Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings by Paul Needham

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Twelve Centuries of Bookbinding: 400 – 1600, by Paul Needham.  The Pierpont Morgan Library, Oxford University Press, New York, London, 1979.


This binding is a commentary on books on the history of bookbinding.  Much of bookbinding history is more correctly stated as a history of the decoration of bookbindings.  But to go further, much of the history of the decoration of bookbindings is more accurately a history of the decoration of gold-tooled bindings.  Now, in books on bookbinding, there are indeed examples of blind-tooled bindings, however, the vast majority of plates are gold tooled bindings.  This should not be surprising.  Leather and gold work so well together, and we humans have a certain draw to that sumptuous combination—and the way the light plays off of the gold!  It’s a marvelous thing to behold (and to be held).  Needham’s book is no exception to showcasing gold over blind work.  The earliest use of gold tooling has been tracked to the 13th century; this book covers the years 400-1600, and the first illustration of a binding with gold tooling is estimated to have been done in the late 14th – early 15th century.  Still, gold-tooled bindings are pictured much more than blind.  This is certainly not a criticism of Mr. Needham, not in any way at all.  This book is a fantastic, beautifully illustrated, beautifully worded, resource of profound scholarship, which ought to be sought out by everyone who has a serious interest in the history of books.  I set out to create a majestic blind-tooled binding, showing off the beauty of blind tooling—and highlight a small amount of the binding with gold, and let the relatively small amount of the design which is gilt do what gold tends to do.

The stark line which divides the blind tooling from the gold leaves many impressions partially gilt and partially in blind (a technique that this is the first instance of in my work, and it is certainly not the last).  This is not to say that there aren’t blind-tooled bindings after gold-tooling was introduced and wide-spread, and there are also bindings that utilize both techniques with astonishing results.  I thought it would be an interesting way to address this issue, and also turn this very traditional design into something much more modern.


Technical Description

The book arrived in sheets.  New endsections were made up of Ingres and Marbler’s Apprentice marbled paper, which are a take on the traditional “oak leaf” pattern.  The book was sewn on four double-raised-cords with a single-flexible sewing, using waxed linen thread.  The spine was glued up with hide glue, and the book was rounded and then shaped (but not backed).  The spine panels were lined with 12gsm Sekishu tissue using wheat starch paste (Aytex-P), as a release layer.  A slotted spine lining of airplane linen was adhered to the spine using Jade R, a water-reversible PVA adhesive.  Integral headbands were sewn with waxed linen thread.  Quarter-sawn oak boards were shaped to accommodate the swell of the text-block at the spine, and facets were shaped at the head, fore-edge, and tail of each board.  Lacing-in holes were drilled in for both the primary sewing cords and the integral headband cords.  The cords were lightly frayed out and the book was laced on.  Another spine lining of suede was attached with Jade R to give the spine more support and to lessen the emphasis of the tie-downs of the headbands.  The book was then covered in brown goatskin leather from Harmatan Leathers in England.  The insides of the boards were in-filled with 20pt card, and the slotted spine lining was put down on the insides of the boards.  The binding was then tooled in blind, then the title was tooled with 23K gold leaf, and everything to the right of an imaginary line on the front board was then tooled in 23K gold leaf.  The endpapers were then put down, a single-line frame was tooled in blind, and the binding was signed.  A full-cloth, double-wall clamshell box was then made to house the binding, the inside of which was lined with ultrasuede.  Completed in 2016.


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Shaped quarter-sawn oak boards ready to be drilled and laced on.



Covering the book in leather.


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The book covered in leather, ready for tooling.


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Endpapers, a modernized version of the oak-leaf pattern by the Marbler’s Apprentice.


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Detail of opening.


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The rear board, tooled only in blind.


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Front cover and spine, tooled in blind and in gold.


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Detail of tooling where some impressions are partially in blind and partially gilt.