Copyright 1989 Robert G. Ferrell

Medieval Bookbinding

The monastic scriptorium, and later the secular workshop, were devoted largely to the copying, translation, and creation of book-length manuscripts, both clerical and secular. These manuscripts were often done for wealthy nobles or merchants, and such works were usually illuminated, some quite elaborately. Liberal quantities of rare and expensive pigments, gold, and sometimes (rarely, because it tarnishes) silver went into their making. Illuminated manuscripts became one of the ultimate status symbols of the middle ages and early renaissance, and were designed to be as durable as possible, while retaining their decorative and practical value.

Around 200 A.D., large sheets of papyrus were being folded in half before being written upon, thereby doubling the number of immediately accessible pages. When a number of these folded pages were attached to one another at the fold, a book or codex (from the Latin caudex, or tree trunk, referring to the composition of the first coverings) was created. Such a book, made from several single folded sheets, is called a folio. Folios have the disadvantage of requiring a set of stitches for every folded sheet (i.e., for every four pages); this accumulation of overlapping stitches causes an extreme rounding of the spine in books of any length. In addition, sewing through single sheets promotes ripping of the papyrus or paper between the stitches whenever a page is turned.

These problems may be alleviated by placing several folded sheets one inside the other to form groups of pages called sections (these are sometimes referred to as signatures; however, signature is a modern term for a large printed sheet of pages in multiples of four which, when properly folded and cut, yields a book section). Two sheets together form a quarto, four sheets together an octavo section. Sections are much less susceptible to tearing when sewn, and since the same amount of thread can now bind twice or four times as many sheets, the rounding of the book's spine is lessened. Papyrus is not ideally suited for books made up of folded sheets, because it does not lend itself well to repeated folding. The next step in the development of books was the adoption of vellum, or thin, finely scraped and cured animal hide, as the writing surface. Vellum is usually made from calfskin or kidskin, and as such is a special category of parchment, which term encompasses any writing surface made from animal hide. Not only is vellum a fabulous medium for the scrivener's art, it can be made quite flexible and resilient; indeed, a number of codices from the Ottonian and Carolingian periods have survived in a more or less usable form to the present day.

To protect the fragile and devilishly expensive manuscripts, thick wooden coverings were first devised. These coverings were simply two thick slabs of wood or bark (see codex, above) between which the vellum sheets were sandwiched. Board thickness was next reduced, and the boards attached, first to one another and later to the vellum sheets as well. This technique afforded not only excellent protection, but if properly executed allowed the book to lie flat when closed, yet permitted the pages to fall open in a graceful arc when opened.

Once the fundamental framework for codex binding was established, coverings were made from cloth, leather, precious metals, gems, ivory, and any of a number of further materials. Innovations such as endpapers, leather joints, split boards, french joints, and so on continually improved the bookbinder's art until the advent of the mass-produced book, when hand binding went into a decline from which it has only comparatively recently begun to recover.

On the following pages I will present a technique called binding on raised cords, which was a popular and widespread method for binding manuscripts until the nineteenth century.



List of Materials
  • 20 sheets of calligraphic-quality paper (preferably high rag content, acid-free), each about 7.5" X 9"
  • 2 rigid boards (4-ply art board, aircraft plywood, etc.), each 8" X 4.5"
  • About 36" of pure silk thread
  • 1 tapestry needle, #20
  • 3 pieces of twined cotton cord, each about 4"
  • Good quality craft/tanner's glue and applicator
  • A medium diameter round artist's brush (#7 or so)
  • Sufficient bookbinding leather (or thin garment leather) for 2 leather joints and whatever leather you wish to incorporate into the covering
  • A sharply pointed probe or large diameter needle
  • 2 sheets of heavy stock paper, each about 7.5" X 9", for endpapers
  • Absorbent cotton adhesive tape (not waterproof)
  • Small, sharp scissors (curved blade works best)
  • Sharp X-acto knife or scalpel
  • Very sharp, wide blade for shaving pages (optional)

You might also desire access to a sewing frame, and you will need either a book press or some heavy weights for pressing the book during various stages of the procedure.

If you are binding the book in cloth or half-leather, you will need sufficient color-fast cloth or velvet for the method being used. If you are binding in half-leather, you might also want some strips of ribbon to hide the boundary between the cloth and leather; this is difficult to do neatly otherwise.

If you wish to put straps and clasps on the book, you will need strips of slightly heavier leather and the appropriate metal (brass) fittings.

I. Collating

The book you will be making is a blank book (if you wish to bind a pre-written text, see the appendix on layout), approximately 8" X 4.5", in 5 sections of 4 sheets each, bound on 3 raised cords.

Sort your sheets into 5 groups of four. Align each group as precisely as possible and carefully fold all four sheets at once, making certain that the fold is perfectly straight and centered. Each of the sheets now has two sets of folio pages, one on each side of the fold. The right-hand page in a set is called the recto page (Latin recto, ablative form of rectus, participle of regere, to guide, administer, or rule. The recto page is then the proper, or 'right' page; i.e., the one found on the right). The left-hand page is called the verso page (Latin vertere, to turn: The recto page must be turned in order to get to the verso page). In modern books, recto pages have odd numbers, verso pages, even.

