Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Deus Ex Libri

Since switching to shorter posts, and posting large projects in serial format, I have been trying to post every three to four days. But, as you can see, I have fallen behind again. Sorry about that. I have been sick for the past few days.

Very shortly I will be posting about the third of the three prop items from The Black Duke project, but first...

A few weeks ago I mentioned that a friend of mine, for whom I was doing some book repair and recovering, brought me an old bible of his mother's that was in need of repair.

This bible (new testament) was printed in England in 1928. It has solid wood boards and (had) a leather spine. The boards are carved olive wood from Jerusalem. The leather spine was very badly rotted, practically non-existent, but the pages were in good shape (I'm told there were one or two pages that had tears, but I didn't see them so I didn't repair them). The end papers were pretty far gone too, but they would have to be sacrificed during disassembly anyway.

I carefully cut away the rotted leather spine with a razor knife. Then I did something I had never tried before, I tried to disassemble the book properly, using water to soften the glue, the way an archivist would. Given the book's age, I assumed it was probably constructed in the "proper" way, and thus should be able to be taken apart by softening the glue with water. Most professional bookbinders and archivists only use glue that is "reversible", meaning can be dissolved, so that any repairs or changes can be "undone". I used a spritzer and carefully wetted the endpapers that were glued to the boards (called "paste downs"). After about an hour the glue began to soften and the papers and their glue were able to be removed. It took quite a bit of wetting and scrapping, but I was able to get all the glue off of the wooden boards this way. I cleaned up the glue from the spine by scrapping it with a knife, just to get any loose glue. I didn't want to risk damaging the signatures, so I didn't bother wetting the spine to remove the glue. The paper used for this bible was that really super thin vellum like stuff. Besides, the spine seemed to be holding up pretty well (apart from the leather) so I didn't think it was necessary. I did, however, remove and replace the rotted silk bookmark that was attached to the spine. I also gave the cleaned boards a good rub down with Old English and let them dry a few days before continuing.

While removing the glue and end papers from the boards, I noticed that one of the boards had been cracked and subsequently repaired by someone else. The repair seemed to be good and was barely noticeable. The crack runs underneath that piece of cellophane tape in the pic above the last paragraph. At first, I thought the tape was just to repair a tear in the end paper.

The next order of business was to cut a new piece of leather for the spine. I started by making a paper template to get the size right. Then, I cut a new piece of leather from an oxblood hide I had in stock. I had considered using the brown "bomber jacket" leather, as the original leather and the end papers were brown, but the brown leather just didn't look as good up against the wood boards.

The next step was to thin, or "skive" the leather, suing a skiving knife. This is a very tedious process that involves basically shaving the flesh side of the leather with a tool akin to what you would use to shave down corns on your feet. But trust me, the two tools are not interchangeable. Using a skiving knife is an art unto itself. One wrong move and you can cut right through the leather. The reason I needed to skive the leather at all, was to reduce its thickness, especially on the head and tail, where it is going to be doubled over to create a neat edge. And, to smooth the transition at the edges where it will be glued to the boards. I don't want the thickness of the leather to be noticeable under the end paper. So mostly I'm just thinning around the edges, probably about an inch in on each side.

I started out using one of my old cutting mats to work on, but after gouging it up at the end of every stroke, it dawned on me to use a sheet of glass as a work surface. It is hard, smooth, and won't scratch or gouge. I will have to remember that trick for the future.

Skiving makes a huge mess, and takes forever. You're left with a huge pile of fluffy leather shavings that want to cling to everything. If you work with leather much, it's a good idea to save these shavings in a plastic bag. You can use them later for some projects. Some repair projects call for mixing glue with leather shavings to create a sort of "spackle" that is used to fill cracks in damaged leather.

A quick test fit determines where to fold over the ends for gluing.

Then comes gluing in the new bookmark and gluing the leather down to the spine. I used a red satin ribbon for the bookmark. The old one was olive green to match the olive wood, but Kelly Green (which is what I had) didn't look right. Since the edges of the pages are red (I think they used to be gilded), and the new leather spine is oxblood, I went with a red ribbon. Unlike the original bookmakers, who did use reversible glue, I used a PVA specially designed for leather. I considered using a reversible glue, but I was not confident in the holding power of wheat paste for the spine. I was afraid it would either not be flexible enough or would dry out and tear off. Oh well, The client isn't too concerned about the archival quality of my work. They just want their bible functional again.

Next comes the end papers. The old ones were a chocolate brown color, and although the paste downs (the part glued to the boards) and one of the flyleaves (the first page, that is also part of the end paper) had to be removed. I still had one flyleaf intact. I was afraid to try to remove it as I didn't want to risk damaging the first page of the text block (the flyleaf is glued to the first page by a thin strip along the fold). So I wanted the new end papers to be brown to match the remaining flyleaf, which would become just another superfluous page. I found a nice textured brown card stock in the scrap-booking section of the craft store.

The card stock was attached to the first and last page in the usual way, using a strip of dry roll-on adhesive film. The end papers were actually put into place before the leather spine was glued on, so I guess I posted that step a little out of order.

To prepare for attaching the boards, I used a piece of emery cloth (it's like sand paper) to rough up the finished surface of the leather. I wanted to make sure it adhered to the boards very well. A slight mis-measurement (about a millimeter) when turning over the head and tail, means that I will have to do a little trimming to making the leather spine meet up exactly with the edge of the boards. That was probably my biggest mistake on this project. Leather tends to stretch, so I can't even say that I measured it wrong. It may have just stretched a little while working with it.

The final step is to mask off the boards around the edges to glue down the "paste downs" (end papers). I used a spray adhesive to glue down the end papers, as I usually do. I like the spray adhesive for this because it doesn't add any moisture to the end papers, and I have had a problem with my end papers wrinkling from moisture in the past.

And that's it! Here is the finished book.

Byron's mom was very happy with it. She said it had been her grandmother's, and she was very happy to have it usable again. With luck, it should last her family another 80 years.

I had intended to cut this down into two posts, but what the hell. I haven't posted all week so, here you go. Enjoy.


  1. I just whanted to tell you that you have been a great inspiration for me.
    I'm from a country that most people dont give a dam about books, and to have finally found a blog like yours, is like finding my Nirvana.
    It may not be much, but thanks for being so inspiring, and keep up the good work.

  2. I'm very glad you enjoy the blog. Books have always been a passion of mine since I was a child. You should check out the Book Arts Forum. There is a link to it in the sidebar.