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Tucson, Arizona, United States
I work as Panther Peak Bindery and am a bookbinder, conservator and instructor working outside Tucson, Arizona for individual and institutional clients across the country. I am a two term President of the Guild of Book Workers, was a Fulbright Scholar, taught at North Bennet Street School for over nine years and was the fastest in my middle school class at running up and down a flight of stairs (really!).



Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rebinding a limp leather book

The world is full of these types of books.  

They are called by bookbinders a "limp leather" binding, and they are most commonly used in religious books.  They are not really limp, more flexible than limp.People like them because they feel good in your hands either when reading them or carrying them around.  

However, they often have serious problems.  Many of them are made with bonded leather, which is leather particles put into a plasticizer and then impressed with a grain pattern.  They end up sort of looking like leather, and smelling like leather but it isn't really leather.  Much like MDF is not really wood, but wood dust solidified through the exciting use of chemicals and plastic.

Bonded leather books tend to break along the hinge -- the point where the cover meets the spine of the book.  It's a bit ironic, perhaps, because bonded leather is flexible to a point, but doesn't like to be bent very much (if one can call opening a book bending the bonded leather, but hopefully you get the point).  People like them because they are pretty durable, at least until the break along the joint and the spine falls off.  Publisher like bonded leather because it's cheap.  Sort of back to the widget issue of a few posts ago.

However, some limp leather books are actually made with leather.  Like this one:

In this case the binding failed because the leather was so thin it had no strength left.  I'll say this quickly so that you can skip over it without any guilt:  leather has several layers and if you thin leather to the point where only the skin surface is left it will not be durable and will not survive.  

You can see where the cover had torn and how the edges were worn away.  Not good, because eventually the wear gets to the point where the cover is no longer protecting the pages of the book.  And really the pages are what the book is all about.  

As a binder, of course it pains me to even think those words, let along write them.  

In this book, though, the damage has extended to the inside of the cover as well:

This is a large book, and the attachment of the textblock (really the book block, but let's not dwell on that, ok?) to the cover was not strong enough.  Again, it is almost always the case in mass produced books that the attachment is not strong enough.  It goes back to the fact that factories often have only one method of binding books and so can't vary the construction very much between a small, light, thin book and a large, fat, heavy book.  And, so this happens.

I cleaned off the spine of the textblock and saw that a couple of silk bookmarks used to be on the book, so I added them.  Then I sewed on new endsheets and an airplane linen hinge.  The end sheets are pretty heavy and the airplane linen is pretty strong so I'm confident the attachment of the cover and textblock is more than strong enough.

I made the cover using Hewit Chieftan goatskin.  Yes, real leather.  NOT bonded leather.  I think it will last longer and certainly feels better in one's hands.

It ended up looking like this:

The thing to notice is all the stamping on the spine.  I need to be in the right mood to do this, because one mistake trashes the cover and I'd need to start over again.

I learned, though experience (that is a euphemism for disastrous mistakes) that is is very, very easy to not pay attention to every detail and use a G for a C, an O for a 0, reverse a p and q (thus minding your p's and q's!) or something that like. And it's not easy, or not possible, to fix that mistake.  Or to put a letter in the wrong order. Or, and this is the worst, to assume that the spelling is what I think it should be rather than what it actually is.  I don't have quite enough power in this world yet to change spelling of words.  Hard to believe, but true.

My trick, if you can call it that, is to always stamp the word on a piece of blotter paper and look carefully at it.  Sometimes I read the letters backwards to make sure I'm seeing what is there rather than just glancing and assuming.  I read somewhere that copy editors do that, but I'm totally sure that's true.

This spine had more lines on it than any other spine I have stamped and I've been stamping titles on books for more than 20 years.

I picked a time when I would not be interrupted and went at it, took my time and gave it my full concentration.  That's another lesson -- to learn when I'm not able to give something my full concentration and to then put it aside for another time and do something else.  Sometimes in the middle of doing something meticulous I notice my mind wandering.  I learned years ago to just stop at that point and move on to another project, or part of the project.  That can save hours and hours and hours of working correcting a mistake.

I suppose this might make it sound like I am always making mistakes.  In fact, I'd say that I make a surprisingly few mistakes because I've learned when I need to move on to something else.

Here is that book from another angle.  

I've done several of these limp bindings in the past year.  The first one took a few attempts to get it right, since the client wanted it to be as flexible as possible. And limp leather bindings, traditionally, were not all that flexible.  And doing them the traditional way had all kinds of issues when trying to make one of these.  But I figured it out after a week, and four attempts, and this the third one I've done using the technique I developed.  And it works pretty well, and I'm grateful for that.

Few books seem to mean as much to  folks as their Bibles, for good reason. And it's nice to take something that was so beat up and make it look as good as I think this one does.  It was a fun project and I'm grateful the owner let me work on it for him.