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Common antiquarian ailments

The pathology of book repair

By Robert Colver
Source: O.P. World, May 1998

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on the subject of Book Restoration and Repair.

My standard line as a mender of hurt books is: “Half my work is pathology before I ever get to the surgery.”

A book falls apart for a reason. Sometimes, the reason is obvious—it was dropped, or it got wet, or the materials just rotted. But most of the time you have to let books tell you why they fell apart. And if you learn a little of their language, they’re marvelously communicative.

I’m going to run through a short list of problems that cause dealers to throw themselves and their books on the mercy of binders, discuss what may have caused the problem, and give you an idea of what you should expect from a binder if you find you need one.

Detached boards

Not all loose boards on leather books will respond to the Japanese tissue rehinge I described last time. The board may have originally been fitted improperly at the shoulder (Yes, there have been ignorant or sloppy binders throughout history). Or the book may have a decided wedge shape—narrower at the spine than the fore-edge, a binding aesthetic common from the late 17th Century well into the 19th Century.

In either case, the board is acting like a lever, with the textblock as a fulcrum, and prying itself away from the spine. This was no problem when the book was new. The cords and the leather overcame the pressure, which is why the binder thought he got away with it. But leather will (and cords can) rot. When that happens, pressure on the boards from other books on the shelf will pop the hinge. And it will probably pop a tissue re-hinge. A wedge-shaped book or one with boards substantially thicker than the shoulder is a candidate for a re-back.

Sewing breaks

If a book was properly designed and properly bound, the strain of opening and flexing the book is evenly distributed. Unfortunately, a lot of books weren’t properly designed or bound. The hinges were ill-fitted, causing a levering pull on the first and last few signatures. Or in some cases, the textblock was too heavy for the materials used and the sewing breaks in the middle, the point of maximum strain.

Most dealers hate to see broken sewing, because they think it means the book has to be taken down and completely resewn. If the book is worth it, that’s the best way. But most books won’t repay the cost of a complete resew. And most books with broken sewing don’t need resewing to be sound and flexible. Sewing can be repaired, or, in extreme cases, done away with altogether. It’ll cost you a re-back, but you were facing that anyway. In twelve years of repairing thousands of books, I have had to completely resew fewer than two dozen to make them solid and usable.

If the front or rear signature or two is loose or detached, they can be whip-stitched back on soundly through the shoulder. Often, there is a neat, clean, complete break at or near the middle of the book. There is a well-described, well-illustrated technique for whip-stitching the two halves and lacing the whip-stitching together in Arthur Johnson’s “Practical Guide to Book Repair and Conservation.” If your binder doesn’t have a copy, offer to buy him or her one. It will repay you several times over.

Occasionally, the sewing and signatures are so far gone that the leaves are either in fact, or in effect, single sheets. Many binders will insist that the leaves must be laboriously guarded back into folios and the folios resewn in signatures. Again, if the book is worth it, do it. Other binders will suggest oversewing. Oversewing involves whip-stitching several single sheets together and sewing the whip-stitched quires together as signatures. Even if the book is worth it, don’t do this! Other than a dogged adherence to tradition, there’s no reason to oversew anymore. Oversewing puts a line of needle holes, six to eight millimeters in, along the inner margin of the pages. Some inner margins can’t take that and remain readable. Plus there’s now a neatly perforated, dotted-line hingepoint on every sheet, along which even non-brittle paper is fond of breaking.

The now-accepted substitute for oversewing is the double-fanfold adhesive binding. The old pages are sanded (not chopped!) into single sheets, hopefully maintaining the original rounding of the spine. The single sheets are fanned one direction and glued with a flexible PVA white glue. Then they are fanned the other direction and glued and allowed to dry several hours. This leaves a hairline of glue on each side of each sheet as well as across the width of the spine. The glue is not considered reversible. But since less than a millimeter of paper is affected, it is considered far less invasive and damaging than oversewing. It’s considerably faster than guarding and resewing and therefore considerably cheaper. The glue, as opposed to the paper, takes most of the strain of hinging. And artificial aging tests indicate that the PVA will maintain its integrity and flexibility for at least 300 years. If your binder insists on oversewing, consider getting a new binder.

Obviously, this process dramatically changes the original bibliographic character of the book. But if it’s a choice between rebinding a book double-fanfold or tossing it in the dumpster, give it a chance to live and make a few bucks off it.

