This is the second in a three-part series on the subject of Book Restoration and Repair. If readers express sufficient interest, Mr. Colver has agreed to continue as a regular columnist, answering questions related to this topic.
I approach explaining how to fix your own books with some trepidation.
On a purely altruistic level, more damage has probably been done to books by booksellers, librarians, owners and— yes—bookbinders in the name of repairing them than by all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding together.
On a selfish level, I make a tidy part of my income trying to undo the damage. But I have all the business I can handle right now. And the tips and techniques I’m going to outline may let you put some of your Wounded Wannabe’s back together in a way that’s good for the book and your ledger book.
To begin with, if you remember nothing else, remember this: A book is a machine. For all the magic, mystique and awe that may surround it, the bound book is a machine. And like all machines, it will obey the laws of physics that have been built into it, whether or not they were what the binder intended. If a book was bound, rebound or repaired without regard to how all the parts work together to make the machine work, the laws of physics will relentlessly tear it apart, even while it is sitting quietly on a shelf. If a binding structure was made aesthetically pleasing, but too weak to support the textblock, gravity will do its job. If a hinge is not properly made, or repaired, it will not be a hinge and do what hinges do, which is to open and close the book. It will instead be a lever, and it will do what levers do, which is to pry apart the book.
That said…I’m going to describe a simple, versatile and very strong method of rehinging loose or detached boards to leather books. With a little practice, it can also be used on clothbound books. Then I’m going to touch on paper repair. This is not the full semester course in Bookbinding 101. Rather, it’s an overview of quick, solid, down-and-dirty, but archivally sound repairs you can make with a minimum of materials and tools, most of which can be obtained at a local art-supply store or hobby shop.
Reattaching detached boards
The standard “home repair” of a detached board is to glue it back to the free endpaper. After all, isn’t that what the original binder did?
The answer is no. Without getting into the physics and geometry of it, take my word for it. Simply gluing the board to the free fly is absolutely, certifiably guaranteed to turn the front board into a lever. It will then pull up that sheet, and you’ll glue the whole package to the next sheet—which will pull up—Ad infinitum. I once dissected a book where someone had done this for 20 leaves into the book, and it had still separated between the 20th and 21st leaf.
The paper that used to be the connection between the free fly and the pastedown is torn. And the leather that used to be the connection between the spine and the front cover is torn. Both need to be restored.
The material for restoring these connections is Japanese tissue, what is often, but erroneously, called “rice paper.” And yes, you use the Japanese tissue to repair the leather. For one thing, it’s easier to use. More importantly, on a strength-to-bulk ratio, Japanese tissue is several times stronger than leather. And it can be dyed, painted or colored to match old leather almost perfectly.
Japanese tissue is often, but not always, available at art-supply stores. It can also be ordered from binding supply houses. What you need is a thin but strong paper. Thinness is important but not at the expense of the paper disintegrating when you tug at it. Kitikata is a good, all-purpose paper. A paper called Torinoko Gampi is extremely thin but extremely strong. Don’t be embarrassed to ask the clerks at the store for advice. If they act like they don’t have a clue, order from one of the binding supply houses and ask their advice. Their clerks have a clue.
While you’re at the art supply store, or on the phone to the supplier, get a bone folder if you don’t already have one. This is a six- to eight-inch piece of polished bone that is almost irreplaceable for rubbing down glued or pasted repairs. Make sure you get a real one, not a plastic one - it’s a bookbinders 11th finger and worth almost any four of the other ten.
You’ll need paste and you’ll need glue. You can mix and cook up flour-and-water paste, but save the office microwave for more important things like reheating donuts. Order premixed or cold- mix starch paste from a binding supply house if your local art-supply doesn’t have it.
As for glue, if you’ve been using Elmer’s, you’re temporarily forgiven, as long as you swear on your BAL or your Howes or whatever other book is holy never, ever to use Elmer’s on a book again. It’s not Elmers’ fault. Elmer’s is formulated to dry hard and stiff—the last thing you want on a book. Most art-supply, hobby or fabric shops stock a glue called Soho, which looks and acts like Elmer’s but is formulated to dry—and stay— flexible. Keep the Elmer’s to use on your bookshelves, get some Sobo to use on your books. Or get some of the more archival flexible PVA glues from the binding supply houses.
Okay, you have your sheet of Japanese tissue. And you have a book. And you have a loose board. Now you’re ready to rehinge your first book.
