Limp Leather Bindings


In this post I’m going to discuss limp leather case bindings. This style is  perfect for rebinding books of a specific dimension – mainly flexible, pocket-sized volumes (with no shoulder) like language dictionaries and some versions of the New Testament. These case bindings fall at the end of the first year in the NBSS curriculum, since they require a great deal precise leather paring, but no hot tooling.

For my first, I started out with a damaged copy of Kipling’s Kim that I found at the Brattle Book Shop. The front board was missing entirely and the red leather was extensively red rotted.

Very little of the gold decoration on the spine remained. The back board was also completely detached.

This volume came from a set, published by MacMillan and Co. in the early 20th century and probably originally looked like this one:

My time-ravaged copy included a rather interesting addition, however. Tucked inside the pages, I found this very brittle envelope.

The envelope contained a small silver gelatin print of Zamzama (also known as Kim’s Gun).

This edition is not difficult to find or very valuable, so I had no qualms with rebinding it. I discarded the remaining board and mechanically removed the leather from the spine after softening the adhesive with a methyl cellulose poultice. The blank flyleaves from the old endpapers were skinned off and also discarded. The original sewing was still in good shape, so I left it intact. New single-folio endsheets of Hahnemuhle Gutenberg were tipped on at the front and back. The spine was then re-lined with an aero cotton extended lining.

These are case bindings, so the cover is made off the book. The boards are simply 20pt Bristol board, with the hard edges and corners taken down using sandpaper. There are no endbands and the squares are very small. You can basically cut the boards to the width of the textblock – so that when they are pushed out slightly from the shoulder of the textblock to make a joint space, a small square is created. With the boards in place on the book, a scrap of paper is used to measure the spine and joint width. That measurement and the placement of the boards is transferred to the flesh side of the leather with a grease pencil or china marker. I also cut a spine piece out of thicker paper (like Dove Gray) that is the width of the textblock spine and the height of the boards.

We used goat skin to cover these volumes. The majority of the paring was first done in the Scharf-fix, flat paring the skin down to about 0.5 mm. The remainder of the paring was done by hand.

The paring for a limp leather bindings is quite a challenge; any irregularities in the paring can be seen and felt through the thin boards and across the turn-in areas of the spine. With the paring knife, all four sides of the leather are pared so that the turn-ins are a long bevel that goes down to absolutely nothing. The length and angle of the bevel should be gradual enough that a change in thickness is imperceptible when running your fingers across the leather. The headcap areas are cut at a gentle crescent, but also have a smooth bevel that goes down to nothing. While paring, I constantly check the consistency of the paring by laying the leather (grain-side up) on the litho stone and running my fingers across it. If any bumps or ridges are detected, I go back and smooth them out with the knife. Similarly, I will sometimes fold the pared area in half and run it between my thumb and index finger to feel for irregularities. This process can take a long time to get right the first couple of times.

When the leather finally feels right, it is dampened from the grain side, flipped over, and pasted out. While the paste is soaking in, the textblock is wrapped in plastic wrap (“cling film” for anyone in the UK). The first layer of paste is scraped off the leather with scrap board and a new, thin coat of paste applied. The spine piece and boards are then placed onto the leather according to the marks. At this point I’ll put it on the book and check to make sure everything looks right. Adjustments can be easily made at this point.

The next step is to do the corners – which we did in the English style. The leather is mitered at a 45 degree angle, cutting down at about 30 degrees, and about a board thickness and a half away from the board corner. The leather is then scooped out a bit right at the corner to make it thin enough to pleat. Now the head and tail turn-ins are done. The very tips of the corners are pleated down, and the fore-edge turn-ins are done – being careful to match up the miters of the corner so that they make a smooth surface on the inside of the boards.  The finished cover is then wrapped around the textblock to dry.

The plastic wrap keeps the moisture from the leather from penetrating the textblock and warping the paper. The damp leather is extremely easy to mark up at this stage, so the whole package is then wrapped in felt and placed under a light weight to dry.

I left mine to sit overnight – but, depending on the environmental conditions, the cover will probably be dry in a couple of hours. When it’s ready, it can be decorated. I did not know how to do any tooling at this point, so I titled it in the Kwik Print.

This “terracotta” goatskin from Harmatan colors very nicely, so I did the stamping in blind rather than with foil. I built a little jig out of binders board to hold the cover in place on the platen of the Kwik print. I then dampened the leather a bit and with the temperature pretty low on the hot stamp, I would make a quick impression and see how much color came out. I would then dampen a bit more and repeat, being careful not to burn or blacken the leather, until an even impression was achieved.

These bindings also typically have a little blind rule that goes around the head, tail and fore-edge of the boards.

These lines were actually done with a bone folder. After gently marking out the lines with dividers and the bone folder on dry leather, the leather is evenly dampened with a cotton ball. The line is then marked again with the tip of the folder. The moisture and pressure are enough to make a permanent, dark line in the skin. This is the result.

The minimal spine lining gives the book a very flexible opening.

I also used this structure to rebind a small, well-used New Testament, that I believe was a gift as part of the client’s confirmation.

The original imitation leather cover and endsheets had become quite stiff and had cracked in several places. Once again, the sewing was intact and only minor page repairs were required.

The greatest thing about this being a case binding, is the ease with which one can title or decorate the new covers. Here I was able to reproduce the titling and name stamping in gold foil, once again, using with the Kwik Print.

This is a project that Jeff just demonstrated one afternoon, and I’m not sure if it can be attributed to anyone in particular. I have not seen any articles or handouts on this particular structure, so I have no other resources to point to for further reading. If you have encountered other instructions on making this structure, please leave a comment.


I’m working through these as quickly as I can.  Basically I have loads of pictures of different finished projects – I just have to find the time to sit down and write about them. Thank you for being patient. Upcoming posts: Sewing models, atlas and album structures, springback account books, parchment over boards, 18th century trade binding, rounded spine leather box, and flag books!



8 thoughts on “Limp Leather Bindings

    1. I don’t think I’ve seen that one… will have to try and get my hands on it. Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. I’ll photocopy it and the sections in Vaughn and Mason and send them to you if you want. The English method of ledger binding is different to the German.

      2. I’ve got the Vaughn, but I haven’t read Mason. You could even just email me a scan. I would greatly appreciate it!

  1. Can’t seem to find 20 point bristol board in Canada (shipping from US is prohibitive). Do you think glueing (pva) two pieces of Strathmore 500 Series Bristol 23×29 3 Ply Vellum cross grain would work?

    1. Sure- you can definitely laminate up some thinner material to get the thickness of board you would need. I’m not familiar with this Strathmore 3 ply, but 2 layers of regular file folder material would probably do the trick. I tend to avoid laminating any material cross-grain, because I think it’s more difficult to control the final shape of the board after covering. If the grain of all the material runs parallel to the spine then you get a predictable cupping, which can be compensated for in covering and with the pastedowns. If the boards are made cross-grain, I find the pull kind of happens at diagonal corners and I can never get them flat again. Hope that helps!

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