Bookbinding, and the Care of Books, by Douglas Cockerell

Chapter XIV

Decoration — Tools — Finishing — Tooling on Vellum — Inlaying on Leather

Decoration of Binding — Tools

The most usual, and perhaps the most characteristic, way of decorating book covers is by “tooling.” Tooling is the impression of heated (finishing) tools. Finishing tools are stamps of metal that have a device cut on the face, and are held in wooden handles (Fig. 79).

Fig. 79.
Fig. 79.

Tooling may either be blind tooling, that is, a simple impression of the hot tools, or gold tooling, in which the impression of the tool is left in gold on the leather.

Tools for blind tooling are best “die-sunk,” that is, cut like a seal. The “sunk” part of the face of the tool, which may be more or less modelled, forms the pattern, and the higher part depresses the leather to form a ground. In tools for gold tooling, the surface of the tool gives the pattern.

Tools may be either complex or simple in design, that is to say, each tool may form a complete design with enclosing border, as the lower ones on page 323, or it may be only one element of a design, as at Fig. 100. Lines may be run with a fillet (see Fig. 88), or made with gouges or pallets.

Gouges are curved line tools. They are made in sets of arcs of concentric circles (see Fig. 80, A). The portion of the curves cut off by the dotted line C will make a second set with flatter curves. Gouges are used for tooling curved lines.

Fig. 80.
Fig. 80.

A “pallet” may be described as a segment of a roll or fillet set in a handle, and used chiefly for putting lines or other ornaments across the backs of books (see Fig. 81). A set of one-line pallets is shown at Fig. 80, B.

Fillets are cut with two or more lines on the edge. Although the use of double-line fillets saves time, I have found that a few single-line fillets with edges of different gauges are sufficient for running all straight lines, and that the advantage of being able to alter the distances between any parallel lines is ample compensation for the extra trouble involved by their use. In addition to the rigid stamps, an endless pattern for either blind or gold tooling may be engraved on the circumference of a roll, and impressed on the leather by wheeling.

Fig. 81.
Fig. 81.

The use of a roll in finishing dates from the end of the fifteenth century, and some satisfactory bindings were decorated with its aid. The ease with which it can be used has led in modern times to its abuse, and I hardly know of a single instance of a modern binding on which rolls have been used for the decoration with satisfactory results. The gain in time and trouble is at the expense of freedom and life in the design; and for extra binding it is better to build up a pattern out of small tools of simple design, which can be arranged in endless variety, than to use rolls.

Tools for hand-tooling must not be too large, or it will be impossible to obtain clear impressions. One inch square for blind tools, or three-quarters of an inch for gold tools, is about the maximum size for use with any certainty and comfort. Tools much larger than this have to be worked with the aid of a press, and are called blocks.


The first thing the finisher does to a book is to go over the back with a polisher and smooth out any irregularities.

Two forms of polisher are shown at Fig. 82. The lower one is suitable for polishing backs and inside margins, and the upper for sides. Polishers must be used warm, but not too hot, or the leather may be scorched, and they must be kept moving on the leather. Before using they should be rubbed bright on a piece of the finest emery paper, and polished on a piece of leather. New polishers often have sharp edges that would mark the leather. These must be rubbed down with files and emery-paper.

Leathers with a prominent grained surface, such as morocco, seal or pig skin, may either have the grain rough or crushed flat. If there is to be much finishing, the grain had better be crushed, but for large books that are to have only a small amount of finishing, the grain is best left unflattened.

Fig. 82.
Fig. 82.

If the grain of the leather is to be “crushed,” it may be done at this stage. To do this, one board at a time is damped with a sponge and put in the standing-press, with a pressing plate on the grained side, and a pad of blotting-paper, or some such yielding substance, on the other (see Fig. 83). The press is then screwed up tight, and the board left for a short time. For some leathers this operation is best done after the binding has been finished and varnished, in which case, of course, the boards cannot be damped before pressing. No flexibly sewn book should be subject to great pressure after it has been covered, or the leather on the back may crinkle up and become detached.

The next thing will be to decide what lettering and what decoration, if any, is to be put on the volume. The lettering should be made out first (see page 215). If the book is to be at all elaborately decorated, paper patterns must be made out, as described in Chapter XVI.

