18th Century Trade Binding


One of the first full leather bindings that I did at NBSS was a calfskin binding in the style of trade bindings popular in the 18th Century. The textblock is sewn on single raised cords that are laced into the boards. The leather is sprinkled and tooled in a style that is known as the “Cambridge Panel”.

I’m going to admit upfront that I don’t know all that much about the history of this style of binding. I know that they are common for the period, as they are quick to execute and, depending on the extent of decoration, were probably rather inexpensive for a full leather binding. I will venture to guess that a lot of the form in this structure evolved from demand for print and speed of production, availability of materials, and working conditions within the binding trade at the time. Since a great deal of information surrounding the book trade in England and France in the 18th century is still up for debate, and we are working with completely different materials today, this model is really a poor approximation/composite derived from examining secondary sources and historical examples. In the end, it probably looks and acts very differently from an authentic binding of the period.

A list of references will appear at the end of this post. If you wish to learn more about this style of binding, I encourage you to read some of those – or attend one of Jeff Peachey’s lectures or workshops on the subject. The NY Chapter of the GBW has a nice review of one of those workshops here.

With those caveats, onto the discussion of how I produced this model. I started by folding down sheets of Gutenberg laid paper to make sections. Rather than relying exclusively on pressing to condense the textblock, traditionally the sections are beaten with a large hammer on a marble slab.  The beating compresses the paper and allows the sections to form into one another.  After pressing, the kettle sewing stations are sawed in and the endsheets added before sewing onto single cords. For this model, I made endsheets composed of a single folio of marbled paper nestled inside a single folio of plain paper. The literature, however, describes a few variations for endsheet structures.

For larger books, there would be more sewing supports; however, this model is extremely small, so I stuck with five. This textblock was sewn without pre-punching the sections. The textblock was then rounded and backed.

Book board during this time period was very different from the manufactured board we typically use today. To give the book a more appropriate feel, pasteboards were made from cotton linters using Alan Puglia’s  method (1996). Rather than making two separate boards the size of the book, I made a single large board and cut it in half, holding the knife at a 45 degree angle. This produced two boards, each with a bevel that would fit into the shoulder of the textblock. The picture below was taken before the final spine shaping, but illustrates the cut of the boards.

The ends of the sewing supports were frayed out, and twisted to points with a bit of paste and the boards are laced on. My model is done in more of a French style, so the lacing is done in a 3-hole pattern common to French bindings. English bindings from this period make use of a two-hole lacing pattern.
With the French board lacing, the cord on the inside of the boards can be “cross-mounted”, so that the end threads back under itself and is essentially locked in place. The lacing is hammered on a hard, flat surface to close up the holes and flatten the boards.

Bindings from this period exhibit a range of different spine linings: from no linings at all, linings at just the head and tail panels, to full parchment transverse spine linings. I went with the latter, but cutting the parchment into a comb shape that passes through the lacing, rather than fighting with individual patches (see above and below). According to some of the manuals, these parchment linings were put on before backing the book. That seems really difficult to me, so I ended up rounding and backing mine a bit before lining, then finishing the spine shaping off as I was adhering the parchment.

When the spine is shaped and lined, the plain and marbled folios of the endsheets are made together with wheat starch paste and left to dry under weight. Now it’s time for trimming and edge decoration. The head and tail of the textblock are plowed in boards, shifting the boards down a board thickness each time to create a square. Next, the boards are pulled back and wooden trindles are pushed between the boards and spine to temporarily flatten the round out.

The fore-edge is plowed and the trindles removed to reshape the spine. The fore-edges of the boards can then be trimmed to the appropriate length in the plow.

As for edge decoration, I know of four styles that were popular during this period and ranged in price: all edges red, sprinkled, marbled, or gilded. Vermilion was most likely the pigment used to create red edges – but since that substance is toxic, I decorated my edges with watercolor. After edge decoration, single core, two-color endbands are sewn on (pictured far below).

At this point, the textblock is ready and now the leather must be prepared. A piece of undyed calfskin is cut out, leaving about 1″ for the turn-ins, and is marked up for paring.  After edge-paring with the knife, I created a long bevel out along the edges of the leather and thinned the spine area using a modified spokeshave. This is not an 18th c. tool, but it certainly makes life easier. After paring, the leather is dyed to an appropriate brown with analine or sellaset dye.

The covering process is unremarkable, except for the corners. In a modern leather binding, careful attention is given to mitering the corners and doing the turn-ins so that where the leather meets at the corners does not show. For this model, the corners are just cut with scissors after the leather is turned in. Crude, but quick. After covering, the book is tied up for 10-15 minutes to make sure the leather is adhered around the raised bands.

