Category Archives: bookbinding

Christopher Sower Junior Died While Beating Books

“He began the process of binding these books by the laborious employment of beating them, as is usual, and imprudently completed as much of this work in half a day as is usually done in a whole day. The weather was warm, and by this exertion he became overheated. He went out to a spring where he drank so freely of water as to produce a fit of apoplexy, which soon after terminated his moral existence.”

-Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America 2nd. Ed., Vol. 1. (Albany, N.Y.: : Joel Munsell, printer., 1874), 280.

Christopher Sower Jr. (1721-1784) a Pennsylvania German Anabaptist who, like his father, was a papermaker, bookbinder, printer and jack of all trades. He reportedly preferred walking to any other method of travel, and could maintain four miles an hour. Although bookbinding research is generally a somewhat impersonal activity, this story struck home with me. First, I come from an Anabaptist religious tradition. Secondly, I have been spending a lot of time looking at the Pennsylvania German wood board bindings that Sower made, as well as the Bibles he printed. Thirdly, I recently wrote an article about the beating of books.

I think I will take it easy the next time I beat a text block when making a model….

Louis-Sebastien Lenormand: Scientist, Professor, Daredevil, Author of a Bookbinding Manual.

One may safely assume that most of the authors of bookbinding manuals tend to be somewhere between mild-mannered and introvertedly geeky. There are some starteling exceptions to this rule, however. Witness one Louis-Sebastien Lenormand. In the image below, he is hanging from the wood framed parachute, which he invented and publicly demonstrated.

From the wikipedia entry for Louis-Sebastien Lenormand

He coined the name para-chute (Greek-against, French-fall) and intended it to save people that had to jump from tall burning buildings. He also was a professor of physics, chemistry, and technology. In his spare time he was an editor of 27 volumes of Dictionnaire Technologique (1822-1827). And he wrote one of the best bookbinding manuals of the 19th century.

His 1827 Manuel du Relier  (Nouvelle Edition, 1833) was in print for over one hundred years.  He credits Dudin and Lesne as predecessors.  It is comprehensive and is especially concerned with technique. In addition to bound books, it also covers cartonnage allemand, or Bradel binding. There is a tremendous amount of interchange between English and French technical descriptions of bookbinding throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Hannett, in Bibliopegia, 1835, thought that Lenormand’s illustrations of the man ploughing and the disembodied beating hammer were good enough that he copied them. Even if you do not read French, the fold out plates are worth spending some time with, though unfortunately they were not opened when Google scanned Nouvelle Edition….

I won’t even attempt to speculate about the relationship between parachuting and bookbinding, other than that both fascinated Lenormand immensely. I can only applaud his life and work, like the cheering crowd in the image above.

Bone Folders: Our Nearest and Dearest Friend

John Farleigh, in a chapter about Sidney Cockerell from his book The Creative Craftsman, gives a particularly observant account of the relationship between a book binder and a bone folder.

“Another man is at work putting down a leather joint on the inside of a bound book, using a folder with quick, skillful movements reminiscent of the grooming of a horse.  The folder, a small ivory instrument that has to the ordinary eye the appearance of a paper-knife, is in fact a most important tool to the binder. Its shape is fashioned with great care and according to the habits of the craftsman himself. Every facet of its surface, every curve and subtlety of its edge, is known and used for a purpose, and no craftsman will readily part with this tool. This particular craftsman tells us, as he would talk of the loss of his nearest and dearest friend, that he has just broken his folder—an extra thick piece of vellum needing rather more pressure than usual found a weakness in the ivory—and we are shown the sad remains”

The finest bone folders on earth are being made today by Jim Croft, pictured below.  He processes wild deer and elk bones with his teeth and hands.  He also offers intensive workshops on making books from raw materials: toolmaking, processing fiber, papermaking, and wooden board binding with clasps. Below he is wearing his signature bone folder vest.  Check out his website,, or email him to purchase raw or finished folders: traditionalhand AT



John Farleigh  The Creative Craftsman (London: G Bell and Sons, 1950) 92.

