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Here are some bindings I’ve made featuring proper Cambridge panels. They are so British you can almost see them sip tea and keeping a stiff upper lip.

Ok ok, you’re right… The tea part was probably too much.

Jokes aside, these are actually French bindings in British disguise. I think I can hear the cries of disgust and horror carried by the wind from old Albion! The way I work is much more akin to the french school of bookbinding and I haven’t used calf, among other things.

I tried to remain faithful to the style/period as much as possible though: the headbands are similar to those found in similar bindings of the era and the marbled paper (from Payhembury) is as fitting and traditional as it gets.

I would like to take a moment and talk about Mister C, the client behind these. Mister C. is a connoisseur of refined tastes and a benevolent patron of the bookbinding Craft&Art (yes, I swapped those on purpose).

What’s quite interesting is how he enjoys commissioning a binding in many ways – particularly when it comes to challenging us. He carefully researches the kind of work each of his binders does and orders something just outside our comfort zone: familiar enough but at the same time one has to reach a bit beyond his/her existing skillset -or mindset- to make it…

Cambridge is his Alma Mater and the books did lend themselves perfectly fine for this style in regards to their (academic) content and time of publication. But the fact my work mostly revolves around design bindings also played an important role in prompting Mister C. to ask me for this particular style. I was more than keen though as I’ve been itching to try this style for a long time.

Bonus info: he did the exact opposite and commissioned a design binding from a fellow binder who mainly does classic work. To another, who finds peace in the Zen qualities of simple geometry neatly and orderly arranged (don’t ever change K.!), he commissioned a surreal book requesting that he would include a number of different marbled papers with designs capable of inducing a seizure!

Mister C. you’re a legend.

When the two volumes were brought in it quickly became apparent the paper was in poor condition, dry and fragile. Even though Eleni Tsetsekou, a book conservator, carefully took them apart they still needed an extreme amount of repairs: it took 5-6 days of work from Eleni and me to reinforce almost all the folios, we’re talking about 600-700 page books here, which in turn yielded some extremely thick spines.

For those unfamiliar with bookbinding; one of the things binders must do to produce a sound binding is to manage the thickness of the spine. The covers need to be parallel to each other so that the book has that rectangular box shape and can fit neatly on a shelf between other books.
However when a book is sewn the thread’s thickness is added dozens of times as it goes through the book’s signatures, thus increasing the spine’s thickness in relation to the fore edge. That’s one of the two reasons we round the book with a hammer, to distribute the added thickness.

Repairing tears or reinforcing the folios with Japanese tissue is another thing that can cause such an increase. In this case the amount of strips added (you can get an idea from the headband image) resulted in a spine almost double the thickness of the fore edge for one of the volumes. I thoroughly pressed and hammered those to reduce the swell and used on-off sewing to minimize the added thickness from the thread, but as you can see the spine was still too thick, especially in Vol II.
Rounding and backing was quite difficult…

This style is not particularly ornate, still, a lot of effort went into their making.
I’ve said time and again that most of the binder’s work goes unnoticed since people usually just look at the covers and how eye capturing they might or might not be. The quality of a binding though is mostly measured by its soundness, how well it is made. And many of the things that lead to a well made binding are either not immediately visible, unless you know where to look for, or not visible at all.

The boards are a good example. In 90% of my bindings I use composite boards (3 layers with the one in the middle having the grain running horizontally) for added strength and to prevent intense warping in various stages.

They are more resilient but also take a lot more time to make: excluding beveled edges (not a big fan), a regular single-ply board takes about 1-2 minutes to cut to size and smooth the edges a bit, whereas it takes 10 times as much to make the same piece as a composite – plus you have to wait 1-2 days for it to dry out under pressure.

Imagine a whole list of such details and you can realize why a plain looking binding takes so long to be made and costs a lot!

For the Cambridge panels I followed the well presented instructions by Nick Cowlishaw, which you can find in the issue No36 of Hewit’s excellent Skin Deep.

One issue I encountered is the binding being sticky and leaving a bit of smudge at the end when handled. Since the tutorial doesn’t mention any sealer or finish product my best guess points to the brand of spirit-dye I used, which strangely enough was the only one available and only at one store (!).  I buffed the covers vigorously with a smooth fabric and then did the same applying two coats of Carnauba wax cream, which did the trick. The bindings now have a gentle sheen which is visible in some of the photos.

I must admit this was a lot of fun. If you haven’t tried doing a Cambridge panel you should definitely give it a go!

It’s been a welcome change to do some more classic bindings every now and then. Design work is very interesting but can also be very draining. I plan to share more thoughts on the matter, comparing the two styles in a future post.


I used my Brass Band Nippers to shape the spine bands and Versatile Typeholder to tool the titles on these bindings – both of the tools are available upon request!