Pierced Vellum Binding with James Reid-Cunningham

In February 2017, I attended a three days’ workshop of pierced vellum binding by James Reid-Cunningham at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Vellum stiff board bindings were common from the 16th to the 19th centuries throughout Europe, especially in Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia. Several historical prototypes for vellum stiff board bindings survive, each with its characteristic board type; structure with either a laced-on boards (A model of laced-on board vellum stiff board binding I did in 2015 can be found in another blog ) or a case; and covering technique. These bindings frequently are difficult to open because of the heavy glue on the spine, there is stiffness in the joints, and the boards often distort in shape due to changes in relative humidity. These weaknesses lead to difficulty opening, cupped boards and broken joints.

Pierced vellum binding is a decorative variant of the historical stiff board vellum binding in which the vellum is pierced coloured boards beneath. The boards were coloured with pigment, lined with colour cloth (fig.1), or lined with tanned leather. According to James, there are only about 16 pierced vellum binding still exist. Therefore, whether it is a common design form or not is unclear. Among those pierced vellum bindings that are still exist, some of this binding have very thin boards, while some have very thick boards. They usually have the same pattern at both the front and back boards. Some of the bindings have very complicate pierced patterns(fig.2), while some have small pierced areas (fig.3).

Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3

The Folger Shakespeare Library also has a pierced vellum binding, which used to belong to King Charles the​ First (fig.4). So we got the chance to examine this binding closely.

Figure 4.5.6.Folger Shakespeare Library. STC 4491. Rex redux, sive Musa Cantabrigiensis voti damnas de incolumitate & felici reditu Regis Caroli post receptam coronam, comitiáq[ue] peracta in Scotia.1633. Semi-limp vellum binding with maroon velvet, yellow paint, black ink, and gilt decoration.

During these three days, we were going to explore a hybrid modern structure utilizing historical elements found in early versions of the vellum stiff board binding, but with flexible joints that create less stress. This binding is sturdy and elegant, takes tooling well and is suitable for conservation re-bindings as well as for presentation and design bindings. Using this structure, we would created modern versions of the 17th century pierced vellum binding, with the design created by utilizing a punctured or cut vellum cover revealing decoration on the boards beneath.

Our first step was to prepare the textblock for the binding. Having previously prepared the sections that would make up the pages of the book, we sat at our benches to sew them together. The paper we used for the textblock was White Zerkall German Ingres from Talas. The text block dimension is 6" x 4.5", consist of 10 sections of 4 bifolios, plus 2 flyleaf sections of 2 bifolios. The vellum strips were cut out as sewing supports, which were approximately ¼’’ width. The textblock was sewn all along with two kettle stitches. For my binding, I also used French link stitch to strengthen the sewing, but the normal one is ok.

Figure 7. Finished sewing .

After the textblock has been sewn together, a layer of wheat starch paste was applied to the spine. The sewing supports area should be avoided. When the paste was slightly dry, we rounded and backed the spine to create a gentle shoulder. No hammer was needed for the backing here. Instead, we used both of the thumbs to start from the middle of the spine and moved gradually and evenly toward the head and tail. After the spine had been rounded and backed, the spine was lined from shoulder to shoulder and head to tail with medium weight kozo tissue using wheat starch paste.

Figure 8. Creating a gentle shoulder with the thumbs .

Now the textblock was ready for the endbands. Endbands on this binding are back bead endbands over cores of vellum strips, sewn with the same linen thread (25/3) as the rest of the book. The endbands were tied down through the centre of each section, except the endsheet sections. It is always difficult to describe how to do an endband, but the illustrations (fig.9) from Szirmai’s book show the steps very clearly.

Figure 9. Endbands with a back bead.

When the endbands were finished, a second layer of lining was applied onto the spine of the textblock by using handmade paper and wheat starch paste. Separate pieces of panel lining were used, only between the sewing support. Depending on the thickness and opening characteristic of the textblock, further lining could be added to control the opening if needed. After the linings were fully dry, the lining was sanded a little bit so that a smooth spine can be achieved.

Next, was the fabrication of the boards. In order to counteract the pulling of the vellum, the boards were fabricated using laminates of mat board and thin machine made paper, with wheat starch paste. The machine made paper can pull a lot and the grain should run from head to tail. Here is an illustration(fig.10) shows the construction of the board. The size of both the mat board and machine-made paper should be bigger than the textblock, which would allow the board to have enough room for cutting later.

Figure 10. Illustration shows the fabrication of the boards.

Figure 11. Applying the machine-made paper onto the mat board.

After the machine made paper and the mat board were all put together, it was put in between two piece of clean plexi and then was nipped in the press for about 2 minutes. The plexi was very useful for pressing and no Remay or silicone release was needed. But it should be made sure that the plexi is very clean, otherwise the paper may stick to it and cause abrasion. Removed the boards from the press and allow the boards to air dry for about an hour, depending on relative humidity in the lab. At the Floger Shakespeare Library conservation lab, we dried the boards under light weights for overnight.

The next step was to line the vellum. Although after the vellum has been lined, it will become stiffer and won’t open great, an opaque surface can be achieved and make it look great. The vellum we used for this binding was goatskin from the South American. Although they are not high quality vellum, they are quite flexible and have been consistently finished. And it gives the cover design a better appearance at the end. The vellum was lined with thin wove paper using the mixture of PVA and wheat starch paste. The reason to use wove paper at this point is to avoid the chain lines and watermarks which may show through the vellum.

