Founded in Handcraft:
The Roots of Publishers’ Bindings

Before publishers began issuing editions bound and decorated by machine, most books were bound and decorated by craftsmen -- by hand. When machine-bound were introduced to the market, elements of hand binding were incorporated to suit the tastes and aesthetic expectations of the book-buying public. For example, impressions stamped onto the covers of publishers' bindings were reminiscent of hand-tooled marks designed by craftsmen.

Tools are a necessity to any craftsman, and bookbinders are no exception. Any 19th-century bindery would contain a variety of brass and iron implements used to make and decorate bindings. These hand-held tools take on a new importance as bookbinding scholars use the resulting designs to determine the time and place a binding was made, and in many cases, the identity of the binder.


Most of a binder's hand tools were used for finishing the leather or cloth that bound a volume. To finish a binding, the craftsman first prepared the material for tooling. Binders working in leather often polished the hide, using a heated polishing iron to smooth out irregularities. Whether working in leather or cloth, binders finally tooled the design and title into the material by making impressions with heated finishing tools. After making a blind impression, the binder sometimes pressed gold leaf into the indentation with the same tools.



Finishing tools primarily could be divided into two categories: rolls and stamps. Rolls consisted of wheels with continuous designs engraved on the circumference, used to create long lines. Fillets–which made plain, straight lines–were the most common rolls. A binder would own several line fillets of different gauges, as well as fillets containing anywhere from one to four parallel lines.

Using a fillet

Decorative rolls made lines of ornamentation, such as flowers, leaves, and scallops. Mitered wheels had gaps cut into the edge for easier cornering. Decorative rolls usually were not mitered because the gap would limit the length of the line that could be cut to the circumference of the wheel.

Fillets, on the other hand, could be turned past the miter and reset into the groove to continue the line. The bronze or brass wheel would turn on an iron axle and carriage. The carriage could be single (with one leg) or double (with two legs), also called a fork. Because of the pressure required to form a line with a roll, the implement would be set into a long, thick wooden handle that rested on the binder's shoulder.


Hand stamp

Hand stamps had slender shanks with enlarged ends into which devices–such as pictorial designs, dots, lines, and letters–were engraved. The shank would be mounted on a wooden handle that fit in the binder's hand. Commonly, binders used stamps of single letters in combination to form words. Ornamental stamps called corner tools were made in pairs to decorate opposite corners. Center tools imprinted decorations into the middle of a panel.


Pallets and gouges were line tools similar to stamps. Binders used pallets of various lengths and thicknesses to make short lines, such as on the width of a book's spine. Pallets could be plain or decorative lines. Some binders also had pallets engraved with words they used often, such as “Bible,” to make stamping titles onto book spines easier.


Concentric circles made by a set of gouges

Gouges were curved line tools, generally made in sets with the respective tools representing segments of concentric circles. Gouges could be used alone to make small curved lines as well as in combination to make circles, complex curves, and serpentines.

Binders usually would build up various designs using a combination of hand tools. This practice offered an opportunity for creativity and diversity in arrangement of decorative devices. For example, a binder might use a double-line fillet to make a rectangle, then add ornate decoration with two corner tools and a center tool, and fill in the space between the center and corners with other small tools such as dots, circles, stars, and florets. By the mid-19th century, binders engraved motifs they previously had built up of several small, simple hand tools into one large, complex stamp. These stamps were set into mechanical presses, allowing the binder to easily duplicate the design on several books. Although binders continued using hand tools to some extent, mechanical presses became more common.


Finishing tools of the early 19th century were hand-engraved, which made even tools of the same basic design slightly unique. Therefore, historians of bookbinding can use the imprints these tools left to identify the work of individual craftsmen through one unusual tool or the repetitive use of a combination of tools. Historians also are able to trace the development of a style of binding, the passage of tools from one binder to another, and the appearance of a new tool in a binder's equipment. Once binders began using mechanical presses to mass-produce book covers, finishing became more of a trade than a craft, and the individuality that marked users of earlier tools disappeared.

Conroy, Tom. Bookbinders' Finishing Tool Makers, 1780-1965 . New Castle , DE : Oak Knoll Press, 2002.

Diehl, Edith. Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique . New York : Dover, 1980.

French, Hannah D. Bookbinding in Early America : Seven Essays on Masters and Methods, with catalogues of bookbinding tools prepared by Willman Spawn. Worcester : American Antiquarian Society, 1986.

Spawn, Willman and Carol M. “Francis Skinner, Bookbinder of Newport : A Craftsman Identified by His Tools.” Winterthur Portfolio 2 (1965): 47-61.

Image source: Diehl, Edith. Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique . New York : Dover, 1980.

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