by Gail Altman

#57, 12 December 2005


"Don't touch that book!" I'm sure that phrase has crossed a few minds when dealing with collectors who insist upon books that are exactly as they were the moment they rolled off the press. Not even a swapped-out dust jacket will do. So, do you ever dare repair a book, altering its hot-off-the-press condition? Why not? Although there are collectors for whom only the most pristine will do, there are others who collect primarily for content. As a book collector of that ilk myself, I've picked up many a ratty book simply because I couldn't pass up another addition to my collection.

And now I'm glad I did, because many times, with some mended pages, a new spine, two new endpapers or some other cosmetic touch, the books have become readable, functional, and in some cases even beautiful again. A repaired book may not command top dollar, but giving it a bit of doctoring can help it become a sale with a respectable price.

Are there any books that can't or shouldn't be repaired? Obviously, the "can'ts" include the severely water-damaged (and consequently, warped) or stained (such as books that have had newspaper clippings stuffed inside, staining the adjacent pages orange. That's a chemical reaction that can't be reversed.) Books that have leaned on the shelves for years and have become severely cocked usually cannot be straightened, even with pressing. And books that are extremely fragile often can be damaged further by any repair attempt. If you can't bend the corner of a page without it breaking off, it's probably too delicate to fix. (Admittedly, I have repaired a few books like that, but only for customers who said, "This is my all-time favorite book. Couldn't you do something?") There are also books that have been repaired beyond repair - that is, someone used cellophane tape on torn pages or electrical tape on the spine, and consequently it has become stained or sticky beyond help. And the "shouldn'ts?" Any highly collectible book should be kept in its original condition, preferably housed in an acid-free archival box that will protect it against further deterioration.

So maybe you've given some thought to the idea of repairing some of those books on your shelves in order to realize a profit. Where do you start? Some flaws may seem daunting at first: books with cracked hinges, loose spines or no spines at all, covers that have been stained - or even worse, nibbled! Over time I hope to cover most of these sorts of repairs and more, but first, the basics.

Just as you wouldn't expect a surgeon to operate with a butter knife or your family doctor to treat a broken bone with Elmer's Glue, a book doctor needs to start with some basic tools and materials. None are terribly expensive - prices quoted below are approximate - and all will make the job easier and results more professional.

Bone folder. ($5-$9 depending on size) So called because, yes, most are still made out of bones. The new Teflon ones are super, especially for very delicate papers, but they're a lot more expensive ($20-$25), and the originals work almost as well. This is a versatile tool. It smoothes anything that needs to be glued, burnishes over mended pages so that the tear becomes invisible, and makes terrific creases and sharp corners. By the way, if you wrap dust jackets in Mylar - now called Melonex - they make the edges sharp and produce a good fit.

Micro-Spatula. ($6) This tool has a flat end and a pointed end. It's great for lifting edges, separating layers of paper, scraping (such as old paper liners and animal glues), easing out staples and paperclips, even getting to those hard-to-reach places with glue.

Brushes. ($3-$7) You'll need these for gluing. One large and one small should do the trick. They don't have to be terribly expensive, but make sure they're good enough so that they don't shed. Round brushes with plastic cuffs are most practical and don't rust.

Cutting tool. The best is a medical scalpel ($20 plus $14 for 25 blades), and you don't have to be a doctor to buy one. Any of the sources listed at the end of this article have them. An Exacto knife ($5 plus $3 for a package of 5 blades) is all right, but the blade is often so thin that it can wobble, resulting in a cut that's less than straight. If you opt for this one, can get thicker blades with rounded edges. A small retractable box cutter will also do the job. ($11 for steel or $8 for plastic. Steel is better.) Whatever style you get, make sure you also have a supply of new blades. It's important to keep your cutting tool sharp.

Cutting mat. ($15-$20. Don't skimp on size.) A self-healing mat is best, and they come in a variety of sizes. "Self-healing" means it can stand up to cuts by scalpels and Exactos but not large box cutters. Not only does it protect your cutting surface, but it will always give you a smooth surface to work on as well. They also come imprinted with a grid that is helpful for cutting square corners and measuring.

Mending tape. Although "tape" is a four-letter word for booksellers, there are archivally safe tapes that are useful for repairing torn pages. They're made with very thin, translucent, acid-free paper and are self-adhesive. When burnished, they're virtually invisible. There are various brands - for example, Filmoplast-P ($23 per 135' roll) - they come in a variety of widths (3/4" is probably most practical if you want to buy only one size), and they're great for newer books. Make sure you get the P version and not the P90, which is opaque. An alternative mending paper for vintage books is Japanese rice paper. It's somewhat expensive, but it's usually sold in large sheets and lasts a long time. (Most commonly used is Kizukishi. A 24x36" sheet is about $33.) This is a versatile paper; it is both strong and thin. It's made with long fibers that make it perfect for everything from mending torn pages to reattaching a front board.

Glue. The best bookbinding and repair glue is polyvinyl-acetate or PVA. Thick and white to start, it dries clear and flexible and will remain pliable. It's available in small bottles ($8 for 8 oz), quarts ($25) and even gallons ($45), but the quart size is probably the most practical. You should also purchase a small resealable plastic container (Gladware, Tupperware, or equivalent). While working, you'll want to pour a small amount of glue into a separate container rather than working out of the original bottle. Otherwise the brush will contaminate the glue, and before long you'll end up with a stinky pot of mold! Also helpful is methycellulose. This is a powder that you mix with water to form a gel ($40 a pound, but that's virtually a life-time supply!). Mix 1/4 teaspoon in 2 oz of distilled water, stir, and allow to thicken about 20 minutes. It can be used to clean an animal-glue slathered spine without getting it too wet, mixed with PVA to lengthen drying time so that you need not hurry with your repair, and used by itself to glue delicate papers.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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