Thursday, November 27, 2014

Finishing in Hand Bookbinding, a new edition

Herbert and Peter Fahey. Finishing in Hand Bookbinding: A reprint in facsimile of the 1951 edition with a new Introduction by Alan Isaac and Foreword by Maureen Duke. Oxford: Published by Alan Isaac Rare Books with Maureen Duke, 2014.

Edition limited to 500 copies. Hardbound, purple cloth, gilt. 227 x 152mm, portraits frontis, xviii, 82p, vi.5  mono. plates. 2 additional color plates.  £29. To order go to Alan Isaac Rare Books, or for those outside the UK via email at

Reviewed by Samuel Feinstein

Those interested in the book arts, especially bookbinders, will be grateful for the reprinting of Finishing in Hand Bookbinding this new edition, and each time at a different stage in my development of finishing skills. I was fortunate that this book was available to me for two years during my training at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. Now, with an affordable edition available, the knowledge contained within is much more accessible to those interested in learning, those wanting to review, and those wanting to further broaden their finishing practices. Regardless, these writings are useful for almost all levels of finishing. I would love to see this reprinting be the catalyst of a renewed conversation about hand-tooling, or, more than that, a rallying call inspiring enthusiasm for the use of this decorative technique.

The Faheys make an argument, carried throughout the book, as to why hand tooling is best in finishing. Unlike flat stamping, usually by machine, or even foil tooling, hand tooling using gold leaf is the most reflective and lively type of decoration; this is quintessential to everything that follows. Hand tooling imparts “life”, as the Faheys say, “by various tools reflecting the light and gold at slightly different angles and planes,” as opposed to the monotonous effect given by plate-stamped designs (Fahey 19). To those that see and handle them, hand-tooled bindings have an inherent allure created not only by the sumptuousness of the materials, but by the play of light reflecting off of the gold and the wonder it provokes. Dr. Marianne Tidcombe in the introduction to Twenty-Five Gold-Tooled Bindings wrote, “Gold-tooling is the most visible and striking of all the traditional techniques, but it has been less in evidence with each passing decade” (Tidcombe 5). Although written in 1997, it is hard to deny that gold-tooled bindings are much less prevalent than they once were.

The reprinted edition is a flat back case binding in full purple cloth, sewn, with plain endpapers. “FINISHING” appears on the front cover in gold foil stamping, a subtle tip of the hat to the Faheys’ belief that the covers should have a conceptual correlation to the title page. There is also an image of a hand holding a decorative finishing tool, while the spine has the name of the name of the book and authors’ last name foil-stamped in a sans-serif type-face. This facsimile of the 1951 edition is slightly smaller than the original printing. There is a new frontispiece showing Herbert and Peter Fahey at work, two new color plates and, best of all, a new Introduction and Foreword.

Alan Isaac’s Introduction to the new edition acquaints one with a brief background of the Faheys. For me, having only known about the Faheys from the first edition of this book, Isaac really brings them to life: their beginnings, their first forays into the world of bookbinding, their development of skills, the many places they studied in and people they studied with, and their legacy.

Maureen Duke’s Foreword focuses on updating some of the aspects of the processes the Faheys used. She says it beautifully: “Our knowledge concerning the deterioration of bindings has been advanced by those studying book conservation, and which has added considerately to the breadth of our understanding and affected the way in which certain procedures are done” (Duke xv). A few of the items she addresses are the advantages of brass type, the use of toxic solvents in neutralizing the oil used to hold the gold leaf in place on the leather, and the use of asbestos in tool handles. She also notes the development of shellac-based glaire, which is better suited to beginners than egg glaire.

The Faheys’ manual of 1951 is, in part, a response to what they felt to be a lack of more “modern” style finishing instruction the English manuals of the time, which had sections on finishing. The manuals in use focused mainly on period style tooling, and many were superficial in their instructions. The Faheys’ manual not only is much clearer about the process, but also incorporates their personal styles in design and concept.

