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Trevor Lloyd: The 18th Century Spine in an Hour or "It's Not Rocket Science"
by David Dorning

Stewart Field

This was a demonstration by a craftsman at the top of his profession. Starting with brief but concise notes on recognisable styles and periods of spine decoration within the eighteenth century, Trevor gave a superb exposition of the craft of the finisher working at speed. With a folio-sized book to be completed, the audience was treated to a continuous flow of narrative, explained with great clarity, of the importance of judgement throughout the process. The subliminal message however was the importance of confidence and natural ability, borne out of long years of experience.

With the book in the laying press the all-important paste wash was followed by egg glair, thereby humidifying the leather to a suitable degree. Vaseline was applied at precisely the right stage of retained moisture, bearing in mind (of course) the differential rates of drying of the calf and morocco labels. Once applied, the Vaseline and gold leaf help retain the moisture necessary for clean, bright finishing. The spine was completely covered with two layers of gold leaf to avoid cracking; with Trevor probably getting as close to “slinging it about” as is possible with gold leaf. There was little point bothering to cut the leaf to fit it to the panels – far too time consuming and therefore uneconomical.

Despite working with a borrowed finishing stove whose temperature was clearly not easy to adjust, in no time a double-line pallet had been run vertically up either side of the spine panels, deftly incorporating the essential differentiation of pressure and speed whilst bumping over the raised bands and negotiating the applied labels – not to mention running the roll at perhaps 30 degrees away from the vertical and talking at the same time. Marking-up for position within the panels was kept to a minimum. A couple of centre points were made, and in the absence of the requisite length of cotton, sighting lines for the title were made with a piece of dental floss donated by a member of the audience, although whether this material was used in the eighteenth century was not known. Scope perhaps for a research project there?

Horizontal rolls were rapidly applied along the top of the raised bands, along with pallet lines sighted and controlled by Trevor’s use of his “Johnny Wilkinson” stance. It was clear throughout that one of Trevor’s natural abilities is his superb technique, which involves positioning himself in the most appropriate and comfortable position for relaxed and balanced application of the finishing tool. He very sensibly finishes these large spines in a laying press, walking around it so as to place himself and apply the tool identically to each panel. Corner pieces were impressed with noticeably more force, but each impression was still rapid and positive. Not wishing to take an easy option, the centre of each panel was a composite of several tools, applied in turn; working rapidly up one side of the spine and often down the other before the tool had time to cool. Deftness and economy of movement were second nature, with precise positioning meaning minimal time needed to be spent sighting any tool. Very noticeable was the constant judgement of correct temperature, with every tool carefully assessed before impression. The process ended with tipping the spine up to a comfortable angle to letter the title, and – metaphorically – sprinting for the line represented by Trevor’s elf-imposed time limit of an hour.

On completion the spine was given an initial clean with a gold rubber and could be inspected. The impressions were all crisp and sharp, and the style had a wonderful eighteenth-century feel to it. On close inspection it was possible to detect a couple of slight kinks by looking along the vertical fillet lines, but quite rightly so. This was an exposition of the way these books would have been finished by jobbing binders. No individual sighting of rolls or letters, or extensive marking-up are likely to have been done. This is finishing in a hurry, normal practice involving sighting by eye to preserve the production rate. I have no doubt that Trevor could have got the lines perfectly straight if he had wanted to (I must say they were straighter than I reckon I could ever have managed) but that would have missed the point. We all know the microscopic degree of misalignment is what distinguishes great finishing from mechanically aided work. What makes it all the more impressive is that this was achieved in front of a professional audience, using an unfamiliar stove, and talking throughout with great animation, clarity and humour.

Many of us have, from time to time, struggled with finishing and been taken for a white-knuckle ride by the visual demands it imposes on us. This demonstration showed that with sufficient experience and talent it cannot only be a relaxing ride but an uplifting and humorous one. At one point Trevor said that it was “not rocket science” and how right he is. As I understand it, rocket science consists of shoving some reactive chemicals into a long tube with a couple of wings bolted on and an aiming mechanism and waiting for thermodynamics to do the rest. As a result, the astronaut gets a very bumpy ride. This, by contrast, was a consummate smooth operation, displaying skill, judgement, economy of movement and acquired experience, all in an informed context. And I reckon that’s about as far from rocket science as you could get.

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