Volume 44 - Autumn 2017


Tooling: A coming-of-age story

and a step-by-step guide - by Annette Friedrich

This article was commissioned and first published by The New Bookbinder, Volume 35.

Observing the development of tooling as a technique is like watching a coming-of-age story: it starts out as a gurgling infant, grows into a merry carefree toddler, dashes off into puberty and finally matures into a sophisticated capricious adult.


Fig. 1 - A 14th century Islamic binding with blind- and gold-tooling, said to come from either Egypt or Syria.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of H. Kevorkian, 1933.

Examples of blind-tooled decorations have been found on Egyptian Coptic bindings as early as AD 700. At this time, Egypt and much of the eastern part of the Mediterranean basin was, and would very much continue to be, a centre for learning and culture (and hence bookbinding). So it comes as no surprise that tooling with gold leaf is also thought to come from that cultural hot spot as surviving examples from Syria, Persia and Egypt suggest, with early examples dating back to the 14th century [Fig. 1].

From here the joys of gold tooling started to make its way toward Europe, where it seems to have set foot on land first in the vibrant port of Venice around the late 15th century. At the time Venice was the gateway for trade between East and West, and Europe's most prosperous town. Bustling with activity and eager to engage in everything that indulged in beauty, culture, and business, the Venetians had been quick to adopt Gutenberg's newly-invented printing press and its revolutionary movable letter type. Local print workshops were set up and produced vast numbers of books. By the end of the 15th century, Venice was considered to be the world's printing capital. This resulted in an explosion of the bookbinding trade, and the 'new kid on the block', gold tooling, became very popular amongst local bookbinders who set the standards for years to come.

So it was from Italy that the new technique of gold tooling spread across Europe, firmly establishing itself in the everyday practice of continental binderies which, until then, had been busy blind tooling. However, according to Bernard Middleton in A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique, gold tooling took its time to actually cross the channel and was slow to catch on in England:

"The universal adoption of gold-tooling was not immediate; in fact, blind-tooled bindings constituted the majority until about 1600, according to G.D. Hobson. Mr Graham Pollard regards this date as rather late, and suggests that blind-tooled bindings would be very unusual in London by 1580, but gold-tooled ones unusual outside London before 1620."

A Coming-of-Age Story

The general process of tooling is straightforward and remains in principle very much the same from the word go: a heated metal tool is impressed into moistened leather and leaves a permanent mark. Gold leaf tooling is much the same, with the difference that the leather is prepared with a wash of glaire (originally egg white and later other products were used), which, when dry, is lightly greased and covered with gold leaf. The heat and pressure of the tool causes the glaire to coagulate and with it the gold to adhere to the leather.

This is a very basic process, but the outcome can vary immensely and as this is a coming-of-age tale, we will touch upon a few examples to watch it grow up.

Again, Bernard Middleton gives us a concise appraisal in a nutshell:

"Early gold-tooling was crudely executed with rough-cut tools deeply impressed. Tooling in the seventeenth century was lighter, but remained crude to modern standards, being badly 'cleaned off' and generally lacking finish. This state of affairs persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, when the tooling on most bindings, other than cheap retail ones, was light and sharp, though still somewhat inaccurate and not properly mitred at the corners."

I want to elaborate a little on this using a few examples which can readily be observed on the bindings that Edward Bayntun-Coward chooses to talk about in his Some Observations on the Origins of Ornament on English Bookbindings. An enthusiastic example of an 'early adopter' of gold tooling in England is the 'Squirrel Binder' and his Holy Bible from around 1623. The spirited Squirrel Binder's heart was set on an exuberant decoration and he had no time or eye for what we would consider today as a serious shortcoming in the numerous dire burn marks [Fig. 2].


Fig 2 - Early 17th century binding. Close-up of the spirited and lighthearted work by the Squirrel Binder, c.1623.