The act of finishing is meditative. Losing a sense of self while tooling for days, weeks, or months, when all that exists is the design, the gold, the book, and the tool, is such a difficult thing to describe. This book articulates well many of the “feelings” experienced with finishing that are not easily translatable into words. The Faheys take their time in explaining the processes in depth, and will sometimes come back to an idea another place in the book to further expound upon it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention their first instructor, Ignatz Wiemeler of Germany (1895 – 1952). Wiemeler helped in the development of their own philosophy, in both appearance and concept. His influence on the Faheys’ style is readily apparent, especially in the use of line. Wiemeler was in harmony with the Arts and Crafts Movement, the belief in using the best materials, sewing on raised cords when the paper suited that technique, having the binding’s decoration harmonize with the content, and taking the best of centuries-old techniques to improve the bookbinding of his time. This excerpt from his article Bookbinding, Old and New gives a general feeling of his philosophy:
A well-made book must be beautiful, in each stage of its development, if the finished book should be convincing. The natural beauty of the whole and of each single part cannot be premeditated and executed, but must be borne in mind along with the work. It cannot be seen alone, but more than that, it must be felt by touch of hand. It is the sum total of exactitude and care for every detail, of the harmony of the size of the book and the thickness of its covers with the width of its edges; in short, it is the result of inspired work (Wiemeler 159).

Weimeler had an ardent belief that the use of lettering was not simply for identification of the book, but an integral part of the design. This is something that the Faheys incorporated into their own philosophy, and it is easily noted when looking at their bindings.

The Faheys explain what is meant by “finishing” in their Introduction: “The term “finishing” is applied to all work done after the book has been forwarded. The finisher must decide what lettering and decoration are to be put on the book. This includes tooling of the patterns in blind or with metal, onlay and inlay work, polishing and varnishing” (Fahey 7). They prefer simple designs rather than complex. Not necessarily “less is more”, as is seen in some of their designs with large amounts of tooling, but rather using finishing tools in a way that is not exceedingly complex. They are practical about this, both from a design standpoint and craftsman standpoint. As they say, "A finisher must make things easy for himself" (Fahey 12).

The Faheys describe at length the tools used in finishing. I can only speak from my own standpoint, but some of the terminology when referring to the different types of tools may be a product of the book being, as Maureen Duke says it in the Foreword, “of its time” (Duke xv). One such possible example would be the use of the term “straight line tool” (Fahey 40) when referring to a line tool for tooling on a spine. The difficulty with that term is that there is a distinction between straight line tools (or pallets) used across the spine, what I would call a “flat-faced pallet”, and straight line tools used on the boards, which have a slight curve to it, to ensure even pressure throughout the impression. I would suggest John Mitchell’s An Introduction to Gold Finishing, pages 77-91, as a wonderful source explaining the different kinds of tools and their usage. One other marvelous source on finishing tools is Tom Conroy’s Bookbinders’ Finishing Tool Makers 1780-1965, which, in addition to the wealth of information on finishing tool makers, has an in depth Introduction that identifies the different parts of finishing tools and discusses how they were made.

The Faheys’ finishing process is straightforward and explained clearly. In addition to the order of operations, they write at length about the “why” for each step. The basic procedure involves the following steps: making up a template on strong, thin paper using tools and a stamp pad; securing the template in place on the leather and tooling through it; removing the template and tooling again; building up a blind impression with several strikes of the tool until the impression has been tooled with a heated tool and moisture in the leather (but surface-dry). The leather is then given a vinegar wash, and tooled with a warm tool when surface-dry; the impressions are penciled in with vinegar, then given a first coat of glaire before the vinegar has completely dried, and a second coat of glaire is applied after the first has dried. While the glaire is drying, the leaf is made ready, cut to the size necessary for the given tool; the tool is heated to the correct temperature, is given a slight amount of oil with which the gold is picked up, and the impression is tooled with the leaf. “In the finest bindings, gold is put on several times to be sure it is solid and brilliant” (Fahey 51). This order of operations can be applied to most gold/leaf tooling, with the exception of water impervious leathers. Variants for different kinds of leather, such as calf, are explained.

Although their preference in transferring the leaf into the impression is to pick it up on the tool, they also explain the process of all-over tooling: glairing the entire area to be tooled, laying leaf onto the leather with grease or oil on the leather to keep the gold in place, tooling through the gold, and removing the excess gold with a solvent. There should be no extraneous movements, as these lead to mistakes. Every time the tool is picked up, it should with intention and with purpose. “Tooling should be done firmly and decisively—any additional pressure and prolonged dwelling beyond the first impression does not help and may harm through too much depth, twisting of tool, and breaking the gold” (Fahey 51).