Fig. 83.
Fig. 83.

For tooling the back, the book is held in the finishing press between a pair of backing boards lined with leather (see Fig. 84), and the paper pattern put across the back, with the ends either slightly pasted to the backing boards, or caught between them and the book.

For the sides, the pattern is very slightly pasted on to the leather at the four corners. The book is then put in the finishing press, with the board to be tooled open and flat on the cheek of the press, unless the book is a large one, when it is easier to tool the sides out of the press.

Fig. 84.
Fig. 84.

The selected tools, which should be ready on the stove (see Fig. 85), are one at a time cooled on a wet pad, and then pressed in their former impressions upon the paper. The degree of heat required varies a good deal with the leather used, and will only be learned by experience. It is better to have the tool too cool than too hot, as it is easy to deepen impressions after the paper is removed; but if they are already too deep, or are burnt, it will be impossible to finish clearly. Generally speaking, tools should hiss very slightly when put on the cooling pad. In cooling, care must be taken to put the shank of the tools on to the wet pad, as, if the end only is cooled, the heat is apt to run down again, and the tool will still be too hot.

Fig. 85. — Finishing Stove
Fig. 85. — Finishing Stove

Before removing the paper, one corner at a time should be lifted up, and the leather examined to see that no part of the pattern has been missed.

In some patterns where the design is close, or in which the background is dotted in, it will not be necessary to blind in every leaf and dot through the paper. If the lines with perhaps the terminal leaves are blinded in, the rest can be better worked directly through the gold. This method implies the “glairing in” of the whole surface. It is not suitable for open patterns, where the glaire might show on the surface of the leather.

If the book is only to have lines, or some simple straight line pattern, it is often easier to mark it up without the paper, with a straight-edge and folder. In panelling a back, the side lines of all the panels should be marked in at the same time with a folder, working against the straight-edge, held firmly at the side of the back. If the panels are worked separately, it is difficult to get the side lines squarely above each other. The lines at the top and bottom of the panel may be marked in with a folder, guided by a piece of stiff vellum held squarely across the back. If there are lines to be run round the board, they can be marked in with a pair of dividers guided by the edge of the board, except those at the back. These must be measured from the fore-edge of the board and run in with straight-edge and folder.

When straight lines occur in patterns that are blinded through the paper, it will be enough if the ends only are marked through with a small piece of straight line, and the lines completed with straight-edge and folder, after the paper has been removed.

Unless the finisher has had considerable experience, it is best to deepen all folder lines by going over them in blind with a fillet or piece of straight line.

When the pattern has been worked in blind, either through a paper pattern or directly on to the leather with the tools, and any inlays stuck on (see page 213), the cover should be well washed with clean water. Some finishers prefer to use common vinegar or diluted acetic acid for washing up books. If vinegar is used it must be of the best quality, and must not contain any sulphuric acid. Cheap, crude vinegar is certain to be injurious to the leather. Porous leather, such as calf or sheep skin, will need to be washed over with paste-water, and then sized.

Paste-water is paste and water well beaten up to form a milky liquid, and is applied to the leather as evenly as possible with a sponge. When the paste-water is dry, the leather should be washed with size. Size can be made by boiling down vellum cuttings, or by dissolving gelatine or isinglass in warm water.

For the less porous leathers, such as morocco, seal, or pig skin, no paste-water or size is necessary, unless the skin happens to be a specially open one, or the cover has been cut from the flank or belly. Then it is best to put a little paste in the vinegar or water used for washing up. When the leather is nearly, but not quite, dry the impressions of the tools must be painted with glaire. Finishers’ glaire may be made from the white of eggs well beaten up, diluted with about half as much vinegar, and allowed to settle. Some finishers prefer to use old, evil-smelling glaire, but provided it is a day old, and has been well beaten up, fresh glaire will work quite well.

The impressions of any heavy or solid tools should be given a second coat of glaire when the first has ceased to be “tacky,” and if the leather is at all porous, all impressions had better have a second coat.

As glaire is apt to show and disfigure the leather when dry, it is best to use it as sparingly as possible, and, excepting where the pattern is very close, to confine it to the impressions of the tools. It is not at all an uncommon thing to see the effect of an otherwise admirably tooled binding spoilt by a dark margin round the tools, caused by the careless use of glaire. Glaire should not be used unless it is quite liquid and clean. Directly it begins to get thick it should be strained or thrown away.

