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An excerpt from The Restoration of Leather Bindings

January 18, 2012 Leave a comment

The craft of bookbinding encompasses a wealth of procedures, techniques, approaches, and skills. The celebrated title The Restoration of Leather Bindings by Bernard C. Middleton provides definitions, tools, materials, instructions, and more for how to restore bindings. One section of the book discusses the restoration of antiquarian books, and more specifically, the restoration of vellum bindings. See what Middleton says about cleaning and coloring vellum covers. He gives some great tips to remember!

The Restoration of Vellum Bindings

 Cleaning. Minor cleaning of vellum covers can be done by dry means, but if the cleaning is to be really effective it is necessary to use aqueous solutions; in general, these are not recommended and should be employed only by experienced restorers. Saddle soap or other high-quality soaps can be used, but a cardinal rule, if the stability of gold tooling and ink inscriptions is not to be adversely affected, is to keep pressure and moisture to a minimum, so soapy swabs should be damp rather than wet, and rinsing with damp cotton wool should follow quickly. Milk is sometimes used for the cleaning of vellum because the fat content helps to obviate roughening of its surface, but there is some objection to this on the grounds that in an unsatisfactory environment it may give rise to microbiological problems. Ink inscriptions are best avoided altogether and certainly any rubbing should be very light and brief because many are easily marred or even completely removed.

Vellum-covered Boards. Technically, vellum bindings are treated in much the same way as leather-covered ones, but a few points are worth mentioning in relation to rebacking. One is that if, as is often the case, the old vellum is lined with paper which is loose, the new vellum should underlie both the old vellum and its paper lining on the sides, otherwise the new vellum is likely to show through darkly when the old vellum is stuck down on to it. It is easy inadvertently to position the new vellum between the two layers.

Much modern vellum has little stretch, so it is often quite difficult to form it over prominent rasied bands and to make it stick between them, so tying-up cords may need to have considerable tension. The cord may also need to be kept in position for several hours, and there is no problem about this because there is no danger that the old vellum on the sides will be discoloured by contact with the wet new vellum which is certainly a hazard in the case of leather-covered bindings. If the raised bands are very large, as they tend to be on old Dutch books, and the new vellum is intractable even after much soaking with paste, some creasing of the vellum on the sides may results, but if these cause unsightly ridges they can be sliced off when dry without detriment to the strength of the work. The surface of the new vellum should be scratched and scraped where it underlies the old vellum on the sides and the spine, if any, so that firm adhesion with paste of PVA is aided. Pressure can be protracted unless there is danger that blind tooling will be obliterated, in which case the book can be put between backing boards in the lying-press after the first few minutes so that pressure is then localized at the edge of the old vellum.

Colouring of the new vellum can be done very satisfactorily with spirit stains, the technique being to apply the stain with a swab of cotton wool and then to rub it almost immediately in a circular  motion with clean cotton wool as the stain dries, which it does fairly quickly. If this is done too soon the stain may be removed, and if it is too long delayed streaking may result. Staining is best done on the book so that local variations of tone and density can be made to match the ageing of the original vellum. At one time, much green vellum was used, especially on blank books used for estate accounts, and the like. If matching vellum is not available one’s own green staining should be done before the vellum is pasted on so that inaccessible parts do not show white, and then local colouring can be done at a later stage.

The headcaps on many antiquarian vellum bindings were made by tying cord around the fore edge of the book and the back of the headband, and then bending the vellum back against the cord so that the vellum is at right angles to the line of the backbone instead of knocking the vellum over on to the headband form a conventional cap. This better suits the nature of the material.

If the boards are warping outwards very badly it is likely that the only satisfactory remedy will be to remove the edges of the boards and then replace the vellum as described on page 184 for leather-covered bindings.

Click here for more information on The Restoration of Leather Bindings.

Books about Books Part 12: Marketing Experiments

September 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Another example of this synergy between the publishing and antiquarian businesses was brought about by an interesting request for bookbinding titles that we received from Marianne Tidcombe, noted English author (though American-born). Marianne told me that she was working on a project to honor Bernard Middleton, the pre-imminent English bookbinder. Important bookbinders around the world would be asked to contribute a gold-tooled binding on a copy of Middleton’s memoirs that had been printed by hand by Henry Morris at his Bird & Bull Press. Twenty-five binders would be chosen and they would be paid for their work when (or if) the collection of bindings would be sold. I was asked to help find the binders, plan an Oak Knoll Press title describing this project which would be accompanied by full color plates of the bindings produced, and then sell the collection as a whole if possible, or piecemeal if it could not be sold as a collection. What a combination of antiquarian, new book, and publishing goals!

John von Hoelle presenting Bernard Middleton with his newest publication

John von Hoelle presenting Bernard Middleton with his newest publication

The letters to binders were sent out and 25 were chosen to participate. Each binder was asked to price their book and then produce it on schedule. The bindings were eventually mailed to London and assembled in Bernard’s living room. I flew to England to view this unbelievable collection of bindings with Marianne and Bernard. I’ll never forget the magic of walking into that room (I seem to remember candles burning in the background) and feeling the impact of seeing them as a group. We photographed them and produced a book entitled Twenty-Five Gold-Tooled Bookbindings, an International Tribute to Bernard C. Middleton’s Recollections (Bib. #78). The book was produced in a limited edition of 250 hardbound copies, 400 paperback copies, and a number of copies in sheets. The books themselves traveled as an exhibition from The British Library to Rochester, New York (Cary Collection at RIT, home of Bernard’s personal collection of books on bookbinding), and then on to the San Francisco Public Library. It was with great pleasure that I announced that I had found a private collector who was as impressed with this collection as I had been and bought it as a whole, thus preserving it intact.

We also experimented with finding ways to get a selection of our titles into the new bookstore market. We signed an agreement with the Lyons Press of New York in 1997 to act as our distributor for our popular titles (Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors was the star in the line). This company produced an interesting collection of books of their own and distributed a few, selected small publishers. Nick Lyons proved to be a real bookman and gentleman of the old school of publishing with great personal interest in fly-fishing and the production of limited edition books in that field. We increased the print runs of the titles that we gave to them in hopes that they would sell well. The Carter sold extremely well and others sold moderately well. Eventually we discovered that we were mostly just circulating money without much profit coming back to us. The large jobbers tended to order large numbers of copies of books in the hopes of selling them and then sent them all back to Lyons if they didn’t sell. The jobbers demanded large discounts, returned damaged books and didn’t need to worry about their order size since they weren’t paying for the books to begin with. We ended our relationship with the Lyons Press in April of 2000 and put the other distributors on a “proforma” basis and elected to do what we do best—market and sell directly to the end customer.

Check back Friday for more from Books about Books.