Modern bookbinding dates from the application of printing to literature,
and in essentials has remained unchanged to the present day, though in
those outward characteristics, which appeal to the touch and to the eye,
and constitute binding in an artistic sense, it has gone through many
changes for better and for worse, which, in the opinion of the writer,
have resulted, in the main, in the exaggeration of technical skill and
in the death of artistic fancy.
* * * * *
The first operation of the modern binder is to fold or refold the
printed sheet into a section, and to gather the sections, numbered or
lettered at the foot, in their proper order into a volume.
The sections are then taken, one by one, placed face downwards in a
frame, and sewn through the back by a continuous thread running
backwards and forwards along the backs of the sections to upright
strings fastened at regular intervals in the sewing frame. This process
unites the sections to one another in series one after the other, and
permits the perusal of the book by the simple turning of leaf after leaf
upon the hinge formed by the thread and the back of the section.
A volume, or series of sections, so treated, the ends of the string
being properly secured, is essentially "bound"; all that is subsequently
done is done for the protection or for the decoration of the volume or
of its cover.
The sides of a volume are protected by millboards, called shortly
"boards." The boards themselves and the back are protected by a cover of
leather, vellum, silk, linen, or paper, wholly or in part. The edges of
the volume are protected by the projection of the boards beyond them at
top, bottom, and fore-edge, and usually by being cut smooth and gilt.
A volume so bound and protected may be decorated by tooling or otherwise
upon all the exposed surfaces (upon the edges, the sides, and the back)
and may be designated by lettering upon the back or the sides.
The degree in which a bound book is protected and decorated will
determine the class to which the binding will belong.
(1) In cloth binding, the cover, called a "case," is made apart from
the book, and is attached as a whole after the book is sewn.
(2) In half binding, the cover is built up for and on each individual
book, but the boards of which it is composed are only partly covered
with the leather or other material which covers the back.
(3) In whole binding, the boards are wholly covered with leather or
other durable material, which in half binding covers only a portion of
(4) In extra binding, whole binding is advanced a stage higher by
decoration. Of course in the various stages the details vary
commensurately with the stage itself, being more or less elaborate as
the stage is higher or lower in the scale.
The process of extra binding set out in more detail is as follows:--
(1) First the sections are folded or refolded.
(2) Then "end-papers"--sections of plain paper added at the beginning
and end of the volume to protect the first and last, the most exposed,
sections of printed matter constituting the volume proper--having been
prepared and added, the sections are beaten, or rolled, or pressed, to
make them "solid."
The end-papers are usually added at a later stage, and are pasted on,
and not sewn, but, in the opinion of the writer, it is better to add
them at this stage, and to sew them and not to paste them.
(3) Then the sections are sewn as already described.
(4) When sewn the volume passes into the hands of the "forwarder," who
(5) "Makes" the back, beating it round, if the back is to be round, and
"backing" it, or making it fan out from the centre to right and left
and project at the edges, to form a kind of ridge to receive and to
protect the edges of the boards which form the sides of the cover.
(6) The back having been made, the "boards" (made of millboard, and
originally of wood) for the protection of the sides are made and cut to
shape, and attached by lacing into them the ends of the strings upon
which the book has been sewn.
(7) The boards having been attached, the edges of the book are now cut
smooth and even at the top, bottom, and fore-edge, the edges of the
boards being used as guides for the purpose. In some cases the order is
reversed, and the edges are first cut and then the boards.
(8) The edges may now be coloured and gilt, and if it is proposed to
"gauffer" or to decorate them with tooling, they are so treated at this
(9) The head-band is next worked on at head and tail, and the back lined
with paper or leather or other material to keep the head-band in its
place and to strengthen the back itself.
The book is now ready to be covered.
(10) If the book is covered with leather, the leather is carefully pared
all round the edges and along the line of the back, to make the edges
sharp and the joints free.
(11) The book having been covered, the depression on the inside of the
boards caused by the overlap of the leather is filled in with paper, so
that the entire inner surface may be smooth and even, and ready to
receive the first and last leaves of the end-papers, which finally are
cut to shape and pasted down, leaving the borders only uncovered.
Sometimes, however, the first and last leaves of the "end-papers" are of
silk, and the "joint" of leather, in which case, of course, the
end-papers are not pasted down, but the insides of the boards are
independently treated, and are covered, sometimes with leather,
sometimes with silk or other material.
The book is now "forwarded," and passes into the hands of the "finisher"
to be tooled or decorated, or "finished" as it is called.
