February 2017 – The Work of a Book Binder and Restorer

The Alnwick and District Local History Society invited David Dickinson to its February meeting to talk about his life-long work of book-binding and restoration.

Mr Dickinson grew up in a household full of books, and first became acquainted with the craft of book-binding when he was at school, where a restorer working there showed the rudiments to a handful of interested boys.  Later, when his children were small, he took up book restoration again to supplement the family income.

The earliest books were papyrus scrolls, but following a trade war with Egypt, parchment, made from animal skins, was introduced.  Paper made its way from China only slowly, and did not catch on here till the 15th century.

David Dickinson had brought along a lot of his equipment for us to see, and described how a book was made.  Four sheets of parchment were folded in half and sewn together along a chord of linen thread in a frame.  These were painted with animal glue for strength.  The books were then covered back and front with “boards”, milled up fibres, and the whole pressed together.  Finally, the book was covered to provide an attractive finish.

The earliest coverings were of leather, mainly goat’s skin, which was strong, pliable and took dyes well, as well as having an attractive grain.  Calf skin became popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries, as it was smooth and thin, ideal for gold tooling.  The cheapest skin was sheep, but this is not very durable.  It seems to have been the preferred choice of the church, and many family bibles have been poorly covered.

In the 17th century, special bindings such as velvet, engraved and embossed leather, and vellum were introduced.  Later, marbled paper covers appeared.  These had spines and corners of leather, and were much cheaper to produce.  Canvas and other cloth was introduced in the 19th century.  The first attempts at a paperback was in the 1820’s.  All of these will have fallen apart by now, as they require the properties of PVA glue to hold together.

Finally, David showed us how gold-tooling is done.  Altogether, a fascinating evening!