Communion Of Dreams

A chronicle of the repair of The Book of Chronicles

I’ve had the pleasure to work on a number of very significant items from public and private collections. Here’s the most recent one:


That’s the Liber chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the most significant books in the history of printing. There’s a good basic description of why the book is important in the Wikipedia article, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first really successful integrations of both illustrations and type, and so a big step in printing technology. Here’s a good idea of what the illustrations look like:


This copy of the Liber chronicarum belongs to the University of Missouri system, and needed a little help, as you can see in these images:


Basically, the current binding, as nice as it is, was breaking along the hinge of the front cover. The rear cover was also showing signs of similar aging. This is a very common problem, particularly in large & heavy books. And my estimate is that the binding was probably 100+ years old, so showing a bit of age is understandable.

Typically, there are two basic repair options for dealing with such a problem. The first is to reinforce the hinge inside and out with Kozo dyed to match the leather. This is minimally invasive to the original binding. It’s a good repair for smaller books, but it doesn’t have a great deal of strength, and if a book is very heavy or is going to get a lot of use, doesn’t hold up as well as you would like. And to do it properly on this binding, it would have covered over a significant amount of the nice gold tooling.

The second common repair strategy is to “reback” the book in new leather. This includes removing the original spine, completely rebuilding the liners & hinges, putting new leather on the spine and then remounting the original spine onto the new structure. It’s a strong repair and  works well, but tends to be much more time consuming and apparent than the Kozo repair, changing the visual character of the book more.

After discussing the matter with the folks at MU Special Collections, we decided that I would attempt to do a Kozo repair, but one which had elements of the how the leather rebacking is normally done. This was something of an experiment, as is often the case in doing conservation work; you almost always have to blend techniques to meet the specific problems and needs of the item being treated.

I selected a very heavy Kozo paper and dyed it to match the leather. Then I carefully lifted up the leather along the spine, just enough to insert about a half inch of Kozo. Here’s how that looked:


Note that the pieces of Kozo are only between the heavy bands — those bands are part of the sewing structure, and I didn’t want to impinge on how it worked mechanically.

Then I lifted up the leather along the edge of the front cover, pasted out the length of the exposed interior, and brought the two together, inserting the Kozo tabs under the leather. Once that was all positioned, I wrapped it in wide elastic bands and added weight all along the joint:


Then I left it alone overnight to allow the adhesive to set properly. Leaving it alone is always the hardest part of this process, but you have to trust that you did it right, because if you try and look before the adhesive sets, it’s probable that you’ll cause the joint to be out of position.

Here’s what I found the next day:


That’s a nearly perfect joint. I was very pleased.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Now that the cover was properly aligned and partially attached, I needed to strengthen the joint from the inside of the cover.

I opened the book and removed the detached marbled endpaper:


Previously I had carefully used lifting knives to get under the cloth joint cover and lift up the marbled paste-down:


Now I peeled further back the marbled paste-down on the front cover, and applied a wide band of heavy undyed Kozo to function as an internal hinge:


Then I put fresh adhesive on the exposed paste-down marbled paper and put it back into position, thereby securing the joint:


Then I remounted the marbled endpaper with a narrow strip of Kozo on the back:


Lastly, I put down a narrow strip of dyed Kozo on the outside of the cover to mask the broken joint and protect it. This was largely cosmetic, but helped to give the book a finished appearance. After an application of leather preservative and a bit of buffing, the book was finished:


It’s a good repair. Eventually, the book will need to be rebacked in leather properly, but for now we’ve been able to stabilize the book and again make it available for classes and researchers at the University of Missouri.

What a fun project. I really do love doing what I do for a living, and I realize just how lucky I am to be able to say that.

Jim Downey


I mentioned on Facebook the other day that sometimes I stop and consider the sort of chutzpah it takes to think that I should be mucking around with a 700 year-old book. That thought occurred to me following a session in the bindery working on the bible I have blogged about earlier. I had just done some work on it, then had to put everything into one of my presses and let it dry overnight, hoping that I had done the work properly. Hoping really hard.

What follows is a bit long, but might be of interest to some. At the risk of spoiling the suspense, the book came out well, though not entirely perfectly. You’ll see.

* * *

In my last post I had an image of the interior of the spine of the book. This one:


That shows the paper liners adhered to the inside of the spine cover material.  If you look at the top of the image, you can see some of the damage which had happened to the book — basically, some tears in the vellum cover at the hinge joint.

