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).