Profitable Hobbies: A Short Course In Bookbinding

profitable hobbies

Profitable Hobbies, March 1949, My Collection

Manly Banister’s “A Short Course in Book Binding” barely presents the rudiments of bookbinding, but it is well worth the price of admission for Banister’s entertaining hubris and the highly stylized cover imagery. The woman sewing seems to have an expression somewhere between extreme self consciousness—”how do you want me to hold the needle?”— and a seething annoyance at having to pose yet again. It also appears she is sewing a newspaper? The black and white cover with red is almost noirish in its use of shadows. Despite Banister’s minimal knowledge of the field, his diagrams of DIY equipment, the sewing frame, press and plough above, may be of use to some. But like many introductory bookbinding manuals, it is not so much the information they contain that is important, but the sense of the audience for the craft that I find of interest. Binders might question how profitable bookbinding as a hobby might be, yet according to Banister bookbinding is pure profit! His recollection about how he began bookbinding is a gem:

“I got started on bookbinding when I was confined to bed for a week with a touch of the flu. There was a forty-year old book on book on bookbinding lying around which I read for the lack of anything better. I had not read far when my fingers began to itch for the feel of needle and thread. Of course, I had no tools to work with, but I went ahead anyway, propped up on pillows. I had two boards brought to me and some cord, and their combination served as my press. My wife’s  old Bible was rapidly going to pieces, so I finished the process. The job was absorbing. I sewed the book and glued it and cut up an old leather jacket to cover it.”

“Bookbinding is easy. Anyone can bind a book—you and you and you! You just set your mind to it, and that’s all. If you can thread a needle, cut and fold paper, you can bind a book.”

The power of positive thinking aside, this issue of Profitable Hobbies does contain an important description of the Flash Dry method of printing, which was used by R.R. Donnelley & Sons for printing this very magazine, as well as Time, Life, Fortune, Farm Journal and Pathfinder. It supposedly is responsible for the “fine halftone work.”

Amish Punk Books


Both images courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century Pennsylvania German Wood Board Bindings often resemble Gothic bindings. They often have thick wooden boards, bosses, center pieces, corner pieces, and clasps.  These bindings also share design elements with other Amish and Mennonite folk art traditions, including Fractur, needlework, carving, etc….  The books pictured above, however, with their studded spine straps and covers, look more like a punk rock wristband or studded motorcycle jacket.  Although Amish and punk culture may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, both embrace a locus of identity outside of mainstream culture and use their distinctive clothing styles to visually represent this.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.43.23 PM

A Cool Press

Luke Herbert. The Engineer’s & Mechanics Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 , 1849 (p. 333)

The above press won a prize for it because it demonstrates the five mechanical powers of a simple machine: the wheel and axle, lever, wedge, inclined plane, and pulley. Sometimes a screw is also considered a sixth basic function, although it is essentially an inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder. Herbert’s article on presses also illustrates a number of high tech screw presses used by bookbinders from this time. The state of the art information contained within this book is reflected by its binding: my 1840 edition is in a caoutchouc binding, which was invented in 1836.

A Book Conservator Goes to Hollywood: or, Pretending to be an Actor Playing a Bookbinder

It is pretty unusual—once in a lifetime?— for any craftsman to appear in a Hollywood commercial. I had my chance last week. In many ways it was almost the stereotypical experience: a phone call out of the blue, sending a production company a couple of images of me and my work, a bunch of phone meetings, sending more pictures, then all of the sudden a limo was picking me up at 5:00 am to fly to Los Angles.

The first day was spent meeting the director, producers and wardrobe fitting.  My “costume” was chosen, which was surprisingly similar to the kind of clothes I usually wear.  Loose linen shirt and blue pants, though they did make me wear a kind of silly looking heavy duty leather apron.  Wardrobe went to do a few alterations and I was driven to look at the set.

