The story of restoring a beautiful old book

Restoring books is fascinating as each book holds secrets of its life to that point. Older books are obviously more interesting and when you pull a book apart you can see how it was bound in the first place. I recall one book I as pulling apart from early in the nineteenth century and the worker in the bindery who had sewn the book had obviously either snapped the cotton or run out and I found a sneaky join hidden behind the spine. They would also use pieces of scrap paper lying around the bindery to strengthen the spine so you often get old advertisements or the edges of other books. In older books you sometimes find vellum and I have a 17th century binding which has used an old will written on vellum to strengthen the spine.

Many years ago, in an auction box, I came across this lovely book, “Pictures from the German Fatherland” edited by The Rev. Green. It is a collection of wonderfully drawn engravings with accompanying text. However, as you can see from the images it had completely fallen apart with both boards detached and the spine just a thin strip of cloth. I decided to try to maintain as much of the original book as possible. This meant keeping the flysheets even though they were torn in half and keeping the original boards with their gold tooled images. The edges of the book are also gilt which meant I couldn’t re-cut the pages and needed to sew it exactly as it was before.

However, once I started pulling it apart it became apparent that it was a binding I had not seen before. Despite being late Victorian, the signatures were stapled onto the sewing tape and these had rusted damaging all of the pages. As I took it apart they fell to bits and it took a long time cleaning the insides of the pages out. The staples were also off-set from each other meaning I didn’t have a set of old sewing holes to use and in any case the middles of the signatures had rusted through and turned the holes into a slot.

After much thought I decided to sew onto tapes but ignore the old holes and repair the centres of each signature with Japanese paper in order to give strength where the staples had rusted right through. Sewing went well and I had deliberately left long overhangs on the tapes to give me options for reconnecting the book block to the old boards.

To attach the book block I carefully peeled back the book cloth and old flysheet to give me somewhere to attach the new tapes and mull. I made sure that the spine was as strong as possible to stop it moving and ruining the gilding on the edge of the paper. Once the boards were reattached I had to think carefully about the flysheets. They are made of a thin paper which marks easily but I was keen to keep them as they carry the name of a previous owner written in wonderful script; Julius Jacobi who lived in Nuremburg. I had no other paper similar so chose a paper which was obviously different but reflected the colours elsewhere in the book and felt like a design which was commensurate with the date of the book.

The final product has come out well. The book is now whole again and can be read for another 100 years whilst retaining as much of the original book as possible.

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