The decoration in gold on the surface of leather is wrought out, bit by
bit, by means of small brass stamps called "tools."
The steps of the process are shortly as follows:--
(12) The pattern having been settled and worked out on paper, it is
"transferred" to, or marked out on, the various surfaces to which it is
to be applied.
Each surface is then prepared in succession, and, if large, bit by bit,
to receive the gold.
(13) First the leather is washed with water or with vinegar.
(14) Then the pattern is pencilled over with "glaire" (white of egg
beaten up and drained off), or the surface is wholly washed with it.
(15) Next it is smeared lightly with grease or oil.
(16) And, finally, the gold (gold leaf) is applied by a pad of cotton
wool, or a flat thin brush called a "tip."
(17) The pattern, visible through the gold, is now reimpressed or worked
with the tools heated to about the temperature of boiling water, and the
unimpressed or waste gold is removed by an oiled rag, leaving the
pattern in gold and the rest of the leather clear.
* * * * *
These several operations are, in England, usually distributed among
five classes of persons.
(1) The superintendent or person responsible for the whole work.
(2) The sewer, usually a woman, who folds, sews, and makes the
(3) The book-edge gilder, who gilds the edges. Usually a craft apart.
(4) The forwarder, who performs all the other operations leading up to
(5) The finisher, who decorates and letters the volume after it is
In Paris the work is still further distributed, a special workman
(couvreur) being employed to prepare the leather for covering and to
In the opinion of the writer, the work, as a craft of beauty, suffers,
as do the workmen, from the allocation of different operations to
different workmen. The work should be conceived of as one, and be
wholly executed by one person, or at most by two, and especially should
there be no distinction between "finisher" and "forwarder," between
"executant" and "artist."
* * * * *
The following technical names may serve to call attention to the
principal features of a bound book.
(1) The back, the posterior edge of the volume upon which at the
present time the title is usually placed. Formerly it was placed on the
fore-edge or side.
The back may be (a) convex or concave or flat; (b) marked
horizontally with bands, or smooth from head to tail; (c) tight, the
leather or other covering adhering to the back itself, or hollow, the
leather or other covering not so adhering; and (d) stiff or flexible.
(2) Edges, the three other edges of the book,--the top, the bottom,
and the fore-edge.
(3) Bands, the cords upon which the book is sewn, and which, if not
"let in" or embedded in the back, appear on it as parallel ridges. The
ridges are, however, usually artificial, the real bands being "let in"
to facilitate the sewing, and their places supplied by thin slips of
leather cut to resemble them and glued on the back. This process also
enables the forwarder to give great sharpness and finish to this part of
his work, if he think it worth while.
(4) Between-bands, the space between the bands.
(5) Head and tail, the top and bottom of the back.
(6) The head-band and head-cap, the fillet of silk worked in
buttonhole stitch at the head and tail, and the cap or cover of leather
over it. The head-band had its origin probably in the desire to
strengthen the back and to resist the strain when a book is pulled by
head or tail from the shelf.
(7) Boards, the sides of the cover, stiff or limp, thick or thin, in
(8) Squares, the projection of the boards beyond the edges of the
book. These may be shallow or deep in all degrees, limited only by the
purpose they have to fulfil and the danger they will themselves be
exposed to if too deep.
(9) Borders, the overlaps of leather on the insides of the boards.
(10) Proof, the rough edges of leaves left uncut in cutting the edges
to show where the original margin was, and to prove that the cutting has
not been too severe.
The life of bookbinding is in the dainty mutation of its mutable
elements--back, bands, boards, squares, decoration. These elements admit
of almost endless variation, singly and in combination, in kind and in
degree. In fact, however, they are now almost always uniformly treated
or worked up to one type or set of types. This is the death of
bookbinding as a craft of beauty.
The finish, moreover, or execution, has outrun invention, and is the
great characteristic of modern bookbinding. This again, the inversion of
the due order, is, in the opinion of the writer, but as the carving on
the tomb of a dead art, and itself dead.
A well-bound beautiful book is neither of one type, nor finished so that
its highest praise is that "had it been made by a machine it could not
have been made better." It is individual; it is instinct with the hand
of him who made it; it is pleasant to feel, to handle, and to see; it is
the original work of an original mind working in freedom simultaneously
with hand and heart and brain to produce a thing of use, which all time
shall agree ever more and more also to call "a thing of beauty."
T. J. COBDEN-SANDERSON.