Try as it might, the digital age has yet to render physical books redundant. And it probably never will. Swiping across a glass surface doesn’t elicit the same tactile pleasure of running one’s fingers over grainy pages and wrinkled spines. While technology has made bookbinding a much more economical process, the romance of caressing pages that were painstakingly bound by hand cannot be replicated.
The art of bookbinding doesn’t just coexist with the electronic era; it defies it. “Everything relies on computers that run on electricity, these days. Even mass-produced books are made by machines,” says professional bookbinder Adelene Koh. “But, if you take away electricity, I can still bind a book.” Koh was trained in Japan and London, and runs Dddots, a speciality binding shop with a second outlet in London. On top of making prints and binding various volumes, a bookbinder is also responsible for restoring old books. “I’ve restored an autograph book from 1914 and the fact that it’s been around for 100 years and survived a world war reminds us that books can outlive us.”
Mechanised production has enabled everyone to own a book, which, in itself, is a marvellous thing. But it has also turned books into just another workaday item in our everyday lives, when historically they were luxury items or reserved for religious writings.
On the flip side, having them so readily available has helped raise their making into an art form. “Design binding is a form of bookbinding where the binder draws inspiration from the theme and characters of a book’s story and creates a ‘theatre’ for its scenes through the covers, endpapers and decoration. This is when you should judge a book by its cover,” quips Koh, who received a prize at The Bookbinding Competition 2014 for her binding of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Today, bookbinding can be both highly creative and downright opulent. Depending on the style, size and materials used, it can take anything from an hour (for a stitched booklet) to several days (for coffee table tomes), and can be bound with exotic skins or covered in jewels and bone. Unfortunately, as with any artisanal skill, the pool of people who are capable of doing so are limited. “Some skills cannot be imparted through writing, but through experience and guidance. I have yet to find a bookbinding manual that is comprehensive enough to cover what is required in this craft,” adds Koh.
But there are a dedicated few who will keep it alive. Corporate gift company Grandluxe had its roots as a bookmaking business in the 1940s, and has evolved again last year to include Bynd Artisan, a chain of stores offering customisable, handmade stationery and leather goods.
Like vinyl records, mechanical watches and fountain pens, a hand-stitched book is cherished for its ability to connect its user to the past; where every process had a human thought behind it.
“When you hold a beautifully made book, you smell its leather, feel the ease of turning its pages and behold the theatricality of its covers and content,” she gushes. “It’s the feeling of a book coming alive in your hands.”
Cover to Cover
Master craftsman Chong Beng Cheng has been with Grandluxe for over 40 years and now helps to train younger craftsman for Bynd Artisan. Here, he illustrates the art in its simplest form.
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Fold the page by pressing down on the centre, and slide outwards to prevent creasing. Chong is using a bamboo folder but any smooth object will do. Secure the cover to the pages with clips.
Make a punch guide by measuring where you want the holes. Place the materials on a foam block and use an awl (a long, pointed spike) to punch out the holes.
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Use waxed linen thread as it’s stronger and easier to work with. Sewing methods differ greatly depending on the desired pattern, but a basic binding starts from the lowest hole and works its way in and out of the spine until it returns to the original point.
After tying up the thread and discarding the excess, fold the book in half and use a mallet to hammer the spine until the book is flat.
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Align the book against the trimming machine and slice off the excess, starting with the length of the book. Save the leather strips and set aside.
Heat up the letterpress machine, arrange the desired letters and screw them into place. Apply gold leaf, and press down on the book. Peel off the excess.
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Select the longest strip of scrap leather from before to use as a bookmark. Slide it into the top portion of any page and attach with double-sided tape.
Take a second strip of leather and cut two slits in it with a penknife. If meant for a gift, roll the book up like a scroll and tie the leather strip around it into a little ribbon.