Friday, May 1, 2009

The Dreamtime

This binding was done on the book "The Dreamtime" by Charles P. Mountford, printed in 1968. The book is about Australian aboriginal myths and includes drawings and paintings by Ainslie Roberts.

I was quietly taken by the painting and the colors the artist used and built my design for the binding based on an illustration for the origin of fire story. I changed the shape and placement of the rocks and made a drawing of the design to size.

The book was bound in a green cloth case binding which I removed then disbound the pages.

The pages had 12 holes punched for the original machine sewing; I used five of the holes for three recessed cords and the kettle stitches for sewing the book. I used two pieces of 18/8 thread for the recessed cords.

After sewing I added several sheets of plain bond paper folded into two sections that were equal to the thickness of a leather hinge. A section was tipped in with PVA along the spine of the book in the front and back of the sewn textblock. They will be removed later when the leather hinges are pasted in. I glued up the spine with PVA and rounded and backed the book. The page edges were then sanded smooth.

Headbands were sewn with two colors of silk thread on a flax cord and the spine was lined with two layers of bond paper that I sanded between layers to give a smooth surface to the spine.

The boards for the binding were made of .080 Davey board lined with a bond paper to help stabilize them and were shaped by sanding the edge along the top, bottom and foreedge and were laced onto the book. I added a one on two off hollow and the final lining was a piece of Stonehenge paper with the edges beveled and sanded before being glued down to the hollow.

For the design I need to create a darkening sky so I started with a yellow goatskin from Harmatan and cut it to a rough size. Using the aniline dyes from Hewitt mixed with water I begin brushing the dye on the damped leather. I kept the areas broad without trying to worry about details at first. When the leather was dry the color was not dark enough so I repeated the process. Some areas of the skin did not take the dye as well as others so when the skin was almost dry I stippled dye over to darken these areas.

The design centered on fire leaping across the sky and I decided feathered onlays would give the edge quality I wanted for the flames. A feathered onlay is pared for the face of the leather scraping off a very thin layer with the edges broken up by cutting through the grain of the leather.

Previously when I had tried feathered onlays I used my paring knife to pare off the pieces. I had also seen a photo in Philip Smith’s books showing him using a spokeshave. I tried both and got random shapes but for this design I needed to control the shapes more.

I had also tried using my Scharf-Fix to feather onlays and I thought if I could raise the leather in the shape I needed, the blade would shear it off the leather. I took a sheet of Mylar and traced the shapes with a marking pen from my drawing. Using blue painters tape, I placed two layers of tape on the backside of the Mylar. I then cut out the shape with a pair of scissors.

I cut the yellow leather into one inch strips, the width of the cutting area on the Scharf-Fix and thinned them down to about .5 mm thickness (about half of the thickness of the leather). I peeled the tape away from the Mylar and put it on the back of the leather. Then with the flesh side up I ran it through the Scharf-Fix set at a height equal to the thickness of the leather. When it hit the tape the leather was pushed up into the blade.

I used a photocopy of the drawing and cut out the shapes of the flames to guide where to glue down the onlays. Using PVA and paste I glued the feathered onlay on the cover leather and put them under a weight to dry.

For the rock onlays I used the more traditional technique for onlays. I thinly pared light tan leather and using another photocopy of the drawing cut the shapes out of the leather. I then used the dyes to tone and shape the rocks. After they were dry, I edge pared the pieces and glued them on to the cover leather.

At this time I dyed areas on the cover to darken and to add shadows to some of the fire shapes so the image appeared more 3-dimensional.

After everything had dried I took the leather and using my spokeshave to back pare the leather so the onlays would recess into to the thickness of the leather and be level with the rest of the skin.

I went over the binding boards, smoothing down the areas around where the cords laced into them, notched the board corners at the head and tail and slit the tube for the leather turn ins. I then capped up the book and trimmed the leather to its final size and pared the edges.

I used paste to adhere the leather to the binding being careful not to over wet the front of the leather. After the leather was on and had dried I allowed the binding to sit out for a day to see if the boards pulled. I then added a piece of Iowa B9 flax paper in the inside of both board to balance the pull of the leather.

I dyed two strips of leather for the hinges and trimmed and pared them to size. I removed the false sections I had tipped in the front and back section after sewing and then pasted in the hinges. After the hinges had dried I trimmed them out. I had over pared the leather around the top headcap and on the back board had a gap at the turn in. I dampened the leather and lifted up the pieces and pared a patch to fit, then pasted everything back down.

When beginning the dark tooling I had a copy of the drawing near by and lightly marked the dry leather first with a small bone folder as a guide before tooling. This leaves a light impression on the soft leather and if I am not happy with the line it could be removed by dampening the leather and then letting it dry.

The tooling on the image was done free hand with my brass stylus, first the tool was heated and used on the dry leather and then the impressions were tooled again with the tool heated after wetting the lines with a small brush with water. Heat and moisture will darken the line and make it permanent.

S. A. Neff designed the brass stylus I used. There is another type--often called an Ascona tool--first used by Hugo Peller. He designed the tool to make a wide tooled line into which he could place a fine onlay of white leather. There is also a earlier description in 1892, Sarah Prideaux using a dash tool from a set of hand letters that she shaped into a stylus tool and used in a free hand manner.

I have an ascona style tool but prefer the Neff design. It can be made from a brass rod set into a wooden dowel handle. After shaping with files the edge can be smoothed with fine sandpaper and given a final polish on a leather strop and polishing compound.

S.A. Neff made a presentation of this tool and how he uses it at the GBW Standards Meeting in 2001. There is an article by Neff published in the GBW Journal in Vol. XXXIX No. 1 and also video available from Guild of Book Workers.

I took a workshop from Neff several years ago and now use this tool regularly.

I am holding the Neff stylus and below is an Ascona tool.

This shows the shape of the Neff stylus tip from two angles.

With the tooling done I used Hewit’s Leather dressing to seal the dyed leather.

The title was done with 14 point Garamond type using a hand pallet and done in gold leaf. I started with a paper pattern and then blinded in the title. Then I used B.S. glair and laid on the gold and tooled it in.

The endpapers were made from some paste paper I had made last year,

This book was juried into the Marking Time Exhibition sponsored by the Guild of Book Workers and will travel to several different locations over the next two years. The first location is at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the exhibition opens May 15 and runs until August 15. More information about the exhibit can be found at


  1. This is fascinating. Beautiful work. Thank-you for sharing your process.

  2. Beautiful, beautiful work. I'm so glad that you're providing such wonderful documentation of your work. Thank you!


  3. You are providing a valuable resource for students and for people who are interested in the bindings by explaining how a designed binding is made from both technical and also an 'inspirational' point of view. Keep up the good work.
    Kathy Whalen

  4. Thank you for documenting and sharing your process. And what a wonderful result.

  5. What kind of spokeshave are you using? It looks like it is colored white and has knurled handles?

  6. Thank you Jana for giving us the gift of your knowledge and your passion for your art.