Repairing vellum is a bit tricky. You can’t use too much moisture, because it can cause the vellum to warp and shrink, even become brittle. So carefully I removed all the old liner material, then selected some heavy kozo and applied a methyl-cellulose/PVA mix adhesive, allowing the adhesive to dry partially before mounting the kozo to the damaged areas. That’s when I put everything into the press and hoped for the best. Here’s how it looked when I took it out:


One problem – in order to get the kozo mounted securely, I had to flatten the entire vellum spine, losing the nice shaping where it went over the sewing structure cords. We’ll come back to that.

On the textblock, I had to mount some new endpapers before I could add in the spine liners and hinging material. Fortunately, I had some nice handmade flax paper I made some 25 years ago which was a nice color tone match for the vellum. Here you can see it mounted:


Then I was ready to mount the hinging material to the spine. I chose a very heavy type of kozo, which would be strong enough but wouldn’t add much bulk, and applied it so that it conformed to the sewing cords:


Then I cut panels of another flax paper, and mounted those between the cords. Here is a pic when a couple of them have been mounted:


When those were done and dried, the text block was ready to be mounted back into the cover. But I had two problems. One was the spine vellum had been flattened by mounting the repair kozo, as mentioned above. But there was also another problem, part of the reason why the book had become damaged in the intervening centuries: the vellum cover had shrunk slightly, and the text block had swollen slightly, with the result that the cover no longer fit properly.

How to make it fit?

Well, I had actually already done one thing: I had placed the text block into a heavy press and slowly compressed it over a period of several days. But that only did so much.

The other thing I decided to try was to force the spine to stretch a bit. I did this by VERY slightly dampening the vellum, then putting a jig in place which would slightly push the front and rear covers away from each other. At the same time, I had mounted some cords the same size as the ones on the text block, and positioned the same way. This jig went on the inside of the spine, and on the outside I used a piece of foamcore which would partially compress, making the vellum conform to the shape of the cords and spreading it just a tich. A couple times over the course of a couple days I swapped out the jigs, using a slightly larger one each time. Here’s the final set, with the spine of the finished book alongside to better help envision what I mean:


That bought me about 3 or 4 mm of space. I worried about trying to stretch it any further. When I positioned the cover over the text block, the spine conformed perfectly, as you can see in the image above. I went ahead and pasted out the endpapers and mounted the text block into the cover.

Here’s how the pasted endpaper looked when everything dried:


And here’s the fore-edge of the book in its cover:


Yup — that right there is what is technically known as an “oops”. The cover doesn’t *quite* come around far enough, with perhaps 2 mm of the text block showing at the widest point. I hadn’t been able to stretch the cover (or compress the text block) enough.

However, the book was solid, and my interior repairs to the vellum damage turned out nearly perfect. Here’s a picture from earlier which shows the damage:


See that crack on the spine at the left side? Actually, if you look closely, you can see there’s a couple different cracks. Well, here’s an image of the spine at the same point with my repairs:


The cracks are still there, but they’re no longer a structural problem. The underlying kozo will now handle the structural forces. That should mean the cover will work as intended, and propagation of the cracks further down the spine should be stopped for at least a couple centuries.

It’s not a perfect repair, and that tempers any temptation I might have to inflate my ego any more. But it’s a pretty damned good repair, one I can take a measure of satisfaction with.

I can live with that.


Jim Downey

It’s getting better all the time.*

Just a quick follow-up to my post about the incunable legal text.

After spending most of last week cleaning up the edges of the sheets, I’ve been working on re-joining the folios. The trick with this is to make sure all the pages wind up being the same size when they’re folded and ready to be sewn — because I don’t want to trim the text block to get a clean fore-edge.

The solution is to make up a simple jig on my workbench:


Lines drawn on the benchtop, some bookboard mounted to the edge. This will help me keep everything the right size and aligned correctly.

Down the center is some Reemay polyester fabric, which will not adhere to the Kozo repair strips.

The book originally had sections of four folios (folded sheets) per section. I can tell this because of the printing conventions of the time, which had a small counter at the bottom of each page indicating where it went in the book. Very handy. For my work, I only need to rejoin the innermost pair of sheets from each section — then the other sheets will be attached to that new center folio. This will keep everything positioned correctly, and make for a strong sewing structure.

Here’s a pic showing the positioning of a pair of sheets:

Notice the gap in the center.

Notice the gap in the center.

And here’s one with a shot of the Kozo repair strip applied. It’s a heavyweight Kozo (Japanese ‘mulberry’ paper), with a strong wheatpaste applied. Makes a great repair, but is completely reversible with a little water if anyone needs to re-do my repairs later. See:


The next step is to iron the strip down with a small tacking iron on moderate heat. This is done with another layer of Reemay between the iron and the Kozo. This gives a clean, flat edge to mount the other sheets.

Which will be my next step.

Jim Downey

*Of course.