An eco-friendly use for an unfriendly material

Vellum and parchment are notoriously difficult materials for bookbinders. They react to light, heat and moisture much more than leather and paper do and the result can easily be warped covers which can never be made flat again. But there are ways of controlling such risks. Back in early January this year I posted a very short piece on ‘Some other work’, showing two books covered partly in re-claimed parchment and partly in salvaged pages from old books. In that piece I did not elaborate on how to control the main decorative material, reclaimed parchment.

Here is a case study which goes into more detail, based on a traditional style of binding very popular around the turn of the 20th Century: full-vellum with ribbon ties.


But I am not using new vellum, which is very expensive, but parchment re-claimed from old property deeds.


First, let’s deal with the ‘vandalism’ issue: there are many thousands of property deeds from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries in Britain, Europe and the Americas which have no historical value. Such information about law, society or the economy as they contained is replicated in other much more accessible forms. So re-using them to make something else is not destructive but creative. And it accords with current thinking about re-using material that already exists rather than new material which someone else had to use energy and raw materials to produce. The piece of used parchment shown above provides an attractive material for a book cover, even though the other side has writing on it.


Even if the piece of parchment is backed with opaque paper, the writing will still show through. It can easily be rubbed off (ink on both vellum and parchment rests chiefly on the surface rather than penetrating into the material) using sandpaper or, much better, Abranet mesh abrasive sheets. But please note, the dust created is irritating if inhaled so a mask is recommended. Reducing the writing above to the faint shadow below took less than five minutes. The piece of plain paper under the parchment is for the backing.


The next step is important in establishing control over the tendency of the parchment to shrink or otherwise distort. The paper piece is dampened on one side and pasted on the other. The parchment is dampened to the same amount on both sides and then  placed on the pasted paper and smoothed flat.


It is now left to dry thoroughly under a light weight. When dry it is ready to be used to cover a book. In this case, for demonstration purposes, a cloth cased small octavo volume. I am combining two techniques here – simple covering with parchment and incorporating tape or ribbon ties, as was used for example by the Kelmscott Press.


So the completed book will have tape ties and the covering material, the parchment, will be secured with glue only at the turn-ins to the covers – the front, spine and back surfaces are not adhered to the covers at all. This method is called ‘drumming’, but I don’t think it’s a good name because it implies that the material is stretched, as if over a drum-head, and it isn’t in fact stretched at all.

First the paper-lined parchment piece has to be marked up for the positions of the  slots for the tapes.

The positions of the slots to take the tapes are marked with a sharp awl from the inside. The width of the book spine is marked with creases and the slots for the tapes made by punching small holes from the outside and cutting  between them with a scalpel. The punched holes greatly reduce the risk of tearing the parchment while threading the tapes.

Preparing the head and tail for covering is shown below:


Tabs are cut at head and tail which, when eventually pasted, are tucked into the hollow of the spine.  The tapes are now threaded through the slots.


No glue or paste – the tapes are just pulled tight.


Now for the attachment of the parchment cover to the book. Only the turn-ins at head, tail and fore-edges  are glued,  on to the inside of the book boards and the tabs at head and tail into the spine hollow. First, damp the outside of the turn-in parchment and glue the inside, fore-edges first. Then along the top edge, folding the tab into the hollow (it goes in easily having been dampened on the outside first), and then along the bottom edge.


The corner detail is important – a version of the ‘boxed’ vellum corner is neatest as it avoids the lump you get with a normal folded corner.


The corner of the book cover looks pretty untidy as I have shaved off a sliver to accommodate the little square tab, but it disappears when the corner is complete.



And that’s it – done. The tape/ribbon ties appear to be holding the covers flat but in this case are only really cosmetic – an echo of limp vellum bindings from the end of the 1800s.

A final little refinement: the tab that goes down into the spine hollow can be shaped while still damp to simulate a covered headband.


The result is a book whose boards will not warp as the outer parchment is free to move. Of course, it should not be left in the sun, just as no book should be.

The parchment surface can be decorated or just left as it is – interesting and pleasantly tactile. And consumer-guilt-free!

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