The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Book Bookbinding Part 3

The edges having been finished and the headbands set, the covering is next proceeded with. The principal materials used for the covering of books are leather, vellum, buckram, and cloth. Embroidery, silk, and other fabrics are also occasionally employed, but for fine bindings and for books that have to stand hard usage there is nothing to equal leather, provided, of course, that it is of good quality. Much of the leather used for binding during the last seventy or eighty years has failed to stand the test of time. The superiority of the older material is frequently seen in books that have been rebacked, where the new back has already perished leaving the original sides still in possession. This inferiority, due to faulty methods of preparation and the use of injurious chemicals, was the subject of investigation by a Committee of the Society of Arts a few years ago. Their report has already borne good results, and most manufacturers of binders' leather now supply skins guaranteed free from acid. But the binder must shoulder his share of the blame for the unsatisfactory condition of leather bindings. Paring the leather facilitates neatness of finish, but it also greatly weakens the leather.

Too often strength is sacrificed to the over-rated virtue of 'finish,' and the leather is so pared down as to leave no more than a thin layer of the outer skin, and this especially at the hinges where the strain is greatest and strength is most needed. To judge the quality of leather, especially after it is on a book, is a matter of special knowledge and much experience; some of the imitation leathers now in use may easily deceive the unwary. Punch' 8 definitions of the three grades: 'leather, something like leather, nothing like leather,' is particularly applicable to the bindings of to-day.

Morocco, which has no rival for fine bindings, originally came from southern Spain and Morocco and was made of goat skins tanned with sumach. Seal, a good leather possessing qualities somewhat similar to morocco, is not so well known as it deserves to be. The small goat skins, dyed in various shades of red, which have of late years been imported from the Niger country, are excellent material and the irregularity of colouring gives a pleasing effect, but the surface is not suitable for decorative tooling. Russia leather so much in fashion a century ago, probably owing to the attraction of its odor, is not durable; after a time it gets dry and friable and the backs and joints break away in a fine powder. Old calf is often very good material, but the modern product, though its smoothness and colorings are attractive, should be avoided, since the virtue has been taken out of the leather in the manufacture, and it will not last. Pigskin is the strongest leather used in bookbinding and will stand much hard wear. It is therefore especially suitable for heavy volumes and books in everyday use; but as any attempt at dying involves loss of some of its qualities it should be used only in its natural colour. Even in the selection of pigskin, the familiar advertisement tag, 'beware of imitations,' is by no means to be disregarded.