A Note about Vellum and Bookbinding

Recently, one of our readers contacted us a few weeks after receiving a vellum copy of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum. The book had arrived in the post just fine, but the covers were a bit bowed and the vellum appeared to be somewhat mottled. I assured him: these are the features of a handmade book still curing after being sent directly from the Ars Obscura Bookbindery upon completion. The binder will always place a slip of paper in the front of each book, stating that weight should be placed on the book for a period of 3 weeks in order for the moisture of the binding to cure while flat. With the scent of the new binding still fresh in the air, the bibliophile placed the book under weight, which caused the boards to return to their straightened position.

I have included here photographs of other vellum bindings from my personal library, in which one may see that such bowing is common for books bound according to old-world methods. Personally, I find that this organic quality lends itself to the charm of renaissance aesthetics.

Harmen Steenwyck – Vanitas

The same reader later sent another conveying his pleasure with the content of the book, but noted that it was the binding that had immediately earned his admiration. The comment then led to an inquiry about where one could learn more about bookbinding. Many years ago, during an apprenticeship under Master Bookbinder Joel Radcliffe, I asked the same question and was urged to read Edith Diehl’s Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique. It is a wonderful resource in that the first part is the history of bookbinding, discussing binding styles and individual binders throughout history [up to the 1940s], and the second part carries descriptive text on how to execute the bindings according to traditional techniques. Included throughout are many illustrations showing the different binding styles as well as very clear and detailed instructional drawings that demonstrate the various binding processes. Vellum binding is described in detail among the other formats, and there is a useful glossary describing both book and bookbinding terminology.

“In spite of any extra warping papers pasted on the inside of the boards of a vellum-covered book, the covers tend to curl back in the American climate, and all books bound in vellum must always be kept stacked closely on shelves or weighted, when not in use.” – Edith Diehl, Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique.

The book is available as a Dover reprint, though is was originally published as a two volume set.