Tag Archives: bookbinding

Containing Knowledge II

All knowledge is contained, but not in words.
The sparrows cannot tell the mice below
The art and joy of flight. The things they know
Just fit inside the hollow bones of birds.
And so it is with books, although I try
To case in words the things that only hands
Can truly hold. The body understands:
I love to bind as sparrows love to fly.
The feel of book blocks in the nipping press,
The fragrances leather, glue and glaire,
The paring of a hide, the ways that papers tear –
The body knows things language can’t express.
My books contain so many things I know –
Some things they say, and some they simply show.

Originally posted on Making Light, part of a meditation on books and knowledge (starting at comment 135).

Containing Knowledge I

All knowledge is contained. Each box enclosed
By bone, or paper, or HTML
Constrains the facts inside it all too well,
And separates things better juxtaposed.
For knowledge is inert until it’s mixed,
Until the facts spill out, and we compare
Our unrelated notions, stop and stare,
Assumptions overturned, at truth unfixed.
The way papyrus rolled and vellum curled,
The spread of trade as social classes changed:
These unrelated facts, when well arranged,
Can show us not just books, but all the world.
And thus the knowledge that appeals to me
Is uncontained, and unconstrained, and free.

Originally posted on Making Light, part of a meditation on books and knowledge (starting at comment 135).

A Brief History of Bookbinding 5: Let them read books

In the years between the birth of Jane Austen and the death of Oscar Wilde, books changed from being the exclusive property of the wealthy to the pleasure of the professional classes. Bookbinding played a large part in that change. But that was nothing in comparison of what was to come.

The classic late Victorian book was a hardback, its covers made of strawboard (medium density cardboard, basically) and covered in cloth or thin leather. The signatures were sewn onto thin cotton ribbons, and pre-made headbands were glued onto the spine along with a cotton lining. The book block was then pasted into a separate case, with the endpapers providing the adhesive surface.

A copy of Pride and Prejudice, bound like that, could be purchased for 3s 6d in 1900 – about the same price as a week’s food for an adult. The book would still be structurally sound and readable now.

But the economic pressures that created the Victorian book didn’t stop at the turn of the twentieth century. Literacy, leisure time and affluence spread, andeveryone wanted to read. To meet this demand, the mass-market paperback was born, with a stiff paper cover wrapped around three sides of the book block. It had no endpapers or headband, and made no attempt to look like the seventeenth century Book Beautiful*.

Up until the 1930’s, paperbacks were often sewn, though without any supports. But even when automated, sewing was too expensive, so publishers returned to an idea from the mid nineteenth century – the glued spine, now called perfect binding. Twentieth century chemistry delivered glues that stayed flexible longer than India rubber. After World War II, polyvinyl acetate (PVA, a variant of Elmer’s Glue) became the adhesive of choice. In various formulations, it still is.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the downward pressure on book prices still continues. Its current effect is not on the mass-market paperback, which is already as inexpensive as it can be, but on the hardcover book. Until the late twentieth century, hardbacks were throwbacks to late Victorian bookbinding – sewn book blocks, cased in. The boards were covered in plasticised paper rather than cloth or leather, but the structure was sound. Current hardcover books are really mass-market paperbacks with hard boards – they are more often perfect bound than not.

This combination of a paperback’s spine and a hardback’s case is disastrous. Books with hard covers generally have squares, meaning that the covers are larger than the book block. Squares look nice, and they allow space for headbands. But they also mean that the edges of the pages of a shelved book hang suspended in the air. Gravity being what it is, the bottom fore corner of the book will slowly drop down, pulling the spine forward at the head of the book. A sewn binding has the integrity to withstand this, but a glued binding does not. Perfect bound hardbacks, given time, last less well than paperbacks, where the entire bottom edge rests on the shelf**.

Perfect binding may be a misnomer, particularly in hardback books, but it has its place in the wider picture. I can buy a new paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice for £1. A loaf of branded bread in a supermarket costs just about the same amount. In just over a century, books have become as affordable as bread.

Pause a moment and think about that, and the lives that have changed as a result.

What is the future of the book as a physical object? The Internet has already dropped the price of reading matter to effectively free, but I can’t take my laptop into the bath***. Will electronic paper mean that we each only own one book, and change the content at will? Will the next generation read onscreen as well as I read on paper? Will civilisation fall, leaving me with a new career as a skilled bookbinder in a wasteland of crumbling perfect bindings?

