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Notes on Book Collecting

Many of our books have full page and in text illustrations, beautifully engraved from wood blocks. These illustrations are important both historically and as pieces of art.

The Editor in Chief of wrote an article describing the intense method of preparing the wood and paper to receive these beautiful imprints. I am passing it on to you (with thanks and praise to Mr. Brown for a well written and well researched article) so you can see why I appreciate the work that goes into each of these wonderful prints and the importance of preserving them as masterful works of art.



The art of wood engraving was in its height in quality from the early 1800's until about the 1880's. During this time period, this method was the only way to illustrate a book or newspaper. Printing technology hadn't been developed to reproduce actual photographs on an inexpensive, mass produced basis. Most illustrations in books, magazines, or newspapers during this time was the result of a wood engraving. (Steel engravings came into being at the end of this time period.) This article will deal with just how wood engravings were made -- from tree to printing press. The wood used to make an engraving had to be carefully selected. The best wood for this purpose came from a Box tree (not to be confused with a Box Elder tree). English Box wood is the best as well as African. Many also used American Box which grew in Ohio, Indiana, and Northern Kentucky. This wood was especially suited for fine line carving in that it was soft enough that small splinters wouldn't break off in the process.

In addition to being limited to using Box wood, the individual logs had to be carefully selected. As many are aware, a tree trunk has rings that correspond to the age of the tree. These rings may be unevenly spaced due to climate changes from season to season. To work best for engravings, it was important that these rings be as evenly spaced as possible -- uneven spaces meant unequal ink penetration from ring to ring when the engraving was printed. This would leave the appearance of too much ink in one spot and not enough in another.

A uniform color of yellow from the outside rim to the interior was also critical. Uneven coloring meant unequal hardness or softness of the wood itself. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to make a uniformly engraved line.

As you can see, selecting the exact piece to make the best engraving was an art in itself.

There is another important factor in the use of Box wood for engravings. Box trees only grow to a mature height of about 15 feet with the trunk reaching a maximum of 6 inches or so. The trunk, being the largest portion, was used for making engravings. The trunk was cut into individual blocks for carving. Even using trunk portion, one slice wasn't large enough to do an engraving larger than 5 inches square. To make a larger engraving, several pieces were banded together -- much like a checkerboard. This iron band was looped around the outside edge and tightened to hold them together. (Close examination of some engravings will reveal some checker boarding and one can see the individual blocks.) After the blocks were bound together the surface was sanded to make it smooth and uniform in height.

There were many additional elements to consider before the block was ready to draw and engrave on. Keep in mind that in those days electricity was nonexistent. Thus, large lamps such as kerosene were used for light. This in itself created two problems. (1) Since an engraving would take dozens upon dozens of hours to complete, and the lamp needed to be very close to the wood, the heat from a single lamp could shrink or warp the block. (2) The light given off from one of the lamps would be extremely bright and glaring at close range. To solve these two problems, a globe filled with water was placed between the lamp and the engraving block. The water not only provided somewhere else for the heat to go, but it also helped diffuse the light cast by the lamp. To help protect the eyes from the light at such a close range, a visor was worn by the engraver.

Since the moisture from an engravers' breath could also affect the block of wood, a face mask was used to cover their mouth when working at close range. With these preparations completed, the engraver now had one more step to perform before the wood was ready to draw on.

Before drawing on the wood, it had to be coated with India ink. This was so that as the engraver made the grooves into the wood, the original yellowish color showed where the thin slice of wood had been removed. This, of course, provided a means to see how the print would actually look when printed. At this stage the wood was ready to drawn upon.

When the engraver drew on the wood they would only make a basic outline of each figure or item in the drawing. Fine line details like eyes, mouth, fingers, or textures were left out at this stage. These drawings had to be done backwards to how the artist wanted it to appear in print. For example, if the tradesman wanted a certain figure on the right side on the finished engraving, the artist had to draw and engrave it on the left side of the original. (Any printing plate or engravers block appears backwards to the eye.)

After finishing the basic drawing, the artist would hand rub a special mixture into the wood. This mixture was brick-bath. This was made from bricks that had been ground down into a fine powder. The purpose for this rubbing was that by doing so the pencil marks would shine in the light and become more visible. Also, the mixture helped to provide a shield which protected the wood from any perspiration on the engravers hands.

