Parchment Over Boards

Bookbinding, Workshops

Back in February, Peter Geraty came to NBSS to teach a two-day workshop with the second years on parchment over boards bindings. Parchment has a reputation for being somewhat unruly as a binding material, and the goal of Peter’s workshop was to provide us with a system by which we could more easily work with the material. In general, it was a fun couple of days and my confidence in using parchment on stiff board bindings has greatly increased.

These bindings are elegant and particularly satisfying binding to handle. The covers are cool to the touch and the visual texture of the skin is eye-catching. They are quite durable, chemically stable, and take gold tooling well. Parchment is hygroscopic, however, and dimensionally unstable (Wood, 1995).  For this reason, covering stiff boards with parchment and keeping them flat can be quite challenging. It is much easier to use parchment in a limp, non adhesive structure (see my post on those here). When the book is finished, it must be stored at a stable temperature and relative humidity to keep the boards from warping.

Unfortunately, I was too busy trying to finish my model over those two days to take any photos during the binding process. Therefore, I will just share images of the finished binding and include a brief description of Geraty’s method of construction at the end. Peter Verheyen has written a well-illustrated procedure for parchment over boards (see link at bottom), but as a case structure, rather than with the lacing that I will describe.

Spine and fore-edge views.

A view of the open joint, showing the lacing of the sewing and endband supports.

A detail image of the sewn endband and headcap.

The endsheets.


In the first step, we chose parchment for our book and cut it to size, leaving ~2.5 cm for turn-ins. Like the limp bindings, the thickness of the skin should be based on the size of the book. The skin that we used was quite thin and flexible, however, the opening may end up stiffer than one would like for a book of this size. We lined the flesh side of the parchment with text weight paper, using high bloom gelatin as an adhesive (available from Kramer).  The paper lining reduces the transparency of the parchment (which will keep the color of the boards from showing through after covering) and stabilizes the skin, making it easier to work with later. Animal-derived glues are recommended for this step, as they are most similar to the character of the parchment and keep the moisture (and distortion) to a minimum.The laminate is then placed between Hollytex or Reemay and blotters and left under weight to dry overnight.

As the parchment dried, we prepped the textblock and boards. The endsheets for this model are a single folio of Hahnemuhle Ingres, hooked over a single folio of text paper. We also tipped Japanese paper hinges to the inside spine edge of the first and last sections; some binders call these loose guards, but I’m sure there are other names for them. The sections are sewn on 4 narrow (2 mm) parchment slips. Historical examples of this style of binding that I have seen are often sewn on much wider parchment slips. The binder would often then split the support at the shoulder, so that only a narrow portion of the tape laces through the cover at the joint. For a model of such small dimensions, wider sewing supports were not warranted. After sewing, the free ends of the Japanese paper guards are adhered to endsheets.

The textblock is squared up, the spine is pasted up with wheat starch paste, and the fore-edge trimmed. The book is rounded and backed, creating a 45° shoulder, and the head and tail edges are trimmed. If the book was getting edge decoration, now would be the time to do it. Simple, 2-color silk endbands (with a bead on the front) were sewn on two layers of 2 mm parchment for cores. The inner layer of parchment is trimmed to the width of the endband, while the outer is  left long and will lace through the cover with the sewing supports.

When the book is rounded and backed, boards of the appropriate thickness can be constructed to fit the textblock shoulder. Geraty and Verheyen recommend making a “floating” board to control the warp from the parchment. This board is composed of a thicker base board with a thin board tipped to the spine edge (See Verheyen p. 5 for diagram). We used millboard (from Conservation by Design Ltd.) as the base and 10 pt. Bristol board as the thin board. Each were lined on both sides with text-weight paper. The boards were nipped in the press and left to dry under weight. When ready, they are cut to the size of the book and the thin board is tipped to the thicker with PVA.

The spine of the textblock is patch-lined with muslin and a hollow tube of handmade paper is adhered over that. After trimming the hollow to height, it is slit down the shoulder about 2 cm at the head and tail to allow for the turn-ins. The boards are attached to the textblock by putting dots of PVA on the extended muslin lining and putting the boards in place (leaving an open joint). This weak attachment is only temporary, and serves to hold the boards in place during the covering process.

