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Restoration & Repair of Classic Books

By Robert Colver
Source: O.P. World, March 1998

This is the first in a three-part series on the subject of Book Restoration and Repair. Learn how to restore a book by library marks and other indicators helping you bring New Life To Tired Tomes.

This is about your Wounded Wannabe’s—the $50 books that, because of a flapping spine or detached cover board or simply looking ugly, are basically Dumpster food. You either don’t buy them because they won’t repay a rebind or a reback. Or they sit on a morgue shelf in the back room waiting for the book elves to sneak in some night and fix them. Or you grab the leather dressing or the Elmer’s and fix them yourself.

The first option is a judgment call. As to the second option, don’t hold your breath. The elves have a strong union.

What this series is about is the third option: What you can do—and what you “shouldn’t” do—to make a Wounded Wannabe sound and saleable.

What follows is some of what I have learned, stolen, adapted, developed or just blindly stumbled upon in 12 years as a full-time professional binder and bookmender, mostly working with the specialized needs of the antiquarian book trade.

This first part deals with cosmetics—some ways of making a sound but shabby Shakespeare shine. The second part will deal with repairs that require minimal skills, minimal materials, minimal space and minimal time. The third part will deal with when to call in the doctor and how to choose a doctor.

Bear in mind throughout: All opinions represent either seasoned judgment and experience or irrational prejudice and have not necessarily been blessed by the Bishops of Conservation. Recommendations of a particular product means only that I’ve used it with success, and doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t something else just as good out there. And finally, any repair to any book should be guided by the Hippocratic Oath: “Above all, ‘do no harm.”

A lot of books—leather and cloth—need nothing more than a good spiffing to shine on the shelf. I spend a lot of time, and get a lot of money from dealers, unscuffing leather, unfading old 19th Century bookcloth and getting library markings off of, and out of, books—all of which can be done on a corner of a table in your back room.

So let’s take them in that order:

Old leather

First of all, take whatever you’re using for a leather dressing and put it on a high shelf, out of easy reach. Especially if it’s one of those based on the British Museum’s neatsfoot/lanolin formula.

The Library of Congress now even warns that leather dressing can cause leather to dry out and stiffen. Experience may have taught you that it can darken or unevenly stain leather. ‘Worst of all, improper or incautious application can cause the oils to wick through cracked hinges, around the edge of boards or even through boards, staining the paper. The formulas with wax in them, the classic British Museum formula, can leave a sticky surface that will attract dust and bond rather unpleasantly with the book it’s jammed against on a shelf.

At best, leather dressing can lubricate fibers in leather that is still basically sound and uncracked. But once leather has dried and rotted to the point of powdering and cracking, it means the fibers have terminally broken down, and all leather dressing can do is give you greasy, sticky dust.

And if you have a bottle of potassium lactate to de-acidify leather, throw it away. Its value on old, already decayed leather is negligible. And its potential for disastrously discoloring old leather is substantial.

The other thing to put on a high shelf is any leather dyes you may have been using. Leather dyes, such as Fiebing’s, are readily available from mail order suppliers, craft shops and shoe-repair shops. They have a purpose, but should be used sparingly and with caution. For one thing, most of the available brown dyes are red browns. And most old leather leans to the green end of brown. Getting a good color match is tricky. Secondly, a lot of leather, including most “morocco” found on old books has a pigmented dye (think “paint”) that a plain dye will not color properly at all. And finally, dyes, like dressings, can wick through cracks in leather and stain paper. As a rule of thumb, if you need more than a quick touch with a cotton swab to touch up a spot with dye— Don’t!

So what to use?

In a word, Meltonian. In three words, Meltonian Shoe Cream. Not shoe polish generically, but Meltonian by name. It already has a devout following among booksellers and an equally devout, if more clandestine, following among book repairers. Its advantages are many: It’s readily available at most good shoe-repair shops. It comes in an absolute palette of colors (There are a dozen or so variations on brown) which can even be mixed and blended like acrylic paints. It’s cheap and easy to use. It masks scuffs and evens out color without hiding old marbling patterns or grain patterns. It’s not a wax and leaves no sticky surface. From a conservation standpoint, it’s basically chemically benign. Not only is it not acidic, it’s slightly basic, which means it is actually buffering the leather. It is very handy stuff!