To line the vellum, firstly the wove paper was humidified with a sprayer, which can produce an ultra fine mist of water. Then wet cotton was used and circled around the hair-side of the vellum, to allow it be more flexible. At this point, the vellum became cockle but it was finally laid down when the mixture of paste and PVA was applied onto it. The mixture of adhesive was brushed onto the flesh side of the vellum, and then the moist wove paper was applied on top of it.

After the vellum was lined up with paper, it was pressed between plexi for about 30 seconds. The vellum was very moist at this stage, so it could not be press either too hard or too long. Otherwise the vellum will become transparent. If the vellum was okay after the nip, the vellum was put between felt and allowed it to dry for overnight.

On the next day, we found that the vellum was curl towards the flesh side after it was taken out from the felts. But this is normal. To make it flat, we just hold it against the edge of the bench and then pulled the vellum piece.

With the vellum was ready, it was time for the most exciting part: cover design! We need to design the decorative pattern and create a template for the decoration. A screw punch with bits of different size (fig.12) or multi-pattern paper punches (fig.13) were very useful for this job. With these tool, you can either create a milky way, a starry sky or other designs very easily.

Figure 12. Japanese Push Drill

Figure 13. Multi-pattern handmade hole puncher

But, you can also make your own design with paper cutting technique! And that’s what I did for my binding and here is my template (fig.14). What I did just transfer the pattern onto the cover with a tracing paper and then cut out the design. And I was also planned to colour my vellum slips and gave the cover a little bit more embellishment.

Figure 14. The design I chose for my binding.

So after the decorative pattern was decided and the template had been made, the boards and the spine strip (10 pt. folder stock) were coloured with medium density acrylic paint. The colour will be shown through the pierced areas on the vellum and the colour I chose for my design was olive green.

While we were waiting for the colour to dry, we started to work with the vellum cover. But before we really worked on vellum itself, we used a piece of heavy weight Blue Gray Kraft Paper to make a template. Vellum is expensive and you don’t want to make mistake on it and then ruin the whole piece.

To construct the case, we began by scoring the head turn-ins. Then positioned the book back to the template and measured the height of the cover, scoring the tail turn-ins. Leaved the square for about 5mm on each side. Followed by the spine folds, and the fore edge folds. The illustration bellow shows the construction of the case (fig.15). Put the template of the case back to the textblock and make sure it fits. Then the vellum could be cut to size and fold according to the template.

The coloured boards and spine strip were trimmed to size as well when they were dry. The width of the boards was just the width of the textblock from the joint to the foredge, which is showed in green in the illustration (fig.15). Then the turn-ins at the spine area at both head and tail were sanded, which helps to make the turn-ins at these areas more easily. A paring knife could also be used for this purpose.

Figure 15. The illustration shows the construction of the case.

With the vellum case was ready, we moved back to the design of vellum and punctured or cut the vellum using our decoration template. This vellum is quite flexible and I could cut my design quite easily by using a scalpel.

Figure 16. The vellum case with the design on the front side that has been cutting out.

After the vellum was pierced, the boards were attached to the cover with straight PVA (traditionally hide glue would be used for this purpose). Before the PVA was applied onto the cover, we used masking tape to cover the turn-ins and the spine. Otherwise once the vellum gets PVA, it will become very stiff and could cause trouble when you make the turn-ins later. Stippled the PVA on the inner side of the cover, not the boards. Before putting the board into position, sometimes it is easy to forget removing the waste paper underneath. Then put the case in between the press for about 20 seconds. Take it out and do the same thing for the other side.

Figure 17. Masking tape is used to cover the turn-ins and the spine.

For the spine stiffener, the mixture of PVA and paste was used to attach it to the cover. By using the mixture, the spine became a little bit damp and it could be shaped into a slightly round shape, which would fit the text-block more perfectly. Before glued down the turn-ins, ‘‘box corners’’ (fig .18) were made and corners tabs were pared.

Figure 18. Box corner.

After all the corners were made, we slightly dampened the turn-ins, which made them easier to be folded and adhered. The turn-ins were glued down using PVA. At this point, the vellum was stiff and unlikely to be glued down. So put it under the press and gave it a nip was very helpful. When the head and tail turn-ins were made, the corners were lined up with a triangle and the extra areas were cut away. After the fore-edges were turned in, the corners were lined up again.

Now the case was almost ready. The turn-ins were trimmed and made them looks smaller and square. Then lined the inner side of the boards with thin machine made paper using wheat starch paste. This additional lining of the boards was helping counter the cupping of the boards after covering with vellum.

Finally, the case was finished and it was laced onto the textblock using the sewing supports and endband cores. The positions of the slips were marked off on the inside. Then a needle was used to pierced the vellum from the inside of the vellum. Small slits were made between the holes. As the illustration(fig.19) below shows.

Figure 19. Illustration shows the position of the holes and slits.

Then the case was laced onto the textblock using the sewing supports and endband cores. At this point, the openings of the holes were slightly dampened and were modified a bit, which would make the appearance looks neater. Adhered the sewing supports and endband cores to the case with PVA, then the pastedowns were adhered using the mixture of PVA and wheat starch paste.

My pierced vellum binding came out looks good and I really like my design. I already got some new design ideas and hope I could make a few more in the future. Here is a group photo of the bindings we made. I do feel each book just looks like the binder himself/herself :)

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