The set really looked like a bindery, even though much of it was from other trades.  All the small details were wrong, but the overall feel was right.  The director of photography was there with a top of the line DSLR, so I left thinking this was going to be a small, intimate shoot.

The next day my driver picked me up and the scene had changed dramatically. The crew parking lot was filled with over 70 cars.  The caterer had 4 tents set up.  All of these people would be filming me for the next couple days, and I’d never acted before.  I was playing with the big boys.

As my make-up was being applied and my hair cut, I kept thinking that my experience in teaching should help me out, since I’m used to having people watch me work.  Or maybe I should think of this as extreme method acting: I’d practiced bookbinding for 23 years, and now was my chance to perform in front of the camera?

I saw the real camera for the first time; one of those monsters used for film shoots that three people ride on. We shot the various stages of book binding at different times.  Often I had to repeat an action three times, for a wide, medium and tight shot. The raw footage I saw looked amazing; the most professional, seductive looking images of bookbinding I’ve ever seen.

Seductive images of craft are great PR.  I still remember how appealing Bernard Middleton’s hands were on the cover of The Restoration of Leather Bindings.  Quite likely it was a reason I got into bookbinding in the first place. Could the less scientific, and more romantic side of conservation be emphasized a bit more for public appeal and possibly funding? Or does it land us back in the murky world of craft and restoration which conservation strives to differentiate itself from?

Film shoots are pure chaos.  As one crew member recommended “embrace the chaos”.  But the crews were remarkable in the way they worked together, thought creatively and spontaneously, and in the end got the job done.  It was great to get a glimpse at this world.

If you happen to find yourself being filmed using a sewing frame, which is a de-rigor shot, use pre-pierced the inner folios but not the outer one.  This way you can feel the hole on the inside with the tip of the needle, and burst out through an unpierced outer folio with frightening precision, without having to look inside the book. Smooth.

The most difficult thing for me was doing a familiar action differently or at a different speed—either to show it better on camera or because the director wanted it. I spend most of my time thinking about pragmatic realities—reattaching a board to fit the textblock exactly, mending paper fibers to realign or grinding a knife to exactly 13 degrees— so it was a bit difficult for me to get my head around the “prop” mentality, and how much the camera would see, and concentrate on the action, not the object. It was hard work to repeat an action over, and over, and over. “Show the leather more love when you touch it!” In the end I was left with much more respect for “real” actors; it is hard, skilled work.

And how quickly I become accustomed to being treated like a star!  By the end of the second day, it seemed natural to have a driver, someone yelling “talent on the set” and “talent stepping down” when I moved on the set, a hairstylist preening me every 30 minutes of so, food and water brought constantly the minute I sat.

I signed a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) so can’t go into any details until December.  Once the commercial is live, I will post links to it on this blog.

Now, back to reality. Finish sewing an endband, then edge paring, spokeshaving, and covering an appealing well used edition of Luther’s Commentarie on the Epistle of Saint Paul, London, 1616. I keep telling myself I’m glad to be back in the real world. But….

Boards Bindings

Boards Binding

Nathan Drake. Literary Hours: Or Sketches, Critical, Narrative, and Poetical. The Fourth Edition, Corrected.  London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820. This board binding is covered in one sheet of paper, has a printed spine label on a tight-back spine, and substantial squares. 

John Townsend, the one and only Anonymous Bookbinder, has once again agreed to be a guest blogger.  Boards bindings (also called publishers’ board bindings, in-boards bindings, boarded bindings, paper covered board bindings, publishers’ boards, plain boards, boards bindings, in-boards publisher’s bindings, original boards, publishers’ trade bindings [1]) are particularly interesting in the way they prefigure certain aspects of publishers’ cloth case bindings.  John’s short essay, which is from a Paper and Book Intensive workshop he conducted in 2011, is a succinct introduction to this often neglected binding style, which until now has been missing from the web. John writes:

