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'PERIOD FINISHING: How Damp is Your Bindery?'
by Trevor Lloyd

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 dwell time.

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!

Happy finishing.

© Trevor Lloyd 2002

This article is based on a lecture given to the Society of Bookbinders’ Education & Training Seminar in Birmingham, July 2002.

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