After drying overnight between felts, the book is opened and the joints are set.

A few of the bindings that I have seen from this period have either leather patches or are covered with two or more joined pieces of skin. I thought I would give the process a try with this model, so I selected a piece of calfskin for covering that had two sizable holes. After covering, I pared around the edges of those holes and inlayed more dyed calf. The result was not totally seamless, but is was more or less effective and ends up looking way better after decoration and polishing.

The Cambridge panel design for this binding is created through sprinkling the leather and then tooling it. As with the edge decoration, I have foregone the traditional chemicals for sprinkling in favor of black leather dye. The panel design is created through a series of templates that can be easily lifted away.

The boards are opened and the textblock is placed in a lying press. After masking off the area around the book…

… the two center panels are placed on the boards. Not wanting to spray leather dye all over good weights, I taped some old piano tuning pins together to hold my panels down.

The leather is then lightly sprinkled evenly across the areas of board and spine that are exposed. Now the inner panel is removed and the outer-most panel is placed on. A little tent is also made to shield the spine. The inner-most panel is heavily sprinkled with dye. The result looks like this:

I got a little overzealous with the brush and ended up with a few large dots; ideally the sprinkling would be much finer.

The tooling pattern is fairly simple, but with a great deal of variation in historical examples. Using double or triple line fillet, pin-dot rolls, or other decorative rolls, the sprinkled panels are outlined. Fleurons typically appear at the corners of the outer panel. Here is a photo taken after the first set of lines.

 The edges of the boards are often tooled as well, either in blind or gilt. I used a decorative roll with a floral design that is wider than the board thickness.

I decorated the spine with double gilt lines on the sides of the bands and a red lettering piece.

Titling on 18th century books is done with handle letters rather than a type holder, so there is a bit of movement in the letters. It also appears that most finishers didn’t plan out their titling before starting, so their spacing and layout seems very odd to the modern reader. I copied the titling for my model from this first edition of Candide from 1759.

After the finishing, the pastedowns are adhered inside the boards. Since this is a tight joint binding, this structure of endsheet comes up short at the fore-edge, giving pretty uneven squares. The paper pictured below comes from  The Marbler’s Apprentice. This is one of their older papers, so the pattern is a bit too large for the size of this book; however, I understand that they are now offering these same papers in smaller patterns as well.


I’m thankful that the long weekend has given me some time  to put together a post for November. As always, I have a number of other topics in the works – stay tuned.


Bennett, S. (2004). Trade bookbinding in the British Isles, 1660-1800 (1st ed.). New Castle, Del.: British Library.

Dudin, M. (1977). The art of the bookbinder and gilder. Leeds: The Elemente Press.

Gauffencourt, J. (1987). Traite de la relivre des livres: A bilinqual treatise on bookbinding. Austin: W. Thomas Taylor.

Hobson, A. (1954). The literature of bookbinding. Cambridge: University Press.

Pearson, D. (2005). English bookbinding styles 1450-1800 : a handbook. London: British Library ;

Pollard, G., & Potter, E. (1984). Bookbinding manuals: An annotated list of technical accounts of bookbinding to 1840. Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society.

Puglia, A. (1996). Pasteboards. The Book and Paper Group Annual, 15. Retrieved from http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v15/bp15-13.html


8 thoughts on “18th Century Trade Binding

  1. I’ve been binding books for a while, but am relatively new to dying my own leather. I see that your leather has a few splotches, a lot like mine does. These make me paranoid since they’re not “perfect.” How does one approach this from an aesthetic stance: are they typical of trade bindings and avoided in “fine” bindings, or are they just part of the process of working with leather?

    1. Hi Andrew,

      My uneven dye job on this book is not typical of trade binding at all. A lot of bindings from this period do look kind of “splotchy” – but a lot of that is just deterioration from the chemicals sprinkled during finishing as decoration. I don’t know much about leather production during the 18th C, but I assume skins were prepared/dyed en masse in vats or rotating drums. This would give the surface a pretty even color.

      I dyed this skin through direct application of dye with a sponge. This is very difficult to do evenly on calfskin – mostly because it takes the color so readily. Goat skin, in my experience, is far easier to dye in this way because it takes a couple of passes to take the color. This gives you more of an opportunity to smooth out the “rough spots”. If you are looking to achieve a very even color in your leather, I would suggest looking into getting an airbrush or other spray delivery. Even cheap pump spray bottles could work – as long as they give you a fine, even spray. Hope that helps!

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