Cocked books

Occasionally, you’ll come across a cocked or crooked book—one where the front cover extends dramatically beyond the back or vice-versa. You assume it’s because it sat crooked on a shelf somewhere for a long time, so you straighten it out, put it in a press overnight, and when you take it out next morning, it’s all straight and neat! And then an hour later, you’ll discover it’s cocked again. And it will be. If you press it for a week, it’ll go cocked again in an hour.

Most cocking occurs in mid- to late-l9th Century books. And most of it is caused not by sitting crooked on a shelf but by improper backing when it was originally bound. In the mid 19th Century, machines replaced the binder’s hammer as the method of shaping spines. If the machines were properly calibrated and the machine operator wasn’t yawning or sneezing when he dropped the book into the machine, the book backed correctly. If not, it didn’t. And once that particular book left the bindery, the pages and the sewing had an incorrect set which time has served only to accentuate and make permanent. Materials have a memory. And they will seek the shape they have known for the past 100 years as surely as a raindrop will seek the sea.

The only sure cure for a cocked book is for your binder to remove it from its case, relax the old backing with paste to help the signatures forget their old set, and then properly re-back the book and re-hang it in its case.

It’s up to you whether it’s worth it.

Cloth bound books

The two major problems with cloth bound books are separated spines and textblocks loose in the cover or completely out of the cover. The former is obviously going to require a re-back with the old cloth spine relaid. I mention it only because too many dealers are prone to simply glue a loose cloth spine back directly to the spine of the textblock. That should never, ever be done! It ruins the binding; not damages—ruins. Leather can be glued directly to the spine of a textblock, if the book was so designed. Leather flexes and compresses when the book opens. Cloth doesn’t. And old, brittle 19th-Century bookcloth doesn’t even try. It just shatters. Since publisher’s cloth bindings first took hold, clothbound books have been designed with hollow backs so the cover spines can ride free of the textblock and don’t have to flex. Even a lot of leatherbound books are designed to have hollow-back spines to avoid flexing the intricate gold tooling.

If you have a hollow-back book with a loose spine and don’t want to spend your money on a re-back, wrap it with a rubber band or put it in a plastic bag, price it accordingly, and furnish the customer with the name of a binder who can do a proper re-back. You’ll make a little money and two friends: your customer and your binder.

On the second problem, books shaken or separated from their case, most dealers wince at the thought of having to recase a book, even in its original boards, because they think they’ll have to sacrifice the endpapers and be confronted with bright, modern end- papers. This is not necessarily true. For one thing, there is a wealth of modern papers for endsheets that blend in very nicely with old papers, without resorting to the traditional trick of toning the paper with burnt-sugar gravy browning or coffee or tea. That’s a tad counterproductive anyway. Why go to great trouble using acid-free paper and then stain it with acidic coffee or tea? Or sugary gravy mix, which is a free lunch for bugs?

You shouldn’t even need new endsheets. Your binder should be able to clean the old glue and linings off the spine of the book, fit and glue a paper tube or hollow (imagine a flattened drinking straw) to the spine and then hang the book back in its case by gluing the outside of the tube to the cloth spine of the cover. The broken inner hinges can be mended or masked with Japanese tissue, toned or painted to blend in with the old endpapers. The tube holds the book solidly in its case, often more solidly than the original binding structure did.

Missing pages

Very few dealers would be satisfied with a catalog entry that said “Lacks frontis, title page, first plate and last page of index; else fine.” But what if it really is “else fine”?

If you can find another copy of the same edition that lacks something other than what you’re missing, a good binder should be able to neatly “Frankenstein” the pieces together.  

But what if the only copy of the missing page you can get is a photocopy from AAS or a library? Just tipping in a bright white photocopy is almost worse than doing nothing. The good (and not widely known) news is that most copy-shop photocopiers can copy onto any paper strong enough to survive running through the machine’s paper-path. Most old rag papers make it through and hold the image just fine. Even some of the less-brittle woodpulp papers survive. Either you or your binder can find an old blank or flyleaf of a paper that matches the old book and then photocopy the photocopy onto the old paper.

Finding a reputable binder

Throughout this piece I’ve been referring to “your binder,” sort of assuming that if you’ve been selling books very long, you’ve made contact with at least one binder. Or I’ve said “find a new binder,” as if there were four binderies in the next block.

If you have a working relationship with a binder, who gives you what you want at a price you are willing to pay, treasure it! The sad fact of your business is that good books in unhurt condition are not out there like they were even 20 years ago.

If you’re still trying to find someone to fix your books, the other sad fact is that good restoration/conservation binders are still pretty thin on the ground, despite a blossoming of commercial conservation labs, new academic programs in conservation, and despite the inestimable good work of Terry Belanger’s Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.

