Molded Paper Spine Conservation Binding with Donia Conn

Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
August 21, 2004

Report by Eric Alstrom, in the GBW New England Chapter Newsletter

The molded paper spine binding is a conservation treatment Donia Conn came up with in answer to a problem she had with a collection in Syracuse University's library. Syracuse University's special collections library has a great number of German books printed and bound prior to the 19th century. The molded paper spine is a recasing structure intended for leather-bound books for which the covers have deteriorated too much to be salvageable. The new molded paper spine looks very much like leather and is very strong. And the pulled-paste paper she uses on the covers give the book an historic German look.

The tools and materials used are mostly what would be found in any conservation lab, or bookbindery for that matter. The only unusual material is the heavyweight flax paper used for molding the spine. Donia suggests using the University of Iowa's PC4 flax paper case paper or Cave Paper's heavyweight natural flax paper. She uses the undyed, natural color paper for its conservation qualities: there aren't any unknown colorants or acidic dyes in the paper. She then colors the paper herself using acrylics. Other supplies used were standard endsheet papers, binders board, the usual adhesives and Japanese papers. Tools included the standard set of hand-tools, brushes and gloves for paint, a hair dryer, and a finishing (or tying up) press.

The first thing we did was to put on our creative hats and start dying the flax paper. Using a mixture of acrylics and methylcellulose, we basically made a batch of paste-paper. Instead of using combs or other objects to impress patterns into the paper, we brushed the acrylic/methylcel onto an almost dry paper (the paper was just misted with a dilute water and ethanol solution) and then rubbed it in with our hands. Donia has experimented using different techniques, and the most leather like look comes from this method. I'll admit my piece of paper didn't have a very convincing leather-look, but the paper I've colored since then is much better. The trick is to get enough acrylic into the methylcel to give a rich, deep color. And it is nice to know that if your paper doesn't turn out satisfactory the first time, you can always add another layer of color to darken it up. Speaking of colors, Donia suggests using Burnt Umber as the best all around brown to match up with older leathers. The Burnt Sienna imparts a reddish tone, good for matching up the "Russian Moroccan" leathers.

After dying the flax paper, we made some pulled-paste papers. This is much more like traditional paste paper, but instead of creating a pattern with combs, the paper is folded in half after the acrylic/methylcel is brushed on. The two halves are rubbed together (careful not to press any finger prints onto the paper) and then pulled apart. The result is a pleasingly random pattern of small waves, clouds, and eddies across the sheet of paper. It is easy to do and gives an impressively historical look to the paper (if you use the right colors; otherwise you can create some wonderfully modern looking designs using the same method). My assessment of the workshop at this point was that we were going to have a wonderful day: any conservation workshop that starts out with creative paste papering gets my vote!

Of course after the fun-filled morning of making paste paper, we had to get down to work. The next several steps of the molded paper spine technique is fairly standard conservation rebinding procedure. I do have to point out that we were using "dummy" books discarded from the Syracuse University library. Donia had brought a variety of modern books which we pulled the covers off in order to use the textblocks. While the textblocks were not bound in a 18th century Germanic manner, they served the purpose of practicing the treatment. Besides, Donia brought some juicy titles, from Scandinavian art books to books about the great economists to a novel called "Genesee Fever" (which I took and is next on my reading list!).

After we pulled off the covers, we did a quick cleaning of the spine to remove any linings and super. Normally more time would have been taken for this procedure making sure all the old adhesive as well as the linings were removed. This would be in preparation for a lining of Japanese paper using wheat paste in order to protect the textblock from the PVA used for subsequent linings. Donia cuts her tissue just short of the height of the textblock. A discussion ensued about whether this provided enough protected at the head and tail. Donia's argument is if it's the exact height, it is more liable to be visible when the treatment is complete. We decided that it was a matter of personal style and probably didn't greatly affect the end results.

After the protective layer of Japanese paper, we hinged on new endsheets (doves gray endsheets and medium-weight Japanese paper hinges) both front and back. Then a piece of muslin was glued to the spine with PVA. The muslin extends an inch or so over the shoulders and creates the new hinges. If the book has raised cords (we glued on false bands to the spine of one of our books) it is best to cut slits in the muslin where the cords are so the cloth doesn't pucker around the shoulders. Donia does not add a paper lining after the cloth. She feels this adds too much stiffness to the opening of the textblock, especially on the older books she usually uses this technique on. We also stuck on some pre-made endbands. You can use either the commercially made ones, or ones you make yourself. Donia uses scraps of paste papers or colored papers wrapped around cords as her endbands.