The finisher should not glaire in more than he can tool the same day. When the glaire has ceased to be “tacky,” the gold is laid on.

Fig. 86.
Fig. 86.

At first it will be found difficult to manage gold leaf. The essential conditions are, that there should be no draught, and that the cushion and knife should be quite free from grease. The gold cushion and knife are shown at Fig. 86. A little powdered bath-brick rubbed into the cushion will make it easier to cut the gold cleanly. The blade of the gold knife should never be touched with the hand, and before using it, both sides should be rubbed on the cushion. A book of gold is laid open on the cushion, and a leaf of gold is lifted up on the gold knife, which is slipped under it, and turned over on to the cushion. A light breath exactly in the centre of the sheet should make it lie flat, when it may be cut into pieces of any size with a slightly sawing motion of the knife. The book with the pattern ready prepared, and the glaire sufficiently dry (not sticky), is rubbed lightly with a small piece of cotton-wool greased with a little cocoanut oil. The back of the hand is greased in the same way, and a pad of clean cotton-wool is held in the right hand, and having been made as flat as possible by being pressed on the table, is drawn over the back of the hand. This should make it just greasy enough to pick up the gold, but not too greasy to part with it readily when pressed on the book. As little grease as possible should be used on the book, as an excess is apt to stain the leather and to make the gold dull. After experiment it has been found that cocoanut oil stains the leather less than any other grease in common use by bookbinders, and is more readily washed out by benzine.

Fig. 87.
Fig. 87.

If the gold cracks, or is not solid when pressed on the book, a second thickness should be used. This will stay down if the under piece is lightly breathed upon.

For narrow strips of gold for lines, a little pad covered with soft leather may be made, as in Fig. 87.

It will be found of advantage to first use the bottom leaf of gold in the book and then to begin at the top and work through, or else the bottom leaf will almost certainly be found to be damaged by the time it is reached. The gold used should be as nearly pure as it can be got. The gold-beaters say that they are unable to beat pure gold as thin as is usual for gold leaf; but the quite pure gold is a better colour than when alloyed, and the additional thickness, although costly, results in a more solid impression of the tools.

The cost of a book of twenty-four leaves three and a half inches square of English gold leaf of good ordinary quality is from 1s. 3d. to 1s. 6d., whereas the cost of a book of double thick pure gold leaf is 3s. to 3s. 6d. For tooled work it is worth paying the increased price for the sake of the advantages in colour and solidity; but for lines and edges, which use up an immense amount of gold, the thinner and cheaper gold may quite well be used.

Besides pure gold leaf, gold alloyed with various metals to change its colour can be had. None of the alloys keep their colour as well as pure gold, and some of them, such as those alloyed with copper for red gold, and with silver for pale gold, tarnish very quickly. These last are not to be recommended.

For silver tooling aluminium leaf may be used, as silver leaf tarnishes very quickly.

When the gold is pressed into the impressions of the tools with the pad of cotton-wool, they should be plainly visible through it.

The pattern must now be worked through the gold with the hot tools. The tools are taken from the stove, and if too hot cooled on a pad as for blinding-in. The heat required to leave the gold tooling solid and bright and the impressions clear will vary for different leathers, and even for different skins of the same leather. For trial a tool may be laid on the pad until it ceases to hiss, and one or two impressions worked with it. If the gold fails to stick, the heat may be slightly increased.

If the leather is slightly damp from the preparation the tools will usually work better, and less heat is required than if it has been prepared for some time and has got dry.

Before using, the faces of all tools must be rubbed bright on the flesh side of a piece of leather. It is impossible to tool brightly with dirty tools. A tool should be held in the right hand, with the thumb on the top of the handle, and steadied with the thumb or first finger of the left hand. The shoulder should be brought well over the tool, and the upper part of the body used as a press. If the weight of the body is used in finishing, the tools can be worked with far greater firmness and certainty, and with less fatigue, than if the whole work is done with the muscles of the arms.

Large and solid tools will require all the weight that can be put on them, and even then the gold will often fail to stick with one impression. Tools with small surfaces, such as gouges and dots, must not be worked too heavily, or the surface of the leather may be cut.

