Reverse engineering a late 16th century wooden-board binding

By Garrett Sumner, MA Conservation Studies

Book conservators are often faced with the challenge of working with unfamiliar, idiosyncratic, and complex books. In such cases when a deeper understanding of a book's structure is necessary for its conservation, or when it represents an opportunity to delve deeper into the unknown, making a model of a binding can be of great benefit and insight into previous binding practices. This is especially true when presented with a book found in a fragmented state, and reverse engineering the binding can provide information about that cannot be gleaned from looking at the fragments alone.

Such an opportunity presented itself to me during the conservation of a 1594 Geneva Bible from the collection of the Chichester Cathedral Library. When allocated the book, its textblock had already been disbound and separated from the rest of the binding. There were several interesting aspects and traces of past repairs to the binding itself including re-used wooden boards, an sewing technique using double thread, a leather piece over the spine that had been nailed to the boards (known as an overback), and most curious of all, a leather strip that appeared to have once been sewn through the spine and overback (see Fig. 1).

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Before I could even begin to formulate a treatment plan for this book, I first had to understand what exactly it was and how it was made. After countless hours spent examining the binding fragments from every possible angle, I started to gain a clearer picture of how it was bound and later repaired. To fully understand it, I would have to re-create the binding and all of its layers myself.

I first folded dozens of gatherings to make the bookblock, and laminated two pieces of 3mm millboard together to replicate the wooden boards. The next step was sewing the gatherings together. Since the spine and sewing had been preserved well intact, I was able to glean that it was sewn on five single supports of alum taw, with the change-over stations utilizing vegetable cord supports-a rather unusual feature. However, as I looked more at the sewing to plot it out, I noticed something odd-the book appeared to have been sewn with double thread. This exact reason for this-possibly to add more bulk (or "swell") to the spine-still eludes me. I proceeded as such, sewing with double thread, but not looping around every sewing support. Trade binders of the era, often over-worked and underpaid often did this to save time. With them, I sympathise.

I then covered the book using brown calf leather. The next step in the binding was nailing the overback to the book. Overbacks were a feature sometimes added to large volumes, either as an original part or the binding or later as a repair, to support the wear and tear placed on the spine. While most historic examples of overbacks used strips of brass nails, this book used individual iron nails that over time had begun to rust. Nailing the overback to the book was no easy feat. Examining the original binding, it became clear that this particular overback must have been a later repair. As it turns out, there were other square-shaped holes that followed the current overback-evidence that there had once been a previous leather overback, presumably with the brass strip nails. To have been on its second overback, this book must have been heavily used.

Figure 3 & 4

Figure 3
Figure 4

The final repair to the original binding, and the final step in my model, was sewing the leather strip through the book. I measured the sewing holes on the outside of the spine, and they were not equally distant from one another, demonstrating the sewing holes were done by hand and not with a leather-piercing wheel. I first poked through the leather strip, centre-most gathering, spine, and overback, with an awl. Then, I anchored my thick thread at the top of the overback, and proceeded to sew all the way through the book down to the spine.

As you can see from my finished model, this was not an elegant repair. And yet, the fact that so many physically difficult repairs were done to the binding shows just how valued this book must have been by its owners. Instead of buying a new bible or having their copy rebound, these owners instead were constantly repairing this copy. My finished model gave me solid idea of how this book was created and altered over time, as well as an insight into how previous binders and/or repairers dealt with certain issues. With the reverse-engineered model now complete, I could finally proceed with a treatment plan to put the original back together again.