The parchment must be marked out and prepped a bit before covering. The spine width is measured and transferred onto the parchment. Lines are scored with the bone folder at the spine markings. A Dremel or Foredom Flex Shaft with a sanding drum attachment is used to thin the parchment at the endcap area. This is much easier than trying to pare it with a knife. The spine of the textblock and spine area of the parchment are then brushed out with PVA, and the textblock put into place. After working the parchment down a bit with a teflon folder, the book is placed between press boards made with small dowels that fit the joints. This applies tension to the parchment across the spine and holds the book in place so that it can be really rubbed down with the folder. Proper adhesion is key. The faces of the boards are then glued out with PVA and the parchment is worked into the joint and across the boards. After doing the head and tail turn-ins (and forming the endcaps), the fore-edge turn-ins are done.

The sewing supports and endband cores pass through the covering material at the point of the shoulder and back inside the covers at the edge of the boards. The ends of the parchment lacing are then glued down to the inside of the board. After trimming out the turn-ins, the glue spot attachment between boards and muslin is pulled off. The textile is fully glued out and put down on the inside of the boards. The tapes and muslin are trimmed back and, to finish, the pastedowns of the endsheets are glued out and stuck down.


I keep hinting at the long list of projects that I have yet to write about and post. Rest assured, I’m going to keep ’em coming. Your patience will be rewarded!


Brockman, J. (1993). A Vellum Over Boards Binding. The New Bookbinder, 13, 43-53.

Verheyen, P. D. (2004). Vellum on Boards. Library Publications. Paper 16. (available for download here)

Wood, C. (1995). Conservation Treatments for Parchment Documents. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 16(2), 221-237.


School’s Out


Well folks, graduation happened on the first of this month. My time at NBSS has come to an end!

That doesn’t mean the magic is going to stop here, however. I still have many more projects to post. I’m working hard to get all my images in order to speed that process along. The blog will continue for a while yet… here is just a taste of things to come!

Portraits in Preservation


Kevin Driedger is a preservation librarian/conservator at the Library of Michigan and runs a very interesting blog titled Library Preservation 2. I’ve been reading this since he rebooted it a couple of years back and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Most recently, Kevin has been doing a series called “Portraits in Preservation”, in which notable figures in library preservation, conservation, and education answer questions about their experiences and approaches to the field. They have been wonderful to read, so when he asked me to write one for the “student edition” to be posted during Preservation Week, I was more than happy to do so. You can read my entry here.

I am really looking forward to future installments of this series. The preservation community is not all that big, but incredibly diverse. Also, because of the nature of the training and work, individuals within the community are almost guaranteed to be interesting!

Fine Binding


The second year curriculum is basically all leather binding and, just before Christmas, we get into the French style of fine binding. Lindsay’s Fine Binding: A Technical Guide is essentially the assigned text on the subject, because there is probably no other source out there that is so well written with clear pictures of each step. Jeff, however, tends to demonstrate the structure that he learned from Tini Miura and my binding was done using that method. This post is mostly just to share pictures of some of my work – I won’t go into so much detail on this structure or the steps. Fine binding is so complex and I am still learning about it. If you want to learn how to do a fine binding, I suggest that you read Lindsay’s book and then get one-on-one instruction. This kind of thing would be incredibly difficult to learn on your own.

My first fine binding is The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar.

I read this book after listening to Theressa Smith’s presentation at AIC last year on the treatment performed on Yourcenar’s typescript for L’Oeuvre Au Noir. You can read a summary of that talk here. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and thought it would be nice to do my fine binding on a first printing of the English translation by Grace Frick.

The binding is fully covered in black Harmatan goat skin with gilded lead set in the boards and gold tooling. There is a pasted-in leather hinge and the pastedowns and flyleaves are marbled paper. The endbands are sewn on a square core of laminated parchment and leather.

All three edges are graphite.

I will very briefly go over the underlying structure. In addition to the endsheets, a temporary section is made up and sewn on. The book is sewn on five German linen tapes.

The endsheet sections are made of black paper, so I changed over to black thread the front and back of the textblock to keep the sewing a bit more hidden in the gutter.

Mill board is laminated to the thickness of the shoulder and cut to size. After rounding and backing, the tapes are frayed out and laced into the boards.

The ends of the lacing get flattened out on the inside of the board.

