Figure 1 Books and tools on the bench in 20 Powell during the Leather Rebacking Workshop
From February 11-14, the UCLA Library Preservation Department welcomed James Reid-Cunningham to our lab at 20 Powell to share his expertise on the advanced book conservation technique of leather rebacking (Figures 1 and 2). Jim is a bookbinder and book conservator in private practice based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He studied bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, worked as a book conservator at Harvard University and the Boston Athenaeum for over thirty years, and taught book conservation at Buffalo State College’s art conservation graduate program for four years. He’s also a really nice person. We were thrilled to have him in Los Angeles to teach this hands-on workshop for us.
Figure 2 Jim Reid-Cunningham in 20 Powell, preparing some “red rot cocktail” for leather consolidation
The leather rebacking technique involves repairing a book by adding a new piece of leather to the spine and joint area. The repair is typically performed on books with detached boards and/or missing spines. It’s one of the most challenging treatments that book conservators undertake, and the requisite specialized hand skills are difficult to maintain without regular practice. These skills include lifting old leather, dying new leather, paring new leather, covering the book with leather, readhering old lifted leather without staining it, and sometimes tooling new leather. Another essential skill is the maintenance of knives used for lifting and paring.
Leather rebacking has declined in popularity as a treatment over the years, and alternative repair methods using materials like toned Japanese paper have become more common. In my experience, many U.S. conservation labs do not keep leather on hand for treatments, and some do not use leather as a repair material at all as a policy. At the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) in Houston, a symposium entitled “The Current Use of Leather in Book Conservation” was held on this subject. Jim Reid-Cunningham gave a presentation entitled “Love it or Hate it: Tanned Leather in Institutional Conservation Programs Compared to Private Practice.” I attended this symposium and enjoyed the impassioned discussion of this contentious topic. I remember that my main take-away from Jim’s talk was that even if you believe that leather repairs are overused, misused, or too much trouble, if you lack the skills to work with leather then the question is moot. More skills = more options.
Prior to this workshop, I had performed leather rebacking treatments on three other occasions: first as an intern with Justin Johnson at the University of Washington, then as a graduate student with Gary Frost at Buffalo State College, and most recently as an intern with Olivier Joly at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I was very grateful for this opportunity to work with Jim and expand my experience with this difficult technique.
Prior to Jim’s arrival, Chela Metzger, Nicole Alvarado, and I browsed the Special Collections stacks for some potential candidates for rebacking. We looked for small-ish, leather-bound, tight-back books with detached boards. Jim asked each participant to select two books to treat during the workshop. The two books I worked on were
- Harry Clinton: A Tale for Youth by Henry Brooke (London, 1804) from the Children’s Book Collection in YRL Special Collections,
- A Treatise of the Spleen and Vapours… by Sir Richard Blackmore (London, 1726) from YRL Special Collections (Biomed History and Special Collections has a copy as well).
Both books had 18th-century English tight-back full-leather bindings. Harry Clinton had a flat back (no bands on the spine), and A Treatise of the Spleen had five raised bands. Both books had detached upper boards and damaged spines. A Treatise of the Spleen was also missing its tail endband. Leather rebacking is a multi-step process, and books that need rebacking often require repairs like leaf reattachment and board reattachment as well. I’ve listed the steps that I took while working on my two books below. I won’t be explaining every step in the process in this post. Instead, I’ll focus on two aspects of the treatment: sewing new endbands and tooling on new leather.
Steps for leather rebacking
- Leather consolidation
- Repair board corners
- Dye new leather (Figure 3)
Figure 3 Jim demonstrates leather dyeing in the fume hood with RODA NF leather dyes
- Face the spine with solvent-set tissue
- Lift the spine
- Clean the spine (Figure 4)
Figure 4 Cleaning the spine of A Treatise of the Spleen using methyl cellulose as a poultice
- Reattach loose leaves
- Apply spine linings
- Adhere Japanese tissue hinges at the shoulder for inner hinge reinforcement
- Sew new endbands as needed
- Lift board leather using an angled cut near a tooled line (Figure 5)
Figure 5 Jim demonstrates lifting the board leather with an angled cut
- Lift pastedowns
- Reattach the boards with extended spine linings
- Trim and pare new leather
- Tie up around bands (Figure 6)
Figure 6 Tying up A Treatise of the Spleen after covering
- Open/set the shoulder
- Adhere shoulder hinges
- Set down lifted leather and pastedowns
- Thin the flesh side of original spine leather with a Dremel tool
- Readhere the spine
- Remove spine facings with solvent
- Readhere lifted board leather
- Plate the boards in a press
- Tool new leather
- Tone repair leather with acrylics to blend
Sewing new endbands
As I mentioned above, of A Treatise of the Spleen was missing its tail endband. After lifting the old spine, removing old adhesive, and applying new linings, I sewed a new front-bead endband at the tail, referring to Greenfield and Hille’s Headbands: How to Work Them for a refresher (Figure 7). I used red and white silk threads, and I toned the finished endband with neutral watercolors to match the original aged endband at the head. The original endbands on this 18th-century book served a few purposes: they are decorative, they help with shaping the endcap during covering, and they are traditional—they help the book look like it’s “supposed to”. Further back in bookbinding history, endbands did a bit more heavy lifting, often supporting the textblock and the spine as well as contributing (sometimes quite significantly) to the board attachment and consequently to board leverage. In this treatment, I replaced the missing endband not for structural reasons, but to help the book have a more natural look after the repair. To read about adding new endbands as a structural repair, see Chris Clarkson’s 1999 article Minimum intervention in treatment of books.
