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'PERIOD FINISHING: How Damp is Your Bindery?'
by Trevor Lloyd
There are a myriad books and texts available to the learning
and improving finisher; from Dudin, through Minshall, Cowie, Zaensdorf, Cockerell,
Johnson and Mitchell. All give excellent, though occasionally conflicting
advice. The basic principles, however, remain the same; bright gold tooling
being the result of a combination of correct preparation, heat, pressure and
Having learnt all my finishing as a result of reading everything I could on
the subject, and then transfering that into practice, I can only offer a few
tips that have worked for me over the last twenty years!
The first and most important point that comes to mind is that today’s
binder works in a very dry environment; this can affect finishing greatly.
Minshall (if he is indeed the author) notes in his book, The Whole Art of
Bookbinding (the first book in English to be solely devoted to bookbinding,
Oswestry 1811), that more books can be finished when it is mild than when
it is either very hot or very cold. Having lived in several stone houses,
not too far from Oswestry, and having kapt an eagle eye on the Hygrometer,
I can safely say that in very cold weather and very hot weather the relative
humidity in older properties drops. However, when it is mild, particularly
between seasons, the RH goes up.
I was made dramatically aware of this when I went to work in one of the Southern
States of America. I thought, naively, that because the place was so humid,
finishing would be a doddle. Outside, the RH was 95% but inside the air conditioning
reduced it to 20%. Consequently, it was impossible to retain any moisture
in the leather at all and I had to resort to using a humidifier in the bindery
in order to be able to do any finishing of appreciable quality. I know of
other binders in the States who drape a damp towel over the book for ten minutes
or so to increase the moisture content of the leather before tooling.
From studying pictures of Roger Payne, I can deduce that his London basement
must have been pretty damp. Such working conditions, coupled with the fact
that books that were generally kept in damper conditions than nowadays, leads
me to suspect that, in general, finishers of the past worked on leather with
a higher moisture content than that found in a modern bindery.
Today’s drier environment does, of course, benefit both the books’
longevity and the binders’ health, and I am not about to suggest that
we should all return to the dark and damp binderies of the past. However,
I have found that, of all the factors which affect finishing, the moisture
content of the leather (in conjunction with heat) can have the most dramatic
effect on gold adhesion and brightness etc. Consequently, I only ever paste
wash one book at the time as paste washing the whole days work in the morning
means that even by the second book, there is no moisture left in the leather.
As soon as the paste wash feels dry to the touch, usually after only five
minutes, I apply the first coat of glaire. Once that feels dry, the second
coat can be applied. When this is dry enough to allow a thin coat of vaseline
to be applied without the cotton wool dragging, I can apply the gold. From
first paste wash to tooling can be as short as 20 minutes. A natural sponge
dipped in water and squeezed reasonably dry, and then dipped in paste which
is weaker than average, works well, as it provides both moisture for the leather,
and seals the surface of the calf.
I make Glaire up as follows: five parts water to one part Albumen crystals,
left to soak over night, then strained. A few drops of milk and a dash of
vinegar are added. This works well straight away and is fine until it has
gone off and you can no longer open the bottle without feeling ill!
Temperature for tooling is now critical as, with a greater moisture content
to the leather, the danger of either frosting the gold (or worse) is increased,
so a very slight sizzle is just right.
Always polish the face of the tool on a gold cushion with a touch of pumice
powder so that it is bright; the gold only mirrors the face of the tool.
I always remove the surplus gold with a gold rubber, (over the years I have
recouped literally hundreds and hundreds of pounds worth of gold from the
rubber), then wipe over with a cotton wool pad soaked in refined petrol. This
removes not only any remaining gold but also the residue of vaseline as well.
A wash over with water lifts the glaire that sits on the surface.
It is important to feel comfortable when finishing, so use a bench at the
right height, which is well lit so you can easily see where the tools are
going in. It is also important to have a good stance; feet apart and in a
position that allows you to follow the tools over the book, always keeping
them at the same distance from your head so you can visually follow the tool.
Most important of all, tool confidently. And don’t panic!
© Trevor Lloyd 2002
This article is based on a lecture given to the Society
of Bookbinders’ Education & Training Seminar in Birmingham,