. Here are some examples that I produced. First a larger pattern…

… and then some smaller ones.

I cannot wait to use these to make some 19th century German-style paper bindings.

Apart starting from the random stone pattern, one can also create a bullseye pattern.

Below is a rather psychedelic bullseye pattern that I produced. I enjoyed using acrylic paint mixed with Photo-Flo to disperse the color, creating large holes in the color and allow the paper to show through.

These stone or bull’s-eyes can be manipulated with a stylus to produce a nice swirl pattern. Below are three examples that I made.

As a novice, I find it very difficult to fully anticipate how the color of the paper will affect the color of the paint. Often I’m going for a subtle melding of color and end up producing some garish monstrosity. The two examples below were made using the same color paint but on different papers (white and blue). I find the difference in results fascinating.

One can also use combs to produce a huge variety of patterns. Below is an example of a Rake comb that Dan made. The shape allows the comb to be used across both the long and short dimensions of the tray, with the tray sides acting as guides to produce straight and even lines. Apologies for the blur – but you get the idea.

Running the Rake up and down the tray in one direction achieves a pattern like the one below – although this one is slightly distorted by a fine stone pattern in white on top.

Building upon the previous pattern: by using the Rake back and forth one time in a cross direction, one can achieve the Git-Gel pattern (seen below).

The Non-Peril comb has tines that are much closer together and these can be used to augment the patterns above.

Additionally, the combed pattern can be swirled with the stylus. The example below started as a Git-Gel – it also is an example of a paper that ends up way brighter than expected.

I also experimented with going back with the rake to make somewhat of a combed French Swirl. Some worked out better than others.

Another technique that Regina illustrated was the Moiré.

This pattern is produced by kind of rocking the paper as it goes down, and is definitely not as easy as it looks.My attempts came out a bit weird.

Finally, Dan demonstrated a method for marbling the edges of books. I was particularly excited about this for our upcoming quarter-leather case bindings, so I prepped two textblocks the day before. In order to marble all three edges, one must clamp unsewn sections (or a textblock with absolutely no swell) up in boards that fit the book exactly. The edges are coated in alum and then applied to the surface of the carrageenan, using one corner as a pivot and tilting it down until the entire surface is contacted. Placing a slip of newsprint over the space where the edge contacted the paint keeps the remainder of the pattern in the bath from distorting. I made a brief animation of this process, seen here. But the result looks like this:

Regina and Dan were wonderful instructors and really helped to maximize our working time. At the end of the day, each of us had produced 30 or more papers. Since we go through so much decorative paper for models or production projects, this workshop was quite a boon to us.

In learning the basics of marbling with acrylics, I discovered that while it is relatively easy to get a nice looking paper, it is extremely difficult to reproduce a given pattern consistently. Not only has this given me more of an appreciation for quality marbled paper, it has illustrated the unique value of being able to just purchase multiple sheets of the same paper when needed. I will never complain about the cost of marbled paper again!


Well folks, I am falling so far behind with this blog lately. I have pictures of at least 6 projects just sitting in a folder, waiting to go. As the year is winding to a close, either our projects are accelerating or we are just taking on multiple projects simultaneously. Regardless, I’ve got to step it up! Split-board structures, a portfolio production project, Lapped-component, and Paper bindings are all on their way. I’ve also finished some interesting repair projects that I will share eventually. Stay tuned!


Wolfe, R. J. (1990). Marbled Paper : Its History, Techniques, and Patterns : With Special Reference to the Relationship of Marbling to Bookbinding in Europe and the Western World. Philadelphia, PA: U. of Pennsylvania Press.