To strike a large or solid tool, it should first be put down flat, and then slightly rocked from side to side and from top to bottom, but must not be twisted on the gold.

A tool may be struck from whichever side the best “sight” can be got, and press and book turned round to the most convenient position.

It is difficult to impress some tools, such as circular flower tools, twice in exactly the same place. Such tools should have a mark on one side as a guide. This should always be kept in the same position when blinding-in and tooling, and so make it possible to impress a second time without “doubling.” An impression is said to be “doubled” when the tool has been twisted in striking, or one impression does not fall exactly over the other.

The hot tool should not be held hovering over the impression long, or the preparation will be dried up before the tool is struck. Tooling will generally be brighter if the tools are struck fairly sharply, and at once removed from the leather, than if they are kept down a long time.

To “strike” dots, the book should be turned with the head to the worker, and the tool held with the handle inclining slightly towards him. This will make them appear bright when the book is held the right way up.

Gouges must be “sighted” from the inside of the curve, and struck evenly, or the points may cut into the leather. Short straight lines may be put in with pieces of line, and longer ones with a fillet.

A one line fillet is shown at Fig. 88; the space filed out of the circumference is to enable lines to be joined neatly at the corners. That the lines may be clearly visible through the gold, the book should be placed so that the light comes from the left hand of the worker and across the line. It is well to have a basin of water in which to cool fillets, as there is so much metal in them, that the damp sponge or cotton used for cooling tools would very rapidly be dried up. When the fillet has been cooled, the edge should be rubbed on the cleaning pad, and the point exactly adjusted to the corner of the line to be run (see Fig. 88). The fillet is then run along the line with even pressure.

Fig. 88.
Fig. 88.

For slightly curved lines, a very small fillet may be used.

When all the prepared part of a pattern has been tooled, it is well rubbed to remove the loose gold with a slightly greasy rag, or with a piece of bottle indiarubber which has been softened in paraffin. After a time the rubber or rag may be sold to the gold-beater, who recovers the gold. To prepare indiarubber for cleaning off gold, a piece of bottle rubber is cut into small pieces and soaked in paraffin for some hours. This should cause the pieces to reunite into a soft lump. This can be used until it is yellow with gold throughout.

When all free gold is rubbed off, the finisher can see where the tooling is imperfect. Impressions which are not “solid” must be reglaired, have fresh gold laid on, and be retooled. But if, as will sometimes happen with the best finishers, the gold has failed to stick properly anywhere, it is best to wash the whole with water or vinegar, and prepare afresh.

As an excess of grease is apt to dull the gold and soil the leather, it is better to use it very sparingly when laying on fresh gold for mending. For patching, benzine may be used instead of grease. When the gold is picked up on the cotton-wool pad, rapidly go over the leather with wool soaked in benzine, and at once lay down the gold. Benzine will not hold the gold long enough for much tooling, but it will answer for about half-an-hour, and give plenty of time for patching.

Imperfect tooling arises from a variety of causes. If an impression is clear, but the gold not solid, it is probably because the tool was not hot enough, or was not put down firmly. If only one side of an impression fails to stick, it is usually because the tool was unevenly impressed. If an impression is blurred, and the gold has a frosted look, it is because the leather has been burned, either because the tool was too hot, or kept down too long, or the preparation was too fresh.

To mend double or burnt impressions the leather should be wetted and left to soak a short time, and the gold can be picked out with a wooden point. When nearly dry the impressions should be put in again with a cool tool, reglaired and retooled.

It is very difficult to mend neatly if the leather is badly burnt. Sometimes it may be advisable to paste a piece of new leather over a burnt impression before retooling.

If a tool is put down in the wrong place by mistake, it is difficult to get the impression out entirely. The best thing to do is to damp the leather thoroughly, leave it to soak for a little while, and pick up the impression with the point of a pin. It is best not to use an iron point for this, as iron is apt to blacken the leather.

Leather is difficult to tool if it has not a firm surface, or if it is too thin to give a little when the tool is struck.

When the tooling is finished, and the loose gold removed with the rubber, the leather should be washed with benzine, to remove any grease and any fragments of gold that may be adhering by the grease only.

