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Bookbinding Career

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In the days when books were produced by the slow, laborious hand processes which preceded the invention of typesetting machines and large-scale printing presses, bookbinding was an important craft. Bookbinders were for the most part artists who gave special and loving attention to each book which passed through their hands, designing and producing for it a cover which would stand the test of time and hard use, and which would be at the same time, a thing of beauty. When the newer machines made the printing of books on a large scale possible, and thus brought about the manufacture of large editions of cheap books, bookbinding became less of an art and more of a trade. Special machines for the quick and cheap binding of quickly and cheaply produced books replaced, to a great extent, the hand worker. Within recent years, however, interest in fine hand-made bindings has reawakened, and the artist-craftsman has come back into being as a special binder of rare and valuable books.

Bookbinding is one of the lesser arts, but, when undertaken by the true craftsman it results in the production of some very fine specimens. The bookbinder receives the loose printed sheets of new books and carries out the numerous processes necessary for the completion of these books. In commercial binding, one need be only a skilled operator of the machines which do the work of putting the books together and covering them. Fine special binding, however, requires skill in carrying out the required operations almost entirely by hand. First the large sheets are properly folded, with great care and accuracy, so that the edges are as even as possible. Then if there are any separately printed or engraved plates, these are inserted in the proper places. After this, the binder gathers the various "signatures," or sections of folded sheets, and presses them into compact form by means of a machine in which they remain for some time. The signatures are then sewn. In the case of fine bindings, the sewing is generally done by hand, to insure careful and thorough work. The edges are then trimmed, and the book rounded and backed by being pressed or pounded, so that the front becomes concave and the back convex in shape. This process must be gone through before the book can be covered or opened flat. Finally comes the casing in, or covering, and the artistic finishing of the book.

It is in the designing and finishing of fine leather covers for books that the bookbinder can give expression to his artistic talents. After an artistic design has been worked out, it must be transferred to the leather. To do this, the design is first traced on the cover with a pencil, and then pressed into the leather by means of heated tools. The impressions thus formed are then either left "blank" or finished in gold. The process of embellishing the leather cover of a book with a design is known as "tooling." When the edges have been gilded, end papers inserted and the leather cleaned and polished, the book is finally ready to leave the binder's hands.

Not every binder carries out all the processes mentioned. Some are specialists in gilding, others in casing in and others in tooling. In commercial binding the work is very highly specialized, each man concentrating upon one definite operation. In special binding, however, the binder is supposed to be able to bind books completely—from the folding to the tooling stage. The special binder also undertakes the repair and rebinding of rare old books. This is work which requires even more expert knowledge than does the binding of new books. An old book which is to be repaired and rebound must first be taken apart carefully. In doing this, the greatest care must be exercised not to damage further the probably fragile pages. Then torn or loose sheets must be pasted into their proper places, and soiled portions cleaned; after which, the already enumerated processes of binding are gone through, with special care and attention.

In order to become a successful bookbinder specializing in fine work, it is necessary for the student to develop a high degree of accuracy in his work. One slight slip of needle or tool is sufficient to spoil a piece of work into which much labor has already been put. One cannot afford to make such mistakes, which waste time, energy and material, so the power of concentration must be cultivated, in order that, by accurate attention and great care, sureness of hand and taste may be acquired. Neatness and cleanliness are very important too, as are a thorough knowledge of leathers and methods of working them. And above all, the bookbinder should have artistic talent, a knowledge of design and the ability to give his talent practical expression through design. If he has all these qualities and, besides, a real love for his craft, he will no doubt produce work of merit. But of course the production of the work alone is not sufficient. He must be gifted with some business ability also, if bookbinding is to be a profitable vocation. A skilled worker in commercial bookbinding is paid from $35 to $50 a week. The skilled man who specializes in a higher type of binding can demand larger returns, although he may not begin with very high wages.

The high grade of work which it is necessary to do in order to be able to charge high prices requires very thorough training on the part of the bookbinder. The student who wishes to become a professional bookbinder should also take the opportunity to see as many artistic bindings as possible. This he may accomplish by visiting the collections of finely bound books to be found in large museums and libraries.

Besides some training at a school, where the principles of design and decoration may be studied, apprenticeship in a good shop for a few years will be excellent preparation. Here the student will have plenty of opportunity to observe skilled and experienced men at work, and at the same time become accustomed to doing actual binding. As an apprentice, he will, of course, not earn much, but he will be gaining valuable experience. Even after he has passed through the stage of apprenticeship, the bookbinder who sets up in business for himself may find it hard to dispose of his wares. The period during which he is still too unknown in his field to be earning much will be found to be the chief difficulty with which the bookbinder will have to contend. Once he has made some reputation for himself as a skilled and artistic craftsman, he will find no disadvantages in his vocation. It is pleasant work, affords an artistic means of self-expression and commands ample remuneration. Besides this, there is always a chance of making a name for oneself as an artist, and there is, furthermore, the satisfaction of knowing that one is preserving the life and usefulness of valuable books.


BEAN, FLORENCE O., and BRODHEAD, JOHN C.: "Bookbinding for Beginners," The Davis Press, Worcester, Mass., 1918.

COCKERELL, DOUGLAS: "Bookbinding and the Care of Books," Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd., London, 1920.

HITCHCOCK, FREDERICK H., (Ed.) : "The Building of a Book," T. Werner Laurie, London, 1906.

HOLME, CHAS. (Ed.) : "The Art of the Book," "The Studio," Ltd., London,


PRIDEAUX, SARAH TREVERBIAN: "Bookbinders and Their Craft," Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1903.

"Modern Bookbindings: Their Design and Decoration," A. Constable & Co., London, 1910.

STEPHEN, GEORGE A.: "Commercial Bookbinding," W. John Stonhill & Co., London, 1910.


Bindery Talk, Ganes Bros. & Lane, Chicago. Publishers' Weekly, R. R. Bowker Co., New York. Inland Printer, Inland Printer Co., Inc., Chicago.

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