Tag Archives: nineteenth century bookbinding

Images from Zaehnsdorf’s “A Short History of Bookbinding”

Zaehnsdorf’s A Short History of Bookbinding, originally produced as promotional material, contains some nice images of his premises and details of several steps in binding. Even in these low-res google scans, interesting details can be observed: the headbander using an upside-down plough, the massive finishing press with wood top (replaceable, to protect the press from glue?) used for spine lining and finishing, the sewer working inside the frame, etc….

Notably, some of the steps are described as a generic action — “backing” — while some have the specific names for positions — “collater, cutter-out and coverer”. Small clues like this can help to understand the divisions of labor in Zaehnsdorf’s large nineteenth century bindery.


The folder also has a slitting knife to her right.

Interesting a man is doing this, usually I see women doing it. Maybe his great beard got him the job!

Look how long the lay cords are, both to save money on the sewing supports and an indication that only one book at a time was sewn.

Press pin still stuck in the press, indication of the speed of work? It also looks like it either does not go through a hole, or new holes had to be drilled? Usually the holes are drilled completely through at 90 degrees to each other.

Upside down plough. Likely worn out, since the brass holder on many English ploughs would get in the way even if the blade was removed. The women seem to be wearing different aprons, while the mens all look the same.

The rectangular guide rails are on the end of the cheeks of this finishing press, much like Tim Moore does for his modern lying presses. Love the massive cheeks. I want this press! And we know he is using hot animal protein glue, note the pot with a gas line hooked up.

I wonder if he is cutting on a tin, or cutting board. The knife has a handle. In shoemaking, the cutter-out (called the “clicker”) is one of the most skilled and highly paid positions, since they have to decide how to make best use of flaws in the skin. He does have primo bench position, right in front of a window.

I would guess they are covering on litho stones. The man in the foreground is using a sharply angled bone folder to turn in the leather in the cap area, and I suspect supporting the opposite end of the book with his stomach. Are there band nippers also on the stone?

A better view of the same press used earlier. It looks like three sides are covered with extra pieces of wood. I really, really need this press.



I also noticed that Zaehnsdorf’s The Art of Bookbinding is available as a 6 hour audio book.  It would be an interesting experiment to listen to his instruction, while following along. I doubt I will do this, but if you do, let me know how it works!

The Movement of a Well Bound Book

Walter Thomas Rogers.  A Manual of Bibliography. London: H. Grevel & Co., 1891 ( p. 95)

Although a nineteenth century fine binding should operate as Rogers describes, many earlier books were rebound at the time and forced into this style of binding; not a good thing for a parchment manuscript, for example. However, this ideal in binding is quite difficult (impossible?) to achieve, since the binder generally does not have control over important variables such as leaf size, drape, thickness, and number in each signature.

In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced a “good” binding such as this. While the technical aspects of craft were high, the quality of materials was generally low. Possibly one of the most interesting aspects in making historical models is an attempt to understand and recreate book movement from various time periods. This is somewhat speculative since many of the details of craft techniques are unknown, and modern materials differ substantially from historic ones. Materials also change over time:  “Binding materials stiffen with age; Binding materials weaken with age; Binding materials are weakened by use; Binding materials are made more supple by use.” Tom Conroy’s, The Movement of the Book Spine (Book and Paper Group Annual, Vol. 6, 1987) is required reading for anyone interested in this topic.

Movement in and of itself is not the most important aspect of a book, but it is critical to understand so that a book can be safely handled, used and displayed. There is also fascinating research on the relation of haptics, memory, and learning. Much of a book conservator’s work is concerned with increasing and preserving— sometimes incrementally— a book’s movement.