What I’d like to do now is offer some necessarily broad guidelines to consider in choosing someone to work on your books. It’s a minefield I approach with caution. None of us likes to appear to sit in judgment of our peers, if for no other reason than our peers have an equal right to sit in judgment of us. But bookbinding in this country is not a licensed or regulated craft. There is no apprenticeship, journeyman’s work or master’s papers required. Anyone can call him or herself a bookbinder on a moment’s notice. As one caller told me one day: “I’ve always wanted to open my own bookbindery. If I come over some afternoon, can you teach me how to bind books?”

A lot of people are out there doing brain surgery having just completed a Red Cross first-aid course, repairing an irreplaceable family Bible on the strength of a three-day craft class or self- taught out of a copy of “So You Want to Bind A Book?” I know. I started that way—self-taught. I eventually reached the point where I was good enough to deceive my clients but not myself. I knew how much I didn’t know. I realized what a fool I had for a teacher and what an idiot he had for a student and sought professional help.

Not even all formally trained binders who can design and execute beautiful bindings can or should do repair work. Repair, restoration and conservation is a specialty within a specialized craft, requiring more the skills of a chemist or physicist than those of a designer or an artist.

Or, as I said, the skills of a pathologist. A properly repaired or restored book should use as much of the original materials as is structurally and aesthetically possible. It should look like - or at least blend in with the period of— the original binding. And it should alter or change the original binding structure as little as possible. Effective, economical book repair is a constant process of intelligent compromise between the ideal and reality.

All of that requires working as much as possible in partnership with the original binder, who may have been dead for 400 years, and who may have been a ham-handed boob when he was alive. It also requires an intimate knowledge of how books were put together in the past, in different periods, in different locations, using different materials. Some of that can be learned by reading and instruction. Most of it must be learned at the bench by trying to understand what an old book is telling you, the binder, as you take it apart and put it back together again.

And, to enter the realm of what I call the Zen of book repair, it requires a feel of the individual book. There are times I swear I can tell what kind of day a binder in Philadelphia was having in 1787, based on the hurried, rather than smooth, brush strokes of his paste brush as he laid the pastedown down or that he let his hide glue get too hot, and it burned.

In trying to find a binder—or a new binder— ask your colleagues. Most are proud to brag on their binders. Or quick to lambaste them. Word-of-mouth is still the best, or worst, advertising. At the next book fair, look at obviously repaired volumes that match the kind of repairs you usually require and ask who did them.

Much as I believe in “support your local binder,” if you don’t have a local binder, or if your local binder thinks the Franklin Mint is the apex of fine binding, don’t hesitate to go out of town. And once you’re out of town, the world is your oyster. If you have to pay FedEx or UPS to ship to the next city, then the next state or the next coast is only an incremental increase. And it may mean you get your New York books repaired on a Podunk cost-of-living scale.

Be patient. All binders are slow. Good binders are agonizingly slow. Slowness probably means they do careful, patient work for a large number of clients. In fact, be a little suspicious of a binder who promises too fast a turnaround, unless it’s a commercial lab with lots of employees. One client once asked me for 15 full leather bindings in less than a week. When I told her it was impossible, she asked if I knew of anybody who could do it. I told her—truthfully —no, and if she found anybody who said they could, don’t let them do it.

Be understanding (be grateful!) if your binder says the occasional project is out of his or her league, either from lack of knowledge or lack of facilities. It indicates he or she knows what needs to be done and knows his or her limitations. Both of those are valuable commodities in a binder.

I’ll try to live up to that myself as we continue this dialog in coming months. Much as it may shock my closest friends, I don’t know everything. I know a lot of things that work. I know ten times that many things that don’t work. Both are useful forms of knowledge, and like all useful forms of knowledge should be shared.

At one level, we’re in the businesses we’re in because it pays the bills and lets us play with some really neat toys. But if that were all, we’d be better off selling Nintendo sets. We’re in the businesses we’re in because we believe old books deserve to live, be healthy and have a good home.

To that end, I wish I could personally take care of all your hurt and dying books. I can’t. I’ve got more now than the available hands can process. And the UPS truck hasn’t come yet today.

But I do look forward to sharing my ideas—and your ideas—of what works and doesn’t work in keeping old books alive and healthy.

Finding them a good home is up to you and, of course, Interloc.

Bob Colver studied the art of book restoration at Thistle bindery in Massachusetts. He now owns Ram’s Head Bindery in Durham, NC and had been mending books for the antiquarian book trade for 12 years.