Maybe best of all, Meltonian works equally as well to put life and color back in old bookcloth. Color matching is a little trickier. Practice on throwaway volumes before attempting anything serious, unless you’ve been told by at least two people to whom you are not related and who do not owe you money that you have a good eye for color.

With any coloring agent—be it paint, dye or Meltonian—on any material, always start with a color a couple of shades lighter than you think you need. You can always darken, but almost never lighten. And remember: Your dirty-purplish-brown Melville may have been a rich deep purple when it came out in 1860. But if you try to recolor it a rich deep purple, it’s not going to look new; it’s going to look spray-painted. Settle for restoring an evenness and character to its dirty-purplish-brown color. Not even Elizabeth Taylor can get away with looking 17 forever.

For cloth covers that are simply dirty, there are several bookcloth cleaners available from bindery suppliers and library supply houses like Brodart, Gaylord, Demco or University Products. If you are using one and it works, fine. My method for dirty covers is to go over them with a dry cleaning pad, which is a small sock-like bag filled with powdered vinyl eraser. They’re widely available at art supply and drafting stores. If that doesn’t do it, go over the cover with a vinyl eraser. Whatever is left then is not dirt. It is part of the character of the book. I spent the better part of an hour one day convincing a client she really didn’t want me to remove the greasy palm print that had been left on her great-grandfather’s prayerbook over 70-some years of clutching it in his hand as he walked through the snows of a Russian shtetl to temple.

The dry cleaning pad and the vinyl eraser are also about the best things I’ve found for cleaning dirty vellum. Okay, if you want to try the mooshed up white-bread trick, go ahead. It sometimes works, and it’s a great conversation piece. But avoid getting vellum damp. Or even excessively humid. Vellum, I’m convinced, is an alien life form and obeys its own laws of physics.

Leather that has rotted to the point of powdering, or cloth that has lost its sizing to water damage need to be consolidated or resized. Traditionally, some form of starch paste (flour-and- water, for example) was the answer. But water, even locked in starch paste, can be disastrous to old leather, turning it into black, stiff gelatin. It can cause the color in bookcloth to run or bleed; and starch attracts silverfish and roaches.

The best thing I’ve found for general use is hydroxypropylcellulose, an impressive name for basically the same cellulose gel used to make no- fat salad dressings thick and creamy. It’s marketed under the name Klucel G, and is available from Bookmakers in Riverdale, MD., Craft Bookbinding in Wilmington, DE, and probably other places as well. It comes as a white crystalline powder. Put a tablespoon of the crystals in an old mustard jar with about a half cup of alcohol and mix well. I use methyl alcohol (shellac thinner) from the paint store. But 90% rubbing alcohol from the drugstore works just fine. So, for that matter, does vodka. Next morning you’ll have a thick, clear gel that can be rubbed into old leather or cloth, consolidating the rotted leather fibers or cloth with new, inert cellulose. The alcohol evaporates rapidly enough that no moisture damage results.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re recoloring with Meltonian, do it before using the Klucel G. If you’re recoloring or retouching with paints or leather dye, do it after using the Klucel. Leather dyes and paints have a tendency to soak rapidly into dry, cracked or rubbed leather. By putting a sealant coat of Klucel down first, you can better control the dye or paint.

A final word about cleaning and coloring around gold tooling or pictorial stamping on cloth. Gold—if it’s real gold—is a good resist. That means if you accidentally get dye or paint or Meltonian on gold tooling, it will wipe right off— if you get to it immediately. Let it dry, however, and you’re in deep trouble, involving a lot or work with a toothpick, needle and solvents. Some of the paints used on pictorial cloth stamping won’t come off with anything less than a nuclear explosion. Others dissolve in the moisture from your fingers. Before doing anything to a pictorial cloth cover, spot test a tiny portion with whatever you’re using and see what the reaction is.