Always start with the inner hinge first. If the free fly and maybe the next leaf are loose, or not securely part of the textblock, gently pull them out. After you’ve pasted down the new Japanese tissue inner hinge, rehinge the old leaves by running a little paste along the turned-up edge of the leaves, and tipping them back on and letting them dry. Don’t get any paste on the flat part of the leaves, just the part that fits up against the shoulder of the textblock. If there are several loose sheets at the front, send this one out to be professionally repaired.
If there is loose paper on the hinge edge of the cover board, gently sand it off with sandpaper until you can see bare board. Actually, it’s a good idea to do that anyway.
Then line the board so it’s even at the head and tail of the book, with the hinge edge of the board resting on the shoulder of the textblock, or on the edge of the spine, if you prefer to think of it that way, in its normal “open” position. Prop it up under the board, if need be. The inner edge of the board and the shoulder of the textblock should form a neat “L.” Put a weight on top of the board to hold it in position.
Now you’re ready to cut the Japanese tissue inner hinge. “Cut” is the wrong word actually. Any paper used for repair should be torn, not cut. It should preferably be wet-torn by running a line of water along the tear line with an old fountain pen or with the bone folder dipped in water. But at a bare minimum, be sure to dry-tear any tissue used in book repair. A cut edge of repair paper leaves a sharp edge of stronger material. The older paper will look on this as a new hinge point (physics again) and break along that line. I have seen books with detached pages that broke along a line of cut lens tissue, possibly the thinnest repair paper there is, as though you’d laid down a straightedge and cut it with a razor. Plus, the feathered edge will visually blend better with old materials. Always tear your tissue.
You want a strip of tissue wide enough to run from the base of the shoulder, where the free fly starts turning up, to the level of the upper surface of the cover board. That’s all. Running the repair tissue out further onto the fly or onto the pastedown does absolutely no good and a lot of harm. It just needs to be solidly attached to the shoulder of the textblock and the inner edge of the board. Letting a little lap up onto the pastedown is okay for appearance’s sake.
The strip can be longer than the book is tall. On a scrap sheet of paper, lay the strip out and brush on a coat of paste. Then brush on a light coat of the PVA glue. The paste is what will do most of the work of holding. The glue just gives it a good bite. From a conservation standpoint, the paste is reversible; the glue alone isn’t. Position the pasted strip against the shoulder of the textblock and edge of the board and bone it down firmly with the bone folder. Tear the long ends of the strip off even with the line of the pastedown and free fly and let the whole thing dry.
When it’s dry, gently close the cover, snugging the board against the shoulder as you go. You’re now ready for the outer hinge.
If the old leather is powdery, you may need to consolidate the area where the strip will attach with the Klucel G cellulose consolidant gel I mentioned in the last article, or paste or glue and allow it to dry before applying the tissue. Gluing paper to dust doesn’t work. A lot of old leather, especially “morocco,” may look solid, but under its top cell layer, it’s dust. If you suspect this, gently rub the area where you’re going to glue the strip with either the rough side of a piece of leather or a coarse, but soft cloth and see what sloughs off. When you get down to more-or-less solid leather, consolidate and continue.
Tear a strip of tissue wide enough to cover the crack in the hinge and get a good grip on the cover and the spine—on the average book a quarter to three-eighths of an inch is usually enough. Paste and glue as before, lay the strip down, and bone it down firmly with the bone folder. You’re replacing the old decayed and broken leather fibers with new plant fibers in the Japanese tissue, and you want to make sure the new is securely anchored to the old.
The extra “ears” at the top and bottom of the strip can be tucked inside the cover to make a neat joint at the head and tail and actually strengthen the cover.
When everything is dry, you’re ready to color. Coloring is a case of “whatever works.” For the outer hinge, the Meltonian Shoe Cream I mentioned in the previous article is a good start. Leather dye does nicely. If you use dye, however, you must put a sealant of some sort on the raw tissue first to keep the dye from wicking through to the inner hinge. Meltonian will act as a good sealant. So will the Klucel G. So will a coat of wheat paste rubbed on and allowed to dry. Acrylic paints are a good coloring agent, especially the hobby-acrylics sold for painting miniatures and dollhouses. For one thing they come in pre-muted, pre-faded colors. Water colors work. Tempera paint is especially good for toning the inner hinges to match old 19th Century surface paper. So is Eberhard Faber’s NuPastel pastels, scraped into a powder and mixed with either clear acrylic varnish or a thinned-down Klucel G to form a paint. As I said before, however: Always start off lighter than you think you need and work toward darker. It doesn’t work the other way.
