Adventures with a Binder


I recently journeyed to the Charles Matthews Bindery in Los Angeles to participate in a basic book repair class followed by some tips on restoration. It turned out to be a book autopsy, however, followed by major reconstructive surgery. Incredibly informative, very helpful and a lot of fun.

With piles and boxes of books in need of varying levels of attention, I thought it a good, practical idea. But lurking in the back of my mind I had dreams of creating beautiful volumes with intricate, gilded designs and painted fore edges.

The pre-requisites were simple: a book in need of repair and a desire to learn. It wasn’t difficult to find a good candidate, a small turn-of-the century volume bound in cloth, with worn cracked boards and cracked hinges, but with only one loose page worn.

Traffic was awful, even on a Saturday morning, and the 60 mile trip took two hours. There were three of us in class, I was the extreme novice, and everyone was helpful. Charlene Matthews was the binder who taught us. She is talented, friendly and makes great coffee.

The object of the game was to remove the text block completely from the cover, clean the cover and spine of the majority of old material, reinforce the spine, repair the major splits, put the boards back on, tip in the new matched endpapers, and put it all together and go home. It seemed simple enough, but I always jumped into the deep end of the pool as a kid, and I could feel my toes growing cold.

The whole process took about five hours with a lot of help. Someone who actually knew what they were doing could probably do it in about half that time or even less. In between steps we learned about the tools and techniques, viewed some exciting book art projects, and laughed. Book repair class

To start, the text block was separated from the case. This is done by cutting carefully down the hinges.

No special tools are required for this as you can see. These two “lifting knives” have been with the binder for over 15 years (she bought them at a swap meet). The small green one was at one time almost as long as the brown one. Since the class I have found a small cadre of knives and other pointy things that work very well from yard sales.

Book repair class

Book repair class

In this project, I separated the endpaper and board from the cloth cover. It was interesting to see the condition and color difference underneath. Over time the front board had completely cracked down the middle.

Book repair class

Once the majority of the board was removed, it was sanded down with fine sandpaper. It is important to clean off the folded-over cloth. If you don’t, once the new endpapers are pasted down it will detract from the finished work.

The splits in the folds were repaired from the inside, with Japanese document repair tape found at Tallas. Once this tape has been burnished (rubbed carefully and well with a bone folder) it is almost invisible.

Book repair class

This is old animal glue here. It’s very hard to the touch but surprisingly easy to remove once wheat paste is applied. Wheat paste seems like the miracle bookbinding stuff. It’s used to put things together and, as in the case of this spine, to remove things. Wheat paste is also designated as a reversible glue meaning exactly that—once dry it can be removed.

Book repair class

Book repair class

Remove as much of the old glue as possible. Be careful with the knife. Wheat paste makes the paper soggy and it along with the sewing threads are easily damaged.

Book repair class

Once the spine is cleaned up, it is interesting to see how the signatures were sewn. The next step, while the spine dried a bit, was to prepare the new endpapers. Paper was chosen to match the texture as closely as possible, then dyed to match the color.

Book repair class

Book repair class

Coffee is often the dye of choice, however we used acrylic paint of various tints mixed and thinned with water. Trial and error ruled here, but I think a good match was found. The new endpaper, cut longer than needed, was dyed and hung up to dry. It was tipped in using PVA. Rounding the corners of both the papers and boards was done on an old vintage corner rounder.

Book repair class
Book repair class

The new boards were cut to size, rounded and glued in using PVA, a thick fast-drying glue thinned slightly and applied with a brush. The glue must go on the cloth, and not the boards. Success comes with practice! Warping can be prevented by using a handy-dandy weight—the orange block is actually a brick covered in cloth. A binder’s stapler is used to hold a section of signatures that are being drilled for sewing.

Book repair class

Book repair class

The end pages were tipped in, PVA glue was applied, and the text block was given a new cloth spine.

Book repair classNot an exact color match, but the purpose is support. Under the old cloth case it will blend in and not distract from the finished work.

One process that is used repeatedly is burnishing. Done with a bone folder, it seemed that every step was finished by smoothing and shaping with this inexpensive but indispensable tool.

After cleaning both the case and spine, reinforcing the spine, and creating a new endpaper, the next step was to attach the case to the block.

The finished book is below. You can still see where the cloth and old board were cracked. This is still part of the book’s history but now the board is strong and the tears are repaired. The frayed corners were not addressed as the class was only so long, and after all, it is an old common book with a history and a story all its own.

Book repair class

Among the interesting tips given, the binder often “irons” her books. Set on low, no steam please, she irons the boards, ends and spines. This helps set the glue and smooth the book. Another tip was the use of colored shoe polish to even the book’s tone. Small amounts were used, and I noticed it left a “healthier” look and seemed to clean the book without removing the original dye. I do not know if this is an accepted practice outside of this bindery but it was very interesting and had surprising results.

So ends the anatomy class. The next class was a little more intensive! I submit just the before and after pictures here. The larger book had a hollow back with leather spine that was chipping badly, though the stitching was sound. The spine was cleaned and reinforced, and a new backstrip was attached. The smaller book was much more intense. The front cover was detached along with the first few pages including marbled endpapers. The cover was reattached with a leather splice. The new splice was slipped in and glued with PVA.

Book repair class

Book repair class

Book repair class

This class was very instructive and lots of fun. The experience is highly recommended if anyone in your area is offering something similar.

There were three main sentiments and instructions.

“Do no harm.”

“Work slowly, and carefully.”

“You are using way too much glue!”

Sharon Heimann operates E Ridge Fine Books out of Lake Elsinore, CA and can be contacted at http://www.eridgebooks.com.

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