Category Archives: Tools and Equipment

Keeping It Together

Keeping it together can be a real challenge these days. There are many effective strategies for maintaining one’s mental health, but unfortunately this blog post isn’t about any of that. This blog is about library and archives materials. So I’m here to share a simple system for keeping it together when you are working on a textblock in need of some major intervention.

For the past several months, I’ve been working on (and writing about) a 16th century German book which has a number of problems. The textblock was already in pieces, but then it had to be taken apart completely for treatment. I was worried about keeping all the little bits organized, so that nothing would be lost or put in the wrong order as it underwent this long and multi-stage process.

As part of the pre-treatment documentation process, I collated the book using a digital copy of the same edition hosted by the Bavarian State Library. Early books are not paginated in the same way as modern ones, so you have to look for other clues to maintain the correct order. To help, I numbered each leaf in pencil before disbinding. The textblock is organized into sections of three folios. Some of the folds are intact with a little damage, but many of them have split entirely, leaving individual leaves. Each separated section was placed into a numbered paper folder, including any separated little bits of paper from that section.

Throughout the treatment, I have been trying to work on one section at a time to keep all the parts in easily manageable groups. This was true for washing, resizing, and mending.

Since all of the sections are composed of three folios, I started making marks on the outside of the paper folder to keep track of what I had finished in each packet. For example, in the mending and guarding stage it is best to work from the inside of the section to the outside. It can be a rather drawn out process of adding mends, then leaving them to dry under weight. I would cross out the number 3 as I finished the most interior folio, proceeding through the entire textblock before starting on the middle folios. Over the course of a couple of weeks doing this, it was very easy to just look through the stack of folders and see where to continue.


The first two sections have the most losses, so I’m still finishing some of the stabilization/infills on those – but overall the textblock is looking much improved!

(still in process, but you can compare to the “before” photo to see the progress)

There are probably many strategies for keeping the different parts of your treatments organized, but I have found this low-tech one to be very straightforward and helpful for books at least. What strategies/tools do you use?

MacGyver-ing the Big Books

Oversized books come with a lot of handling and treatment challenges. Just moving and opening them can be physically demanding and former owners may not have had a good place for storage. This atlas of London street maps from 1799 measures approximately 26″x22″. Prior to acquisition, it had been rebound in a modern limp leather binding and, in attempt to make it easier to transport or store, had been folded vertically in half. The leather became very chemically degraded and the outward-facing rear cover was torn off.

I’ve spent the last several months piecing the broken, brittle maps back together and now it is ready for some new covers. We’ve written on Preservation Underground before about boxing some of the biggest bindings in the collection and treatment of double folios. As in those cases, a lot of the specialized equipment we have in the lab is too small for books of this size. At times like these, you just have to put on the appropriate theme song, channel Richard Dean Anderson, and gather up all the clamps in the lab.

Resewing a book on raised cords requires that some tension be put on the sewing supports. We typically employ a sewing frame to hold them in the correct position during this process, but even the large wooden one we have in the lab is a bit too short. Luckily we have a very long, rigid metal ruler and uniform wooden press blocks to take its place.

I will be constructing a new binding with rigid boards for this atlas similar to another copy in the collection, and that requires some rounding and backing of the textblock spine. This process is traditionally done with a flat-faced hammer, in a lying press or job backer. The textblock spine is actually composed of compensating guard strips of flexible paper, to which the maps have been mounted. This allows me to reshape the atlas textblock safely. These guards also made the sewing process much easier, as I could just sew through them instead of a full-sized folio.

Our job backer is, again, about 4″ too short for this book to fit inside – so I attempted to recreate one with press boards and deep-throated C-clamps.

It had to be clamped to the table to allow me to tap with a wooden block between the raised bands and shape the spine. I had to adjust the center clamp as I moved from head to tail, then flip the entire contraption to get each side.

It ended up being fairly effective. With some temporary working boards laced on, you can see the gentle round and small textblock shoulder that is formed.

The atlas will get endbands and a strong linen spine lining before the final board attachment. The laced on, rigid boards will provide the protection and strength that such a large book requires. Although I’m sure those clamps will be needed again before it is finished.