* I am excluding discussions of paper quality from this overview. Trust me that it declines in tandem with the other elements of binding durability.
** And I can’t rebind them. Did I mention that that bugs me?
*** Not twice, anyway.

Originally posted on Making Light

A Brief History of Bookbinding 4: Filthy lucre and the middle classes

The eighteenth century started out a lot like the seventeenth, in bookbinding terms. Books were beautiful, well-structured, and expensive. Rare.

But the eighteenth century also saw the growth of the merchant and middle classes in America and Western Europe. These people had money, and they wanted to have libraries. So binding styles changed, for the first time in fourteen centuries, due to economic pressures rather than the pursuit of quality.

The French started it, introducing the hollow back. This meant that the leather across the spine of the book was not attached to the backs of the signatures, but floated free of them. The book block was sewn on cords sawn into the signatures, or onto linen ribbons that lay flat across the spine.

English binders followed suit, since hollow backed books are faster to make and open more easily. Then they went one step further, creating the cover and spine separately from the book block and attaching the two by pasting the endpapers inside the covers. The ends of the tapes or cords (frayed flat) were trapped between the endpapers and the covers. It’s called casing in, and commercial binders still do it today.

Books with hollow backs (cased in or not) don’t open well unless there is a gap between the shoulder of the spine and the edge of the cover board. This gap – called the “French groove” in America* – persists in binding to this day. Go look on your shelves; you’ll see it on every modern hardback.

Other cost cutting measures followed, as economic pressure spurred innovation.

Hand-sewn headbands look nice, but they take time to make. Nineteenth century binders started making the headbands separately and sticking them onto the spines. Sometimes they’d sew them, sometimes they’d fold striped fabric (often shirt fabric**) over a piece of string.

Leather, while strong and durable, is expensive. In the 1700’s, binders began saving it for the spine and the fore corners, where the worst cover wear occurs, and using marbled paper for the rest of the boards. This is called half binding. Then they stopped doing the corners, creating the quarter binding style. Going one step further, Victorian commercial binders moved to cloth and paper bindings for all but their finest editions.

Some binders even considered giving up sewing. In 1836, the first patent was granted for a glued binding using caoutchouc (India rubber). Other patents used gutta-percha (a form of latex). Unfortunately, both adhesives become brittle with time, shedding leaves within a few years. The process was abandoned.

The upshot of all of these innovations was that, by the end of the nineteenth century, books were affordable by even the working classes. They weren’t pretty, they weren’t bound to last four hundred years, but they were being read.

* And the “American groove” everywhere else.
** I’ve seen photos of a modern equivalent from India, where someone used half a zipper track.

Originally posted on Making Light

A Brief History of Bookbdinding 3: The myth of the ideal binding

Every discipline has its mythic Golden Age, when sordid financial concerns didn’t interfere with the practice of the Art. For bookbinders, it’s the seventeenth century*. Our standards of “fine binding” are based on the work of the time.

A fine binding is generally covered in leather. It’s pretty – usually gold-tooled – and many have gilt page edges. The head and tail have bright silk headbands sewn directly on the book, not stuck on, like modern headbands. Endpapers are generally marbled.

Structurally, the seventeenth century style consists of signatures sewn on raised linen cords (usually five). The leather of the spine is attached to the backs of the sections, usually with a couple of layers of paper, fabric or leather padding. This is called a tight back, or a flexible spine. The spine itself is rounded and backed, meaning it’s shaped like the letter C, wider than the book block itself. (The difference in thickness leaves space for the cover boards.)

The greyboard (high density cardboard) covers are laced onto the book block with the ends of the cords (the ends of the cords are pressed and frayed so that they don’t lump up). What’s interesting to someone used to modern book styles is that there is no groove between the spine and the rest of the cover. It’s called a tight joint, and it means that widest part of the shoulder nestles against the spine side of the cover board.

If you’ve never held a book with a flexible spine and a tight joint, I can’t explain it to you. It feels right, in a way that makes the modern hardback book a mere pastische of what a book should be.