The execution of this binding (and it serves as an example for many), was done with speed and drive, and a carefree enthusiasm ruled his hand. His leather would have been glaired once and laid out with a single overall layer of gold leaf. He would have set out straight away and gone with the flow, aiming for a rough symmetry only and not worrying too much about actual precision. The look is consistent, we observe a lively gestural approach, that more often than not doesn't quite match up. His impressions are deep and occasionally burned and the gold is thin, patchy and without sheen. The Squirrel Binder would never have bothered to re-enter a shape a second time. Indeed, his binding suggests that he did not see anything amiss, as he had happily ploughed on. It is very likely that we would have been able to observe a satisfied smile on his lips when he snuffed out his candle when he readied himself to leave the workshop. His aim had been to embellish and to entertain - the more the merrier. The Squirrel Binder's work is charming, and that, truly, is that; it sits well in its own little world.

If we stick to Edward's chosen bindings in his article, we can easily line them up in chronological order. As an increasing awareness for an appropriate temperature and dwell time becomes apparent, things start to become 'more' under control [Fig.3]. I write 'more' in quotations, as of course my own (and Bernard's) appraisal is directed by today's point of view. For a long time the favoured approach would continue to be to cover the whole surface first with a wash of glaire, then with an overall layer of gold leaf and it would then be taken from there.


Fig. 3 - Close-up of a late 17th century binding. The Devotional Binder - Allestree's The Art of Contentment.

We can also observe how the overall appearance would gain in evenness and consistency, as the design would have been increasingly guided by discreet blind lines that had been marked out beforehand on the book. A certain amount of irregularity would remain for quite a while, as of course guidelines are just that: rough guides. It is fun to look out for this. The gold is generally still on the dull side, as the craftsman would not have gone back into an impression to burnish the gold.

In time a separate, specialist profession dedicated to tooling with its practitioners known as 'finishers' established itself alongside the regular bookbinder. They were able to obtain stunning technical results when called for, and their set of skills included other decorative techniques as well. For a high profile binding they would go through an exceedingly elaborate process to achieve a crisp, precise, and polished appearance. I suspect for example, that The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche from around the 1880s (Bayntun) [Fig. 4] would have been pre-drafted on paper before it was then blinded-in through the template and onto the cover. The gold would have been built up in several layers, creating a solid look and the impressions are immaculately even and crisp. The finisher would have concluded his work by burnishing each impression with the cooling tool, and thus polishing the gold until it sang out and reflected the light.


Fig. 4 - Close-up of a late 19th century binding. The intensely precise tooling skills of a finisher employed at the Riviere Bindery
The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, approx.1880s.

Amazing 20th century examples can be seen on work by the French and Belgian binders Paul Bonet, Rose Adler, Henri Creuzevault, Marius Michel, Micheline de Bellefroid, and Pierre Legrain, to name but a few, who were most frequently designers and relied on the best finishers available at the time to realize their complex drafts. Another accomplished example, however, with the added beauty of being a contemporary is Michael Wilcox's work in this journal. When I look at his work, I know what I should aim for, impossible to reach as it might seem.

But let's move on. Gold tooling has been going strong for well over one thousand years. The most recent development in the realm of tooling was brought on in the wake of industrialization and mass production of books. New ways and means had to be thought out to cater for the huge output of printed matter, and thus, bindings. Manufacturers developed foils that served as a carrier for colour pigment and which were backed by a thin layer of heat-sensitive adhesive. Although coloured foil was invented for the industry, it has now become an invaluable addition to the repertoire and palette of finishers today. The process is much the same as tooling with gold leaf and the same high level of precision and crisp finishing is required to pass it off successfully. However, brace yourselves! A professional finisher in France told me that she charges more for a title executed in colour pigment than for one with gold leaf. Why was that I wondered? The answer turned out to be quite simple: it is more complicated than gold tooling because she, the finisher, cannot see where she is going with the tool: the foil is placed on top of the blinded-in impression and obscures her sighting. That's what I call blind-tooling! However, there is more. On top of this comes the added complication of the foil's own co-acting adhesive, which releases the pigment on account of pressure (yes) and temperature. The latter is the tricky bit - the tool retains heat and can sometimes activate the foil. She, and all those finishers out there, tries to avoid this danger by first glairing the impression because it coagulates at a lower heat than the foil's adhesive. However, if she were to misjudge the temperature ever so slightly, the heat of the tool would activate the adhesive/pigment and cause it to stick to the sides of the wished-for shape. This would result in a messily tooled look, comparable to what we observed on books from the 17th century that had been glaired overall. As we are now after crisp and clean impressions, this is, alas, no longer acceptable (as charming as it was back then....).

