The Art of Bookbinding/Chapter 17

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The Art of Bookbinding by Joseph William Zaehnsdorf
Chapter XVII.

CHAPTER XVII.


Gilt Edges.


A gilt edge is the most elegant of all modes of ornamenting edges, and this branch of bookbinding has from time to time been so greatly extended, that at the present day there are many ways in which a book may have the edges gilt; but some methods are not pursued, either from ignorance on the binder's part, or with a view to save expense.

First we have the "plain gilt," then "gilt in the round"; then again some colour under the gold, for instance, "gilt on red," or whatever the colour may be, red being mostly used, especially for religious books. Some edges are "tooled," and some have a gilt edge with landscape or scene appropriate to the book painted on the edge, only to be seen when the book is opened. "Marbling under gilt" may also be used with good effect; but still better "marbling on gilt."

The room where gilt edge work is done should be neither dirty nor draughty, and the necessary materials are:—

1st. The Gold Cushion.—This may be purchased ready for use, or if the binder wishes to make one, it may be done by covering a piece of wood, about 12 inches by 6, with a piece of white calf, the rough side outwards, and padding it with blotting paper and cloth. The pieces underneath should be cut a little smaller than the upper one, so that it will form a bevel at the edge, but quite flat on the top. The calf to be neatly nailed all round the edge. If the pile of the leather is too rough, it can be reduced with a piece of pumice stone, by rubbing the stone on the calf with a circular motion.

2nd. Gold Knife.—This should be a long knife of thin steel, the blade about one to one and a half inch wide.

3rd. Burnishers.—These are made of agate stone, and can be purchased of any size. A flat one, and two or three round ones, will be found sufficient. They should have a very high polish.

4th. Glaire Water or Size.—The white of an egg and a tea-cup full of water are well beaten together, until the albumen is perfectly dissolved. It must then be allowed to stand for some hours to settle, after which it should be strained through a piece of linen which has been washed; old linen is therefore preferred to new.

5th. Scrapers.—Pieces of steel with the edge or burr made to turn up by rubbing the edge flat over a bodkin or other steel instrument, so that when applied to the edge a thin shaving of paper is taken off. The beauty of gilding depends greatly on proper and even scraping.

6th. The Gold Leaf.—This is bought in books, the price according to quality; most of the cheap gold comes from Germany. I recommend the use of the best gold that can be had; it being in the end the cheapest, as cheap gold turns black by the action of the atmosphere in course of time.

The method of preparing the gold[1] is by making an alloy: gold with silver or copper. It is drawn out into a wire of about six inches in length, and by being passed again between steel rollers is made into a ribbon. This ribbon is then cut into squares and placed between vellum leaves, about four or five inches square, and beaten with a hammer somewhat like our beating hammer, until the gold has expanded to the size of the vellum. The gold is again cut up into squares of about one inch, and again interleaved; but gold-beaters' skin is now used instead of vellum; and so by continual beating and cutting up, the proper thickness is arrived at. If the gold is held up to the light, it will be found to be beaten so thin that it is nearly transparent, although when laid on any object it is of sufficient thickness to hide the surface underneath. It has been estimated that the thickness of the gold leaf is only 1/280000 of an inch.

To gild the edges, the book should be put into the press straight and on a level with the cheeks of the press between cutting boards, the boards of the book being thrown back. The press should be screwed up very tightly, and any projection of the cutting boards should be taken away with a chisel. If the paper is unsized or at all spongy, the edge should be sized and left to dry. This may be ascertained by wetting a leaf with the tongue: if spongy, the moisture will sink through as in blotting paper. The edge should be scraped quite flat and perfectly even, care being taken to scrape every part equally, or one part of the edge will be hollow or perhaps one side scraped down, and this will make one square larger than the other. When scraped quite smoothly and evenly, a mixture of black lead and thin glaire water is painted over the edge, and with a hard brush it is well brushed until dry.

The gold should now be cut on the gold cushion. Lift a leaf out of the book with the gold knife, lay it on the gold cushion, and breathe gently on the centre of the leaf to lay it flat; it can then be cut with perfect ease to any size. The edge is now to be glaired evenly, and the gold taken up with a piece of paper previously greased by drawing it over the head. The gold is then gently laid on the edge, which has been previously glaired. The whole edge or end being done, it is allowed to get perfectly dry, which will occupy some two hours.

Before using the burnisher on the gold itself, some gilders lay a piece of fine paper on the gold and gently flatten it with the burnisher. Books are often treated in this manner, they then become "dull gilt." When intended to be bright, a waxed cloth should be gently rubbed over the surface two or three times before using the burnisher. The beauty of burnishing depends upon the edge presenting a solid and uniform metallic surface, without any marks of the burnisher. The manner of burnishing is to hold a flat burnisher, where the surface is fiat, firmly in the right hand with the end of the handle on the shoulder, to get better leverage. Work
Cross-hatched drawings of three long, thin metal implements.
Book-edge Burnishers.
the burnisher backwards and forwards with a perfectly even pressure on every part. When both ends are finished, the foredge is to be proceeded with, by making it perfectly flat. It is better to tie the book, to prevent it slipping back. The foredge is to be gilt exactly in the same manner as the ends; it will of course return to its proper round when released from the press. This is done with all books in the ordinary way, but if the book is to have an extra edge, it is done "solid" or "in the round." For this way the book must be put into the press with its proper round, without flattening it, and scraped in that position with scrapers corresponding with the rounding. The greatest care must be taken in this kind of scraping that the sides are not scraped away, or the squares will be made either too large or lop-sided.

Gilt on Red.—The edges are coloured by fanning them out as explained in colouring edges, and when dry, gilt in the usual way; not quite such a strong size will be wanted, through there being a ground in the colour; nor must any black lead be used. The edges should in this process he scraped first, then coloured and gilt in the usual way.

Tooled Edges.—The book is to be gilt as usual, then while in the press stamped or worked over with tools that are of some open character; those of fine work being preferable. Some design should be followed out according to the fancy of the workman. The tools must be warmed slightly so that the impression may be firm; the foredge should be done first. Another method is to tool the edge before burnishing, or the different portions of the tooling may be so managed in burnishing that some parts will be left bright and standing in relief on the unburnished or dead surface.

Painted Edges.—The edge is to fanned out and tied between boards, and whilst in that position some landscape or other scene, either taken from the book itself or appropriate to the subject of it, painted on the foredge, and when quite dry it is gilt on the flat in the usual manner. This work of course requires an artist well skilled in water-colour drawing. The colours used must be more of a stain than body colour, and the edges should be scraped first.

After the edges have been gilt by any of the foregoing methods, the rounding must be examined and corrected; and the book should be put into the standing press for two or three hours, to set it. The whole of the edges should be wrapped up with paper to keep them clean during the remainder of the process of binding. This is called "capping up."


  1. Although this has practically nothing to do with the art of book-binding, it is always advisable for a workman to know something about the tools and materials he uses.