Library markings

Most book dealers are convinced librarians spend long hours devising devious ways to permanently deface books. Surprise! They do. If you steal their book, they want you to feel guilty every time you pick it up.

But what if you legally bought it? From them! Three things usually drive dealers to distraction: Numbers on the spine, library bookplates and card pockets, and rubber stamps everywhere. Again, let’s take them in order.

Numbers—One of my clients several years ago bought a multi-thousand volume collection from a public library.

What has amazed me working on them is the wide variety of ways those little white numbers were put on over a period of years—in the same library! Some were lightly drawn on; some were welded on with a heated pen, using a paint normally reserved for battleships.

So in a rare burst of organization, I developed what I call the “solvent ladder.” It is applicable to a wide range of things in bookmending and even home repair.

You start with the mildest solvent of them all: water. A surprising number of library spine markings are soluble in water. The catch is, you can’t use straight water. It needs to be in suspension, either in a paste or a gel, so it doesn’t soak in. I use my own homemade flour-and-water paste, which I keep around for a variety of binding uses such as paper and leather repair. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of cooking up your own, premixed or cold-mixed starch pastes are available from binders’ supply houses. You can also mix the Klucel G in water to form a water- based, as opposed to alcohol-based, gel. Put a fingertip dab of paste or gel on the numbers, let it sit a minute or two, wipe it off and see if it removes, or at least streaks the numbers. If it does, great. Keep it up till they’re gone.

If it doesn’t, move up the ladder to alcohol, just about the mildest of the hydrocarbon solvents. Put a little on a cotton swab, rub the numbers and see what happens. If nothing happens...

Move up to the next level—naphtha. Again you can buy VM&P naphtha in quart cans at the paint store. Or you can buy it at the drug store in convenient little nozzled cans as lighter fluid. Naptha will sometimes take off things that alcohol won’t. But if it doesn’t...

Move up to the next level—lacquer thinner. A lot of hobby shops have small jars of lacquer thinner in their model airplane section. Unless you’re very sensitive to chemicals, the fumes from a cotton swab full of lacquer thinner in a reasonably well ventilated room shouldn’t affect you. But we’re getting into potent solvents. Watch their reaction on both you and the materials.

The next level is acetone. Again, quart cans from the paint store or a small bottle of fingernail polish remover from the drugstore. And a swabfull of it won’t generate enough fumes to do harm unless you keep at it in a small, windowless room all day.

The final level is toluene. It’s a major solvent, usually available only at paint or hardware stores. It will, however, tackle library numbers that nothing else will. Use it only as a last resort and read all of the warning labels on the can.

There is a fairly recent form of spine numbering involving typed numbers on a plastic tape- type label adhered to the spine. Most times, the glue holding the label can be softened by heating it with a simple hand-held hair dryer and peeling it off with tweezers. The residue of glue that remains will usually come off with lacquer thinner.

If there’s an irregular shiny patch over the numbers, it means they’ve been covered with a sealer coat of some kind. If the sealer coat was shellac, alcohol will clear it away. Then you get to work on the numbers. If the sealer coat was varnish, note in your catalog “library numbers on spine” and sell it.

Bookplates—Bookplates and other glued-on things are iffy. Sometimes they pop off dry by just running a thin spatula under them. By all means try that first, even if it takes a thin layer of paper fibers with it. If not, most of them were adhered originally with a dextrin glue or animal glue that is soluble in water.

As with library numbers, paste will work to soften the glue. It just takes longer, since it has to soak through the paper of the plate or pocket. An alternative, slightly speedier method is to cut a piece of blotter paper a hair smaller in all dimensions than the plate or pocket. Dampen it thoroughly, but not to where it’s soggy or dripping water. Then carefully position it on top of the plate or pocket. Let it sit for a while, periodically trying to slip a thin spatula or knife blade under the plate or pocket. When it starts lifting, wait a few minutes more and then remove the blotter paper and slowly start lifting the plate or pocket.

