A Very Brief Account of Beating Textblocks

The compression of signatures before sewing is an interesting, important, and poorly understood aspect of bookbinding.  Many people immediately assume beating flattens the pages. Although this is partially true, the situation is more complex. Below is a brief introduction.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA unbeaten page

Both images, page 126 of John Marshall The Life of George Washington  Philadelphia: C. P. Wayne, 1804. On the top: beaten, edges cut and bound in full calf. On the bottom: unbeaten, uncut and boarded. Courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia.

These two images, shot in raking light with a flashlight, demonstrate some of the effects of beating. The book in the bottom image is from a boards binding and is unbeaten, but has been pressed. The book in the top image has been beaten: it clearly demonstrates increased textblock undulations as compared to the bottom image, where the undulations are much looser. Baxter, in 1809, mentions that beating makes the leaves “smooth and lie close together.”[1]  Beating compresses the pages, smooths their surface texture, decreases the punch from the type, but it does not generally flatten the page overall. It usually does the opposite for the text area.

Pressing complicates all of this, but generally compresses the thickest parts of a textblock composed of handmade paper. Depending on the structure, time period, and nationality, bound books could be pressed up to six times: before sewing, when sawing in, during backing, while ploughing the edges, when applying spine linings, during edge decoration, and after pasting down the end sheets.

Depending on the techniques employed while beating, the margins of the page can get flatter, if beaten more, while the printed portions of the page simultaneously become more undulated. A useful food analogy is is to imagine pounding a veal cutlet.  The meat moves outward in all directions from the blows of a hammer, as well as getting thinner. Careful control can direct the movement, however. Beating hammers usually have some “belly”, so depending on how much force they are used, impact a smaller or larger area of the page.

Beating causes the textblock undulations to become more pronounced, and the pages to lie in closer contact with one another. This has the effect of helping to lock together the leaves, much like inserting egg crates into one another.  Much more information is available in my article, “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing” in Suave Mechanicals: Essays in the History of Bookbinding, Volume 1. Ed. Julia Miller. Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press, 2013. (pp. 316-381)

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1. John Baxter The Sister Arts (Lews: Printed and Published by J. Baxter) 95

A French Beating Hammer

french beating hammer

Thanks to a tip from James Tapley, a Florida based bookbinder and winner of the prestigious DeGolyer bookbinding competition, I was able to acquire something I’ve wanted for a long time: a real French beating hammer. Beating hammers were used for pounding signatures before sewing. Early Christmas! But I will wait until Christmas morning to actually smash some paper with it on my beating iron. Seven interminably long days from now….

Anyway, it is typically French with large and small square shaped faces and a cylindrical handle that ends in a bulge. The heads also have a significant amount of ‘belly’, or camber, which I have not seen in images and photographs of other French hammers, though this may or may not be common.

What is not typical about this hammer are the nine holes drilled into it. The only explanation I can think of is that a previous owner wanted to lighten the weight, like I did on the chainrings on my racing bicycle in the 1980’s. Another unusual aspect is a small pin on the side of the hammer that was presumably intended to secure the head, though of course this has loosened.  The hammer was used quite—for something— a bit judging from the dings on the faces.

The hammer currently weighs 4.5 lbs with the handle. I’ve calculated that if the nine holes were filled in it would weight about 5.25 lbs. which is the same as my small sized Hickock beating hammer.  The large face is roughly 2.5 inches square, the small one 2 inches. Given the relatively small size and (presumably original) green paint, I’d guess a mid-twentieth century date. The handle is 8.5 inches long and 1.25 inches in diameter, and turned on a (copy?) lathe. This is the original length judging from the ends, both marks from a headstock spur center and the tailstock are intact.

Predictably, this hammer arrived a few weeks too late to be included in my forthcoming article about beating hammers, “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing” in Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, which will be published in early 2013 by The Legacy Press. Grrr.

Soon to be Published! Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, Volume 1

UPDATE 2/13/2013: This book is now available for purchase from The Legacy Press

I’m quite excited about this forthcoming book for two reasons: my essay on the beating of signatures is included and I’m really looking forward to reading the other essays. Julia Miller is the editor as well as the author of an essay on scaleboard bindings. This is the first of a volume of a planned series on the history of bookbinding.  Binders take note, there will be copies in sheets available. This book is scheduled to be published in early 2013 and if you want to know when it is published email: thelegacypress (at) comcast.net

Cathy Baker, founder of The Legacy Press,  also publishes a number of other award winning books on book and paper history. I wrote a review of her own excellent book, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums, Technologies, Materials and Conservation, in the The Bonefolder, Volume 7, 2011. Books from her press are thoughtfully designed, well made, and most importantly contain valuable, original content.

My essay, “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing”  is a comprehensive examination of the tools, techniques and effects of beating. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of beating in the forming the appearance and function of virtually all textblocks from the handpress era. Prior to the 1830’s, all bound book were beaten by hand with hundreds—likely many hundreds—of hammer blows. Records indicate it could account for up to 25% of the cost of a binding.  Today beating is virtually ignored or barely mentioned, even in most book histories and in specialized workshops on historical bindings. Beating hammers are very rare and I’ve only located about a dozen of them, though I suspect there are many more as yet unidentified. The study of the history of tools is often divorced from the study of the history of the objects they were used to make: here, I attempt to integrate the two. I trace the history of beating, the evolution of beating tools and machines, and interpret the results of beating in an essay of over 21,000 words with 42 illustrations.

Abstract for “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing”

The tools and techniques of bookbinding have received little attention within the study of book history, bibliography and book conservation. From the fifteenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth, the compression of book signatures prior to sewing was accomplished by hand beating with a large hammer. Signatures were beaten for various reasons at different times, but generally to meet expectations of solidity, smoothness, and openability. In 1827 the introduction of the rolling machine replaced hand beating in large binderies in England, and quickly spread to other countries. Both literally and figuratively, the transition from hand beating to the rolling press demarcates the end of bookbinding as a vernacular hand craft and the beginning of machine bookbinding. Papermaking, printing and book structures also changed radically around this time. The rolling press and descriptions of other presses are well documented in early bookbinding manuals, trade records, nineteenth century encyclopedias and other accounts of which together provide an unusually rich and detailed insight into this time period. This study will follow one technique of bookbinding—the compression of signatures prior to sewing—and investigate how it was done, how the tools changed, what the technique meant to the bookbinders, and how it affects the bookbindings themselves.