The last stage was to remove the iron hoop that held the blocks together. This was so that more than one engraver could work on the engraving at the same time. Some engravers specialized in people, some in water texture, others in sky, and so forth. At this point the wood was ready to begin engraving or carving upon.

As complicated as engravings were to make, there were only four basic types of engraving tools needed. The names of these tools were gravers, tint-tools, gouges, and flat chisels. Each came in various sizes.

The graver was used to make outlines or to separate figures from one another. They were used for all delicate carving except where a series of parallel lines were going to be used. Parallel lines were called " tints" .

Tint-tools were chiefly used to cut parallel lines which enabled the engraver to show a tint or shade of gray. The difference between the cut that a graver made and one that a tint-tool made was in the shape of the grove. A graver cut a V shaped line while the tint-tool carved a grove that was equal in width at the top and bottom. It was this difference that made the lines appear as shades of gray rather than a series of lines. The closer together the lines were, the darker the tint appeared.

Some examples of the use of the tint-tool are as follows: Equally spaced cuts were made to represent clear skies or calm water. To show shadowing of an object, the lines follow the curve of the figure or object.

A gouger was used to remove larger areas that the engraver wanted to be white (or unprinted). One example of this technique was an engraving that was not " framed" on the page -- that is no border.

The last stage was to reunite the individual blocks of wood in the iron hoop and tighten. If any text was to be used (such as the tile of the work). In many cases, the engravings were not signed since so many people worked on it. Exceptions were those done entirely be one engraver -- such as Thomas Nast, Winslow Homer, and Frederic Remington.

R. J. Brown Editor-in-Chief of

Defining Leather Book Bindings

(A compilation of articles from various web sites)

Book collecting began just as soon as the first Bible was published by Gutenberg in 1455. Books published in that first 50 years are called incunabula.

Prior to the printing press, written works were copied onto scrolls or codexes. The availability of paper in the 15th century made the printing press possible. Paper was made from linen rags. Today fine paper is still made from linen fibers.

Materials used for bookbinding were leather, wood, metals and fabrics over another harder surface. Book covers for cathedrals or royalty were sometimes covered with enamel paintings or pearls and other precious stones. Rarely does one of these books come on the market, but occasionally a European family will dispose of such a book.

Leather-bound books are collected widely today. The skins of adult and young sheep, cows, pigs, seals and several varieties of goats were used to make bindings. Because many books were printed on a subscription basis, the purchaser could order the binding he wished. That is why you can find two first editions of the same book with two different bindings.

Some collectors specialize in bindings. They look for particular binders or types of bindings. A binding can add a lot of value to a book. It is not uncommon to find a binder's signature on the leather or at the top of a fly page. It is tiny and easy to miss if you do not know to look for it. Some of the more important English binders were Bayntun, Riviere and Zaehnsdorf. There are many others who were masters of their craft. The binding can be worth more than the book.

Binding can refer to the binding style of a book (i.e. hardcover) or to the act of assembling a book from its individual pages. Western books were traditionally sewn, signature by signature, on linen cords or tapes, but this process has more recently been replaced by hot glue bindings which hold the spine ends of the pages together, sometimes with sewing as a re-enforcement.

The art and business of bookbinding began with the protection of parchment manuscripts with boards. Papyrus had originally been produced in rolls, but sheets of parchment came to be folded and fastened together with sewing by the 2d century A.D. In the Middle Ages the practice of making fine bindings for these sewn volumes rose to great heights; books were rare and precious articles, and many were treated with exquisite bindings: they were gilded, jeweled, fashioned of ivory, wood, leather, or brass. The techniques of folding and sewing together sheets in small lots, combining those lots with tapes, and sewing and fastening boards on the outside as protection changed but little from the medieval monastery to the modern book bindery. The invention of printing greatly increased the demand for the bookbinder's work, establishing it as a business.

Leather quickly became the choice for book covers. It wasn't the rich red with gold lettering that we see today but more likely to be vellum, the cured skin of a young goat or a lamb.

The finest binding is still done by hand. In machine binding (called casing), the cover, or case, is made separate from the book and then glued to it. The covering of the boards, usually called the binding, is most frequently of cloth, heavy paper, vellum, leather, or imitations of leather. The preferred leathers are oasis goat and Levant. Leather bindings are sometimes decorated by marbling, tooling, or embossing.

