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Rebinding a Book in Leather

Ask any two bookbinders how they rebind a book and you'll get two variations on a theme. As in all crafts, there are often half a dozen ways of successfully achieving the same end and individuals use the method with which they're most comfortable. I make no claim to being a master craftsman, (although I do like to think I'm competent!). This is not therefore intended to be a definitive description.


The book as it was when I received it

This was the state of the book when I received it. It was published in the 1790s, so it's over 200 years old and rather the worse for wear. The spine was non existent and some of the leather had worn away from the boards. What isn't visible in this picture are the worm holes in the leather. Luckily they were confined to the book's boards and the pages escaped unscathed.

The first step is to strip it down. In this instance, the glue had completely crumbled away, so the book practically fell apart by itself. When a previous bookbinder has been over-generous with the glue brush, it can be a long job trying to remove it all without damaging the sections of the book. (I can also confirm here, from bitter experience, that old animal or fish glue retains its smell indefinitely!)

This is the book in pieces. Each section has been separated, Now is the time to clean old dust out and repair any damage to the individual pages. If the area around the spine is creased from previous tight stitching, this can be pressed out. Often the outer pages of a section are torn along the crease. These, along with tears in pages can be repaired using Japanese tissue, or archival repair tape.
Stripped down into sections

I was able to soak off the paste downs and re-use them


In this instance I was able to soak off the paste-downs (the paper glued to the boards of the book). It's a slow and laborious process, but it allowed me to use them as part of the new endpapers. (This is especially important if they contain old adverts as many books did years ago.) Paper grain is important and the grain of the new paper runs down the page.

I love the inscriptions by the original owners in books as old as these. This book was first owned, in 1799, by Maria Farley. She subsequently gave it to her son who has signed it in a beautiful copperplate script with the date 1815.


Maria Farley's inscription



James Farley's description


When pages have been damaged, it's possible to repair them. Like most craft binders, I hoard all the old paper that I can't re-use on the book it came from. When I'm repairing holes in paper, I try to find the best match from what I have available. I'm not adept enough to make the repair completely invisible, but it looks a lot less obtrusive than the gap that was there before!

Click on either of the images to see the full page as it now looks.


When this book was bound originally, the cords onto which it was sewn would have sat on top of the spine and the leather would then have been applied directly over both cords and spine. This is called a "fast back". The big disadvantage to it is the strain placed on the leather spine every time the book is opened. (Just take a look at any well thumbed paperback to see what I mean.) As a result, rebinds tend not to follow the old tradition. The book, with a grey board either side of it, has been put into a finishing press and saw cuts made into the spine. The cords will thus lie in the cuts.

In the close up, the old stitching line can clearly been seen to the right of the new saw cut.

saw cuts have been made in the spine

A close up of one of the saw cuts


Sewing is done using a special frame. Mine is a very basic one, but still does the job although I cannot fix the cords as tautly as would be possible with a professionally made sewing frame. (It's on my wish list!) The cords are attached to the frame and the sections are sewn onto them.

The close up shows how the cords rest in the saw cuts.

Over the last 100 years, it has become the custom to sew the sections onto tapes rather than cords. You can see some tapes at the top right hand corner of the sewing frame.

The first and last sections take the most strain when a book is opened and are vulnerable if the book is used a lot. To strengthen them, they are tipped with paste to the next section. (The folded paper acts as a guide to ensure there is a nice sharp line of paste.)

Jointing a book

Close up of the jointed book


Rounding and jointing a book creates support for the boards and makes the finished book stronger. Traditionally, jointing is done using a large cast iron jointing press. For those of us who don't have dedicated workshops with reinforced concrete floors, backing boards inserted into a laying press are a perfectly acceptable alternative. When the book is in place, the joint is made by carefully hammering the spine with a bookbinding hammer. This is a hammer with an especially large surface area on the head.

Once the book has been jointed, the boards can be cut to size. It's important that the grain runs down the board. The thickness of the board used depends on the size of the book and the depth of the joint. The edges of the boards are sanded to remove the sharpness and stop them from cutting into the leather or cloth which will cover them and the inside corners are mitred for the same reason.

mitred edge board



As this book is over 200 years old, it would originally have had hand sewn headbands, although there was no trace of them left. The picture on the right shows a partially completed headband. The picture below shows the same headband finished and trimmed.