II. Sewing

The sheets within a section should be carefully aligned and 8 holes punched through the folds using the following spacings (starting from the bottom): 0.5", 1", 1.5", 3.75", 4.25", 6.5", 7", and 7.5". The position of each hole should be marked with light pencil on both the inside and outside of the fold; care should be taken that each hole is made exactly through the fold. so that the sections align correctly with one another.

Thread a tapestry needle with a 36" length of silk thread and insert through the bottom hole from the outside of the fold. The opposite end of the thread should be tied into a very small loop, to facilitate later stitching. Loop the thread in and out of the six middle holes, bringing it over a 4" piece of the cotton cord positioned perpendicularly to the fold on each outside pass. Bring the thread out of the top hole, then at right angles to the fold into the top hole of the next section. Repeat the above procedure, except that the two sections should be connected (at the bottom) with a kettle stitch (Fig. 1). The first kettle stitch passes through the loop at the end of the thread; all subsequent ones pass through the segment connecting the previous two sections. Repeat this procedure until all sections have been similarly attached. Knot the final kettle stitch to itself, as shown

III. Shaving

(Fig. 2)
The sections should be aligned with a straight edge along the folds, then clamped tightly in the press. The edges of the pages should then be shaved, carefully, using a very sharp, wide blade. This procedure adds to the professional look of the finished book, but is necessary only if you wish to gild the edges (not covered in this article; write me if you want to know how).

IV. Punching and attaching the boards

(Fig. 3)
Align the boards with the spine of the manuscript and mark the place where the cords touch the boards (should be at 1.25", 4", and 6.75"). Punch a hole slightly larger than the diameter of the cord in each of these three places on each board, about 3/8" from the inside edge.

Bring the cord ends through the outside holes in the boards. Tease apart the individual strands and glue them to the boards in a fan pattern, making certain to leave about 0.25" of separation between the manuscript and the edge of the board, so that the book may close properly.

V. Leather joints

(Fig. 4)
Cut a strip of thin leather about 2.5" wide and 1" shorter than the manuscript is tall (i.e., about 7" long). Center it along the gap between the boards and the manuscript, and glue in place. Repeat for the other side. These joints are the single most important step in the binding process, other than sewing the sections together, because they essentially hold the book together.

VI. Gluing the spine

(Fig. 5)
With the book closed and mounted in the press, coat the entire spine with a layer of flexible paste or glue. Brush glue between each of the sections, but be careful not to penetrate too deeply, as this will cause the pages to adhere to one another and fall open incorrectly.

In larger books with a greater number of sections, the spine is rounded before this step by tapping it with a special hammer. This procedure is not practical with such a thin book, so rounding of the spine may be achieved by sliding the sections into place by hand (this can be frustrating) before the press is tightened.

After the first coat of glue has dried, cover the spine with permeable cloth adhesive tape. Overlapping it somewhat onto the boards will reinforce the joints, but will be visible through the leather when the book is covered. Coat this tape layer with another coat of glue and allow to dry.

VII. Covering

(Fig. 6)
This description will be specific to half leather bindings, but the principles may be applied to full leather or cloth bindings as well.

For the spine, cut out a piece of bookbinding leather (I use Morocco or Cabretta) about 3" wide and 1 inch longer than the book is high. Coat it with tanner's glue; coat the corresponding area on the book as well. Align the closed book with the tacky surface of the leather. Center, and press the two surfaces together. Fold the ends over, and cut out a rectangular notch on each end of the leather, such that the tabs thus produced can be folded over and tucked between the leather and the spine (if you are careful, this may be done, and more properly, before the leather and spine are pressed together). The overlap on each side of the spine should fold around the boards and be glued in place.

Select the cloth to be used for the remainder of the covering. Cut pieces that leave about 0.75" margins around the outside of the boards. Cut a 'V' notch at the corners, as shown. Coat both surfaces, cloth and board, with craft paste and press together carefully. The horizontal edges (top and bottom) should overlap the vertical edge.

You may wish to use a length of ribbon or similar substance to hide the boundary between the cloth and leather. This will prevent the edges of either material from being pulled up or snagged, while simplifying considerably the task of making this junction aesthetically pleasing.

VIII. Endpapers

(Fig. 7)
Cut sheets of your choice of endpaper (should be fairly heavy stock; some really nice marbled papers may be had, or you can marble some yourself- again, write me for the procedure) to the same size as your manuscript sheets (7.5" X 9").

It should be noted at this point that all work on the covering, including any decoration that involves attaching things to the boards by nailing through them (such as putting on clasps and straps, brass corners, etc.) must be completed before the endpapers are glued on. The endpapers are essentially the final step, except for tooling or other non-invasive elaboration of the covering.