Three binding styles often stated in dealer's catalogs are three quarter bound, half bound and quarter bound. (See below for definitions) The remainder of the board is often covered in marbled paper or decorative paper, though sometimes another leather or cloth is used in place of this paper. These terms often are abbreviated and used as a prefix in descriptions, so a book that is half bound in calf would be stated by a dealer as "half calf".

Leather Binding Definitions

Full binding: Volume is entirely encased in leather (calf, sheep, morocco, etc.)

Three quarter binding: volume has leather spine and corners which occupy approx. 3/4 of the space along top edge of board (cover).

Half binding: the spine and corner leather occupy only approx. 1/2 of top edge.

Quarter binding: usually lacks leather corners and leather of the spine occupies only approx. 1/4 of the top edge.

Leather Binding: Caveat Emptor

From the Craft Bookbinding Company

There are a great variety of leathers and a wide range of quality. Any animal skin may be tanned and used as leather but they vary in their quality; strength, longevity, suitability for the purpose, etc. A good example is four of the most used leathers; cowhide, calfskin, goatskin and sheepskin. There are many types of leather use in bookbinding, but, for the sake of brevity, I will only deal with those mentioned above. All have their good and bad points.

Cowhide is tough and reasonably durable, but in its natural state is not as attractive as calf or goatskin. It does have the distinct advantage of being much less expensive. It is also comes in very large skins and can accommodate even the largest of books. With cowhide in particular, and others to some extent, one must be sure that they are getting top grain rather than a split. Splits are very easy to pass off as top grain after they have been given a nice finish. More will be said on splits below.

Goatskin is one of the most durable of leathers and perhaps the most beautiful. The most widely used goatskins are produced in Nigeria, where they are pre-tanned and sent to tanneries in Europe to be retanned. Nigerian goats are smallish animals and produce relatively small skins which will not accommodate very large books such as atlases or large folios. Natural grain Nigerian goat is both beautiful and pleasing to touch. It is, however, on the expensive side because of the small quantities produced and the limited amount of material available in each skin for a book cover. There is often a tremendous amount of "off-cut;" left over material too small for practical use.

Calfskin is smaller than cowhide, yet larger than goat and has a very nice feel and appearance. It shows off gold and other tooling to great advantage. The drawbacks to this leather is that its surface mars easily and it is less tough than either goatskin or cowhide. In older books that have begun to dry out, it often exhibits "hang-nails" that expose the inner layer of the leather.

Sheepskin probably has the most delightful feel of any leather. The aspect of sheepskin that gives it such a luxurious feel is also that which makes it unsuitable for covering books. As with other skins it has three layers; the surface or hair-side, or in the case of sheep, the wool side, the inner portion or corium, and flesh side. In wool bearing animals, the corium consists of a mass of vertical hair-like fibers that are somewhat resilient. These inner fibers give sheepskin its wonderful softness. These fibers are weak and do not hold fast to the surface layer. This allows damage to occur with amazing ease. There is little or no tear strength to sheepskin and the surface shows "hang-nails" almost immediately.

Beside the nature of the skin, the quality of leather is also affected by the tanning method. There are myriad substances used to tan leather, all resulting in different characteristics. Vegetable tanned leather is preferred by most bookbinders because it is easily molded and takes tooling better than metal or mineral tanning. Certain vegetable tannins, while they still produce leather, render that leather short-lived. This is evident in the dry powdery condition known as "red rot" or "brown rot." Others result in leather of generally poor behavior.

Metal tannage is usually incredibly strong, resilient, and of great longevity. This leather, while durable does not tool well or give the fine craftsman like appearance seen in vegetable tanned leather.

Poor tannage cannot be detected by looking at it. One has to rely on the tannery that manufactured the leather. A conscientious bookbinder will buy from a tannery that is well known for surpassing quality leather, one that has, over many years, established a good reputation.

Today there is a new product on the scene that one looking for a leather binding should be particularly aware of; bonded leather. Bonded leather is made of approximately 99% leather fibers and thereby gets away with being passed off as genuine leather. Bonded leather has none of the desirable qualities of the genuine article. Some bookbinders and publishers are honest enough to say that they have used bonded leather, but many let the buyer believe they have purchased a high quality product when in fact they haven't.

A fine leather binding can be a delight to have and behold, but when identifying book covers, buyer beware.