It’s not an ideal style – it includes some compromises to make the covers open smoothly. The leather at the hinges is generally pared a bit thinner than is sustainable over centuries (a lot of these books have split there.) And it’s time-consuming to bind, meaning that books in that style are expensive. I’m too much of a populist to approve.

But I love holding, reading, and opening this style of book more than any others in the world.

* This is mostly due to an Arts and Crafts-era bookbinder and printer, Thomas J Cobden-Sanderson. Although he was a forward-thinking man, adding his wife’s name to his on marriage and paying his workers a living wage for a limited work week, his taste in binding was nostalgic.

Originally posted on Making Light

A Brief History of Bookbinding 2: Sewing, paper, glue

By about the fourth century AD, pretty much all written information in Europe was stored in codices. A codex consisted of vellum or parchment pages, each folded once, sewn in variable-sized signatures. Sewing threads were linen, and connected the signatures with chain stitches. The stitching also attached wooden boards, which were the same size as the pages, and whose weight kept the pages from cockling and buckling (vellum and parchment expand and contract a lot with variations in atmospheric moisture.)

These books were stored lying down, with their titles written on either the fore edge or the spine. Spines were not glued in any fashion, so these books felt fairly sloppy in the hand. It wasn’t a perfect style – the stitching tended to break at the covers, requiring the whole book to be re-sewn – but it beat scrolls. For four centuries, nothing much changed.

Then, once again, someone did something clever. Rather than sewing the book with chain stitches, they started sewing the signatures onto leather strips or linen cords running across the spine. These cords could then be laced into the wooden covers, providing a much more secure attachment.

Another four hundred years passed (these centuries are just zipping by! This is the pace of change you get when books are rare, expensive items produced by monks.). A trendy new material spread through Europe during the 1100’s – paper. It was cheaper than vellum, not as prone to swelling like mad in the moisture, but it was fragile, particularly at the folds.

To protect this new stuff, binders began – tentatively – using leather rather than vellum to cover books. They started sticking the leather directly to the spines of the books, either with hide glues or with starch pastes.

Adhesives on spines changed everything. It made the books hang together better. Suddenly books were cohesive structures! They were also beautiful, on the outside as well as the inside. Binders started – tentatively – adding gold decoration to the covers and sewing brightly coloured silk headbands at the top and bottoms of the spines.

When Gutenberg arrived, bookbinding went (relatively) mass-market. Over the next century, binding moved out of the monasteries and into the royal courts. Monarchs wanted pretty books* in large. Spines became rounded, making the books strong enough to be stored standing up**. Endpapers were introduced, often marbled. And covers began to glitter with gold.

* Elizabeth I of England, for instance, had her entire library bound in different colours of velvet. It was said to be quite a sight.

** A good thing, too – library sizes grew an order of magnitude after moveable type reduced the cost of book production.

Originally posted on Making Light

A Brief History of Bookbinding 1: Much concerned with materials

(Much of this information is undated, because we don’t have any exapmples of these bindings left. It’s based on pictures, later books, and a certain amount of guesswork.)

In the beginning was papyrus, made from the fibrous stems of a swamp plant that grows by the Nile. It was cheap, easy to make, took ink well, and lasted forever, but it didn’t fold. So the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all made scrolls.

These scrolls weren’t formatted the way you’re think they were. The text wasn’t written line by line down the scroll – portrait format, if you will. Instead, it was written in blocks, side to side, so a reader could read with a roll of papyrus in each hand, unrolling with one hand and rolling with the other to move through the text.

Over time, civilisation moved out of the swamplands beside the Nile, and papyrus became less convenient. Scribes cast about for new materials, and ended up with parchment, or vellum. This is the inner hide of either a sheep or a cow. It’s whiter than papyrus, more durable, and you can get sheep and cows everywhere. (It’s more pricey, but until Gutenberg, the most expensive part of the book was the writing inside it. Material costs were immaterial.)

One day someone got hacked off at scrolls. Maybe one too many got squashed – that leaves hundreds of narrow strips of papyrus to try to stick back together. Not fun. Or perhaps yet another pile of cylindrical scroll casings fell down on someone’s foot after the library equivalent of an avalanche.

So they started fan-folding the vellum scrolls (this is why it matters that they were written landscape style.) It was a logical extension of the idea to sew one set of folds together, so that the book held together nicely.

