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.


Back to work…

Bibliography, Bookbinding

The second year of the bookbinding program starts off with gold tooling, and this is probably the first part of the curriculum that I had absolutely no prior experience with before beginning coming to Boston. To be honest – it’s going pretty slowly. I have burned a lot of leather over the past few days trying to get my head wrapped around just the process of blind tooling, but then you add gilding into the mix and it all goes south. After seeing Jeff demo the process a number of times and watching the GBW video from 1997 with Don Glaister, it is starting to make a little more sense. I have quite a ways to go.

We start off by laying waste to a handful of simple plaquettes. These are just a scrap of leather, flat pared in the scharf-fix, and pasted to a board.

The goal of the exercise is to completely cover the surface with repeated lines and decorations in order to get at a consistent depth and color of impression. After 4 or 5 of these, the results are becoming a little more uniform.

This is something we will be working on for a while and I will share more when I’m able to produce something decent.

Over the summer I had put together a rather extensive list of books to read. Of course I only managed to get to a tiny portion of them, but one thing that I did cross off the list was a review of some chemistry. Like all aspiring conservators, I’ve gone through several general and organic chemistry lectures and labs. The college level courses I took gave me a pretty good understanding of general principles and at least made me familiar with the periodic table, but did little to address the specific questions I had regarding the materials and reactions commonly found in a book conservation lab. Now that I’m not forced to do stoichiometry problems everyday, I was concerned that I would start to forget things. Use it or lose it!

I wasn’t too excited about going through the material in my old chemistry textbooks again, so I began looking for new curriculum material online. I started with MIT’s Open Courseware. This is an open and free web publication of MIT undergraduate and graduate course materials. While it might be good for other subjects, their chemistry material is a bit spotty. Most courses have posted old homework assignments and exams with answers, but few have class notes or videos of the lecture.

After reading this article in Wired Magazine, I also checked out Khan Academy and found it a more comprehensive online resource. Also free and open to the public (thanks in part to funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), this site offers a catalog of approximately 10 minute instructional videos on a topic or principle. I was surprised at the sheer quantity of material offered under their general and organic chemistry sections.

In the end, however, I spent most of my time with printed books – most notably with the 3-part Science for Conservators series from the Conservation Unit of the Museums & Galleries Commission.

These books offered exactly what I was looking for. Volume one goes through a complete review of basic chemical concepts, while the second and third volumes take on the subjects of cleaning and adhesives/coatings, respectively. Throughout the discussion, example reactions are pulled from cases of material degradation or conservation treatments. While not all of the examples were applicable to book and  paper conservation, the writing was clear and well presented. This series would probably not be as helpful to someone with no previous chemistry experience. I think it is an excellent resource, however, for individuals with a few chemistry classes under their belt. The perspective these books take really had an impact on my thinking. The volume on cleaning, particularly, completely changed the way that I think about certain types of reactions and cleaning in general.


I keep promising posts on German paper bindings, laced paper cases, and limp vellum bindings – they are still on the schedule! I’ve just finished re-assembling a new and improved photo documentation setup and reshot photos of them for your viewing pleasure. Stay tuned!

Book Reports


One of the staples of my middle school writing curriculum was the book report: I remember regularly being assigned a book  on a specific topic and delivering a written or oral summary as a way of testing my comprehension. The book report persisted over the course of my education, evolving into ever more grotesque forms such as the term paper, and in graduate school culminating in the mother of all book reports: the literature review for my masters paper.

While I cannot ever recall particularly enjoying these assignments, I’ve recently begun to appreciate the value of the process of reading and regurgitating. The NBSS Bookbinding Department has an extensive collection of books on bookbinding, conservation, and bookart, and as students we are extremely fortunate to be able to borrow items from the library to read in our own time. While we are regularly assigned reading about particular book structures or binding techniques as a way of informing in-class demonstrations and discussion, our assignments only cover a small portion of the available literature on a given topic. The blog of the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network of the AIC has recently been doing a series of posts around ‘Tips for Becoming a Conservator’, and this week’s tip #7 suggests creating an annotated bibliography as a helpful means of assimilating some of the vast array of conservation literature. This struck me as a particularly good idea for this blog; I can share some of the titles that I’ve been reading outside of class and the act of summarizing will hopefully help me to retain the relevant information in the long run. I had a bit of traveling to do over the holiday, so I took the opportunity to plow through two especially interesting volumes (no pun intended).

The first was the fourth revised edition of Bernard Middleton’s A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique with an introduction by Howard M. Nixon and published by Oak Knoll Press. (Available for purchase here.)

Middleton, History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique

Originally published in 1963, this book is a general manual and history lesson in English binding. Middleton breaks the topic down into 15 chapters that deal with the individual parts of the binding process. For example, chapter one deals with the makeup and folding of leaves, chapter two deals with beating and pressing, three with sewing, four with endpaper structures, etc. Within those chapters, specific structures, materials, techniques, and trends are dealt with chronologically so that one may get a sense of the evolution of the codex in English binderies from the Stonyhurst Gospel to the modern publishers binding. As a supplement to his detailed written descriptions, Middleton also often provides useful diagrams of individual structures. The organization of this book was especially helpful for me at the moment, because it closely follows the organization of the first-year curriculum. As we complete different styles of binding, a great deal of our time is spent examining a particular part of a book’s structure and then preparing several different models to compare the book action or how they perform in combination.

