Ch. 18 – Keeping in trim

There are certain things about a book that catch your eye; there are others you only really notice in their absence. Endpapers are an instance of the first kind: an attractive endpaper can lift a book out of the ordinary. The second kind are small details of finish: the curve of the spine, for example, that I discussed in chapter 16.

When I finished my first proofs, one such detail leapt out at me – the unevenness of the pages, chiefly on the fore-edge (i.e. the opposite side of the book from the spine). I had been aware of this from the outset, but it was only seeing it in the finished article that confirmed it as something that must be attended to.

The cause is simple: since every signature is made of a number sheets folded together – eight, in my case – it follows that the thickness of those sheets at the fold must be reflected in the fore-edge, which viewed from above will be shaped something like an arrow, > , with the middle pages as the tip and sloping back to the outermost. The difference is only that of a few sheets of paper, but once the signatures are bound together, the effect is multiplied – and in short, it gives the book an unfinished look.

The  solution that first came to mind was a guillotine, but the problem is capacity. Most guillotines will deal with only a few sheets of paper or a certain thickness of card, nowhere near a book, and generally not even the 16 sheets of my folded signatures. I had bought a guillotine, mainly with a view to cutting board for the covers (which in the event I got pre-cut) and possibly cutting endpapers, though I had some notion that I might trim each signature before sewing them together, even if that did add up to 900 separate signatures.

In the course of my researches I discovered  that a guillotine is one of those items on which you can spend  almost any amount of money – some can be had for under a tenner; others will cost you hundreds of pounds. However, one thing that did not greatly vary was their capacity, which tended to be a fairly low number of sheets at a time, certainly nothing approaching the thickness of a book.

So my mind turned to other means: how did actual book-makers do it? The internet is a wonderful resource, and one of the side-pleasures of this enterprise has been the interesting places my research has taken me. I must pay tribute to the many generous souls (mostly American, it must be said) who have taken the trouble to put useful and informative stuff out there, mainly on YouTube. Some are better presenters than others, it must be said, but there is a generosity of spirit about them all, and many strike me as true craftsmen, who love what they do and just want to share it.

I learned that the standard instrument in the trade was the plough, which the ever-reliable Jim Poelstra over at affordable binding equipment has a useful take on; or there was this man, Jesse Aston at Sea Lemon,  who struck me as the genuine article; and finally there was this, ‘Byzantine bookbinding: foredge cutting’  which probably appealed to me most, because it was messy and untidy, both things I can manage.

If you don’t have time for the videos, the gist is that you clamp the book vertically between two boards, ensuring that the front board has a true edge to act as a guide and that the book is supported fully at the back. You then draw a sharp blade of some sort along the edge (towards rather than away from you) and aim to cut only a few pages at a time, being sure to clear away the off-cuts as you go (which you can save to make your own paper, if you wish, an idea that appealed to me).

With this in mind, I added a paring knife to my Hewit’s order. This beautiful but lethal-looking article is actually meant for trimming leather, but I reckoned it would serve my purpose too. And it worked, up to a point, but it was hard to do consistently well and easy to do badly and it took a long time, which when multiplied by a hundred, made me think that my solution must lie elsewhere.

coming next: Gargantua, The Chinese Guillotine.

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