James Elwing

James Elwing ran this workshop at our premises in Lawson for the NSW Guild of Craft Bookbinders, assisted by Jill Gurney. We announced it as ‘A Conservation split board re-backing workshop’. Students were to learn a method of re-backing case bindings to maintain the appearance of a case, while creating effectively an ersatz library binding via split boards; suitable, we said, for intermediate level binders. Designed for up to nine participants, in the end we were glad to have six.

Book conservation and repair differs from mainstream museum conservation in the degree of intervention required; the binding needing to be prepared for sustained, but defined, use. I submit this text to ventilate some of the artisan issues of book conservation and repair to a broader conservator audience.

Re-use of original structural methods and new materials may well hide direct evidence of an original binding, such as endpapers and mull impressions. The bibliophile is the arbiter, particularly when new acid free endpapers are stronger than the originals, and provide a barrier to acidity leaching from the boards, but when a client produces a binding with valued associations through decorative or inscribed endpapers, they ultimately want the same book handed back, repaired, and with the associations preserved.

My training in cloth case binding repair and reattachment of boards involved very basic ‘honest’ re-backing. There was normally a great hump where new bookcloth/buckram had been inserted under the old, and where original endpapers needed to be preserved, this cloth was often the only viable joint in a repair.  In order to create a viable inner joint, the original decorative or inscribed endpapers were often removed, allowing the text to be reattached by pasting in new endpapers and linings to the boards, also known as ‘casing in’.

A common method of creating a sound joint by oversewing a reinforcing cloth joint through the text joint, and adhering this under the lifted board endpaper edge, is described by Bernard Middleton in The Restoration of Leather Bindings. Probably necessary for some heavy volumes (e.g. Victorian bibles), this strains the opening of earlier sections and is somewhat destructive of text gutters from a conservation perspective, more obviously when applied to normal-sized cased in bindings, for which it was not designed.

An alternative, the James Brockman split board technique for the repair of fine leather bindings, gives a binding a sound cloth joint (usually unbleached aero linen) without such stresses and bibliographical losses which affect a book’s recognisable identity, like evidence of earlier board attachment and damage to endpapers.

This workshop on cloth case book reconstruction borrows the split board method of board attachment from Brockman. 

Where Brockman attaches aero linen to split boards, then attaches boards to spine via adhesive, we re-make the case binding with boards split, then attach this to text via aero linen tongues, part of the new text spine lining. It is similarly intended to preserve observable bibliographical and structural information which affects a book’s recognisable identity. The cloth case remains a case, looks like a case, but has the hidden durable inner joint of a library binding.

Participants completed cover reconstruction, board splitting and case fitting tasks, while most partly or completely reattached cases during the workshop. Given that virtually all processes, including the use of gelatine/starch adhesive mixtures, in-situ sewing and spine reshaping, were new to students, I believe they gained from the experience.

In retrospect, the workshop, short of time, would have benefitted by eliminating a few non-essential processes, like reattaching the original spine.

Given that only one participant was a conservator, we would be interested to find out from conservators with limited bookbinding skills what kind of specialised book related workshops they may require.

James Elwing. Elwing & Gurney Archival, Lawson, NSW