Book First Aid, Part One

Just before the end of last term a friend asked if I could help him save a couple of his books from complete disintegration and although I have NO experience or training in book or paper restoration or conservation I did – rashly – agree to help. I can’t de-acidify paper, invisibly mend torn pages or get rid of foxing, but I reckon I can use archival materials to re-bind something so that it will last a little bit longer. Neither of the books is ‘precious’, in the sense of being valuable, but Andrea loves them for their practicality and the fact that the wisdom they contain is now hard to find. Both are books of recipes: not food recipes but recipes for things like cement, creating different coloured patination on metals, making ink… that sort of thing. All in Italian, as Andrea is Italian, so I don’t have a clue what else the books contain but I find them fascinating.

Task one was to separate the covers from the book block and the spine, using a scalpel. The front and back covers are a bit stained but otherwise quite robust, but I couldn’t successfully detach the end papers (which were not that special) so I decided to carefully tear them back and put in new end papers, using some Italian hand-marbled paper from my stash.

I cut out the title of the book from the original spine, thinking to glue it onto the new spine so that if the book sits on a shelf Andrea can still see what it is called.

When I took the book block out of the covers I discovered that the sewing is still in perfect condition, but that there are only stubs of the tapes left – and when I say “stubs” I mean about a centimetre! Clearly not enough to make a firm connection with new covers so I decided to sew new tapes to the old tape stubs, hoping that the resulting double layer wouldn’t be too bulky under the new end papers.

Before I could sew on new tapes, though, I had to clean the tapes and the spine of the old cow glue. At least, I presume it’s cow glue, because I remember the smell… Reading up on the web I found that I could safely remove the excess glue and scraps of paper by damping down the spine and tapes with distilled water and a sponge. I put freezer paper and a dry cloth in between the tapes and the bookblock in order to prevent the pages getting wet. To my surprise, the glue softened very easily and I was able to scrape it carefully away with my scalpel, revealing the signatures and the stitching.

I sewed on new tapes using a fine linen thread and a small needle, sort of darning the old tape into the new tape in order to weave them together as much as possible.

Once the new tapes were in place I was able to reinforce the spine with mull, gently round it, and leave it to dry in my book press overnight.

3 thoughts on “Book First Aid, Part One

  1. Doesn't the spine look lovely in your photos? I love seeing the stitching and the signatures in old books. All the “innards”.

    I'm sure your friend will be thrilled with the end result Sara.

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