Volume 45 - Spring 2018


Decorative Bradel Binding and Biscuits in Ostrava

Four days teaching in the Czech Republic - by Nicky Oliver (edited by Karen Vidler)

Recently, I was invited to teach decorative leather techniques and Bradel binding in the Czech Republic City of Ostrava. This teaching invitation was the result of many conversations with Eliêka Čabalová, the Head of the Packaging and Book Design Department, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Ostrava. We had met a few times at Designer Bookbinders UK events and had a mutual appreciation of each other's work. Then in 2015 I was invited to Brno to lecture at the Czech Republic Bookbinding Society Conference where I presented a demonstration on Leather Dyeing Techniques. Eliêka was there and over a beer on our last evening she asked if I would be willing to come to Ostrava to teach her students - "Yes! Of course! That would be lovely!"

Bradel Binding

Decorative Bradel Bindings

The invitation was for 4 days and the 10 students I would be teaching were a mix of BA & MA in Fine Arts students, studying Packaging and Book Design. I usually teach Leather Dyeing as a two-day workshop, but having the extra time with them meant that the dyed leather pieces could be applied to a binding. The binding itself would become a catalogue of techniques, something to refer to in the future. I wanted to create a program that included a structure that was not only fairly quick to do and uncomplicated but something that they could adapt and use within their studies. I chose a Bradel style or 3 phase binding. This also meant the students could prep the text blocks (collate, fold, sew, make endpapers, rounding and backing, boards cut to size) before I arrived to save a little bit of time.

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Faculty of Fine Arts Building

Flying over Ostrava on a cold autumn day is a sight to behold. The vast swathes of trees sweeping far into the horizon were turning. I hadn't expected this lushness of nature knowing that this city had once been nicknamed "Steel Heart" due its coal-mining and iron industrial past. I arrived at the University on the first day with a suitcase full of kit and a large bag full of British biscuits to sustain us over the next 4 days, but they were all gone before the end of day 2. They did serve as a good ice breaker though and after the initial shyness dissipated (mine as well as theirs) we all settled into the work.

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Day 1 spine linings and board preparation

I had been a little uncertain about a couple of things prior to my visit. The possible language barrier with the students being one of them, as I could only say "Hello" in Czech ("Dobrý den" if you're interested). I did bring a phrase book but my attempts only caused hilarity - not only was this entertaining for everyone but I think it also (unintentionally) reassured them that their English was going to be just fine - and of course it was. I was also unsure of the equipment I would have access to as this wasn't a traditional bookbinding school as the studio was for packaging and book design. The studio had one (very good) board chopper, one nipping press and one Scharf-Fix paring machine but there were no knives, finishing presses, dividers or micrometres. I think I have been spoilt with the availability of materials and equipment in the UK and had forgotten that you can achieve bookbinding to a high standard with the minimum amount of kit. This became apparent on day 2.

At the beginning of day 2, I was impressed to see the students had successfully prepared their books the day before by staying back after the class so were ready for the next stage. They had cut the goat and calfskin ready for the paring and dyeing part of the workshop. I was momentarily concerned because apart from one student none of the others had any experience working with leather. Paring leather takes a little bit of time to learn, so how were they going to achieve nicely pared pieces with no experience and limited access to paring machines and no knives and still complete everything? The answer - pieces of glass. The students broke off chunks of glass from a reasonable sized pane and scraped their leather into submission and it worked. I had brought my micrometre and they all managed to get their pieces of leather to a 0.5 mm thickness from 1.1 mm. They did it quickly and they did it without drama and without cutting themselves to shreds. I knew that this technique was used for thinning vellum but I hadn't seen it used on calfskin. It also helped that the skin had a bit of rigidity. I was impressed. Again.

Bradel Binding

Paring leather with glass tool

We also had time at the end of the day 2 for a few leather dyeing demonstrations so that they could all crack on with experimental application techniques the following day. I started with the J. Hewit & Sons Aniline Leather dyes (powder); mixing the dyes with a little cold water and topping the pot up with hot water - very much like making hot chocolate. This helps to dissolve the dye into an even consistency. This demonstration was followed with mixing the Fiebings Leather Dye (spirit dye) with isopropyl alcohol. The spirit dye is fairly concentrated so I only use this dye sparingly onto my designs as it can often dry out the skin if used in vast quantities. Once the dyes were mixed we then applied them to pieces of leather, creating colour swatches to refer to the next day.