Next we cut new boards from binders board. The thickness of board should match the size of the book's shoulders. The boards are cut to the height of the textblock plus the headbands, instead of the traditional 1/8" extra head and tail. The width is kept long so that the boards can be cut to size after attachment. Back corner the boards; for the uninitiated, this means cutting the two corners off at the head and tail of the spine at about a 60-degree angle. The cut is also beveled, decreasing in size towards the textblock. This is a traditional step in full leather bindings which allows room for the leather to bunch at the hinge area where there are two layers (i.e. the turn-in) and also facilitates shaping the headcaps and joints. The same will be done with the flax paper. The boards are then glued onto the muslin with PVA, set back just slightly from the shoulder.

Then came the heart of the technique: molding the new paper spine. We cut a piece of our dyed flax paper about 1" taller than the boards and wide enough to wrap around onto the boards by about 1" or whatever seemed appropriate (for an actual repair this would be dictated by the original binding). The painted paper was lightly misted from the inside and then molded over the spine. With the lighter-weight flax papers, very little water is needed or the paper will cockle. For the smooth spine, the paper is molded and placed in the lying press to dry. The press clamps the flax paper tight against the spine as it dries. The hardest part was making sure the paper didn't slip from front to back (or vice versa) and that it was tight (very tight!) against the spine. I would suggest cutting the paper wider than you think you need it to allow the paper to angle a bit as you get it tight on the spine; I ended up with a very short quarter binding on one of my books because of this. We cheated a bit on the drying since we were short on time and used a hair dryer, which of course could be used under normal circumstances for those of us who don't have enough patience.

For a book with raised bands the process is the same for cutting the paper, wetting it, and placing it in the press. But a tying up press is necessary so that twine can be tied around the cords to mold the paper to the shape of the spine and cords. A very pleasing historic look can be obtained as the twine impresses the cords into the paper and even makes the small "X" where the twine crosses over on either side of the raised band. Of course these are "false" raised bands since the paper spine will not be glued down directly to the spine of the textblock, but it looks nice on the shelf, anyway. For both styles of cover, no spine stiffener is used on the inside of the molded paper. The paper has enough strength and holds its shape on its own.

After the spine is molded, it is now ready to attach to the covers. The inside of the flax paper on either side of the molded spine are glued up with PVA and then it is placed over the textblock and smoothed onto the boards. Care must be taken to align the new spine not only head-to-tail but also front and back since the spine has its predetermined molded shape. The head and tail are then turned in over the boards and onto itself along the spine. After the glue has dried, trim the fore edge of the boards. This should be done afterwards since the paper can sometimes pull the boards towards the shoulders as it dries. After trimming the boards, we took the pulled-paste papers we made in the morning to cover the boards. The endsheets are then glued down and nipped in the press to ensure good adhesion and then left under weights to dry. Donia uses a piece of lightweight mat board or old press board as a barrier so the edges of the turn-ins don't make an impression on the flyleaf and first few pages. Donia also showed us how to "set the joint" after the book was completely dry by opening the cover and pushing down against the shoulder. This makes the cover easier to open and reduces the stress on the hinge in the future.

The last thing Donia covered was how she makes labels for her books. She designs the label on the computer and then laser prints it onto the doves gray endsheet paper. Even this slightly grayish paper can look starkly new against the "aged leather" look of the molded spine we just put onto our books. To give the paper a bit of a weathered look, Donia first brushes some Klucel G onto the paper and lets it dry. Then she takes some dilute acrylics (browns, of course, the color of dirt) and brushes those on. Since there is a layer of Klucel G first, the acrylic doesn't soak in evenly and tones down the new look of the paper. Donia also mentioned "paper schumtz," or "paper extract," a concoction of boiling down small pieces of older papers until a thick, brownish liquid is derived. There is an article about this procedure by Piers Townshend in "The Paper Conservator" (vol. 26, 2002, p. 21-26, "Toning with 'paper extract'").

All-in-all, we had a wonderful workshop with Donia. She is a good instructor, clearly explained what the procedures were and offered insight and extra information as we went along. For conservators dealing with large collections of deteriorating leather bindings, I would recommend this treatment as one solution. It is not overly time consuming and does not require expensive materials. But this binding can also be adapted for book artists and binders of new books. Again, this is an easy way to give an old look to a new book; or the materials can be colored to your own tastes to give a completely modern look to the book.