Volume 2 - Autumn 1996


The Rigid Concave Spine: Time to Throw Away Your Backing Hammer

by James Brockman

It is difficult to say when spine flexibility started to worry me. I had watched the Forwarders using sawn-in cords during my six year apprenticeship as a Finisher and had even bound a few books using this method myself. The Journeymen I worked under insisted on rock solid spines on which to tool and letter. Any spine that was too soft was swiftly returned to the Forwarder for correction.

After six years of this uncomplicated approach to binding structure, I went to work for Sydney Cockerell in Cambridge where I was introduced to a completely different philosophy. Sewing must be strong and flexible. Sawn-in cords were weak, damaged the sections and resulted in inflexible spines - they were never used! I was introduced to sewing on double and single cords. When a smooth spine was required, the book was sewn on tapes and split boards with a French groove were attached. I was happy to use these techniques on suitable books but I soon discovered that they were not always appropriate for some finer work.

I had heard of attaching boards by lacing tapes into the boards. After a few experiments I mastered this method for books that were not sewn on raised cords. This answered the Forwarding problems of sewing and board attachment with minimum damage to the text block. However, it still left the problem of rounding and backing - a damaging technique but if done with care and sympathy for the text block, the "damage" caused by the gentle use of the backing hammer is justified by the support given to the bound book by the shaped spine.

After leaving the Cockerell Bindery, my exposure to binding styles increased dramatically. I saw and handled bindings from all periods. My initial training as a Finisher meant I always had an eye for fine tooling and I was greatly impressed by the Forwarding and Finishing skills of the French binders. However, in their quest for perfection in Forwarding and Finishing, they had totally forgotten function. The books, with rock solid spines (perfect for sharp tooling impressions), would not open! I was intrigued by the strength of these French bindings with their over-lined spines. The spines do not move - therefore they will not break.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the binder could produce a rigid spine for maximum support and durability that would allow the book to open well? The answer was all around me. Books that were heavily used, paper backs, telephone directories, all develop a concave spine with use. For hundreds of years binders have hammered, glued and lined spines into a convex round. We, as binders, have become used to seeing books closed. If we examined the open book, we would become aware of the contortions a flexible spine endures when it travels from book closed to book open. Depending on the thickness of the book, this travel can be over one inch! Consider what is happening to the spine when this happens. The spine linings are compressed, adhesive stretched, sewing thread tightens in the sewing holes, paper fibres strain. The leverage that the boards and pages impose on the spine is enormous. Once the book is opened of course, everything gives a little. It is the start of wear (movement = wear). If it moves it is just a matter of time until it breaks!

Therefore the solution is simple. An unbreakable spine that is permanently thrown up - THE RIGID CONCAVE SPINE.

Full details of the binding techniques were explained in my article "Rethinking the Rigid Spine" published in Designer Bookbinders, Journal The New Bookbinder - Volume 15, 1995

Briefly the sequence of operations are as follows:

  1. Sew book on tapes. Some swelling is desirable.

  2. Place under weight on edge of bench and gently tap spine concave with wooden dowel.

  3. Glue spine and leave to dry.

  4. Line spine between tapes with linen. Leave the linen as long as the tapes on each side.

  5. Board construction is of the split board type. The inner thin board/card should go right to the joint under the lining and tapes with the outer board being placed about 2mm from the joint. The four edges of the top board may be cushioned for neatness.

  6. Endbands may be sewn on through the linen spine lining.

  7. The spine should be lined with eight or more layers of strong paper. Enough to ensure that the spine cannot flex.

  8. With heavy books or better quality work, a yapp edge about 4mm high may be glued around the squares on both boards. This will support the text block when the book is standing.

  9. The book is now covered with a tight back

  10. Lettering and decoration on the spine is possible with hand letters or labels. I have used small Finishing tools successfully

NB - The position of the boards at the joints and the gap between the yapp edges and the text block should allow room for the covering materials.

To date, I have bound ten books with rigid concave spines. Nine of these were sewn on tapes and one on single raised cords. I have commissions for four fine bindings

James Brockman was an apprenticed finisher in Oxford from 1962-68. From 1968-73 he worked with the late Sydney Cockerell at Cambridge. He started and managed The Eddington Bindery 1973-76 and started his own workshop 1976. He was President of Designer bookbinders from 1985-87. He has also lectured and demonstrated extensively in Europe, U.S.A., Canada and Australia.


Skin Deep - Volume 2 - Autumn 1996

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