The gilding size the Faheys use is egg glaire. In 1951 Fixor was already being used in France, and shellac-based glaire was being developed and used in England during and after the Second World War, when eggs were a limited resource. But the Faheys are writing about their particular practice. Nowadays there are proponents of each: shellac-glaire for its ease of use and convenience (especially helpful on water-impervious leathers, as well as in developing skills since it eliminates the complications of “open-time” with egg glaire), egg glaire for its brilliance and ease in cleaning impressions. In addition to blind tooling and tooling with leaf, they also have a chapter on inlay and onlay, and give several different onlaying practices other than their preferred method. Tooling on different materials is also discussed, including parchment and cloth.

Five black-and-white plates of Fahey bindings are included at the back of the book along with a small description of each; these were present in the original printing. The unifying concept between book and binding is explained, revealing more of their philosophy. Their use of line is prevalent in each plate, as is their use of the book’s title, but both in different ways. The two new color plates in the front do not have descriptions from the authors, but are higher quality printings and showcase the beauty of gold on leather, and the effect of Fahey bindings.

The Faheys wrote this book to help enrich the binding community by contributing their particular finishing processes. No doubt, other finishing manuals and books describe more modern designs from the time period. One is Jules Fache’s La Dorure et la Decoration des Reliures, published in 1954. He was an absolute master, and though many might not know his name, almost everyone knows one of the designers for whom he worked: Paul Bonet. And there are others, such as Emilio Brugalla’s Tres Ensayos sobre el Arte de la Encuadernacion (1945), that talk about tooling in a more modern manner, in addition to traditional designs. The problem with these other texts for us is often the language barrier.

The use of hand-tooling in bookbinding captures and illustrates the magnificence of the materials. The Faheys continued to explore such tooling, which became an expression of their own artistry. They, here, have written a manual based on their extensive knowledge attained through fastidious work and discipline. When practiced, it provides an excellent framework for one’s finishing methods. It also is a great fount from which from which one can apply certain aspects of the Faheys’ process. This book stands as a treatise of utilizing hand-tooling to make beautiful and creative bindings.

  • Brugalla, Emilio. Tres Ensayos Sobre el Arte de la Ecuadernacion. Madrid: Ollero & Ramos, 2000. (Originally published: 1945)
  • Conroy, Tom. Bookbinders’ Finishing Tool Makers 1780-1965. New Castle, DE: The Oak Knoll Press, The Plough Press, 2002.
  • Duke, Maureen. Foreward to Finishing in Hand Bookbinding.
  • Fache, Jules. La Dorure et la Decoration des Reliures. Paris: Chez L’Auteur,1954.
  • Fahey, Herbert and Peter. Finishing In Hand Bookbinding. Alan Isaac Rare Books with Maureen Duke. Oxford, 2014
  • Isaac, Alan. Introduction to Finishing in Hand Bookbinding.
  • Mitchell, John. An Introduction to Gold Finishing. Edited and Designed by Nolan Watts. Worthing, Sussex, UK: The Standing Press 1995 and 2005.
  • Tidcombe, Marianne. Introduction to Twenty-Five Gold-Tooled Bindings, An International Tribute to Bernard Middleton’s Recollections. Edited by Marianne Tidcombe, with an essay on “The Use of Gold in Bookbinding” by Bernard C. Middleton. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press 1997.
  • Wiemeler, Ignatz. “Bookbinding, Old and New”. Translated from the German by Peter Mueller-Munk and Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt. The Dolphin, A Journal of the Making of Books. New York: Limited Editions Club, 1933: 146-160.

Samuel Feinstein trained formally at the North Bennet Street School program where he studied under Jeff Altepeter and Martha Kearsley. Since graduating in 2012 he has been in private practice creating fine bindings, luxury clamshell boxes, new bindings in period style, and gold finishing for other binders. He is an avid proponent of tooled-bookbindings, and he teaches occasionally. His work can be seen on his website or in more detail on his blog: