Edge decoration. Part 2.

This is to follow on from previous edge trimming and preparation.

Edge decoration is a useful means of enhancing your design binding. It is very important though to have worked out the colour scheme of the entire book right at the beginning. The cover, doublures, endpapers, headbands and edges should all flow harmoniously. You must experiment with techniques, colours and finishes off the book first. Try out on waste paper or even the edge of a spare book. Most of the paperbacks on our shelves now have coloured edges! Take into account the softness/hardness of the paper and also the colour as this can have a dramatic effect on the finished edge – make sure you practice on similar papers. You should take care that your edges do not become too visually heavy – a lightness of touch and subtlety are generally advisable unless, of course, you are aiming for a bold look.

-Once you are happy that your edge is shiny all over, brush off any dust, allow it to settle and gently hoover up any more dust. To size the surface, I use a thin layer of wet paste brushed onto the surface with a wide paintbrush. I use Hewit’s B36 starch paste powder as it is not too sticky. When it has dried I brush it across the edge using a bristle brush until it is shiny again. It is very handy to have a hairdryer to speed up the drying process.

-I like to work around the book starting from the tail. It should mean that by the time you get to the top edge your technique is perfected. (It should already be perfect as you will have practiced it beforehand!)

-Now it is time to decorate and there are a myriad ways of going about it. It is a good idea to mask off the cheeks of your laying press with stiff paper unless you want an historical record of all your various edges.

For a simple colour wash, I use watercolour paints watered down and brushed on with a wide paintbrush, ideally in one application. To build up the colour you must allow each layer to dry first otherwise you will be brushing off the previous still damp layer. The key is not to have too heavy a layer of pigment on the surface. Calligraphy inks can be used if you want a more solid colour but I avoid acrylic paints as they tend to crack off when the book is opened.

An easier way to apply colour is to sponge it on. I use a small natural sponge dipped in the dilute watercolour and apply along the edge turning the sponge as I go. You can layer it up with different colours to great effect and also mist on plain water to blur the effect.

base layer pink, sponged on blue, spatter red

base layer pink, sponged on blue, spatter red

For a spattered/speckled effect, I use the end of an old toothbrush dipped in the colour and scrape it with my thumbnail. It is a good idea to do the initial spattering on a waste sheet as the toothbrush has a tendency to drip the initial colour in great splashes which you do not want on your edge. I have also been known to use aerosol paint for a speckled effect but make sure you hold the can at a distance from the edge.

base layer orange, masking fluid, second layer purple, gold leaf applied

base layer orange, masking fluid, second layer purple, gold leaf applied

You can apply one layer of colour, allow it to dry, paint on a pattern using liquid masking fluid, allow it to dry, apply another colour, then peel off the masking fluid to reveal the colour below.

You can apply metallic transfer leaf by delicately sponging on a very watered down PVA and then applying the transfer leaf. Allow to dry and burnish with an agate burnisher.

Any of the above techniques can be combined or elaborated on. You can use airbrush to great effect and of course the more traditional marbling and gilding.

-For the purposes of demonstration I am doing a graphite edge which is embarrassingly easy. I am using Creta graphite powder available from most art shops. Once I have brushed the surface back to shiny I apply a thin layer of wet paste and sprinkle on a small amount of graphite powder. While the paste is still wet I use a muslin cloth to rub the graphite into the paste so that it covers the surface evenly. You can sprinkle on a bit more powder if there are gaps.

finished graphite edge

finished graphite edge

-When you are happy with the result you need to polish up the surface. You can use an agate burnisher rubbed across the book edge. Generally I just put on a thin layer of micro-crystalline wax polish with a soft cloth and buff it up.

flick through pages to check no seepage into text

flick through pages to check no seepage into text

-Take your book out of the press and knock it on the edge to loosen the pages. Flick through the pages to check that no colour has seeped down into the text block. Ease any stubborn pages apart with a cobbler’s knife.


– If you’re not happy then do it again. Ideally do all three edges in one day or make a record of exactly what you have done so that it can be repeated. Or choose a book with deckle edges then you only have to do the one top edge!

Edge decoration. Part 1. Trimming and preparation.

I’ve just spent some time reading over previous posts and I have to commend John whole-heartedly on his efforts. He’s put in a huge amount of work and I really hope that it will encourage as many as possible to consider design binding.

I shall definitely take up Viven’s tip for sewing kettle stitches and avoiding those nasty, lumpy knots. One small tip – if you do have a knot on the spine when you’re knocking up, then knock up over the corner of the bench so that the kettles are either side of the bench edge and cannot push the section in.

John has asked me to write something about edge decoration. Some of this may be painfully obvious to you but please bear with me. If I don’t put everything in then something will be forgotten. It will be in two parts – edge trimming and preparation, then decoration. John’s comments about considering whether it is appropriate to trim definitely hold. If a book has a deckle edge, marginalia, historical significance or integral value then do not trim. Also if it is on commission then do check first with the client!

-After sewing glue up spine between tapes. Make sure the spine is accurately knocked up and square.

-Trim foredge making sure that spine is square before clamping. I place a square up to the spine to ensure accuracy. I like to use a vertical plough for trimming. I find it more accurate and achieves a far smoother finish than the guillotine, all the better for less sanding.