Publishers’ board bindings” refer to an inexpensive retail style of binding that emerged in England in the mid-18th century. It typically consists of a sewn textblock with untrimmed edges, thin pasteboards laced on and covered in paper. The covering was often with three pieces of paper: a plain paper pasted down tight on the spine and slightly overlapping the sides (i.e. quarter binding), with a blue or gray paper covering the remainder of the sides. There are many variations, including covering with a single colored sheet (frequently gray); boards with or without squares; spines covered with leather or vellum instead of paper; the use of a made or natural hollow, etc. Different colors of paper were used at various time, with some colors identified with particular publishers.

By the end of the 18th century, books in boards had become the most common way for books to be sold. Although often described as temporary bindings, recent scholarship has demonstrated that they are more likely intended to help meet the growing demand for books at a cost the broader public could afford. As such, it is unlikely they were issued by publishers with the expectation that buyers would necessarily have them rebound at a later time. It was common for publishers to issue books in boards at the time they issued the same books in sheep or calf leather for those interested and willing to pay more.

The style and its variation had a very long life in the marketplace. After the introduction of bookcloth in the mid-1820s, cloth rather than paper spines was used for popular titles, especially novels. After mechanization took over many aspects of book production, the boards style continued to appear on certain types of publications, such as proceeding of scholarly societies, print versions of important library catalogs, and other bibliographic works. Many examples can be found well into the second half of the twentieth century.

Cowie’s Bookbinder’s Manual (1828 and subsequent editions) may be the first written account of the process for board bindings. But the key structural features of board bindings are easily observed in the many surviving examples and it is clear that the style changed little between its introduction and Cowie’s description. Somewhat later (1835), Arnett’s Bibliopegia describes it as “the commonest way of doing up books in this country.”

Despite its reputation as “temporary,” many thousands of board bindings still exist. Given their age and the fact that they were often not regarded as important, these are often in reasonably good condition. Deterioration is typically due as much to poor storage and degraded materials as to structural deficiencies. The structure is worth studying as a transition between leather binding and case binding. Many of its features—sewing on cords, laced on boards, tight back spine covering—are identical in form to traditional leather bindings, but performed with less expensive materials. (The temporary shortage of leather and its high cost in the 1760s being one reason for the development of board bindings.) By one account, the development of bookcloth by William Pickering (circa 1823) was his desire for a neater way of doing boarded bindings. Thus, cloth was developed as a substitute for board bindings, rather than a substitute for leather bindings, as is sometimes assumed.

Board bindings represent a significant development in the history of bookbinding and book selling. As a structure, they also have many possibilities to offer bookbinders, conservators and book artists who look to historical models for instruction and inspiration. As far as being merely temporary, it is worth remembering that, “All bindings are perishable, whether of wood, leather, paper or cloth. At their best, and treated well, books in boards offered a binding as lasting as any other.” (Hill, p. 273)


Bennett, Stuart. Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660-1800. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press/The British Library, 2004. An important work challenging and expanding the definition of publishers’ bindings. Section V.1 of chapter three (p. 80-85) deals with board bindings.

Cowie, George. Cowie’s Bookbinder’s Manual. London: W. Strange, 1853. Acessed online 19 Apr 2011 at

Hannett [Arnett], John. Bibliopegia; or, the Art of Bookbinding in All Its Branches. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1980. (Reprint of the 1835 edition.) Part IV (p. 161-163) has a brief account “Of Boarding” and “Cloth Boarding.”

Hill, Jonathan E. “From Provisional to Permanent: Books in Boards, 1790-1840.” The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographic Society 3 (September) (1999) : 247-273. A scholarly account of various stages in the development of board bindings, challenging the early 20th century assertion that they were “mere sheet-containers.”

Pearson, David. English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800. London and New Castle, De: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2005. Chapter VI, “Cheap and Temporary Bindings,” deals with bindings in boards, p. 159 -163. Despite the chapter title, Pearson follows Hill’s view that board bindings were often very often intended to be more permanent that often assumed.