Be careful not to soak the paper of the pastedown or endsheet. All paper will cockle when unevenly dampened. The pigments in a lot of marbled papers are not colorfast. And the chalky, colored surface-paper endsheets, so popular in the 19th Century, will discolor with even the moisture and oil from a thumbprint. It’s better to leave a trace of the old glue behind than to risk cockling or discoloring the pastedown. After all, you’re just trying to remove the glaring evidence that it’s ex-lib., not trying to hide its heritage.

Rubber stamps—Working on that massive library collection, I got to where I thought I knew the individual librarians personally. Some would compulsively ink the stamp each time. Others would thriftily try to run a whole day on one inking. Some had gentle touch. Some were brutal.

To begin with, if the ink goes clear through the page, forget it, unless you want to pay a professional conservator to surgically remove that part of the page and restore it.

Beyond that, how well a rubber stamp comes off—if at all—depends a lot on the paper. Modern coated stock is obviously easiest. A brisk rub with a vinyl eraser will usually lift it out.  Surprisingly, it also works with a lot of uncoated papers, especially pre-185O’s rag papers. Like the clay in coated stock, the gelatin sizing in the rag papers prevented the ink from soaking in as much. A brisk, rapid back-and-forth rubbing with the vinyl eraser will actually lift the ink out of the paper. It works for ball-point pen ink, too, most of the time. Obviously, thin or fragile paper won’t take as brisk a rubbing. And be particularly careful near the edge of a sheet to avoid wrinkling or tearing it. Post 1850’s wood-pulp paper, with its rosin sizing, tended to soak up the stamp-pad ink better. Plus the paper is inherently more brittle and fragile.

If an eraser won’t take it—or for the ink the eraser wouldn’t lift—abrasion is the word. But it should not be undertaken casually. From now on, you’re actually removing paper, not just ink. You can very easily wear a hole right through a page.

As with the solvents, start mild. An art-gum eraser is slightly more abrasive than a vinyl one. Try that. Then a regular pencil eraser. If the paper starts fuzzing up without the ink coming up, stop. On more fragile paper, I’ve had reasonably good luck with very fine 000 (triple naught) steel wool. Don’t press too hard, and observe the reaction of the paper. The very fine steel wool is also a handy way to remove or lighten stamp markings on the edge of books. Just make sure the pages are tightly held together and that you don’t rub leather or cloth from the edges of the boards. And be sure to blow or brush all the steel-wool dust away. Particles left in the book can cause rust stains, which is why I’m sure conservators are having coronaries as they read this.

Another outstanding and comparatively safe abrasive is cuttlefish bone, available in the parakeet department of your local pet store. A cuttlefish bone is made up of microscopic flakes of calcium that act as little knives to shave, rather than tear, paper away. You’re still losing paper, but it’s more controlled. And any calcium carbonate dust left behind in the book is not harmful.

Whatever you do, don’t use sandpaper—even the finest grade. Sandpaper literally shreds the paper, and you can go through a page before you know it. And never, ever, ever use ink-eradicating fluid. It’s a bleach. Chances are, the stamp pad ink was non-oxidizable to begin with. So all you’ll end up with is the library’s name, neatly framed in a bright white blob of bleached paper.

To sum up

A lot can be done quickly and easily in-house to make ugly books less ugly, if not downright radiant. But bear in mind that different materials from different time periods behave differently—even materials from different sources within the same period. Practice on throwaways to get the feel before running the risk of wrecking a Franklin imprint.

A little practice, a little common sense and a little care and the tired old tomes on your shelves will look a lot brighter. And sell a lot quicker.

Bob Colver scouted books for a hobby from high school, through college and a 16-year newspaper career, teaching himself bookbinding and book repair along the way. Realizing how much he didn’t know about books and binding, he took a “midlife-crisis break” and spent a year and a half studying with David Bourbeau at the Thistle Bindery in Massachusetts. Then he set up his own shop, and for 12 years has been making a living mending books, mostly for the antiquarian book trade.