Monday, June 15, 2009

The Restoration of Leather Bindings

With this binding, I only have photographs of the gold finishing. The book was started several years ago and I finally finished it in May of this year. It was sewn on four tapes with a hollow back spine, silk endbands, leather hinges and covered in a Hewit tan goatskin.

The book was Bernard Middleton’s The Restoration of Leather Bindings, originally purchased in sheets. This book had many drawings throughout and I used two of these drawings for the cover design.

I enlarged the drawings from the book and then redrew them so the curves would match the tools I have. I own a half set of designer gouges (even nos.), a set of blending gouges and a set of line pallets all 1.5 pt thickness from P&S Engraving.

To do this, I used an ink stamping pad and went over the drawing with the different tools, noting which ones went where on the drawing. To help determine which gouges will work, I have a sheet where I have used the gouges to make larger arcs on tracing paper so I can lay it over the drawing to find the right tool for a given curve. The image on the front cover took eight different tools while the back cover took sixteen.

With both drawings there were small lines about a 2 mm and 4mm long and my shortest line tool was 5 mm so I made two new line tools using brass rod set into a dowel handle. I also made a small curve about 2.5 mm wide.

I have written about making tools in an article for The Bonefolder Journal, volume 5, number 2, Spring 2009 which can be downloaded at-

I worked on one side of the cover at a time and made my final two drawings on a thin Japanese paper. I attached the drawings on the book by wrapping the paper around the book and taping on a second strip that wraps up over the book. I used dividers to check that the drawing was placed squarely on the book.

The first tooling on the leather was done with a warm tool through the paper pattern. After I went over the entire drawing I lifted up part of the drawing and checked to see if anything was missed. I kept the drawing taped in place in case I needed to go over any missed areas. When all was checked, I removed the paper drawing.

The second tooling of the image was done with warm tools with the leather dry to deepen the impressions in the leather. That way I could straighten out lines and make corrections if needed. For the third tooling of the image I dampened an area with a wet sponge and allowed the water to soak in for a moment and then tooled the impression with a warm tool. This wet tooling with warm tools hardens and deepens the impression.

After the wet tooling was done and the book dried, I painted the glaire into the impressions with a fine brush. I used a #00 liner brush and B.S. Glaire, a shellac-based glaire, and brushed two coats into the impressions. Then I waited an hour for the glaire to dry between coats.

To begin working with the gold leaf I laid out two leaves of gold on top of one another on the gold cushion and cut them to size. Using sweet almond oil I rubbed over an area of the cover I want to tool. Oil helps in handling and holding the gold in place while you tool it.

I used a piece of cotton wool and rubbed it against my face to pick up a small amount of natural oil. Then I rolled the cotton over the gold leaf to pick up the gold off the cushion. The oil on the cotton pad is very slight but it does pick up the gold and then when it is laid on the book where the sweet almond oil has been rubbed on the leather, the gold will stay in place.

Pressing the cotton on the gold a second time with a quick down and up motion pushes the gold into the tool impressions. This helps me see where to place the tool for the next tooling.

I went over the gold covered areas with warm tools using the heat of the tool to adhere the gold to the leather with the glaire in the tooled lines. I have a gold rubber that I rub over the loose gold leaf to pick up the extra gold. I then grease up the next area and lay more gold and continue tooling. After I have gone over the image I repeat the whole process two or three times building up the layers of gold in the tooled lines.

Faults and breaks in the gold may require some small areas to have glaire painted in again and then lay down the gold and retool.

After tooling, the edges of the lines are cleaned up with a sharpened wooden stick, in this case an orange stick used for manicures. The tooling of the gold and cleaning up of the impression takes several hours for each side.

For the titling of this book, I tried several different sizes of type and arrangements using the ink stamping pad and a lettering pallet.

As with the cover drawings I made a pattern on Japanese paper that I used for the first tooling.

I did the title in sections that would fit into my 4 inch pallet.

The first tooling through the paper pattern.

The third tooling with damp leather and warm type

Placing the gold for the first layer of gold leaf.

This book is to be my working copy for restoration work on bindings which is why it often got set aside and took years for it to be completed. I was looking forward to having it on my bookshelf, so of course the first thing I did was send it to England for a binding exhibition. It will be on display at the Society of Bookbinders' 17th Biennial Education & Training Conference at the University of Warwick.


  1. We have followed your blog postings and are in awe of your work! I have worked as a printer for close to 30 years and have wanted to become a binder for some time now due to the lack of challenge in the printing industry, and while I have yet been able to learn binding in any form, your work bespeaks of the type of quality work I desire to be able to do. Thanks for sharing with us!

  2. That's great Jana, the image presence on the cover, you've got it all figured out

  3. This is a gorgeous binding and thank you for describing the process so thoroughly.

  4. Hi Jana,
    I was at the SoB conference and saw your book in the Exhibition. It is stunning. I enjoyed the way that you managed to communicate the essence of the book the use of tan leather which echoed the calf of older bindings in need of restoration. The tooling is a delight in its precision. It is a beautifully balanced volume. Thank you for sharing the process.

  5. And you can use it all for the DeGolyer in a year or so... All done, easiest entry ever.

  6. Then simply apply the ink stick directly to the affected area. Finish by applying leather protection cream to restore moisture to the leather.
    Leather Ink Stick