Figure 7 Left: original head endband; center: sewing a new tail endband; right: finished new tail endband (before toning)
I was able to reuse the original leather spine on Harry Clinton, which I readhered with PVA after rebacking, but the spine leather from A Treatise of the Spleen was extremely deteriorated, and only the label could be preserved. This left the spine mostly blank, without decoration, which is not typical for a leather binding from this period. After the workshop concluded, I decided to do some blind tooling on the new leather on A Treatise of the Spleen to help create a more natural look for the new spine. First, I read up on 18th-century English book decoration in Chela’s copy of English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800 by David Pearson. With Pearson’s examples as a guide, I composed my design for the spine, using a black stamp pad to “print” the tools on paper (Figure 8).
Figure 8 Blind tooling set-up: (from left to right) book in a finishing press, test leather, handle tools, ink pad and paper with stamped designs, a “piece of line” tool heating up on a hot plate (my makeshift finishing stove), damp cotton in a dish
I used some of my personal finishing tools, which I am now storing in 20 Powell so that I and others can use them (Figure 9). These tools were generously passed on to me by David Brock, a conservator who recently retired from Stanford Libraries, where I did my third-year internship as a graduate student. I also used some of the UCLA lab tools. I had done some gold tooling on leather before, but I had never done blind tooling, so Chela gave me a quick tutorial. After a bit of practicing on scrap leather, I was ready to tool on my new spine.
Figure 9 My personal finishing tools, rolls, and accoutrements, currently residing in 20 Powell
These two books are ready to return to the Special Collections stacks (Figures 10 and 11). They can now safely live on the shelves, awaiting future researchers who will be able to consult their pages (carefully!) without the distraction of loose leaves, detaching boards, and crumbling spines. This workshop was an incredible opportunity to practice a challenging technique, and I look forward to continuing to develop my skills in leather repair and tooling in the future.
Figure 10 Harry Clinton: A Tale for Youth. London, 1804. After treatment.
Figure 11 A Treatise of the Spleen and Vapours... London, 1726. After treatment (including blind tooling)
References and further reading
“Board Reattachment.” Book Conservation Wiki. Accessed April 16, 2020. https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/BPG_Board_Reattachment.
- See section 4.9, “Rebacking.”
Clarkson, Chris. 1999. Minimum intervention in treatment of books. Preprint from the 9th International Congress of IADA, Copenhagen, August 15-21, 1999. 89-96. https://cool.culturalheritage.org/iada/ta99_089.pdf
Greenfield, Jane and Jenny Hille. 1986. Headbands: How to Work Them. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.
Pearson, David. 2005. English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.
Teper, Jennifer Hain and Melissa Straw. 2011. A Survey of Current Leather Conservation Practices. Book and Paper Group Annual 30. 131-151. https://cool.culturalheritage.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v30/bp30-19.pdf
“Use of Leather in Book Conservation.” 2019. Book Conservation Wiki. Accessed April 16, 2020. https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/BPG_Use_of_Leather_in_Book_Conservation
- See section 5, “Love it or Hate it: Tanned Leather in Institutional Conservation Programs Compared to Private Practice” by Jim Reid-Cunningham.
- This wiki page is “based on the summary write-up from ‘Pre-Meeting Symposium: The Current Use of Leather in Book Conservation’ which took place May 29th, 2018 in Houston, TX prior to the 46th AIC Annual Meeting. Henry Hebert and Marieka Kaye moderated that symposium and authored the proceedings published in the Book and Paper Group Annual 3
Michelle C. Smith is the 2019-2021 Kress Assistant Conservator at the UCLA Library, where she treats materials from Library Special Collections. She received her MA and Certificate of Advanced Study in art conservation in 2018 from SUNY Buffalo State College, where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Library and Archives Conservation.
A weblog about preservation, conservation, and the stewardship of the UCLA Library's collections.
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