After the book is plowed and the edges decorated, we cap-up the textblock with paper (above) in order to protect the edge decoration through the rest of the process. The spine of the book is heavily lined with paper using hide glue and paste. Those layers are then almost completely sanded away, giving you a perfectly smooth and hard spine. This style of binding won’t really open when finished, but that serves to protect the delicate gold tooling that is so common on French bindings. At this point, the boards are shaped (by sanding) and lined with paper so that they are smooth. Fine binding involves a lot of sanding…

The book is covered.

After removing the temporary section at the front and back, a leather hinge is pasted in and trimmed out.

Then the marbled paper is put down on the inside of the boards and made to the flyleaf. That paper is then trimmed down.

Sorry to keep the description so brief, but this is just a preview of the technique. I know so little about it and the different approaches to fine binding that I will not attempt to detail it further. I will say, though, that fine binding is not my favorite thing in the world. One must be so meticulous through every step of the process or the result is rather poor. While it is certainly an exercise in developing oneself as a craftsman, I feel much more comfortable doing conservation and repair. This book will be on display for the NBSS Annual Evening of Craft.


What’s next:

Albums, Springbacks, Parchment over boards, 18th Century trade binding, and much much more! I’ll get to it all one day…


Lindsay, J. (2009). Fine Bookbinding : A Technical Guide. London: British Library.

Sewing Models


Over the two-year program at NBSS, we make a lot of blank books as models that inform our understanding of the book as a moving system. They give us the opportunity to try out different materials and structures to see how they operate. Most of our models are the same size and use the same textblock paper (which is never true for printed books), and we often vary the sewing supports, thickness of thread, and spine linings for each style of binding. This makes it a bit difficult to make exact comparisons of how those variables affect the book action. One interesting (and quick) project that we did at the end of the first year was designed specifically to compare book action for different sewing structures.

This project is inspired by Tom Conroy’s article titled The Movement of the Book Spine (1987). [Disclaimer: Tom actually taught this as a workshop some years back – both here at the school and other places – so these are based on his design, but may not be exactly as he teaches it.] Conroy’s article attempts to isolate and discuss the variables that affect the action of a codex with a rounded spine, including the supports and sewing, height and shape of the round in the spine, and linings. The introduction suggests that one make a series of binding models “in which only one variable at a time is altered” in order to compare them. Obviously that would be a huge number of models, so our project attempted to do so for just the sewing structures.

Over the course of a class day, we made a series of extremely rough, tight-back leather bindings. Each binding was composed of the same number of sections, each with the same number of folios of Mohawk paper. The same thread and number of supports were also used for each, but the type of support and style of sewing were varied.

Two basic types of linen sewing supports were used: German tapes and 6-ply cord. One book block was sewn with 2-hole lap sewing over the tapes (above, top). The next was sewn with loops over single cords (below, top). A third was sewn with packed sewing over single cords (below, bottom). The fourth textblock was sewn with a herringbone linkstitch over double 6-ply cords (above, bottom).

Conroy (1987) notes that the tension of the supports will affect both the shape of the spine and the book action (p. 15).  Too little tension will leave the book loose and somewhat spongy – causing the boards to skew. Too much tension will put the supports are constant strain when the book is rounded and backed. The effect is more pronounced for thongs (animal) than cords (vegetable), as the cord is less elastic (Conroy, p. 15). All sewing was done on a sewing frame in order to achieve proper tension on the supports. The books were also all sewn in one sitting, compressing each section with the bonefolder as we went, in order to be as consistent as possible.

The spines were all glued-up with hide glue and rounded and backed to get a 90 degree shoulder. Davey board was cut to the size of the textblock.

Conroy classifies the spine linings and covering material of the books as either “tension” or “compression” layers (p. 4). When the book is open, layers adhered directly to the spine will be put under tension, while those further out will be compressed (See Conroy’s paper for diagrams). We often line the spines of our books with layers of textile, paper, and/or leather to achieve the right opening for the size of the book and drape of the paper. Paper (in general) produces a much stiffer spine opening, while leather and cloth are more flexible. In order to simplify the spine lining variable, we finished these bindings as tight-backs with leather as the only spine lining.

Small squares of full-thickness leather were cut for each book, dampened, and pasted out with wheat starch paste. After letting the paste soak in for a couple of minutes, the paste was gently scraped off and a new coat applied. A square of leather was then applied to the head and tail of each book, so that it covered all but the center sewing support. The result is kind of like a cut-away model, allowing you to easily see the sewing structure of each book. Note that there are no headcaps; The leather is cut flush to the boards and textblock, and the boards are not back-cornered. Like I said, these are models are quick!

