First printings of popular titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Old Man and the Sea can fetch upwards of $100,000—but not if their covers are battered, their dust jackets missing, or their delicate pages detached. Although returning damaged classics to their original condition may be impossible, having them finely bound can save cherished copies from the dustbin.
Unlike antiques such as furniture and decor, the worth of which can be greatly diminished by restoration, literary works can recoup some of their monetary value (and extend their longevity) if properly refurbished. Chelsea Bindery in Battersea, London, takes the endeavor one step further by transforming first editions into objects even more decorative than the originals. “A particularly artistic or lavish binding adds to the desirability of a book as a collectible and to the pleasure it brings,” explains manager Emma Doyle.
A single book can take up to 12 weeks to bind, with prices starting at about $1,800, depending on the size and the intricacy of the design. In some cases, the workshop will remain faithful to the spirit of the old cover; other times, it will reimagine it completely. The rejuvenated volumes’ fine leather bindings can incorporate 22-karat gold. Chelsea artisans have even encrusted a first edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with real diamonds in the tiara.
The production process demands an exacting degree of meticulousness. “There are technical details, such as the lettering, which must be sharp and crisp, with just the right amount of pressure applied, so that the impression is not too deep,” says Doyle. “The tools must be at precisely the right temperature; otherwise, the leather can be scorched. The gilt rules and decorative rolls must meet perfectly at the corners.”
Peter Harrington, the largest vintage-books dealer in Europe, founded Chelsea Bindery in 2000. Each year, the operation creates a catalog of about 160 first, limited, and special illustrated editions for Peter Harrington’s two storefronts, located in Chelsea and Mayfair. It also accepts custom commissions and fabricates solander cases to protect the rare titles.
“Ultimately, a beautifully bound book reinforces the sense of pleasure one associates with a timeless tale or loved story,” Doyle says. “It’s a way to visually connect the physical object to the treasures contained within its pages.”
1. All Stitched Up
The hand-sewing of sections of pages, known in the publishing trade as signatures, needs to be strong enough to hold the book together without being too bulky. A binder threads a needle with either cotton or polyester and stitches together a few sheets at a time. A volume takes about two hours on average, depending on the size and number of signatures.
2. On Edge
Once the pages are fastened together, the edges of the paper are sanded by hand until smooth. A bonding agent is applied and allowed to dry before a thin gold foil is ironed on and the excess wiped away in a process called gilding. “It stops dust from getting into the pages of the book,” explains Doyle. “In a lot of earlier books, you might just have a top-edge gild, but we tend to do ours with all edges.”
3. Hammer Time
Next, the binder places the book block on a table and repeatedly hits the spine with a specialized tool called a backing hammer, which forms the spine’s distinctive curve. Then the block goes fore-edge down into a machine between two backing irons, where the worker strikes the spine again, moving outward from the middle, until it ultimately retains its shape.
4. Just a Trim
The book boards, which act as the front and back covers, are critical components. First, millboards are measured to extend four millimeters beyond the pages and then cut via a board chopper. Later, the boards are attached to both sides of the book using PVA glue and left to dry for several hours.
5. Band Together
The headband is sewn into the top of the spine using two or three different-hued threads. “The colors correspond with the endpapers and the leather used for the cover,” says head binder Tony Smith. Not only does the band add a subtle decorative element, it also protects the head and tail of the spine from damage when the book is pulled off the shelf.
6. Skin Deep
Leather—Moroccan goatskin, in this case—is cut to size for the cover and pared down using a spokeshave.
7. Cover to Cover
Before bonding the leather to the book, a binder creates the raised bands that run horizontally down the length of the spine by laminating together three separate pieces of leather, cutting them into five strips of three to four millimeters each, and gluing them on individually. To adhere the leather cover to the book, the goatskin is dampened and a paste is brushed onto the boards. The leather is then wrapped around the book, and a bandstick is used to press the material firmly onto the spine. Nippers help pinch the leather tightly around the raised bands.
8. A Final Flourish
When it comes to the finishing, Doyle decides how to decorate the cover based on the period and genre. In some cases, the process involves creating ruled lines and other embellishments by running heated brass tools over a layer of 22-karat gold leaf. “What really sets one bindery apart from another is the skill of the master finisher,” Doyle says.
9. Naming Conventions
The title and date of first publication are stamped in gold leaf onto the spine at the top and bottom, respectively. The linotype machine that produces the lead slugs for titling came from the renowned Zaehnsdorf Bindery and dates back 100 years. “My engineer said it’s the oldest one in this country that’s running,” Smith notes.
10. The End
A binder cuts individual pieces of colored leather and applies them to the cover to form the desired image (shown here: Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald). Lastly, endpapers are pasted inside the boards. “There’s definitely a school of thought that you choose the endpaper depending upon the period of the book,” Doyle says. “If it was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I might go for a modern, contemporary design. If I was doing something like Pride and Prejudice, which is earlier, then I would go for the marbled.