DIY Bookbinding: Stripping Stiff Boards from an REB New Testament

In the 1990s, Cambridge produced a special New Testament to commemmorate a visit by the Queen, an edition of the Revised English Bible bound in red calfskin. The little volume remained available until a few years ago, but there was trouble matching the beautiful shade of red. The true red calfskin edition is one of my favorites -- a single column setting of a very readable translation bound elegantly.

Because of its scarcity, I went in search of duplicates. One to use, one to save, that's the theory. I ordered them online, and instead of getting the true red, I kept receiving a plum-colored burgundy calf. In addition to the change in color, the later edition cover was considerably stiffer. I ended up with four or five copies of the burgundy NTs. This week, I decided to rebind one.


I stripped the text block out of its cover with a razor knife, planning to discard the cover and put a simple hardback case binding on. But as I pulled apart the cover components, the plan started to change. When I'd pulled out the book boards, the calfskin turned out to be every bit as pliable as the more flexible edition of which I was so fond. The headbands and ribbon pulled away nicely, too. I saw an opportunity to re-use them. 


Let's pause a moment and consider how headbands and ribbons work. As you can see in the photo above, the headband isn't integral to the binding. Instead, it's pre-made and pasted on. This is typical of bookbinding these days. While it's possible to specially sew a headband, most binders simply attach them with glue, as shown. This is how ribbons are inserted, too. As you can see, the ribbon goes on first, then the headband is glued on top. The band of fabric to which they're attached is called mull; we'll talk more about that below.


Once the liners and boards were stripped out, this is what I was left with (above). The underside of the calfskin turned out to be bright red. Too bad it has to be hidden. The edges of the leather pulled right up, leaving the entire cover perfectly intact. I left the board on the spine for structure.

If you're wondering what I pulled out of there, here it is:


The culprit is on the right. That's the book board. It's a lot thinner and more flexible than the standard board used in a hardcover binding, but still too rigid for a little New Testament. A very stiff cover combined with a thin text block like this makes it particularly difficult to flip through the pages. Now we won't have to worry about that. On the left are the synthetic liners. 


And there's the text block (above). Removing the liners did take some of the front matter away. As far as I can tell, none of the signatures was compromised. A proper bookbinder would have pulled them apart, examined them, and resewn them. I'm just a crazy man with a razor, so none of that for me.


I didn't have the material (or for that matter, the skill) to rebind the book in the same way it came from the factory. My ability ends with the simple case binding. So the plan was to glue marbled end papers on either side of the text block, then paste them down on the leather. I'd have to make some modifications to the leather (a snip here and there) to accommodate the change. I should say right up front that this is going to result in a technically weaker binding than the book had before. Instead of vinyl pages holding the text block into the binding, it'll have marbled paper. But this is an experiment. To paraphrase a former defense secretary, you go to rebind with the materials you have.


Plus, I'm a sucker for marbled paper. Look at that stuff! You could hang it in a museum and call it art. Each end paper will be double the width of the text block. It'll fold in half before being glued in place. The actual gluing (below) is accomplished by screening off everything but the strip of paper you want the glue on. As you can see, the reverse of the marbled paper is bright yellow:


Now the end papers are attached. They aren't trimmed to the size of the text block yet. If we were binding a book from scratch, this would be no big deal -- the end papers would be trimmed to size when the text block was -- but since I'm using an already-existing block, I need to trim in closer. 


Remember the headband and ribbon? They're safely detached and waiting for re-use:


To apply them, I first need to cut a strip of meshy fabric called mull. This will be pasted down all along the spine (below) and then trimmed to size. 


With the text block weighted down, I paste on the ribbon and then place the headband above it, making sure everything's straight before it dries:


Now comes a step that wasn't captured on camera. It involved a lot of glue and cameras don't mix well with adhesive. Basically, I applied glue to the back of the end paper and pasted it down onto the calfskin binding. After that, I glued down the leather tabs and made sure they were nice and smooth.


To keep the glue from spreading moisture throughout the text block, some plastic sheeting went between the covers. Then the freshly glued book was weighted down again. I don't have proper laying and finishing presses, so I had to improvise along the way.


Glue takes time to dry. While waiting, I had some coffee and thought about how much nicer these photos would be if they'd been taken with a Leica. I was able to pass a surprising amount of time with these ruminations.


All done! The results aren't perfect, but I'm pretty impressed. I think the marbled paper looks fantastic. Tastes vary, I realize, and to you it might look like something was spilled on the Bible. The paper adhered perfectly to the leather, and the flaps closed down nice and tight. My modifications near the spine are a bit sloppy (I had to figure them out as I went, thanks to a lack of pre-planning). Still, mission accomplished.


I'm sure someone at Cambridge is having flashbacks of the 1970s right now!


So what we have is basically a paper-lined cover. There's nothing but a thin layer of marbled paper on the calfskin, which restores its natural suppleness. This isn't a limp cover, but with those boards stripped out, it's surprisingly similar to the true red counterpart. 


(And no, the spine isn't horribly misaligned, though it certainly looks that way in the photo above.) The fit and finish on this thing aren't as painstaking as I would like. There are a couple of things I'd do differently if I were executing this modification again. For example, I'd make the cuts to the leather later in the process, to ensure as little material as possible is removed. I would also make a die based on the text block and use it to trim the end papers before tipping them onto the text block. All in all, though, I'm happy with the outcome.


What do you think?