[1] “Boarding” also refers to the working of leather to make it more pliable, give it a more even consistency, and raise the grain. “Out of boards” binding refers to trimming the edges before the boards are attached, as in school-book and case binding. The term “in-boards” sometimes refers generally to a bound books, rather than a cased ones.

Forty Bookbinding Reference Books

Florian asked, in a comment, what my most commonly used bookbinding reference books are. Below is a list, which is heavily weighted to my current interests in early nineteenth century American bookbinding.  The books below serve a variety of purposes for me. Some contain a quick review of structural history and others are key primary references. Some are a basic starting point for more in-depth research and others are a handy source of images to show clients. Anyone else have some favorites?

Appleton’s Dictionary of Machines, Mechanics, Engine-Work and Engineering. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1852. 

Baker, Cathleen A. From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials and Conservation. Ann-Arbor, Michigan: The Legacy Press, 2010. 

Bearman, Frederick, Nati H. Krivatsy, and J. Franklin Mowery. Fine and Historic Bookbindings from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992.

Bennett, Stuart. Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles, 1660-1800. New Castle, Deleware and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2004.

Bloom, Jonathan M. Paper before Print. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 

Blumenthal, Joseph. The Printed Book in America. Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Library, 1989.

Bookbinding in America, 1680-1910. From the Collection of Frederick E. Maser. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr College Library, 1983. 

Bosch, Gulnar, John Carswell, and Guy Petherbridge. Islamic Bindings & Bookmaking. Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1981. 

Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors, 7th ed. Revised by Nicholas Barker. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1995.

Comparato, Frank E. Books for the Millions: A History of the Men Whose Methods and Machines Packaged the Printed Word. Harrisburg, PA: The Stackpole Co., 1971.

Darley, Lionel. Bookbinding Then and Now. London: Faber and Faber, 1959. 

De Hamel, Christopher. The Book: A History of the Bible. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001.

Edlin, Herbert L. What Wood is That? A Manual for Wood Identification. New York: Viking, 1969.

Foot, Mirjam M. Bookbinders at Work: Their Roles and Methods. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006. 

French, Hannah D. Bookbinding in Early America. Seven Essays on Masters and Methods. Worchester: American Antiquarian Society, 1986.

Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. New Castle, Delaware and Winchester, UK: Oak Knoll Press and St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1995.

Gascoigne, Bamber. How To Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink-Jet. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Gould, F.C. The Mechanization of Bookbinding. London: Master Bookbinders’ Association, 1937. 

Harrison, Thomas. “The Bookbinding Craft and Industry” London: Pitman, [1926] Facsimile in “The History of Bookbinding Technique and Design”. Ed. Sidney F. Huttner. New York: Garland, 1990. 

Herbert, Luke. The Engineer’s and Mechanic’s Encyclopedia. London: Thomas Kelly, 1841. 

The History of Bookbinding 525-1950 A.D. Baltimore, Maryland: The Trustees of The Walters Art Gallery, 1957.

Hoadley, R. Bruce. Identifying Wood: Accurate Results with Simple Tools. Newtown, Connecticut: Taunton Press, 1990.

Knight, Edward. American Mechanical Dictionary. New York: J.B. Ford and Co., 1874. 

Krupp, Andrea. Bookcloth in England and America, 1823-50. New Castle, Deleware and London and New York: Oak Knoll Press, The British Library, The Bibliographical Society of America, 2008.

Lehmann-Haupt. The Book in America: A History of the Making and Selling of Books in the United States. New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1952.

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut, Ed. Bookbinding in America: Three Essays. New York: R.R. Bower Co., 1967.

Mayer, Ralph. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, 5th Ed., Revised and Updated. New York: Viking, 1985.

Middleton, Bernard C. A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. London: Hafner, 1963. 

Pearson, David. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800. London and New Castle: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2005.

