Bookbinding Boot Camp

Over the past month, I have spent 7 hours a day, 5 days a week binding books courtesy of the University of Columbia Libraries Conservation Division. The experience has thus far been enormously exciting, informative, and exhausting, all in turn.

The bookbinding intensive (fondly dubbed “book-binding boot camp” by a friend and colleague) is a mandatory part of the NYU curriculum for students focusing on library and archives conservation. Six weeks long, it focuses on basic historical structures, examples of which are available thanks to to the wonderful collections of the University of Columbia.

This year, I ended up being the only one taking the course. We started out making a papercase binding sewn on cord. I had sewn on cord before, so I focused more on getting an even tension and lining up my gatherings exactly. It was exciting, in a way, to allow my perfectionism full reign! The book was laced into a thick cover paper which was then covered with paste paper that I also made myself — another new experience! The design on the paper I eventually made was actually made by accident, but I thought the book turned out quite nicely:

Paste paper cover

This is my favorite so far. Don’t tell the others!

My next book was sewn on alum-tawed thongs. It was my first time sewing on these, and there was much to learn, from setting up the sewing frame:

Looping an alum tawed thong into a key

Looping an alum tawed thong into a key

… to curving the thongs as I went along:

Sewing on alum tawed thongs

Sewing on alum tawed thongs

I was really very proud of the end result!

Isn't it a beautiful spine?!

Isn’t it a beautiful spine?!

Then I laced the book into thick paper made, I believe, by Tim Barrett.

Paper binding

Isn’t it lovely?!

This book was followed by two books sewn on tapes. I had sewn on tapes before, and my classmate, Eve, had already shown me how to set up the sewing frame without trimming the tape — a very useful trick to know, given the price of good tapes! Regardless, I received a refresher that I definitely needed, and the end result was two beautiful textblocks.

Textblocks sewn on tapes

Textblocks sewn on tapes

These textblocks were both rounded and backed — a new experience for me! Over the past few weeks, I have rounded and backed several textblocks, and I do think I’ve become a bit better at it. I also had a chance to use both French and English style hammers, and learned two different techniques for backing and rounding. It’s really been pretty exciting.

After rounding and backing, I made paper and board cases for the textblocks:

Two books awaiting covering.

Rounded and backed textblocks with covers prepared, awaiting the final step of covering and casing in!

These were covered with buckram.

Cloth binding

I do like the color green, yes.


Paste-down and endpaper

My next book was sewn on split thongs, and may be my second-favorite book so far. It was cased in parchment, with a yap and alum tawed ties.

Limp vellum binding

Limp vellum binding with ties

All these pictures look pretty. I have to say the actual binding of these books was less straightforward. I wasted at least half a skin of parchment on the limp vellum binding by making the spine a hair too snug. One of my buckram-covered books had one perfect pastedown… and one that was definitely awry. I wasted at least one textblock by accidentally slicing in one set of holes in the wrong spot and I made different mistakes on each of the first three textblocks I rounded and backed. It would be easy to look at each of these books and see only the mistakes.

However, that’s what these books are for. Each of these books represent one more step in my bookbinding journey. A friend and mentor once told me that every mistake you make binding a book has an impact in the finished object, and she was only too right. If I focused on that fact alone, I’d have given up long ago. I know that perfection is a goal, but as another mentor said, one can’t let perfect get in the way of good. I’ll keep on making my little imperfect books, and remember that I am still a student… And chances are I’ll remain a student. There will always be something more to aim for, and that’s part of the fun.

Next up: leather working and more paste paper!


About Saira

Saira is a newly fledged book conservator currently working in Saint Paul, MN.
This entry was posted in book structures, bookbinding and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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