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  • Julie Stackpole

What Is Creative Fine Binding?

Updated: May 16, 2021

Hand bookbinding has many categories of sort and quality, from cloth or paper-covered case-bindings, to historical binding replicas, to edition bindings for private press books, to rare book restoration, to one-of-a-kind creative bindings.

Creative fine binding, or “design binding” is an art form in which the binder creates a binding for a book that is unique to that copy, and which serves both as the functional “cover” for the book and also as an introduction to the appearance and subject of the book through its design, colors, typography, and materials. Thus, design binding is a form of 4-dimensional art, because it is 3-dimensional like a sculpture (but which also has to function as a book that gets opened and used), and has the 4th dimension of reference to the contents of the book. The materials used can vary: although fine leather is most common, it can also be bound using vellum, cloth, decorated paper, or plastics. Fine binding, whether creative or traditional, requires a high degree of training and skill to successfully achieve the multiple processes needed to complete the binding.

Analysis of a Design Binding

Much labor and expense is usually devoted to producing a fine binding, so it is sensible to use a text that is printed on archival or durable paper and beautifully designed and printed, ideally by a private press in a limited edition. Usually, I can't afford to buy a private press book "in sheets" (not yet bound) on spec unless I know of a competition or a possible collection where it would end up. Offerings by The Limited Editions Club or The Folio Society often meet the standard of well made / interesting subject, and if I find a copy whose binding is damaged as well, I might buy it to save for the right occasion. The book that is going to be bound may not satisfy those requirements, however. Most frequently, in order to find a book that is interesting enough to inspire a creative binding, I must turn to a regular published hardcover book to find the text that I would bind, or the book may be a copy for the author so it is made in the publisher's format. Nowadays, a hardcover book may not even have sewn signatures but a glued spine, the so-called "perfect binding," or it only was published as a paperback.

This binding on Time and the Flying Snow is an example of the latter situation. I wanted to work on a Gordon Bok book for a show since I listen to his maritime folk music frequently in my bindery anyway, but this book of his folk songs was published by Folk-Legacy Records as a large thin paperback. The text is printed on regular white paper, with the words and music to his songs, interspersed with sketches and woodcuts by Bok. I have several techniques for turning a glued spine into signatures that can be sewn, especially if the book is thin, so that is what I did with this one. On some pages, I also inserted sheets of an interesting Japanese paper that has circles like snowflakes formed of pulp in the paper white-on-white, to make the text more unique.

I believe a design binding should introduce both the subject of the book and aspects of its appearance, especially if it has illustrations or noticeably different typography. In this case I took the cover design of a boat in a stormy sea directly from one of the sketches in the book. I planned out the layout of the image and what techniques to use, selected the leathers to carry it out and other aspects of the binding. Since there would be layers of waves, I coordinated the placement of the raised bands with the wave tops so the design could continue over the spine as it was sewn on cords. The endpapers are a very loose marbled paper I made for the binding in a greeny blue-grey, like waves. Unlike some binders, I like to have the endpapers continue the theme of the outside design into the inside, to carry the reader into the book. I sometimes make my own decorative papers, whether marbled, paste papers or other techniques, or I use a professional marbler's product, especially for the more controlled, combed marbles. The top edge is graphite (shiny silvery gray), with "goffering" or tooling of flakes scattered on it. The head- and tail-bands are sewn with colors of silks that coordinate with the rest.

The dark sea-green Niger goatskin leather on the lower part of the boards had the waves carved into it from the underside before covering. This could also be done by sculpting the boards, but paring the leather deliberately unevenly, in this case, was easier. The ominous gray clouds in the sky at the top is achieved with thin onlays of a Levant goatskin that has this different grain, while the area of rain is a gray Niger goatskin. Both of these have been embossed with linoleum cuts. The boat and sail were also embossed with a lino-cut but not darkly enough so it was filled in with an onlay of dark blue leather. Astute observers might notice that the leather of the gray sky has breaks in it over the hinges or joints of the covers. This is because I don't trust Levant goatskin to be strong over time if it has been pared down to the thinness that is flexible over a moving joint. It is very thick by nature and loses the strong layer when pared thin. That is acceptable when applied to a non-moving area such as the onlays on the boards. At first I had it going continuously from back board to spine to front board on top of the blue-green Niger leather but that was too bulky on the joints. Finally, the titling on the spine was tooled in "blind"(just the leather darkened without any bright metal leaf in it) for the author, and in silver for the title, to continue the theme of cool colors and embossing.

I reused parts of this design for another binding: Water, a book of poems, which is a private press printed limited edition book created for a Designer Bookbinders show. On its covers it has ocean, clouds, rainstorm, waves, breakers and rocky beaches; the endpapers are a marbled paper like raindrops.

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