Pollard, Graham and Esther Potter. Early Bookbinding Manuals: An Annotated List of Technical Accounts of Bookbinding to 1840. Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 1984. 

Posner, Raphael and Israel Ta-Shema. The Hebrew Book: An Historical Survey. Jerusalem: Keter House Publishing, 1975.

Ramsden, Charles. London Bookbinders 1780-1840. London: Batsford Ltd., (reprint), 1987.

Ramsden, Charles. Bookbinders of the United Kingdom (Outside London) 1780-1840. London: Batsford Ltd., (reprint), 1987.

Ramsden, Charles. French Bookbinders, 1789-1848. London: Batsford Ltd., (reprint), 1989.

Spawn, Willman and Thomas E. Kinsella. Ticketed Bookbindings from Nineteenth-Century Britain. Bryn Mawr and Deleware: Bryn Mawr College Library and Oak Knoll Press, 1999.

Szirmai, J.A. The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999. 

Thomlinson, William and Richard Masters. Bookcloth: 1823-1980. Cheshire: Dorthy Tomlinson, 1996.

Tomlinson, Charles. Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts, Mechanical and Chemical…. London: Virtue & Co., 1868. 

Ure, Andrew. Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines: Containing a Clear Exposition of their Principles and Practice. 2nd. Ed. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1840.

Wolf, Richard. Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. 

Ngrams: Book Conservation, Art Conservation, Book Restoration, Art Restoration

An N-gram is a continuous series of letters or words. In linguistics, they are useful for gathering information about frequency of use. Google has an Ngram tool that uses more than eight million of the texts it has scanned, which is estimated to be six percent of all books ever published. I thought it might be interesting to compare four terms: book conservation,  art conservation, book restoration, and art restoration. I selected the years 1900-2008 and added some smoothing to make the trends more clear. It is also possible to distinguish between English and American usage, though I didn’t do this.

conservation book

Larger table at Google Ngrams

A couple of things jumped out at me. The use of the term conservation essentially overtook the term restoration in the mid-1970’s, which also roughly correlates with the beginning of professionalism in the field: the founding of the American Institute for Conservation (1972), journals, graduate schools, conferences, etc….

We see a peak in book conservation in the mid-1980’s.  The Columbia University Library and Archives program was in full swing and grant money was plentiful. Microfilming was still the dominant method of reformatting. Book conservation, along with book restoration, has declined precipitously since this time.

The term book conservation gets used roughly 25% as much as art conservation in 2008. It also seems to be on a bit of an upswing.

For a short time in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, book restoration was even more popular than art conservation. I’m not quite sure what explains this, the Florence Flood? Chance?

It is debatable exactly how the frequency of these terms used in publications reflects the growth, size and public perception of the field. They also likely bear little resemblance to the actual practice of restoration and conservation.  Additionally, I think journal articles are not included, as well as online sources, which might change things dramatically.

My gut feeling, though, is that this graph roughly mirrors the popularity, size and funding for book conservation, which has declined significantly over the past 25 years. Art conservation seems to have declined less, but still significantly since 2000. But the frequency of these terms is still about half of the peak. It has often been noted that creating a written body of literature for book conservation is a necessary step towards professionalism and even some kind of certification in the United States, which currently does not exist.  Are we farther away from that goal now than we were in 1985?

Ngrams can be a pleasant time sink serious tool for the statistical analysis of use frequency patterns. Finally, we can answer such crucial questions as were The Beatles more popular than Jesus Christ?

Cooked Books

In preparation for an upcoming lecture on book boxes (May 23, 2013, 6:30) and workshop on drop spine cradle boxes (May 24-25, 2013) at Columbia College in Chicago, I’ve run across some crazy ideas on how to protect a book.  The housing system below is noteworthy. Over 200 books at an NYC Institution were treated this way.