The inside margins of the boards are next polished and varnished, and the end papers pasted down. Or if there is a leather joint, the panel left on the board may be filled in (see Chapter XVII).

When the end papers are dry, the sides and back may be polished and varnished.

It is important that the varnish should be of good quality, and not too thick, or it will in time turn brown and cause the gold to look dirty. Some of the light French spirit varnishes prepared for bookbinders answer well. Varnish must be used sparingly, and is best applied with a pad of cotton-wool. A little varnish is poured on to the pad, which is rubbed on a piece of paper until it is seen that the varnish comes out thinly and evenly. It is then rubbed on the book with a spiral motion. The quicker the surface is gone over, provided every part is covered, the better. Varnish will not work well if it is very cold, and in cold weather both the book and varnish bottle should be slightly warmed before use. Should an excess of varnish be put on in error, or should it be necessary to retool part of the book after it has been varnished, the varnish can be removed with spirits of wine. Varnish acts as a preservative to the leather, but has the disadvantage, if used in excess, of making it rather brittle on the surface. It must, therefore, be used very sparingly at the joints. It is to be hoped that a perfectly elastic varnish, that will not tarnish the gold, will soon be discovered.

As soon as the varnish is dry the boards may be pressed, one at a time, to give the leather a smooth surface (see Fig. 83), leaving each board in the press for some hours.

Fig. 89.
Fig. 89.

After each board has been pressed separately the book should be shut, and pressed again with pressing plates on each side of it, and with tins covered with paper placed inside each board. Light pressure should be given to books with tight backs, or the leather may become detached.

If, on removing from the press, the boards will not keep shut, the book should be pressed again with a folded sheet of blotting-paper in each end. The blotting-paper should have the folded edge turned up, and be placed so that this turned-up edge will be in the joint behind the back edge of the board when the book is shut.

A small nipping-press suitable for giving comparatively light pressure, is shown at Fig. 89.

Tooling on Vellum

Most covering vellum has a sticky surface, that marks if it is handled. This should be washed off with clean water before tooling. The pattern is blinded in through the paper as for leather, excepting that the paper must not be pasted directly to the vellum, but may be held with a band going right round the board or book. It is best to glaire twice, and to lay on a small portion of gold at a time with benzine. As vellum burns very readily, the tools must not be too hot, and some skill is needed to prevent them from slipping on the hard surface.

Vellum must not be polished or varnished.

Inlaying on Leather

Inlaying or onlaying is adding a different leather from that of the cover, as decoration. Thus on a red book, a panel or a border, or other portion, may be covered with thin green leather, or only flowers or leaves may be inlaid, while a jewel-like effect may be obtained by dots, leaves, and flowers, tooled over inlays of various colours. Leather for inlaying should be pared very thin. To do this the leather is cut into strips, wetted, and pared on a stone with a knife shaped somewhat as at Fig. 60, B. When the thin leather is dry the inlays of the leaves and flowers, &c., may be stamped out with steel punches cut to the shape of the tools; or if only a few inlays are needed, the tools may be impressed on the thin leather, and the inlays cut out with a sharp knife. The edges of the larger inlays should be pared round carefully. For inlaying a panel or other large surface, the leather is pared very thin and evenly with a French knife, and a piece of paper pasted on to the grained side and left to dry. When dry, the shape of the panel, or other space to be inlaid, is marked on it through the paper pattern, and leather and paper cut through to the shape required. The edges must then be carefully pared, and the piece attached with paste, and nipped in the press to make it stick. When the paste is dry, the paper may be damped and washed off. The object of the paper is to prevent the thin leather from stretching when it is pasted.

For white inlays it is better to use Japanese paper than leather, as white leather, when pared very thin, will show the colours of the under leather through, and look dirty. If paper is used, it should be sized with vellum size before tooling.

When many dots or leaves are to be inlaid, the pieces of leather, cut out with the punch, may be laid face downwards on a paring stone, and a piece of paper, thickly covered with paste, laid on it. This, on being taken up, will carry with it the “inlays,” and they can be picked up one at a time on the point of a fine folder, and stuck on the book.

“Inlays” of tools are attached after the pattern has been “blinded” in, and must be again worked over with the tool, in blind, when the paste is nearly dry.

On vellum an effect, similar to that of inlays on leather, can be obtained by the use of stains.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06