-Round and back, clean off spine, check joints square and glue again

-Trim head and tail. I make up my book boards oversize then cut accurate right angle corners which I then fit into the joint. I look to see which is the lowest section and, with a very sharp pencil, mark a line a fraction below that on the upper waste sheet. After trimming the foredge, rounding and backing, your joints and foredge should be parallel. The line you are now marking should be absolutely perpendicular to them ie you have accurate 90˚ angles at head of joint and head of foredge. You can see this by putting your right angled board up to the joint and comparing.[pic 1] When placing the book in the plough, it must go in the centre and the screws need to be tightened evenly. It can be helpful to measure the gap either side of the book to check it is even. I have my book board up against my marked line, then a waste board on top and two waste boards underneath the book. You need the extra waste boards so that you do not squash the spine when you tighten the screws. [pic 2] You also do not want to be cutting into your book board. Trim the bookblock. [pic 3] Take out of the press and cut off excess around joint area with a scalpel. [pic 4]

– Open up the book and check that the newly cut edge is parallel to the print inside [pic 5] and that you have a smooth edge with no sections missed. If not repeat. If you get your trim right then it saves a huge amount of sanding! Once you are happy repeat trimming at tail.

-You can use French chalk at this stage. This is to stop the pages sticking together after edge decoration. I don’t often use it as it can get impressed and mark dark paper and I don’t find it necessary on the harder papers. Use a soft brush to apply, not cotton wool as it can shed. Bend the book round to the left and dust chalk onto the surface, then bend the book round to the right and repeat.

-Edge preparation. Place the book in the centre of a laying press with a board and waste board either side so that you do not squash the spine. Make sure the cheeks of the press are tightened evenly (again you can use a ruler to check). The boards should be just proud of the cheeks of the press (0.5-1mm) and the book edge should be just proud of the board edges (0.5mm). The oversize boards will be sticking out beyond the book and you can use a spirit level to check that they are level. [pic 6] If they are level, then you will know that the book edge will be level too when you have finished sanding.

-Start sanding with a medium weight sandpaper (about 180). When sanding head and tail, I wrap the sandpaper around a cork sanding block and work in one direction from spine to foredge. If I am sanding the foredge I use a piece of dowel the appropriate size. It is better for it to be slightly smaller than the curve of the foredge so that the sandpaper hits the whole surface. If the dowel is too big then it will not reach the base of the curve. The book edge will start getting warm and you should rest sanding from time to time to allow the surface to cool down. Fillers in the paper can reactivate and make the pages stick together. Sand from the spine to the foredge in one direction making sure that the sweep of the sandpaper starts and finishes at the very edges. It is quite easy for the sandpaper to hit the edge a bit in and finish a bit early and you are left with a dip in the middle of your edge. Use a ruler placed on the edge to check that you are sanding evenly. Use a soft brush to brush any particles away.

-Work down the sandpapers to the finest grade (about 320) until you have a sheen all along the edge. I have recently discovered jeweller’s sandpaper which is exceptionally fine (up to 3000 grit). Place an anglepoise lamp at the end of the laying press and shine it down the book edge. [pic 7]

You can then see any bits you might have missed. It is very hard to get the area around the spine smooth but you should work at getting as much of it as possible right. Don’t forget though that there will be a headband there which will cover any minor imperfections. Now you are ready to start edge decoration.

A very good reference book is John Mitchell – A Craftsman’s Guide to Edge Decoration, Standing Press.


Design binding

John has asked me to comment on design binding so, for what it’s worth, here goes! I came to design binding with no artistic background. I have had to work out a way of getting from the, frankly rather daunting, blank page to a finished design.

First of all, I appraise the book as a whole. I look at the text, the illustrations, the colour of the text paper, the typography, the colour of the ink, the date of publication. To be honest, I very rarely read a book from cover to cover due to time constraints. I prefer to go through the text jotting down any keywords or ideas which strike me. I then research the author and the book in its historical and social context – easily done on the internet. I also note any ideas or images which come to me as I am going through.

Using Google as a means of finding inspiration is useful up to a point. I have wasted umpteen hours trawling the internet and more often than not the pictures are never quite right or don’t live up to how I had imagined them. I take a digital camera or phone with me everywhere and snap anything which interests me. It can be autumn leaves, iron railings, graffitti. Look at shapes, colour combinations, interesting juxtapositions. I keep these images on my computer as a gallery of ideas that hopefully will one day fit a binding. I also cut out photos from magazines that inspire me and stick them into a scrapbook – fashion and interiors are particularly fruitful.

It’s then good to start trying to get some of these ideas out of your head and onto paper. I draw a grid of boxes (about 10 x 7 cm) and fill them up with different elements or shapes. It’s far less daunting trying to fill a small box than a whole blank sheet of A2. Once a design is beginning to take shape, I draw an outline of the book I’m binding on a large sheet of paper. I take my chosen elements and blow them up on a photocopier, cut them out and play around with how they fit in the space and with each other. Playing with size is a useful exercise and more often than not enlarging shapes can provide a more interesting, abstracted outcome.

Then I think about my materials and techniques. How am I going to achieve my design within the physical limitations of the book form and the materials available. I consider all the tools in my repertoire – dying leather, inlays and onlays, tooling and painting, sanding and paring – frankly anything which will get the right look. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the stock bookbinding leathers and experiment. I make up samples of all the elements of the book – the covering leather, the doublures, the endpapers, the headbands, the edges – to make sure they fit together and there is a cohesiveness to the book. Ideally I make up a sample board of the cover so I can practise techniques and work out mistakes.

Only once all these elements are in place do I proceed to bind the book. I find the design can often take longer than the actual binding. It took me over a year to complete my first design binding! I would advise making a start now!

I’m very happy for anyone to email me with questions or run a workshop here in Frome. I’m on info@katehollandbooks.co.uk

Kate Holland