After the leather was applied, the books were tied up in the usual way. A long piece of cord is wrapped on either side of the bands immediately after covering to keep the leather from pulling away as it dried. For the book sewn on double cords, a third wrap was made across the center of each band (see above).  We made some rudimentary tying up boards out of scraps of binders board in order to keep the cord from marking the leather that goes across the face of the board.

The books were allowed to dry and opened the following day. The pictures that follow attempt to show the different openings for each book. While the results are not so visually dramatic, variations in spine flexibility are easily felt through handling. Note the shape of the spine on each.

The spine of the book sewn on tapes throws up a great deal and opens in a “V” shape.

The book below is sewn on single raised cords (unpacked sewing). It’s spine has more of a “U” shape from the stiffer support, but still exhibits high throw-up.

The book sewn on single packed cords, however, has a very different shape from the one above. The packing of the sewing essentially creates a thicker, stiffer support, reducing the throw-up of the textblock.

Finally, the book sewn on double cords has the least amount of throw-up.

These pictures also illustrate how the movement of the spine affects the leaves. As Mohawk is a pretty stiff paper, less throw up from the spine keeps the pages from lying flat.

Essentially, these bindings show that increasing the diameter (profile) of the sewing support will make it stiffer and reduce the throw-up of the textblock (compare tapes to single raised cord sewing). Also, packing the sewing creates a thicker and stiffer support (compare single cords to single packed cords). Increasing the number of sewing supports makes the opening stiffer as well (compare single to double raised cords). I really enjoyed Conroy’s discussion and many diagrams that illustrate these concepts (p. 10).

But why, you may ask, do we spend all this time thinking about the subtle interactions of the materials that comprise a book spine? A book must function in order to be a book. If it doesn’t open, it is essentially a block of paper; if the sewing and adhesive fail, then it is basically a pile of loose sheets. Books that open well, without creating undue strain on the text or covering materials, are more enjoyable to use and will last longer. Whether creating a new binding or repairing a damaged one, by manipulating the sewing, supports, or linings, one can create a customized book action that is sympathetic to the materials. That is just one of the beauties of a handmade book.


I’ve just shown you some of the roughest looking leather bindings you can make, so next in my next post I’ll go in the complete opposite direction with some pictures of my first French-style fine binding.


ConroyTom. (1987). “The Movement of the Book Spine”. AIC Book and Paper Group Annual, 6, 1-30.

Mention in Felt & Wire


Alyson Kuhn wrote a short feature on NBSS and mentioned a recent project of mine. I’ve been promising a post on springbacks for a while now, after rebinding a few ledgers this year. That post is coming – but, as a teaser, ‘Before’ and ‘After’ shots of one of the books appear in the article.

You can read that story here.

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!


Time Travel


Today I’m going to share a beastly, strange, Frankenstein of a book that I did for the “Time Travelers” show at the Asheville Bookworks. You can see an online gallery of the books in that exhibit here.

The time traveling theme was meant to give artists the opportunity to illustrate and respond to the various ways that book structures and materials have changed over time and across geographic regions. I decided to take the prompt a little more literately and ask what would happen to the book itself  if it traveled back in time.

There is a lot of great literature out there about time travel; The Time Machine by H. G. Wells or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court  by Mark Twain immediately spring to mind when I think of stories that follow this theme. I decided, however, that the high points of the genre have probably received too much attention already and that it would be a lot more fun to focus on one of the not-so-great stories. You know – one that nobody would spend time or materials rebinding. Maybe one of those titles that you often find in library book sales or your local thrift shop. Maybe even one that was adapted into video game and a feature film starring Paul Walker and Gerard Butler.

That’s right – I’m talking about Micheal Crichton’s 1999 book Timeline.

My submission to the show is rebound in the Carolingian style, fully covered in deer skin with a brass fastener (made by Kait Kennedy, a jewelry maker here at NBSS).