Not much later, some bright spark realised you could get more book out of every sheep by writing on both sides of the parchment* rather than fan-folding it. And you didn’t have to paste the sheepskins together to make a long roll. All you had to do was take a bunch of rectangles, fold them up, sew them together at the folds, and hey, presto! It was like the Mac revolution.

Thus was the codex born: the sewn book block that we now know and love.

* The Japanese, who used rice paper, made a different transition. Their inks penetrated the papers too much to print on both sides, so they folded the papers in half with the raw edges at the spines. This leads to some clever things you can do in spy novels, writing inside the folded sheets. But I digress.

Originally posted on Making Light

A Trip to the Tannery

Every time I go to J Hewit & Sons, my favourite bookbinding supplier, I feel the overwhelming desire to bring a camera, tripod, and a day’s free time. I don’t think I will ever tire of taking pictures there.

I could take the “industrial site” type pictures of all of the machinery they use to dye leathers, or the “variety of stuff” pictures of the rolls and rolls of finished hides, or the “run down melancholy” shots of the light from the dusty windows falling on the worn boards of the upper floor. I’d photograph the staff, who always treat me so well, if it wouldn’t embarrass them.

But I don’t, because I am there to buy. I did take a few shots of the pale leathers they had piled on the Low Value Shelf upstairs.

Edges of a stack of pale goatskin


Taken 7 April 2006

The same grained goatskin, with the marks of the stretching clips still visible.


Taken 7 April 2006

Pale calfskin, un-grained.


Taken 7 April 2006

Maybe I can find a market for a feature article on the company – its history, its processes, its business. I’d love to do it. I’d love to have the excuse!

Valentine’s Day

If you’re lucky enough to get a Valentine’s card today, well, good. Somebody loves you. Remember that.

If you aren’t, then one of the hearts in this picture is especially for you.


Update, 16th February: A number of people have asked me how I did this, whether it’s wicker, how long it took me to make, etc. Let me explain. I was trimming pages of a few books with my Christmas bookbinding present, the beautiful vertical plough that Martin got me. The bin was full of little strips of paper in cream and white. So I curled a few of them into a half-heart shape and photographed the result, then cut the picture, mirrored the appropriate bit, and pasted. The intricacy of the final result astonishes even me, and I did it.

Sorry to rob you of some of the magic, dear readers, but I can’t let you think I did something I didn’t.

The Second Convention

Just back from the Society of Bookbinders biennial convention in Bath. Here are some things I learned there, in roughly chronological order:

  1. Conservators are not conservationists.
  2. The history and decoration of Russia leather.
  3. Chicken feet have much more potential than I ever realised.
  4. Boxmaking.
  5. Don’t bother to make a relevant box for a binding competition unless it will definitely be judged and shown.
  6. Sewn boards binding.
  7. The value of an unexpected lunch partner, and why so many people are fond of Paul Delrue.
  8. Bradel binding.
  9. I really do like the other members of the Scottish region of the Society of Bookbinders.
  10. People value the Bookweb for its confessional side as well as its instructional side.
  11. Never get into a scar competition with someone who was in a car accident. Not even with my burn scars.
  12. When I drink, I talk faster. When some of the people I drink with drink, they think slower. Eventually, communication stops.
  13. Sometimes it doesn’t stop soon enough.
  14. I cannot be an apprentice or have a single mentor at this stage in my binding life.
  15. Another form of onlaying.
  16. Tini Miura would make a magnificent arm-wrestler, if she weren’t so kind.
  17. Ways to alter a bone folder and a paring knife.
  18. I can walk through shoulder-high blackberry bushes because I am able to goose-step like Basil Fawlty.
  19. I want to do more botanical onlay bindings.
  20. Herons make a very peculiar sound when they’re angry.
  21. How to use a slightly punctured plastic bag, a hair rubber band, and a disposable paper bath mat to wick the water from a dripping tap silently down the plughole.
  22. People will buy pretty much anything for a tenner from the back of a white van.
  23. Never be intimidated by someone simply because she seems talented, confident and beautiful. She probably doesn’t realise she is all of these things.
  24. You meet colleagues in the darndest places.
  25. Motor racing has the potential to be interesting, even if it doesn’t interest me.