So now we have reached the end of our story. Tooling has matured into a capricious adult and it is indeed hard to keep up with. The story was exciting and eventful, and with many tussles and tantrums in between.

Literature - A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique, Bernard C. Middleton, Oak Knoll Press & British Library, New Castle 2008 (fourth revised edition).

A step-by-step guide:
Contemporary Gold and Pigment Colour Hand-tooling

Tools and equipment needed:
- thin paper for template (approx. 40gsm)
- ink pad
- stove
- gouges / tools
- gold leaf / pigment foil
- sponge in a shallow tray, filled with water
- leather file (a piece of leather stuck onto a board with the flesh side up)
- glaire, ready to use: there are different products out there (BS glaire, Fixor, etc.). Most of them need to be diluted with water, for this read the small print on the label.
- 1 very fine sable brush
- a wooden toothpick
- a fine needle
- low-tack masking tape

The process and technique for contemporary hand tooling is very much the same for gold leaf as well as for colour pigment foil. It is in theory straightforward, yet elaborate and time consuming, as a tool has to go back into its impression up to five times at various stages of the process to achieve the required dense, crisp and high-end finish.

Note: a faster and nearly-as-good approach is the widely taught traditional technique. It skips the burnishing of the leather at the blinding-in step as well as the burnishing at the end and results in a slightly softer look.

First step: Blinding in the Impression

1 - Transfer your design onto a thin paper template (you can do this in blind or with ink). If it is a continuous linear design, take care to have the tools slightly overlapping to avoid gaps. Make a note of which tool is which if they are likely to be confused.

2 - Position the template on your book and secure it with low-tack masking tape.

3 - Make a first light impression through the template of all the marked-out shapes with the heated tools (temperature well below sizzle). [Fig.5 - left]

4 - Remove template.

5 - Re-enter and confirm each impression with the moderately heated tool (again: temperature well below sizzle) [Fig.5 - centre].

Note: You will find that the first impression is faint, soft-edged and 'roomy', as the paper template acts as a barrier. Now you have the one chance to slightly adjust the position of your shape, as well as tighten up the edges.

6 - Moisten the impression with water. Use a thin sable brush and try to avoid the sides.... wait a little, moisten again and.... wait a little.... until the visible moisture has gone and only a very faint memory of it remains.

Note: You will be able to observe that the water will cause the leather to relax, and that the edge definition of your impression will puff up/soften a little.... so be extra careful when entering it in the next step. It is unlikely that you will manage to do your whole design (steps 6 & 7) in one go. Do it bit by bit.

7 - Establish the impression for a third time with the tool being just a little more than hand-warm. Make sure that the tool had a good polish on the leather file beforehand, and that you rock it a fraction forwards and backwards (gently!) when you are in the shape.

Note: With this final impression you have defined the shape and depth of the impression, as well as having sealed the surface and burnished the leather; the shape is now crisp and shiny, but should not have changed its colour. [Fig.5 - right]


Fig 5 - A 'dot' in progress:
left - blinded in through template
centre - confirmed once
right - moistened and confirmed and burnished!

Second Step: applying gold leaf or pigment colour

Method A. Gold leaf tooling

8 - Paint two layers of glaire into the base of your impression (use the sable brush for this and try to avoid touching the sides if you can) and.......................... wait for 60 minutes.