In the story, a group of history students travel back to medieval France to rescue their professor, Dr. Edward Johnston. After the their teacher disappears, the students find a  600 year old note from Johnston buried in the ruins of a castle and hijinks ensue. I thought it would be fun to make the book look like it had traveled back in time with the characters, but never made the return trip. I also like the juxtaposition of a machine-made, mass-produced piece of popular fiction in a binding from a time in which books were handmade, incredibly expensive, and unique. Technically, the story takes place in the 14th century, and Carolingian bindings are produced from the late eighth to the end of the twelfth centuries (Szirmai, 2000, p. 100) – but I’ve wanted to try one of these bindings for a while, so let’s just ignore the fact that this should be more of a Romanesque binding.

So a bit about the structure of Carolingian bindings, with the caveat that I have absolutely no experience with historical examples. While I’ve examined a hand-full of manuscripts from this period, none were in their original bindings. All my information comes from Szirmai’s chapter. These bindings are a kind of structural transition between the squared-up, leather-covered Ethiopian structures (unsupported chain sewing that also functions as the primary board attachment) and the rounded spine Romanesque  and Gothic bindings (sewing on supports that are laced into heavy wooden boards).

As I said before, this is a Frankenstein of a book – not only content-wise, but because of the way I had to put it together. As many bookbinders know, it can be difficult to find a printing of contemporary literature that is actually sewn folios. Most are either single, adhesive bound sheets, or were folded sections that have been sawed open at the spine for better adhesive penetration. My copy was glued single sheets, so I had to reform the text into sections. Sections can be made by guarding the leaves together with Japanese tissue, but this method often creates a significant amount of swell at the spine of the book. Swell is good if the book is going to be rounded and backed, but because Carolingian bindings have flat spines, I needed absolutely minimal swell. I decided to use a sewing machine to assemble sections.

This method is a little bit crazy and I wouldn’t recommend it for a book that is meant to last – but it is quick and gets the job done. It might depend upon the model of sewing machine that you use, but the one that I used pierced the sewing holes very close together at the widest setting. Doing so effectively perforates the sheet, and since the adhesive probably isn’t going to be penetrating that far, you are creating a good opportunity for mechanical detachment of single leaves later on. Whip-stitching by hand, a common technique used in atlas bindings, would probably be stronger. But this book is for show, not to be read!

Traditionally a binder would probably prepare the boards as their first step (Szirmai, p. 103), then, after sewing, trim the textblock to the size of the boards with a drawknife (p. 119). I trimmed all the sections down in the board sheer to give a kind of rough-cut edge and then prepared the boards. Szirmai reports that a range of wood is used for the boards of extant Carolingian bindings; most are oak, but beech, fruit tree, and poplar are also found (p. 103). Unfortunately, I couldn’t get quarter-sawn oak boards that were large enough in time for the exhibit deadlines, so I had to fake some up by laminating layers of 1/4″ plywood and millboard.

The result was a super-thick board (around 1/2″) that was heavy and hard like wood, but was extremely easy to drill and shape. Szirmai states that the thichness of Carolingian boards (with leather covering) ranges from 7 to 17mm (p. 103). After marking up the board and drilling angled holes for the lacing, channels are cut between the holes so that the laced cord doesn’t sit proud of the board surface. Szirmai provides a range of diagrams on the variations of lacing patterns through the board (p. 107).
 Szirmai (2000) states that cord was used primarily as sewing supports in the Carolingian bindings surveyed, but that white leather thongs are also found in books from France and Italy (p. 112). An extra long length of cord is laced through the front board, then tied up onto the the sewing frame. The sections are then sewn through the “center” around the double supports in a ‘herringbone’ pattern (Szirmai, p. 101).

After sewing, the second board is laced on. Traditionally, the free end of the cord is secured into the lower board with wooden wedges or dowels (Szirmai, p. 103). I didn’t have much faith in the strength of my boards, so I just frayed out the cord ends, fanned them out with adhesive, and hammered them into the interior surface of the board. The pastedowns are typically put down onto the boards before covering (Szirmai, p. 117).

Headbands are sewn either in the coptic style or around double cords that are laced into the boards (Szirmai, p. 121). A distinguishing feature of these bindings is the leather tabs that extend over the head and tail of the book. Shelving books upright was not a common practice during this time, and books were often stored in chests. The tabs facilitate lifting the volume up and out of it’s enclosure.

When the endband thread is anchored into the secitons, it passes through one layer of the leather tab. I used the same deer skin for the tab that would be used for the covering… this skin was odd to work with, but more on that later. Here is the endband from the back, showing the anchoring. .