Cover one surface of the endpaper sheets and the interior surfaces of the book, verso and recto, onto which the endpapers are to be glued with craft paste (be careful to minimize wrinkling). Press the papers onto the book surfaces carefully, making certain that the outside pages cover the folded edges of the covering. The inside pages should match the first or last page of the manuscript exactly, or be trimmed accordingly if they do not. The endpapers must be positioned so that they allow the book to close properly, and yet do not exhibit a pronounced bunching at the fold. This step probably takes the most skill/luck to achieve successfully.

Prop the manuscript vertically, to allow the endpapers to dry more thoroughly (Fig. 7a). When they have dried, close the book and place it in a press. Press it for several hours, preferably overnight. During this time the cover will stretch and dry completely, and the book will set properly, so that it lies flat.

If you have used any cloth in the covering, you may wish to coat it with a protective covering of some kind, such as dope or clear leather finish. Leather may also be protected in this way, especially if any tooling or painting is done.

One final note: if you do any painting or gilding on a leather cover, it is wise to recess the area to be gilt or painted first, to reduce the action of rubbing on the decorated portion.

Do not subject the book to excesses in temperature, or to moisture, and be careful when handling the pages. Most of all, be proud of your work!


Cockerell, D. Bookbinding and the Care of Books. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1901.

Diehl, E. Bookbinding: its Background and Technique, vol. 1. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1946.

Diriger, D. The Book Before Printing. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.

Lamb, C. M., ed. The Calligrapher's Handbook. New York: Pentalic Corporation, 1951.

Middleton, B. C. A History of English Craft Binding Technique. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1963.

Putnam, G. H. Books and their Makers during the Middle Ages, vol. 1. New York: Hillary House Publishers Ltd., 1896.

Appendix: Manuscript Layout

For those of you who want to produce a book in which you (or someone else, for that matter) have already done the lettering and/or artwork, the following will present the layout guide that I use for my own books.

The first consideration will be the number of pages in the book. You will have to know this before you start, or at least have a close approximation, if you want to have the right number and size of sections. The way I do it is to figure out beforehand exactly what my text will be, count the number of characters I will be putting on a page, based on the calligraphic parameters of the text, add room for whatever illumination and illustration will be incorporated, and divide the (estimated) total number of characters in the text by the number of characters per page. This should give you, if you are lucky, a fair estimate of the total number of pages you will need. If you miss, don't worry: you can add another partial section or leave some blank pages, if you need to. Modern publishers do it all the time.

The next step is to figure out how many sections you need. This will depend on the number of sheets per section that you choose. Modern books contain anywhere from 4 to 25 sheets per section, depending primarily on the weight of paper being used. I recommend 4 to 6 sheets per section. Fewer than 4 and you start to run the risk of tearing; more than 6 and it gets difficult to sew well. Remember that each sheet makes four pages. A 100 page book would then have, say, 5 sections of 5 sheets each.

The first and last pages of the manuscript are going to have endpapers and leather joints glued to them; this lessens their desirability as pages upon which anything is actually drawn or written substantially (at least in my view). I customarily add 3 sheets to my final total for the text and artwork: this allows for endpapers, title page, and dedication (of course, if you got lucky and hit the needed number of pages exactly, it also leaves six pages at the end, five if you include a closing statement, or colophon, so you might take that into account and add only one or two sheets. I seldom hit it that closely, however).

Numbering the pages is not really period, but if you want to do it, this is the format:

I will use a section of five sheets for this example. You should by this point be able to guess that a section of five sheets will contain 20 pages. If you do not see how this is so, go back to

I will use a shorthand method for denoting sheets and pages. The abbreviations are: L=left hand pages of a sheet; R=right hand pages of a sheet (remember that each sheet has two sets of verso and recto pages, one on the left, and one on the right); v=verso page; r=recto page.

The order in which abbreviations appear is Sheet Number:Side of Sheet:Page designation. 1:R:v, therefore, is sheet number one, right-hand side, verso page. With all of this in mind, here we go.

Numbered Page (of section)    Location of Page
            1                      1:L:r
            2                      1:L:v
            3                      2:L:r
            4                      2:L:v                                         
            5                      3:L:r                                         
            6                      3:L:v
            7                      4:L:r
            8                      4:L:v
            9                      5:L:r
           10                      5:L:v
           11                      5:R:r
           12                      5:R:v
           13                      4:R:r
           14                      4:R:v
           15                      3:R:r
           16                      3:R:v
           17                      2:R:r
           18                      2:R:v
           19                      1:R:r
           20                      1:R:v

If that were section one of a book with multiple sections, then in the second section, 1:L:r would be page 21, and so on. Simple.

A few important caveats: Always begin sewing with the last section if you start with the spine facing left and the book right side-up. If for some reason you wish to start with the book upside down and the spine facing left, start with the first section (assuming that you add sections by placing them on top of the previous one, that is). With spine facing to the right, the opposite orientation holds: Right side-up, start with the first section; upside down, start with the last section (for you Organic Chemists and Crystallographers, the spine represents an enantiomeric axis).