My New Favorite Tool

By Rachel Penniman, Conservation Specialist

This tip is shamelessly stolen from a blog post by Satomi Sasaki Verhagen on The Book & Paper Gathering and I cannot thank them enough for writing about this wonderful tool.

It’s a mini, handheld humidifier that creates a very fine mist (click here for a short video) perfect for localized humidification. It looked so useful in their blog post I ordered one right away and had fun playing around with it when it arrived.

Now over a year later I’ve finally had a chance to use it on a treatment project. I blame working from home for not finding a use for it earlier.

We recently got a large vellum binding with many creased and torn fold outs that needed flattening and mending. The binding was stiff and allowed for only a very small opening angle. Mini-humidifier to the rescue. I was able to very lightly humidify just the localized areas of creasing to flatten and realign them before mending. It worked beautifully. Because the little humidifier doesn’t create a very large spray of mist it was easy to direct and keep only in the areas I wanted. Also, it creates such a small amount of moisture that it worked very slowly so it was easy to control how humid each area got.

It wasn’t perfect though. If left running it could build up condensation around the nozzle especially when held at an angle. I found I had to hold a paper towel around the base to prevent any of these drops of condensation from falling on the page I was humidifying. Regularly turning the humidifier off and blotting drops of water off from around the nozzle helped manage condensation build up. The battery didn’t last very long but it is rechargeable and charged very quickly while I was at lunch.

Overall I was so happy with how this tool works and will definitely be using it again.

Graining Our New Litho Stone

When paring leather for book bindings or book repair, it is essential to have a flat, smooth surface on which to work. The parts of the leather that will be turned-in, particularly around the endcaps of the book, must be made very thin and often with a long, gradual bevel. Uneven paring will visibly show after being adhered, so it takes some care and practice to get it right. Paring on the right surface allows you to feel any variation in the leather with your fingertips and take off more material as needed. You also need to work on a material that is hard enough to not be cut up by the paring knife. Many materials (such as glass, marble, or granite) are used for this work surface, but one of the more common is lithographic limestone. Limestone won’t dull a blade as quickly as other stones. It also absorbs water, so I like using it as a work surface for the whole process of covering in leather.

Our new stone. We’ll call the image on the left the “Top” of stone and the image on the right the “Bottom”.

The lab recently acquired this small lithography stone, which was used as a printing plate for what appears to be a worksheet for practicing handwriting. The printing image on the “bottom” of the stone includes examples of short words with ascenders and descenders: land, lakes, plan, glide, plan, fling, often, etc.

The stone was pretty flat, but had a number of scrapes and scratches that could mask problems with paring work. I wanted to remove those before we began using it. Luckily there is a standard method and a lot of resources available to help me do that.

When a stone plate has been printed for the last time, it must be refinished (or “grained”) to remove the old image and prepare the surface for a new drawing. I consulted The Tamarind Book of Lithography to see what we would need to do to prepare the stone. This is a great resource that includes a lot diagrams and step-by-step instructions. Luckily Duke’s Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies had the equipment to grain a stone and they allowed me to bring the stone over to the studio.

The process was fairly simple and kind of fun to do. With the stone sitting on top of the graining sink, I poured a little water over the top of the stone to act as a lubricant and then added some course carborundum grit (silicon carbide) for the abrasive.

A heavy piece of round steel with a handle, called a levigator, is then used to spin over the stone surface to start grinding it down.

I tried taking a video of the process, but it was a little hard for me to hold the camera steady while using the levigator. You can get a much better overhead view in this video from California State University Stanislaus:

The spinning continued until I had worked up a fairly thick stone sludge.

The stone is washed clean and the process is repeated until enough of the surface has been removed. 

Printers will continue graining with increasingly fine grits to get a very fine surface for drawing – but that didn’t seem necessary for our purposes. I believe the outside edges of the stone surface are also filed by the printer to keep them from showing up as an artifact in the print, so the patina and ghost of the original print are still visible around the outside of our stone. I decided to stop at this point because some of the edges were starting to get sharp. We’ve got a sizable chip on one side that needs to be avoided anyway.

The top after graining and drying

I’m pretty pleased with the results. The print image still remains on the bottom of the stone, so we can keep some evidence of what the stone was used for previously. The stone is fairly heavy (40-50 lbs by my guess), so it now lives on a wheeled cart so it can be easily moved around the lab as needed.