I really enjoyed Middleton’s descriptions and illustrations of 19th century bindery equipment. Much of the discussion is centered around the most common equipment, but there are also some rather novel examples. My favorite is a picture of an Athol standing press from Arnett’s Bibliopegia (1835) like this one…



Image courtesy of Denis Gouey,

… but with a triskelion as the 3-armed crank.

The fourth edition also includes several fascinating appendices that focus on the income, hours, and working conditions of English trade binders.  Middleton paints a rather dreary picture of the typical working lifestyle. For example, the average bookbinder in 1805 worked more than 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, with no running water and the relying entirely on sunlight and candles for illuminating the workspace  (p. 261). The author also says that “the majority of the eighteenth-century master binders made poor livings” and that “binder’s wages and hours compared unfavorably with those of workers in many other crafts” (p. 260).  I think this information is particularly important to take into consideration when discussing the evolution of popular book structures and materials. Considering the low profit margin of the trade (coupled with increasing literacy and, therefore, production demand), it is no surprise that, for example, the semi-skilled workmen that hammered the signatures and boards (known as beaters) were replaced by massive machine-powered flattening rollers or that leather-covered, laced wooden board structures give way to cloth and paper covered case bindings. Binders struggling to eek out a living were probably always on the lookout for new ways to bring down the cost of production, whether through the division of labor, cheaper materials, or an increasing reliance on machine-powered production methods.


The second book that I picked up over break was the revised edition of David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship from Cambium Press. (Available through Amazon.)

Pye, Nature and Art of Workmanship

David Pye was a noted architect, industrial designer and professor of furniture design at the Royal College of Art in London. While the author most often relies upon examples of his own woodworking and various manufactured goods to explore the topic of workmanship, I found it a hugely informative and exacting delineation of  terminology that is very applicable to bookbinding. Pye begins with the differentiation of design and workmanship, defining the former as “what can be conveyed in drawings and words”, and the latter as what cannot (p. 17). Pye indicates that all forms of workmanship have two qualities: Risk and Certainty. Workmanship of Risk is defined as “workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not pre-determined, but depends on the judgement, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works” (p. 20). Conversely, the Workmanship of Certainty is when “the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before anything is made” (p. 20). In the most basic form,  the operator employing workmanship of certainty cannot spoil the job (such as in full automation), while in the workmanship of risk, the workman can spoil it at any moment (p. 22).

Pye uses the example of the manuscript vs. the printed page to further outline the distinction. The act of writing with a pen is entirely the workmanship of risk, while the workmanship involved in printing is that of certainty. One should note that workmanship of certainty originally involves more judgement and care than workmanship of risk. In the case of printing, the type must be cast, the text typeset, and locked up in the press, etc – but that care is effectively stored up in the preparation and then unleashed in the form of many duplicate pages (p. 21). A form of potential energy in manufacturing, if you will. Text composed on a typewriter is an example involving degrees of both risk and certainty. As the author says, the operator can ruin the job in a variety of ways, “but the N’s will never look like U’s” (p. 21). One can determine the type of workmanship (risk or certainty) by asking the question, “Is the result predetermined and unalterable once production begins?” (p. 22).

Pye asserts that the terms ‘handicraft’ and ‘handmade’ are historical and social, rather than technical terms (p. 26), reasoning that the qualities of risk and certainty are entirely independent of whether the work is done by hand or with power tools. Using the example of a hand-powered drill in a jig in comparison to an electric drill guided entirely by hand, Pye concludes that there is more risk inherent with the unguided power tool (p. 25). The author does suggest that the term ‘handiwork’ should be “confined to the work of a hand and an unguided tool” (p. 28).

While Pye is of the opinion that workmanship is increasingly bad and manufacturing is increasingly accomplished through mass production, he states that “the deterioration comes not because of bad workmanship in mass production, but because the range of qualities which mass production is capable of just now is so dismally restricted” (p. 19). The author also predicts that “unless workmanship comes to be understood and appreciated for the art it is, our environment will lose much of the quality it retains” (p. 19). Quantity production will probably never rely on workmanship of risk again, says Pye, however workmanship of risk will never entirely die out because people will “continue to demand individuality in their possessions and will not be content with standardization everywhere” (p. 23). The author suggests that the danger to workmanship of risk is that “from want of theory, and thence lack of standards, its possibilities will be neglected and inferior forms of it will be taken for granted and accepted” (p. 23).

Considering the current trends in reading and book production, I think those thoughts are entirely appropriate. Poor quality, machine-made paperbacks or case bindings and e-readers will, from here on out, remain the predominant delivery method of text for the average person. But while academics and the media have been heralding the demise of the book since at least 1945 with Vannevar Bush and the Memex, I believe that the codex and hand binding will persist, not only because the form offers more effective text delivery, but because people will continue to demand quality objects that have been produced outside the prevailing outsourced industrial complex. If demand exists in the market for artisanal axes, demand will persist for books. The real question is if as bookbinders, we will maintain high standards of workmanship through professional organizations, investigation into historical practices, academic literature, continuing education in workshops, etc. – or if the public’s contentment with poor quality, non-durable goods brought on by consumer culture will muddle our collective expectations of what a book should be. Ultimately, I am very thankful to be able to participate in a program like North Bennet Street, in which one is forced to grapple with the theory as well as uphold a high standard of practice.