Springback Binding with Richard Nichols

By Lucy Cokes

In 1799, John and Joseph Williams applied to patent a new type of binding-the springback. The springback does what it says on the tin: it is a volume whose spine literally 'springs back'-pushing the pages up and out of the spine. This way, the pages can be opened flat. This was especially useful for large ledgers and account books as the flat pages were more suitable for writing on. Springbacks, and variations of them, are still used today.

The books department at West Dean College was recently treated to a special visit from Richard Nichols, an archive conservator. For a manic four days, all 15 books students traded off on presses and ploughs to create a springback book and explore this historical book structure.

Having previously prepared the sections that would make up the pages of the book, we sat at our workbenches to sew them together. We used a French link stitch over wide tapes, leaving the ends free, and attached the (also previously prepared) endpapers with the same method.

One of the many things we've learnt from our springback workshop is that bookbinding can be very smelly! Animal glue has been used throughout bookbinding history because it is incredibly strong stuff that can withstand the repeated use that books go through. The smell of warm animal glue (think wet dog) clung to us every day in the workshop for the duration of the course! We glued the spine to hold all the sections of pages together.

After the glue was dry (and less smelly) we rounded the spine by bashing it with a hammer. This gives it a nice curve and eliminates the swell from sewing.

With the spine set, the book was ploughed to create smooth edges. Often at this stage, springback edges would be marbled as a form of both decoration and security-if the pattern on the edge was disturbed, it may indicate that pages within had been tampered with.

Applying leather strips, or clothings, to the spine allows for a very strong support, which helps absorb stress during the opening and closing of the book. We applied these strips with more animal glue.

Next, two levers were created from millboard. These go either side of the spine and allow the pages to 'pop' out. When the levers were in place, the free ends of the supporting wide tapes and the leather clothings were glued onto them. The levers were then stuck down to the endpaper waste sheets.

A solid spine piece, made from layers of paper and animal glue, was created by curling it around a roller and creating a 'c' shape. The spring, as this 'c' shape is known, is then lined with aero-cotton. The spring fits over the spine and clings on and the aero-cotton is extended and glued over the levers. This gives a lot more strength to the springing and levering action and secures the spring.

With the spring in place, the endpaper waste sheets were then folded back and glued over the top of the lever to create even more strength. 'Split boards' (two boards glued together halfway, creating a 'split' on the glue-free half) are used on springbacks as the covering boards. The millboard levers were inserted between the splits in the boards. This hinge is what allows the levers to push the pages up and out when the book is open, creating the effect after which the binding is named.

Rough bases for the headcaps were shaped on either end of the spring by beating and shaping with a blunt instrument, such as the handle of a spokeshave or scissors. These rough bases and shaped spring create extra support for the leather headcaps.

Once the levers had been inserted into the boards and the base for the headcaps had been shaped, leather was applied onto the spine. I chose to work with grey goatskin, a leather that I have worked with before, as it can be quite forgiving and is easier to pare than some others we have.

The leather was then pulled and shaped over the top of the rough bases on the spring with a bone folder to create the headcaps. I am reasonably happy with mine, although they could always do with some refinement.

Traditionally, cloth is used for covering the sides of the boards and I chose to use navy-blue Edinburgh buckram, which also compliments my endpapers-blue and purple marble.

The excess leather and cloth were trimmed to make equal turn-ins and the board was infilled with additional paper to create a smooth appearance underneath the endpaper. I trimmed out my endpapers to form a more or less equal square around the boards, allowing for any paper expansion caused by moisture in the paste. It is quite a stressful process to get the endpapers down, as it is done more or less blind. The boards were shut onto the pasted endpapers and put straight into the press for a nip. It was a nerve wracking half hour!

If everything was okay after the nip, the book was put back into the press for a few hours to dry. When taken out of the press, the book was opened very delicately-moved back and forth on its hinge so the leather could get a sense of how it would work in the future. The pages were stroked open from either end and encouraged to lay flat.

My springback came out of the press looking like a book. Success! I was in such a hurry to finish the book in the time we had with Richard that it is a little bit messy and could use some refinement. I believe I could replicate the processes and produce a stronger portfolio piece in the future.

Despite some mistakes I am very happy with my springback. I can use the skills I learnt over the course and apply them to the conservation of account books - by creating new springs, for example - and use my new knowledge of constructing sturdy structures in the conservation of other books.

But for now, I am happy that I will not have to use animal glue for a while!