It looks very rough, but after covering and doing the parimeter sewing to keep the parts of the tab together, the result is quite nice and super strong. Szirmai has excellent diagrams of several variations of tab construction (p. 125).

After cutting a small channel in the upper board for my fastener, the book was covered. Szirmai states that the majority of extant Carolingian bindings were covered in thick (2mm) ‘chamois’ or buckskin (species of origin unknown, p. 127). The skins of local wild animals were used, as Charlemagne’s edict of AD 774 gave the Abby of St. Denis permission to use deer skin their forest for bindings (Szirmai, p. 127). The deer skin that I used was actually donated to the school (along with a variety of odds and ends) some months ago, so I do not know from whence it came or how it was tanned. It was quite scarred, stained, and difficult to pare, however. Perfect for making a medieval book!

The covering leather is adhered directly to the spine, which actually produces a nice opening for the book.

The thickness of the boards meant that the turn-ins have to be left extra long and made doing the corners a bit of a challenge. Ordinarily, a leather corner can be pared quite thin and pleated along the inside of the board to fully cover the corner and deal with excess material. The toughness of the deerskin made this difficult, so I cut the leather as one would do a cloth corner. On the inside of the boards, I mitered the leather and stitched it – as diagrammed in Szirmai, Fig. 7.29 (p. 129).

Szirmai reports that the majority of surveyed bindings from this period are left untrimmed at the turn-ins (p. 129).

As for fasteners, Szirmai says that they were a regular feature on carolingian bindings, but that few of them have survived; all that remain are stubs of leather straps and holes from pins (p. 131). The author includes drawings of a few examples  from the Abby of St. Gall with extant rings and pins that I modeled mine after.

The pin is just hammered directly into the lower board. The ring is attached by a looped piece of calfskin (stitched with a strip of parchment) and secured to the upper board with brass escutcheon pins.

As I said before, these books were not stored in the way that we are accustomed to shelving books, so I inked the title onto the fore-edge. I have not read all that much on the titling of books, so I do not know how titling or distinctive markings were made during this period. If you have suggestions for reading on the topic, please post them in the comments.


I think I’m going to try to put up a post on sewing models next. Look for it soon!


Szirmai, J. A. (2000). The archaeology of medieval bookbinding. Aldershot : Ashgate.

NBSS on Wikipedia


One of the projects that has occupied my writing time as of late has been the creation of a Wikipedia article for the North Bennet Street School. Surprisingly, one had not been attempted before.

I wrote this article using Sarah Henry and Mary A. Williams’ book, titled North Bennet Street School: A short history 1885-1985, as a source for the history of the building and organization. It’s actually a very interesting read and includes photos of some of the earliest students and instructors.

This is my first ever contribution to Wikipedia, so I am rather pleased to have it up. I am also interested to see how the article develops as other users make changes and add information.

Millimeter and Rubow Bindings


Caution: I have had one of the craziest weeks of my life – so I apologize if this post is disjointed or rambling.

The next binding that I am going to share is actually the first binding project that was assigned in the second year. Students at NBSS are not given a binding to do for the first couple of months of their second year, so that there is no distraction from practicing gold tooling. It’s probably a wise choice – as I was looking for anything else to work on after the first couple of days of tooling.

The millimeter binding is a very modern and elegant adaptation of the paper case binding, well suited to thin volumes. It is also a logical next step in the curriculum because it is so similar to the leather bindings done in the first year (here). I’m going to discuss two variations: the millimeter binding and the Rubow binding.

According to John Hyltoft, former Head of Conservation for the Smithsonian Institute Libraries, the millimeter binding style was developed by the Danish binder Henrik Park during WWII. At a time when luxury items like leather were at a premium, there was a place for finely bound volumes that used leather as sparingly as possible. These bindings are characterized by leather (or parchment or even cloth) that covers the spine and extends about a millimeter onto the boards. Small “hidden” or “semi-hidden” corners are also quite popular.

Park’s book from 1949, titled Moderne Danske Bindtyper, is a short volume with nice photographs of several millimeter binding styles, including detailed photos of a variety of corner and headcap styles.

