Diderot Encyclopédie - Parisian Bindery circa 1755

Tony Webber, Workshop Manager S&S Bindery

Bookbinding is a very old craft and the techniques used in hand-binding have hardly changed over the centuries.  The illustration on the left is taken from the Diderot Encyclopédie, published in France between 1751 and 1766.  It shows a typical French bindery of the period. 

Mechanisation has changed the way most books are made but hand-bound books still use the same the techniques and equipment depicted in this illustration.



Detail from plate above - Diderot Encyclopédie

  S&S Workshop Sewing department

The binding process starts with the preparation of the paper and the sewing together of the leaves.  This involves folding the paper into signatures and sewing them together using tapes or cords which are supported on a wooden frame (see left).

This is a vital stage of the binding procedure because the thickness of the linen thread and the width of sections determine the swell in the spine; too much swell and the book will be misshapen; too little swell and the spine will not round properly.




S&S Conservation department - Conserving colour plates

When rebinding older books, the paper often has to be first cleaned and repaired in our Conservation department.  The Conservation department undertakes a wide range of procedures such as the de-acidification of brittle paper, the removal of foxing and the repair of tears and missing areas of paper. 

See Conservation for more information on the work of this department.

S&S Conservation department - Cleaning a title page


Marble Paper Samples - Bookbinders Trade Journal 1910


Falkiners - Victorian Pattern Papers 2007

Endpapers have a practical and aesthetic role in the structure of a binding. 

It is particularly important when rebinding older books to use endpapers that match the period of the book.  At Sangorski & Sutcliffe we have a range of handmade papers made exclusively for our bindery which are designed to match 18th and 19th century papers.  We also have our own range of marble papers based on historical examples.

In our modern work we use a rich assortment of decorative papers. In conjunction with our supply business Falkiners, we import a wide range of stencil and screen papers from Japan.  We also print and design our own pattern papers.



Headbanding - S&S Bindery Poland St circa 1945 

  From 'Bookbinding Then and Now', Lionel Darley, 1959 

Headbands are made by winding silk threads  around a leather core at the top and bottom of the spine. 

Headbands can be woven into very intricate and complex patterns and are an important  decorative feature in fine bindings. 

They also have a practical function, protecting the top of the spine when the book is pulled of the shelf.





'Edge-gilding' Bob the Binder' - 1952 

The most common form of edge decoration is gilt edges.

Firstly the edges must be cut be hand and sanded until absolutely smooth.  Gold-leaf is then applied to the edges of the books and polished with an agate burnisher.



S&S Workshop - Gilding department 2004


Board Chopper from Zaehnsdorf's 'Art of Bookbinding' 1880

  Lacing-in - From 'Some Notes on Bookbinding' Douglas Cockerell 1929

Fine binding requires a dense hard board such as millboard.  The board must be cut by hand on a board chopper (see left) and then carefully sanded till it is absolutely smooth.

The boards are attached to the bookblock by the process of lacing-in.  Holes are punched in the boards and the sewing tapes or cords passed through the boards.  This increases the strength of the binding and prevents the boards falling off even when the leather has worn away in years to come.




From 'Some Notes on Bookbinding' Douglas Cockerell 1929

The term 'Forwarding' covers all the processes associated with covering the book.  It begins with 'Rounding and backing'. The book is held spine uppermost in a wooden press and the backs of the sections are gently hammered into a round shape.

The hammer has the effect of folding the back of the sections over each other, thus giving the spine shape and stability.

Rounding and backing 'Bob the Binder' - 1952


Goatskin racks - S&S Bindery 2006

    Covering in leather S&S Bindery 2006

Goatskin and calfskin make the best bookbinding leathers. We only use vegetable tanned leathers in bookbinding and the skins are individually chosen for their quality and character.

Goatskin has a natural grained surface; it is durable and attractive and comes in wide variety of colours. 

Calfskin is smoother than goat and is the traditional covering material for English and French bindings. 


Gold Finisher - 19th Century engraving

The Finishing Department is responsible for the titling and gold decoration.

Of all the processes in bookbinding, gold finishing requires the greatest expertise and skill.  Even the most simple binding requires hours of patient work; more elaborate bindings can take days and even weeks to complete.

Our Gold Finishing Department has one of the largest collections of decorative tools in the world, many of which date back to the nineteenth century. 


Decorative Tools, Finishing Department, S&S Bindery 2006


Finishing Stove  From 'Bookbinding Then and Now',  Lionel Darley, 1959

  Golf Finishing - S&S Bindery 2006

The design is made by pressing decorative brass tools on to paper patterns.  Using the paper patterns as a guide, the tools are pressed into the leather covers to make a slight indentation.  With a fine brush, egg glaire is then applied to the indentations and this will act as an adhesive for the gold.

The glaired areas are then covered with 22 carat gold leaf.  The brass tools are heated on a finishing stove and once hot enough, pressed once again into the leather.  The combination of heat and glaire sticks the gold to the leather and the surplus gold can then be wiped away with the finisher's rag.

Simple enough to explain but many years of practice are needed to perfect this technique.  Only the finest craftsmen can achieve the delicate gold work needed in fine binding.


Anyone who has handled a fine binding will appreciate the special qualities of a well-made book. 

The way the boards open, the attention to every detail and just the way the book looks and feels. The combination of gold leaf and the grain of polished leather have a timeless quality which cannot be matched by modern materials or techniques. 

For more information on our binding service visit our 'Catalogue' or see our section on 'Having a Book Bound'.