9 - Apply a hint of grease (vaseline) to the surface and lay on a double layer of gold, gently pressing it into the shape with a cotton pad, so that you can see the shape clearly [Figs 6 & 7].


Fig. 6 - Placing the gold leaf


Fig. 7 - Gold nestled into shape

10 - Tool with heat. Start with a temperature well below sizzle [Fig. 8]


Fig. 8 - Tool guided by the other hand's thumb, slipping into dwelling position.

11 - Remove excess gold with a gold rubber or cloth.

12 - Evaluate! Too hot? (i.e. burnt edges and/or does not stick) Too cold? (i.e. not filling in a solid shape? Does not stick) Just right? (perfect!) React to what you have observed and adjust the temperature accordingly!

Note:If the glaire has not yet coagulated, you can simply put a fresh layer of gold on top, likewise if you want to 'patch-up' small holes. If the glaire got accidentally burnt, you will have to apply it afresh on top of the burnt glaire; let it dry and go for it again.

13 - Do at least four layers of gold to build up a nice solid colour (repeat steps 8-12).

14 - When all the gold is in place you can tidy the edges up a little with a wooden toothpick or a fine needle. 15 - Burnish the gold! Re-enter the impressions with the cooling tool (maximum hand/lukewarm) and rock it gently taking your time. You will be amazed [Fig.9]!



Note: Laying out the gold on top of the book (step 9) can sometimes make it difficult to get rid of all those excess loose little specks of gold on a book. This can potentially get annoying. An alternative way to minimize this is to apply the gold by picking up two layers of gold with the slightly greased tool itself and gently tapping the excess gold to the shank with a cotton pad [Fig.10].



Method B. Pigment colour tooling:

8 - Paint two layers of glaire into the base of your impression (avoid touching the sides) and.......... wait for 60 minutes.

Note: You might ask why as the foil is primed with a heat sensitive adhesive on its back? The answer lies in the fact that the glaire reacts at a lower temperature than the adhesive, so it makes it slightly safer to use, as the pigment will stick only to the applied glaire at the base of the impression (and not to it's sides). Also glaire will make for a slightly stronger bond, as it works with cohesion and not adhesion.

9 - Cut foil to a suitable shape and place foil over impression (shiny side up) and tool with heat. Start with a temperature just below sizzle. Different coloured foils require different temperatures so it's best to experiment first.

Note: This is the tricky bit, as the foil obscures the sighting. Poise/hover the tool over the impression and memorize its position, position the foil over at the last moment only and gently slide into the shape and dwell [Figs 11-13].

10 - Remove foil [Fig.14].

11 - Evaluate! Too hot? (i.e. blotchy edges?), too cold? (i.e. not filling in a solid shape?), just right? (perfect!).

12 - React to what you have observed and adjust the temperature accordingly!

13 - Do at least two layers to build up a nice 'solid' colour.

14 - When all is in place you can give it a go to tidy up the edges with a wooden toothpick or a fine needle, but it won't work as well as with gold.









General remarks:

Gold/metal leaf

Gold leaf is manufactured in a wide range of colours [Fig.15]. For this, gold is alloyed with silver, copper and other metals, which result in deeper or lighter shades. 100% pure gold is 24ct and is completely resistant to corrosion; however, the addition of copper or silver lowers the carat of gold leaf and its ability to hold its colour. On a binding it is not recommended to make use of gold leaf below 18ct, as it will tarnish in no time (I learned this the hard way!). If you want to head into a silvery look opt for palladium for example, which is non-tarnishing.


Fig.15 - Various shades of gold.

Colour pigment foil

Colour pigment foil was primarily developed for industrial use, and you will find many different colours [Fig. 16]. A supplier will generally offer each colour in two variations. Each variant is primed for a specific task and relies on its characteristic properties to pull it off. One is specialized in covering big solid areas on coarse surfaces; to do this it releases the pigment with ease and has excellent covering properties. It is a very good foil.... it is however, not the appropriate foil for hand tooling, as the easy-release property would result in blotched-up inner spaces of lettering and other intricate shapes.