Other variations on the millimeter include one by August Sandgren, in which small strips of leather appear at only the head and tail of the spine and extend a millimeter onto the boards (Park, Bindtype I). Two variations that are not pictured in Park, that are probably more modern adaptations include a kind of T shape in leather at the head of the spine, with small arms going onto the boards, and doing a full strip of leather along the fore-edges of the boards instead of corners. The “Bind-O-Rama” from  2005 (found here) has images of a range of  bindings that encompass the variations on the style. Don Rash’s book is definitely my favorite of them.

The “Rubow” binding, supposedly suggested by Jorn Rubow (maybe this Jorn Rubow?) features leather all along the head and tail edges of the boards. Park’s description of this binding, “papirbind med slidskinner”, fittingly translates to paper binding with wear rails.

Some common features of the books include a single-folio endsheet reinforced with a Japanese paper or textile hinge, sewing on flattened cords, 90 degree shoulders with open joints, rolled leather or cloth endbands, and edge decoration (Riley, 2006; Verheyen, 2005). In reality, these are an economical form of fine binding.

The literature presents two methods for doing this binding: either as an “on-set boards” binding in which the boards are attached to a waste sheet built into the endpapers before covering (Riley’s method), or as a simple case structure that is covered before attaching it to the bookblock (Verheyen’s method).

The endsheet construction will depend upon the method of assembly. For the on-set boards version, the endsheet is composed of a single folio of decorative paper with a 2cm strip of mull tipped to the outer edge. A folio of  plain paper is then wrapped around, forming a plain flyleaf and wastesheet. This whole assembly is then folded 5mm away from the edge to make a hook, which is wrapped around the first or last section of the text (Riley, 2006, p. 10).

The endsheet for the case version is either a single folio of decorative paper tipped to the first or last section of the text or a double folio that is sewn on (Verheyen, 2005, p. 25). Regardless of the number of folios, Verheyen advocates adding a guard of Japanese paper or thin cloth around the first section and endsheet.


The forwarding of the book is basically a more refined version of what I have described in the past concerning case bindings or on-set boards bindings. I will note, however that according to Riley, it is only the head edges of these books that are typically trimmed and decorated (p. 12). Solid color, sprinkling, graphite or gilding are options for edge treatment. I did a solid graphite edge for one and a graphite and gauffered edge for another.

If endbands are present in millimeter bindings, they are almost always rolled leather endbands. The spine lining is done much the same way that I have described before – patch lining and sanding to get a very smooth, but rigid, spine.

The leather covering is done first, and, for this style of binding to look right, the edges of the leather cannot be visible under the paper covering. Once the leather is covered over, any sudden changes in transition from leather to board surface will be very apparent and look sloppy.

There are two methods for dealing with the thickness of the leather. The first is to flat pare the leather, cover, then in-fill the remaining space on the boards before covering with decorative paper (Verheyen, p. 28). The second method is to edge pare the leather, cover, then further pare and sand the leather to achieve a long, gradual bevel onto the board surface (Riley, p. 15).

Regardless of how you deal with the leather, it is pared quite thin (0.5mm). Covering is done in the usual way with paste. I found the Rubow covering to be quite challenging, however, because so little leather is holding it onto the boards while you are doing the turn-ins and headcaps.

If following Riley’s method of beveling the leather, the  millimeter of skin that will be exposed is marked out with dividers and the edges further pared at a shallow angle with the knife. The edge is also sanded to get a very smooth surface. The leather patches at the corners are done at this point and sanded smooth in the same way.

To finish, the boards are covered in decorative paper and the endsheets pasted down. Paste papers are quite common in the examples that I’ve seen.

This binding style is actually quite fun to do and the results look very refined. I highly recommend Riley and Verheyen’s articles for step by step instructions. John Hyltoft also demonstrated this binding at the GBW Standards conference in 1995. You can purchase a video of that demonstration here.


Application deadlines are starting to loom and I have to sort out what I’m doing after I graduate in June – but I will try to keep posting the vast array of projects that I have to share on a regular basis. Here is a short list of what is in the queue: Carolingian binding, atlas and album structures, book action/sewing support models, limp leather, and springbacks.


Park, H. (1950). Modern Danish Bookbindings. Copenhagen, Anker Kysters.

Riley, D. (2006). The Millimetre Binding: Danish economic structure. Bookbinder, 20, 9-17.

Verheyen, P. D. (2005). “Millimeter Binding / Edelpappband” The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist, 1(2), 25-29.