Before I had left the UK I prepared small square pieces of leather (goat and calf) for the craquelle technique, which was pared down to 0.4 mm and applied several layers of paste. I allowed for each layer of paste to soak in and become touch dry. All of the pieces were very dry and crunchy by the time I had to package them up and leave. The paste I use is J Hewit & Sons B36 Starch Paste Powder as I have experimented with various pastes and this one I find is the easiest to clean off.

Bradel Binding

Dye testing and swatch making

Day 3 was a day for experimentation and creation with peppered demonstrations throughout the day. I started with dishing out all of the pieces of pasted leather and demonstrated the craquelle technique - this was a winner. It is a fun, quick and effective decorative technique. Scrunch up the leather to make the dry paste crack and then apply spirit dye so that it creeps into the cracks and hits the leather surface beneath. You then wash off the paste. Easy.

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Paste removal to reveal craquelle design

This was followed by marbling which consists of drops of spirit dye into a small bath of cold water, giving it a swirl and laying prepped pieces of leather onto the surface. After this was the reverse transfer and masking techniques. I use the reverse transfer method a lot within my own designs to create a basic design structure to work to. Begin by drawing the design(s), photocopy them and then transfer the photocopy onto the leather using cellulose thinners. You can choose to have quite a strong and bold result and incorporate it into your design or you can choose to have a faint transfer to act as a guide for your design so that it can be dyed over the top. The masking techniques involved stencils, masking tape and various masking fluids. The last demonstration was onlays, inlays and scarf joints. This was just a quick demo as this is a two day workshop in itself, so I had brought a lot of samples to show what you could achieve with the different techniques. I was unable to bring any of my design bindings so I showed the students a two minute YouTube film. This is a slideshow of some of my work:


Examples of how I use many of the techniques included in the workshop are also shown. After all of this, I released them into the wild to play and to be free! Which they did with aplomb.

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Scarf joint and inlay gouge tools

When I arrived on our final day a lot of the students had stayed late again the previous evening to complete the majority of their dyeing so that the pieces were dry enough to use for their bindings. It also gave them enough time to carry on experimenting, creating small pieces to keep for reference. While they did this I demonstrated the covering process in stages.

The Bradel style is a great structure. It is essentially a case binding but it can be as simple or as elaborate as you want, its uses ranging from a simple journal to an exquisite design binding. For this workshop I started with covering the spine, then the front and back boards. I often use as many pieces of leather from the demos if time allows, creating stripy spines and patchwork boards.

Once the case is covered the casing-in process is straight forward, first adhering in the spine and then you can take your time to glue down the cloth joints, the infills then the endpapers. Ensure that you put a release layer and blotter inside the covers then placing the book between boards and under a weight.


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Craquelle and Masking Fluid techniques

Painted Leather on front and back boards with suede spine piece from an old jacket

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Painting and spray technique

Towards the end of that last day I looked around at all of the students. They looked knackered. They had worked so hard and had achieved so much and all of their work was fantastic. It had been an absolute pleasure to meet and work with them all. I packed my kit back into the suitcase and prepared to say farewell. We all had teacups of moravská hruêka, a pokey little number that would put hairs on your chest and just as I was about to leave they presented me with a large carrier bag. It was full of Czech biscuits.

"Na zdraví!"


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Nicky Oliver's education began in surface design and illustration and progressed to bookbinding where she felt she could combine her creative techniques with a craft that she loves. She has over 15 years experience working in commercial binderies where she honed a range of skills that include bookbinding, box-making, labels and blocking, inlay and onlay work, full leather and small-run limited edition bindings. Nicky specialises in the dyeing of her own leather for her design pieces, this aspect of her practice has enabled her to collaborate with other craftspeople. She welcomes the unity of different disciplines to create unique pieces of work.

Her company, Black Fox Bindery also plays host to various bookbinding workshops from beginner taster classes to advanced decorative techniques. These workshops are either taught by her or a guest tutor. Keeping the craft of bookbinding alive is of great importance and the primary reason why Black Fox Bindery was established.

Nicky is an active member of both the Society of Bookbinders and Designer Bookbinders, UK organisations whose main goals are the maintenance and improvement of standards of design and craft in the book arts. She is also a Fellow of Designer Bookbinders. She regularly enters National and International Competitions and has won several awards.

Nicky can be contacted at Black Fox Bindery, London


Skin Deep - Volume 45 - Spring 2018

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