The little red book that could
A conservation approach to detached leather tightback boards
19 December 2016
This little red book about the papers and speeches of Colonel Hutton 1894-1898 was recently brought up to the Preservation lab for a few repairs. When we took a closer look, it was evident that this leather tightback with false raised bands had not only lost its lower board with its upper board hanging on by a thread, but it had already received some treatment in the past.
The boards had been previously reattached using small linen sutures that had broken away from the spine or boards, and taken a piece of the leather with it. The failure of the sutures is possibly due to the strength of the adhesive bonding to the leather and not the spine or board, and handling with force causing it to break away.
There were Japanese paper v-hinges on the inner boards and end papers which also appeared to have failed, where stresses had been added to the pages instead of the spine and boards, which are too light to hold the weight, and cause tearing. The toned Japanese paper repairs (using the Don Etherington method of using external hinges for supporting weakened joints of leather bindings) adhered on the outer joints had come off in areas, leaving an adhesive residue and possible skinning of the leather along the joint, which later became evident after the adhesive residue and tissue was reduced. Due to the strength, colour, texture and gloss of the adhesive, it is likely that the adhesive used was ethylene-vinyl acetate, or EVA.
Repairing a tightback is often more difficult than case bindings or other book structures, where there is access to the spine of the book. In this case, the spine of the book is adhered to the leather case, with no hollow in between. These types of bindings have a tendency to break due to the inflexibility of the spine which can split without the use of a book support and often opens like a fan without much drape. The flexibility of these bindings also depends on the paper used and its grain direction.
After assessment of the item to identify the techniques and materials used to create the book and where the points of failure were, or how the book came to be in this condition, it was possible to create a treatment approach that would allow the book to be handled and accessed by the public again.
To begin with, the leather was consolidated with a non-aqueous adhesive solution of Klucel G and Isopropanol to not only hold the leather fibres that are flaking off in place, but to protect the leather from the use of adhesives that will be used later in the treatment. This solution was used with a cotton tip to reduce the Japanese paper repair and adhesive residue on the outer joint, and to attach a facing to joint areas of the book. This facing allowed movement to occur beneath the leather without a high risk of the leather flaking or chipping off.
The old repairs were removed as much as possible without causing further damage to the leather or boards.
The spine was then inspected to assess whether sutures could be fitted beneath the leather spine covering and between the leather and cover boards. It is often found that the adhesive between the leather and the spine is too strong and difficult to separate, hence the application of the Don Etherington technique as an alternative solution. In this case, the leather and spine could be carefully separated between the sewing stations using a septum elevator or bamboo spatula which is less rigid. This created spaces for the strong and flexible cotton suture strips to be inserted into. Using a toothpick application of Lascaux, these sutures could be attached to the spine and then between the split laminated layers of the boards.
The sutures were created to be thicker and attach deeper than the previous repairs to avoid failure again. The cotton sutures were coated with Klucel G to make the strips more rigid and easier to feed between the layers avoiding any folding of the strips that would create lumps and bumps through the leather.
Once the boards were reattached, the facing was removed by remoistening the paper with the same Klucel G and isopropanol solution (image below).
A lightweight Japanese tissue was then toned using watered down acrylic paints to match the colour the book (image below).
This was then adhered over the joint to create another method of attachment and sneakily disguise the repairs beneath. The strips were then coated with a thin layer of an acrylic polymer called SC7400, a conservation grade wax emulsion similar to shoe cream! This gives the paper repairs more of a leather look.
Finally the internal joints were supported with v-hinges and the torn pages were repaired using again a lightweight Japanese tissue that would allow transparency to read the media beneath and strength to hold the page together.
For further reading on the Don Etherington technique:
Etherington, D 1995, “Japanese Paper Hinge Repair for Loose Boards on Leather Books”, in Abbey Newsletter, Vol. 19, No. 3, pp 48-49; URL: < http://cool.conservation-us.org/byorg/abbey/an/an19/an19-3/an19-305.html>.
Papers and speeches, &c. / by Colonel Hutton, 1895-1898