It is the second foil that the finisher is interested in. This has been developed for intricate and detailed work and offers a 'precise definition' for its use. There is no standardized way for companies to mark foil, so when buying it, look out for the precise definition for its use in the small print.


Fig.16 - All those pretty colours!


Fig. 17 - To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, tooled by the author in 2015.
Design on paper, design on template, design blinded in on front cover.


Fig. 18 - Fourteen different colours.

On the process:

The book - The book is usually ready for tooling when the turn-ins are filled in, but the endpapers are not yet down. You might want to give the leather a light paste-wash beforehand, as this seals the pores a little and encourages the leather to breathe out and relax; however everything should be well and truly dry when getting down to business. Have the book neatly capped-up in front of you. If the boards are thin it is recommended to insert a thin metal sheet between each board and the text-block to give you a firm and supportive surface to work on. Ideally the book is positioned on a slightly bigger board. You will need to turn the book whilst working: do so by handling the board to avoid marking the leather.

The setup - If you are right-handed, the stove is in the far right corner of your table, well within your reach and its temperature is set to approximately 120 degrees. The tools are lined up on top of it without the wooden handles touching the heating plate. Between you and the stove is the cooling sponge in its tray and right next to it is the leather file. If you are left-handed, everything is obviously mirrored. The aim is to allow for a mindful economy of movement.

The tool's temperature - Every time you take a tool, you ascertain its temperature by briefly touching it onto the moist sponge. A frantic/loud sizzle would mean that the tool is well beyond 100 degrees and that the water evaporates immediately upon contact. A gentle sizzle means a fraction over 100 degrees, and 'below' or 'well below sizzle' or 'touch warm' means.... you get the drift. Repeated contact with the sponge will cool your tool down.

For each of the steps outlined above you need to aim for a specific temperature with relatively little leeway on either side. In my description I am able to indicate a rough idea only of this, as the actual temperature will depend very much on your specific leather, the gold leaf / pigment foil, as well as on your glaire and the general air humidity in your workshop.

To memorize the 'adequate' temperature, you rely on sound and observation (and sometimes touch). Vital! I recommend having an extra piece of your leather drawn up on a board right next to you for experimenting beforehand. Take your time to do so and to get it right. Once you have the hang of it, move onto the book.

The dwell time - Once you have reached the right temperature you give the tool a quick polish on the leather file. The face of the tool should be bright and shiny before you set out to make any contact with the leather. The dwell time of the heated tool in an impression is approximately two seconds and is accompanied by an ever so discreet rocking movement (forward/backward and sideways) to establish the edges of the normally slightly domed tool. If the surface of the tool is big, it might need a longer dwell time, if it is very small, it might take less. You will find if you prolong your dwell time, that the temperature will build up, as the tip of your tool is constantly fed by the heat from the 'body' of your tool.

Final remark - Feel at ease! Don't overdo it; keep it light in its step! Good luck!



Annette Friedrich is a London based artist bookbinder and Fellow of Designer Bookbinders. Originally born and bred in Germany, she served a traditional apprenticeship in Leipzig and proceeded to study for six years Conceptional Book Art at the University for Art and Design, Burg Giebichenstein, in Halle/Saale. In 2005 Annette moved to England and set up her studio for unique fine bindings in East London.

Annette Friedrich is a founding member of the artist collective club mantell, launched in 2007 by twelve cross-disciplined artists. Aiming to expand the field of creative practice, they challenge the distinction between the 'free' and 'applied' arts. For this course of action the club mantell was honoured with The Bavarian Staatspreis in 2014.

Annette's work is held in various private and public collections, including The British Library, London, The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh and The Gutenberg Museum, Mainz in Germany. Her work and further articles can be seen at www.annette-friedrich.com


Skin Deep - Volume 44 - Autumn 2017

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