Crazy Housing

The outer shell is an acidic marbled paper and a laser printed paper label.  As you can see, it is difficult to unwrap the book without tearing the deteriorated paper. The laser printed label seems to date this treatment after the early 1990’s. Is it my imagination, an accident, or did the person who wrapped this book take extreme care to try and match the marbled patterns at the join of the paper?

Crazy Housing

The next layer is the big surprise: aluminum foil. At the moment, I can only think of one reason for wrapping a book in foil, to prepare it for baking. I’m not sure what the Interactions between the aluminum and leather might be, but the mechanical problems are quite apparent, since the extra aluminum is rolled up and pushed onto the head and tail of the text block causing uneven stresses when the book is shelved upright. Again, it is unwieldy to unwrap.

Crazy Housing 3

These books were also given an marinade of potassium lactate according to the treatment records. I think this must have caused some of the blackening and changes to the surface texture of the leather—they do look a little like they have been baked. Potassium lactate is used as an antimicrobial preservative in Hot Dogs.

Putting potassium lactate on leather books is a very bad idea, though. Even though it is discussed in some older book restoration manuals, it has been discontinued because of the damage it can cause. Tom Conroy (in the first comment) dates this treatment to 1984. At least one conservation vendor in the US still sells it, though.

The best way to preserve leather bindings is to put nothing on them. If there is already red rot, you should consult with a book conservator. Pass the ketchup.

Cobden-Sanderson’s Workshop

cobden sanderson workshop

Cobden-Sanderson’s Workshop, Illustrated London News, March 1890, p. 323. My Collection.

Updated 25 Nov. 2013. The above attribution was handwritten on the top of the page the image was on; unfortunately it is incorrect. If anyone knows where this is from please let me know.

The quality of Cobden-Sanderson’s work is perhaps only matched by the size of his ego. In true arts and crafts fashion, he raises handwork—especially his handwork— to almost godlike status. His quasi-religious writings are hard to swallow, but his bindings are really beautiful. I’ve had the opportunity to see many of them and to work on a couple of them as well. They are quite refreshing from much of the trade work of the day. Unfortunately, many of the materials he used are often poor quality. The books I’ve been able to see the structure of have common late nineteenth century structural weaknesses: very thin slips, tissue thin leather jointed endsheets, and overly pared covering leather. Ironically, in the article he wrote to accompany the above illustration, he derided “temporary” bindings, like the cloth case, which have often survived in better condition than his bound books.

The studio or workshop of a craftsman often tantalizing in the details of tools and equipment. Cobden-Sanderson and Anne, his wife (he also took her surname, unusual for the time) work in a domestic interior, an English parlor. There are not many tools or much equipment pictured, a chest of drawers on the left, perhaps for storage, a two-rod nipping press with typically English ball ends on the handle. I think this is sitting on a woodworking bench with a leg vice, not a lying press: only one wood screw handle is visible. Reportedly, Cobden-Sanderson was also quite interested in wood carving around this time. Anne sits in the corner next to the fireplace sewing on a frame that is resting on a small table. It appears a paste pot sits on a stool, next to some books stored on their fore edge (!) on a bookshelf. Other tools and tennis (or squash?) rackets hang on the wall. Cobden Sanderson sits on a high workbench, wearing a very long work apron. Just behind him is a freestanding gas finishing stove. On his right is another sewing frame, with a dedicated stool. The central placement of the finishing stove reflects his emphasis on tooling, which was considered the creative aspect of bookbinding at the time.

Cobden-Sanderson, and the arts and crafts movement in general, tried to wrestle bookbinding away from machines, and machine like hand-work as practiced by the large trade binderies of the day. His workshop suggests a smaller, more intimate surrounding is a way to accomplish this, a return to an idealized medieval past. In Cobden-Sanderson’s workshop, craft is integrated into the life of the craftsman, the workshop and the home united.


The  top illustration is after a photograph reproduced in Marianne Tidcombe The Bookbindings of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson: A Study of His Work, 1884-93, London: The British Library, 1984. In the case of this image, there is little doubt that it accurately describes his workplace.