The finished hand sewn headband

The headbands add strength to the ends of the spine, the top of which is particularly vulnerable, as it is where most people will take hold of a book when they remove it from a bookshelf.

Machine made headbands have been around for over 150 years and look attractive on more modern books.


Making hand sewn headbands


spine covered with scrim
When the headbands have been completed, the spine is lined with a layer of scrim. (This is also called mull.)

Layers of kraft paper are glued onto the scrim to create a tube called an Oxford hollow. Although this is not how it would have been bound originally, it is far kinder to the book. When the leather is added, the "turn ins" will lie inside the tube making the spine much more flexible and less prone to wrinkling or splitting.


Making an Oxford hollow

A completed Oxford hollow


Preparation for lacing in the boards

The boards are positioned and hollows are made into which the cords sink when the boards are laced in. Once the lacing in has been done, the book has been pressed and the paste which has been rubbed into the cords has dried, the book is finally ready to be covered.

The lace holes in the original board are clearly visible in the final picture. Judging by the lump where the cord was, the binder preferred to use the brute force of a nipping press to sink the cords, rather than carving out a groove!

Bindings were not uniform 200 years ago. The purchaser could buy a book ready sewn, but unbound and then have it finished in the way that most suited his pocket. The cheapest bindings were plain paper covered boards - the Georgian equivalent of a paperback? At the other end of the scale, full leather with elaborately tooled gold spines were available for the more affluent booklover. Bookcloth was not invented until 1824, so a cloth cover would not have been an option in the 1790s.

The book in all of these photos is "The Universal Letter-Writer" by Thomas Cooke. At the bottom of the title page is a line saying "Price Two Shillings Bound", although there is no description of the type of binding the customer would receive for his money.

  Little is wasted when it comes to leather. Pieces which are unusable on books, either because they are too small, or are marked, can be used for other things. Glued to a piece of manilla, a narrow strip makes a good centre for a headband. In this picture, 2 pieces of leather have been glued together. The strips that have been cut from it will form the raised bands on the spine.
leather for raised bands
glueing on the raised bands    trimmed raised bands
The convention is for spines to have 6 sections and 5 raised bands. The bottom section is slightly longer than the other 5. The reason for this is quite a curious one. If the sections were all exactly the same size, when the book was finished, the final section would appear to be smaller than the others. By making it slightly larger it creates the optical illusion that they are all equal. This is demonstrated by the picture of the spine with the bands trimmed. The bottom most section is a good half centimetre longer than the others, but appears at first glance, to be much the same size!  
I was originally going to do a full leather binding, but as I've decided to record all the stages, I've opted for half leather, a very common binding when the book was printed and more interesting to describe. Traditionally, the leather used on books is goat skin or calf and the leather I've chosen is a beautiful deep red antique calf which came from Hewits, a bookbinding supplier near Edinburgh. I live close enough to be able to go there in person once in a while, which is a huge bonus, although not so wonderful for my purse as it's impossible to come away without an armful of skins!
The book will be half bound in antique calf
paring the leather


Paring the turn ins (the bits of the leather that will be folded over the boards), reduces the bulk and gives a neater finish. This piece of leather was less than 1mm thick already, but I still managed to take quite a few extra layers off. There are a number of gadgets that can be used to pare leather, but I stick with a very sharp craft knife (front) and occasionally a French paring knife (rear). I don't have a traditional paring stone, quite apart from anything else, I don't have the muscles required to move one! I use the underside of a marble pastry board instead.


The leather is dampened well and glued to the book with a paste/PVA mixture. The cord you can see is pulling in the leather at the top and bottom of the spine, so that a neat cap can be formed over the headband. Calf moulds beautifully round the spine so, with a little help from a bone folder, the raised bands are already clearly visible.

the leather has been glued onto the book

Setting the headband caps

a bone folder    working on the raised bands
I don't have any band nippers (they're on my wish list too), so I use an old fashioned, but very effective method for working the leather round the raised bands. The string is wrapped tightly round either side of each band. The sections in between the bands can then be smoothed and moulded onto the Oxford hollow. When the string has been removed, the edges of the bands are sharpened with a bone folder.  
Finally, the book is put in a cast iron nipping press and light pressure exerted whilst the leather dries out. This can take a good few hours and signals the end of work on the book for that particular day.
The leather is left to dry in the nipping press


Scoring the leather    Trimming a corner

When the leather is completely dry, it can be trimmed. On a book this size, 17cm x 11cm (6.75" x 4.25") the spine normally covers about a quarter of the board. The diameter of the corner is also a quarter of the width of the board.

