Before the decorative outer cover can be made, the book block or codex itself must be assembled. Sheets of paper are torn to the required size and folded to form a folio. A set of folios are then nested together to make a gathering or signature, and these are lined up to form a basic book block.
My folios are usually ‘gathered in eights’ – four folios folded to form eight pages.
Grooves are sawn across the spine of the block to accommodate the recessed cords. Waxed linen thread is then used to sew each signature in place.
At the end of the book, a kettle-stitch (from the German ketteln – linking or looping) is used to join the signatures together and to reinforce the spine.
The sewn book block is cut from the sewing frame at this stage, and strong adhesive applied to the spine, bonding the signatures together. During this time, the book block is clamped securely between the boards, or in a purpose-built book press, to prevent moisture from the glue from warping the pages.
Any part of the process that involves glue can take days to complete; allowing enough time for the glue to dry thoroughly can make all the difference between a strong book and a useless pile of paper. If the spine is to be rounded, this must be done before the glue is applied, by gently shaping the profile of the pages with a rawhide mallet.
Decorative endpapers, which will join the book block to the cover, are then glued in place and the cords are cut short, frayed and flattened, then glued onto the endpapers. A large layer of mull – an open mesh cloth – is glued over the spine and flattened cords.
Once the book block is dry, layers of thin paper are built up on the spine to reinforce it and help to maintain its shape. Finally, the endbands (protective bands of silk or cord) and bookmarks are added.
The entire process of hand-binding a book in this way – not including drying times – can easily take more than eight hours. Then work on the decorative covers can begin.