Volume 13 - Spring 2002


Cosmetic Bindings

by Arthur W. Johnson

Some years ago a televised situation comedy about the rag trade was popular. Its title was 'Never mind the quality feel the width. This sentiment has a similarity with cosmetic binding where strength and durability are sacrificed for appearance. For example, I was asked to criticise a binding a task that I try to avoid. The binder was a competent forwarder and finisher, proud of his work and expectant of high praise. I examined the volume for several minutes and returned it without comment. Now many years later, I can record my conclusions.

The book measured 150 x 230mm and was 10mm in thickness. The forwarding was excellent. The boards opened smoothly, the endpapers, with silk doublures, were faultless. Leather paring and covering were perfect with neat corners and headcaps. The volume had been finished in the lavish trade style of the nineteenth century with full 'run up gold tooling on the spine. The raised bands had gold dots across their centres and the edges of the boards were treated similarly. Three different floral rolls and two fillet lines decorated the cover whilst two more enhanced the leather turn-in. A Narrow roll in gold bordered the silk doublures. There is a market for ornate work for it is attractive and gives satisfaction to the craftsperson and delight to the collector. Regrettably the layman has little knowledge of construction and materials and faults in the binding are concealed. Gold and blind tooling is pleasing but decoration adds nothing to the strength of a binding. The art of bookbinding is to preserve the text for as long as is feasible and however praiseworthy, this particular book could not be recommended, as the work was unsound.

My examination showed that the sections had been sewn on two thin sunk cords and the spine given a hollow back with five false bands. It would have been stronger to have sewn on five raised cords with a tight back. It is pointless and a weakness to have a hollow as there is little movement in the spine of a thin book. The endpapers were the zig-zag style advocated by Douglas Cockerell. These endpapers are bulky and serve no purpose if the book is forwarded correctly. The leather joints were pared to the thinness of paper and pasted in position adding little to the strength of the hinge. A simpler leather jointed endpaper either sewn as a section or through the joint would have been preferable. The headbands, cleverly embroidered on two tiers and in four colours were too pretentious for a thin book. A plainer version using one or two colours on a round core or an inserted cord would have been appropriate. The choice of Levant morocco for the cover was incorrect, as the flesh side had to be pared away in order for the boards to function.

A few words about this leather. Levant skins are from mountain goats and are large, very thick with a beautiful deep grain. They are suitable only for large volumes and paring is minimal. Levant is weaker the more that it is thinned. In this instance a normal morocco skin would have been suitable and pared where necessary. All leather is of similar quality but it is graded according to appearance. The cheaper skins are blemished by wounds, burrowing insects or faulty manufacture. Those with slight imperfections are often of greater interest for they look like leather and not a plastic imitation.

The gilt edges to the book were commendable but the additional gaufering was too much. In fact the decoration was beyond reason except perhaps to prove finishing skill. Many purchasers of fine work mistake lavish tooling for durable binding. Sumptuous gold work is the house style of some trade workshops although their forwarding leaves much to be desired.

The Levant cover of the binding under discussion had been 'plated'. Chromium plates are placed on boards and pressed for hours in a standing press but polishing by this means is harmful for the grain is obliterated. The cover had also been varnished. This pernicious treatment was common practice in the trade to enhance poor materials although its effects were detrimental. In a short time varnish oxidises, yellows and becomes brittle causing cracking at the hinges. It hinders the absorption of leather dressing and the natural grease from handling.

Today, polished leather is unnecessary for a beautifully grained skin needs no embellishment. Some are of the opinion that a shiny cover is attractive and there is little harm in a light burnishing with a heated flat or bolster polishing iron. Alternatively polishing can be accomplished without crushing the grain. The leather is dampened evenly with a sponge and left until the moisture has disappeared. A vigorous brushing with a soft bristle brush polishes the surface and brings out the grain. Should moisture remain, the brush treatment will bruise and darken the leather. This procedure does not affect gold tooling.

Polishing with a microcrystalline wax is safe and effective. Apply the wax with cotton wool, first distributing it on a piece of paper before rubbing the leather. After a few minutes, buff with a soft cloth. Too much wax fills the grain and dries as white smears; these are difficult to remove. Lanolin leather dressing applied lightly over the cover and especially along the joints is very beneficial for it makes the leather supple. After a few hours rub with a cloth for a soft sheen. Shoe Polish should not be used on leather, as the ingredients may be harmful.

Simple decoration is tasteful and appealing. Dividing a spine into panels with elaborate decoration and ornamenting covers in the style of eastern carpets is no longer fashionable. The contributing factors for this change are cost, time and the lack of efficient finishers.

Planning with paper and pencil will formulate ideas for the presentation of titles by means of gold and blind lines. An unusual approach is ideal, for example, tooling titles in blind instead of gold on light coloured leather. Lettering coloured foils chosen to be in harmony with the tones of cover is also pleasing.

Bookbinding is work intensive and costly and there is a temptation to reduce expenses by economising with construction and quality of materials. Many use newsprint to control warping boards, ignoring the effect of an acidic paper sealed into the binding. Others use gift wrapping and printed marbled papers, acidic boards, weak mull and machine made headbands. Regrettably it is common to utilise modern white paper and tool with imitation gold foil on antiquarian books! Many chase the quick dollar by ignoring grain direction, line with cheap materials, use PVA adhesive for every operation, omit initial pressing and fail to trim out. They purchase thinly shaved unsuitable leather, sew on fewer tapes or cords and block titles on sheep skiver.

It is a crime against good craftsmanship when two boards are joined by a strip of leather with the addition of false bands and a ready made hollow to make a case binding of a quality book. Few clients are aware of these dubious practices and are misled by the glitter of gold decoration on a varnished cover.

Bookbinding excites the creative impulse. The craftsperson should care more for the book and bind in an exemplary manner in order that knowledge and literate be preserved. There are some who ignore this undertaking.

Arthur W. Johnson A.T.D., N.D.D.- was born in 1920. As well as holding an Art Teacher's Diploma and a National Diploma in Design he is also an Honary Fellow of both the Institute of Craft Education and Designer Bookbinders. Arthur has held teaching posts at Hornsey College of Art, Hammersmith School of Art, Willesden College of Art and the London College of Printing. He retired from teaching several years ago. He has also lectured extensively in England, Canada and New Zealand. His work has included Calligraphy, Fine Binding and Antiquarian Book Restoration and his bindings can be found in many public and private collections, including the British Museum.

His excellent book, the Manual of Bookbinding by Thames & Hudson is considered as one of the foremost reference works for bookbinders and is recommended as essential reading by many teachers of bookbinding. He has written two other books which were also published by Thames & Hudson, A Practical Guide to Bookbinding and Book Repair and Conservation and also Lettering on Books, published by Puiri Press, New Zealand.


Skin Deep - Volume 13 - Spring 2002

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