The leather is scored using a ruler and the tip of a bone folder and a cutting line created. The leather is then cut at an angle of roughly 60 degrees using a very sharp blade. (This is actually not as tricky as it sounds!) The reason for the angled cut is so that an even finish will be obtained when the marbled paper is added.

  Ideally, the surface area of the book should be smooth as any ridges where the different coverings meet each other would be vulnerable to tearing as the book was slid on and off the bookshelf. As leather is much thicker than marbled paper this is achieved by lining the part of the board to be covered in paper with very thin card or paper to build it up. (The thickness of the lining card and the marbled paper which will go over it should equal the thickness of the leather.) The lining is cut so that when it is glued onto the board, it rests half way up the angled cuts on the leather. The marbled paper is cut very slightly larger and when added, it covers the rest of the angled cut. (If you don't like working precisely, don't take up bookbinding!)




When both front and back boards have been lined, the book is then left until the glue has dried thoroughly. Without the weight on top, the dampness of the glue would make the covers warp.

The front and back boards of a book are always protected with layers of greyboard when it is put into a nipping press or being weighted.


I'm finishing the binding with a piece of handmarbled paper. Styles of marbling change over the centuries and I've tried to pick one that would not look out of place in the 1790s. (At nearly £8 a sheet, it's expensive stuff and my supply is limited.) Once again, paper grain is important and runs lengthwise down the book. The first picture shows the paper cut to size, the second glued onto the book. This is not an operation where you want the phone or doorbell to ring as you're in the middle of it!

Once again, the book is placed between boards and weighted until the glue is thoroughly dry, but it's finally beginning to look like a book again!

Marbled paper cut to size   Marbled paper glued on book


Making labels for the spine

While the glue is drying, I can work on the labels which will go on the spine. I have a small hot foil printer which I use for this and numerous sets of type. Asbestos fingertips would also be a definite advantage for this procedure!

Below are the labels, hot from the press. They now need to be trimmed to size and the edges pared. Not only will the pared edges make for a neater finish, but also a stronger bond with the leather beneath. Click on them to see them trimmed and pared.

The finished labels

The labels are printed on skiver, which is made from a layer of the underside of a leather skin which is taken off at the tannery during the thinning process. It is much finer than the leather used for the actual binding and ideal for labels.

(Click on the picture on the left to see a shot of the complete printer.)



If you're still with me, well done! The book's nearly finished.

Adding layers to the front of the boards pulls them outwards, and could result in them warping with time. To counteract this, an extra layer is added to the inside of the board to equal out the strain.

First of all the edges of the turn ins are trimmed and then paper, the same thickness as the marbled paper, is cut to size and pasted onto the board. The dampness of the paste acts on the boards and pulls them inwards. Once again the book is protected with greyboard and weighted whilst the paste dries.

A further advantage to lining the book is that when the endpaper is glued onto the board, the finished effect will be an even one and the leather and marbled paper turn ins will be much less conspicuous through the paste down.

All that's left to do now is to glue down the endpapers. The book will then sit in the nipping press for at least 24 hours and that's it!

Before the turn ins are trimmed    After the turn ins have been trimmed

Lining the inside of the boards


It's finally finished. One of the tests of a successful binding is to see if the book opens easily and without straining the joints. I'm happy to say that this one has passed. "The Universal Letter-Writer" will now be spending a long and happy retirement on one of my bookshelves.


The finished book from the outside
The inside of the finished book
The book as it was originally

All that remains is to make a slip case. Making boxes is another craft altogether and not one about which I can get enthusiastic, but it does seem a pity to me, to spend all that time rebinding a book and then not protect it for the future. There are several ways of making boxes, this is probably the most basic, but it's very effective.

First of all a piece of thin board is cut to size. (You can just about see the pencil marks outlining where the spine will be.)

When the lines are gently scored with a knife, it folds into this. Clever stuff!
  A strip of book cloth covers the narrow edges. In the same way that the inside cover of the book was lined to produce an even finish when the endpaper was pasted onto it, the same thing can be done with a box.
All that's left is to cover the sides with matching bookcloth and it's done.


The Universal Letter-Writer by Thomas Cooke, the book shown in all the pictures, was rebound between 9th and 21st August 2006


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Copyright Ann Dickinson 2006