Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 111
April 1997


Alex J. Vaughn. Modern Bookbinding. Robert Hale Limited. Clerkenwell House, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1RT 0HT, England. 1996; facsimile of 2nd (1950) edition with new forward by Maureen Duke. 217pp. $25. ISBN 0 7090 5820 9.

Reviewed by Roberta Pilette.

As Maureen Duke, sometime chair of the English Society of Bookbinders, points out in her brief foreword, this is not a "teach yourself" book but a book to be used in connection with hands-on course work or training sessions. Used in this context the book can be very useful, though Arthur Johnson's Bookbinding may be more helpful as a beginner's textbook. I found Modern Bookbinding interesting and useful because of the historical perspective on methods and techniques-some still in use and others long fallen into disuse.

The book is divided into three main sections: letterpress forwarding, vellum or stationery binding, and finishing and design. A fourth, small section discusses estimating, very much a bit of history, and shows how commercial binding was once broken down into specific operations each with associated costs of labor and materials.

The first section on letterpress forwarding is by far the largest part of the book. In it Vaughn discusses many restoration and repair techniques as well as endsheet construction, sewing, and forwarding of the book. Many conservators and binders today will cringe at the restoration methods described. Certainly sanding away marks and bleaching with permanganate of potash (pp.16-17) are not techniques that should be considered treatment options by a modern conservator. However, knowing about these past practices is important: it helps to explain certain types of damage sometimes seen in older previously restored or repaired books.

It is also important to keep in mind that technology has moved on since this book's second edition in 1950 (the first was 1929). Vaughn's comment, for example, that engine-sized papers "should not be used for works of permanent value" (p.3) is quite dated as today's engine-sized papers can be permanent and durable and may be quite acceptable for use with items of permanent value. While much of this section is covered in other similar books on binding, Vaughn includes sections on machine sewing and the backing machine; a list of covering materials with general observations after each of them; and a list of covering styles with comments, as well as brief instructions. These set this book apart from other books on bookbinding.

Section three on vellum or stationery bindings was eye opening. While this section suffers the same weakness of the rest of the book - this is not a how-to, step by step - it does give many more details then are found in either Diehl's Bookbinding, Its Background and Technique or Middleton's History of English Craft Bookbinding. The description of the parts of a spring back account book and its construction will be welcomed by anyone who needs to repair account books, manifold books, note books and general office ledgers. Vaughn also gives diagrams for the various vellum lacing patterns found on these bindings.

The section on finishing and design makes up considerably less than a quarter of the book. Anyone who has ever done gold tooling will realize the explanations here are far from complete. However, the comments on how difficult or easy it is to tool certain leathers will be appreciated; as will the comments on design. Vaughn's suggestions on what to consider when developing the design or simply laying out the title are basic and useful reminders.

The inclusion in this section of short overviews of the historic elements of design starting with the fifteenth century is very basic but helpful in identifying the key characteristics of given eras. The few pages on bookbinding repairs, recasing and rebacking, put in at the end of this section, might have fit better near the beginning with the letterpress forwarding and discussion of other repairs. The techniques described for recasing and rebacking do not give a lot of detail but hit the important points.

The volume reviewed was an adhesive bound paperback which did not stay open flat on a desk top. Since this is not intended as a manual, this is not a critical flaw. With the minor exception of the placement of the rebacking and recasing information, the book's layout is logical. Locating a particular technique is reasonably easy with the index and detailed contents page. The illustrations are not the best. While they are fairly numerous, beginners may find them confusing or incomplete. Many readers may not even be aware that Vaughn has associated an illustration with a description since rarely are the two linked by specific page numbers.

This title may not be a must-have for every bookbinding library but it will serve as a good complement to the current standard texts of books on binding. Most conservators will want to consider purchasing it because of its historical perspective.