If you really get into this, Aiko’s Art Materials in Chicago sells Japanese tissue in a rainbow of colors that simplifies the coloring process. Anyway, their swatch book is worth buying just to look at!
When everything’s dry, you can finish off with a coat of Meltonian on the cover & repairs. There is a superb clear acrylic wax, 5C6000, available from Bookbinders Warehouse in Keyport, NJ, and Craft Bookbinding in Wilmington DE - and possibly other places. It puts a nice, archival, protective shine on old leather and on Japanese tissue repairs.
The Japanese tissue rehinge has its limits. I wouldn’t recommend using it on any book larger —either in height or thickness—than a standard octavo. For larger or thicker books, a narrow strip of starched handkerchief linen can be glued down before pasting down the Japanese tissue inner hinge. But no thicker cloth than that. And if you feel you really want to try this trick, use real linen—not cotton or any form of polyester blend. Thin cotton has no real strength, and glue and paste won’t bond to polyester fabrics.
You now have a strong, healthy, and possibly attractive book again. And you have the warm knowledge that it’s all been done in an archivally sound way. Now, sell it and start to work on the next one. Practice makes perfect.
Let’s assume you already know better than to use cellophane tape to repair a torn page. You may be using one of the many paper “archival” mending tapes sold in easy-to-use rolls by library supply houses. They are certainly better than cellophane tapes. But I still have problems with a lot of them— both in a philosophical and practical sense. For one thing, they have cut edges, and the adhesive makes them stiffer than most of the paper you’ll be mending. Which means there’s more than a potential for the old paper to break along the cut edge. Secondly, they, and glue and “instant hinge” solutions and a lot of other products are sold as “archival” because they’re reversible in water. This tempts a lot of well-intentioned souls to use them with abandon and without regard to what the amount of moisture necessary to reverse the adhesive will do to the old, infirm materials the adhesive is solidly attached to. In cleaning off a lot of “archival” mending tape repairs, by the time I’ve moistened it enough through its highly calendared surface to soften the adhesive, the paper underneath has been moistened enough to return to rag pulp. Or the adhesive is stronger than the paper pulp, and the top layer of the paper—the one with the ink on it—comes up with the adhesive.
For utility paper repair, almost nothing beats the Library of Congress heat- set tissue sold by Bookmakers in Riverdale MD. It comes in a 14 x 20- inch sheet which can be torn into any shape you need. It is an almost transparent, but strong, lens tissue, treated with a clear, heat-set acrylic resin on one side as an adhesive. You lay a piece of it over a page tear—or even on the reverse side of a whole page or a map—and go over it with a tacking iron. The heat from the iron sets the resin into the paper and you have a nearly invisibly mended tear with no water, paste or glue touching the paper. The paper is so transparent it can be used over the smallest 6-point type or the most faded document ink and the text will still be perfectly readable. And the acrylic resin is reversible in alcohol—not water—which is far less damaging to the underlying materials. Use this stuff once and you’ll swear by it.
If you don’t want to invest thirty-odd dollars in a Teflon-coated tacking iron...I don’t blame you. I burned out three or four of them in one year by accidentally leaving them on. Besides, the Teflon wore off before they could burn out anyway. Spend twenty-odd bucks and get a good Silverstone coated steam-and-dry iron. It does absolutely everything the tacking iron does when you run it dry. Set it on “cotton” or “Linen” and you can set heat-set tissue just fine. If you need a little humidification to press the wrinkles out of a page, you’ve got the steam. The Silverstone outlasts Teflon by years. And on a slow day, you can press the wrinkles out of your Sunday suit. I bought my Silverstone-coated Black & Decker steam- and-dry with auto shutoff 6 years ago, and it’s served me well and is still going strong.
First-aid or major surgery?
The Japanese-tissue rehinge will neatly and strongly repair a lot of wounded books that you might have thought needed rebacking. But it’s not a cure-all.
In the next article, we’ll take a look at how to recognize when a book is in need if professional help; some points to assist you in diagnosing what’s wrong with it, which isn’t always obvious, so you can communicate more effectively with your binder. And finally, some broad guidelines on how to select a professional binder.
Bob Colver studied the art of book restoration with David Bourbeau at Thistle Bindery in Massachusetts. He now owns Ram’s Head Bindery in Durham, NC and has been mending books for the antiquarian book trade for 22 years.