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

A Novel Approach to Board Attachment

I’m currently in the middle of my book conservation fellowship at the Boston Athenæum. The library’s collection is full of strange and unusual things, but the other day a book came through the lab with a previous repair that I had never seen before.


This is a quarto-sized volume with heavy boards that, at one point, had separated entirely from the book. Rather than go through the time-consuming process of rebacking or rebinding this volume, someone created a new board attachment with three strips of thick leather and a couple of brass rivets. Here is a detail of the head:


I’m actually kind of impressed with how neatly this repair was done. The leather repair strips are adhered firmly to the spine and along the boards. While the heads of the rivets are large, they sink down into the thickness of the leather repairs, so there is no danger of them catching or scratching the companion volumes on the shelf. The ends of the leather strips on the board are also cut into a pleasing curve.

Here is an overview shot of the inside of the board.


While the rivet heads on the inside sit a bit proud of the board surface, I do not observe any damage or discoloration to the paste-down or title page. While crude, the repair functions very well – maintaining a strong attachment, while allowing the boards to open easily.


This book came to the Athenæum in the early 1950’s. The conservators have not seen other volumes in the collection treated in the same way, so we can assume this repair was done before the book entered the collection.

Looking at the full-thickness leather and quality of the rivets, I honestly wonder if this was done by someone whose primary business was not books at all: perhaps a cobbler or saddle maker. The novelty of the repair makes me think that a previous owner brought the book to some tradesman who had some spare leather and a riveting machine in their shop and asked them to “give it a go” on some book repair. Is this method of board attachment unique or just uncommon. If you have seen something like this before, please comment below.



How to Fancy-up a Book

Despite how hectic things have been this summer, I’m committed to getting a post in for the month of August. It’s also my 50th post! This one is a brief “instructable” for making a fancy leather binding out of a not-so-fancy trade paperback. Unfortunately, I only took one in-process photo of the book, so much will be left to the imagination.

This past spring I was in a gift-making mood and had a devious idea for a good friend of mine, who is a bibliophile and connoisseur of the occult. I started with a common edition of The Book of Lies by Aleister Crowley. It is a perfect title for this structure…

This book is what you would call “perfect” bound – single sheets attached with only adhesive  and covers composed of a single piece of printed or laminated card adhered along the spine. Since the book is completely square, I could not simply stick a leather case binding on it. There is no round in the spine and, because of the lack of sewing, there is no swell. In order to put on boards of any thickness, a false shoulder had to be constructed on the book.

After tearing off the paper covers, I placed the textblock in the job backer and, using the hammer, rounded the spine a bit and formed a small shoulder. A piece of thin cord is then saturated with PVA and stuck to spine edge of the textblock at front and back to further build the shoulder. The spine and false shoulders are then lined with Japanese paper to consolidate and hide the cord. If the for-edge of the book remains flat after shaping, a round can be sanded into it with sandpaper and an appropriately sized piece of  dowel.

The endsheets for this rebinding are composed of a plain paper folio, with a piece of thin leather or book cloth tipped to the outside of the fold. Decorative paper is then made to the outside of the folio, covering the edge of the bookcloth or leather, one board thickness away from the fold. This will be a tight-joint binding, with an island pastedown. We want the decorative paper on the fly-leaf to end at the seat of the shoulder and not ride up across the hinge. The finished endsheets are pictured below:

I used papyrus instead of decorative paper for this binding. The use of the material  references the author’s experiences in Egypt, but also adds a nice textural feel to the endsheets. Unfortunately the pull of the papyrus overcomes the paper I used for the folio, so the flyleaves don’t lie flat.  This isn’t a fine binding, however, so no need to despair! The endsheets are tipped to the textblock and worked with the bonefolder to finish creating an even, 90 degree shoulder to the thickness of the boards.

Philip Smith (1974) describes a sturdier method for creating a false shoulder in which the cord is wrapped in pasted-out leather and formed into a triangle as it is adhered to the bookblock (p. 85). The endsheets are then over-sewn through the false shoulder. If this was a larger book,  I would probably have employed Smith’s method.

When the endsheets are on and the new shoulder is formed, the endbands are stuck on the spine. I made rolled leather endbands (to the height of the squares) for this binding in the same way that I did for the millimeter bindings. Once again, the picture below shows the final look. It’s black goat on black goat… so a bit tough to see.

After endbands, the rest of the spine is in-filled and sanded to make it flat and smooth. A 1-on-2-off hollow is then constructed on the book and trimmed down so that it doesn’t show over the endbands.

Next the false bands (or “sham-bands”) are constructed out of strips of parchment laminated to full-thickness leather. These will give the book the appearance of being sewn on raised supports, encouraging the causal reader to think that I have spent considerable time and effort creating this binding. But remember – it’s a book of lies! Regardless, this is a time honored tradition: bookbinders have been using false bands to fancy up their products while cutting production time since at least the mid-17th century (Pickwoad, 1994, p. 91).

To give the bands a crisp 19th-century look, I attached them with the parchment side out. I placed them where sewing supports would be along the spine of the book, centering them toward the head. The bands are put down with PVA and trimmed off flush with the face of the board.

Now we are almost ready for covering. The boards are cut to size and back-cornered. The leather for the spine and corners is flat-pared to 0.7 mm and then pared German-style so that the turn-ins are the thickness of the in-fill material. At this point, the leather for the corners can be put on.

The covering process for this book is a bit odd, because the boards are not laced on. After placing the boards on the book (aligned and squared-up), the book is secured in the lying press. The spine leather is dampened and pasted out. The spine of the book is sized with paste and a little PVA is brushed onto the bands to make sure they stick. When ready, the leather is molded over the spine by hand. The bands are gently set with band nippers to mark their place.

Quickly, the book is removed from the press and the textblock pulled away from the boards. The spine turn-ins are done,  leaving enough leather to form the headcaps. The head and tail of the textblock spine should be re-pasted at this point so that the turn-ins will adhere, and the boards are placed back on the textblock. The leather can be really worked down now, and the band nippers are used to set the bands. Headcaps are formed and the leather is worked into the back-corners of the boards. After going back across the bands with the nippers, the boards are set by opening them back and re-seating them in the joints. Everything is then double checked to make sure nothing has moved. After about 10 minutes of drying time between felts, the book is triple checked! The result is something like this:

The above image is after trimming the leather, in-filling with card and siding up with marbled paper. I made the paper with with Chena River Marblers in our Marbling Workshop.

Leather covering on a book is certainly fancy, but adding a bit of gilding will make it that much better.

The finishing on this structure is actually much lower risk than a typical binding with laced on boards. At this stage, the paste along the spine is the only thing attaching the leather case to the bookblock. If something goes terribly wrong with the tooling or titling, you can just pull the covers right off and re-make them. You will lose some leather and some boards, but that is a small price to pay!

When the tooling is finished, the leather or bookcloth hinges are adhered to the insides of the boards to completely attach the case. The turn-ins and hinges are trimmed out and the insides of the boards are filled with paper to level the surface. Finally, the paste-downs are adhered to the insides of the boards.

This structure is not particularly sturdy, nor does it open all that well. It does, however,  look a great deal nicer than the original paper binding.


I promised that this blog would endure and it will – although my posting schedule will probably remain erratic. I can commit to churning out at least one thing a month, though. Stay tuned – exciting times ahead!


Pickwoad, N. (1994). Onward and downward: How binders coped with the printing press before 1800. In R. Myers and M. Harris (Eds.),  A Millenium of the Book (61-106). Delaware: Oak Knoll Press.

Smith, P. (1974). New directions in bookbinding. Van Nostrand Reinhold.


Parchment Over Boards

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.