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Book Repair for BookThinkers

Repairing Split Hinges and Gutters

by Gail Altman

#73, 24 July 2006

Understandably, the weakest places in any book are the parts that get the most use - the hinges and spine. Books that otherwise look fine on the outside may have weak or broken hinges; once those break the book is in danger of detaching from its case. Every time a book is opened, pressure is placed on the spine, and this eventually can cause it to crack. In the case of older books that were held together with animal glues, cracking of the spine is more common because these glues, unlike the new ones such as PVA, can become brittle over time.

If a book has endpapers that do not add any provenance - inscriptions, dates, etc. - or decorative value, the best thing to do in the case of a broken hinge is to replace the endpapers or, in the case of a center crack, to cut the book out of its case, repair the cracked spine from the outside, and then recase the text block. But what if the endpapers are important? In the case of the two books referred to in this article, both had endpapers that could not be disturbed without devaluing the books. The first book, cracked in the center, has lovely olive green endpapers with gold stamping, and the second, with a broken front hinge, has endpapers with an inscription and a portrait. In these cases, the repair must be achieved from inside the books at the point of damage. These repairs are not invisible, but they do result in a usable book with all its distinguishing characteristics intact. Each book must be evaluated as to whether making this sort of repair is the right decision.

For these repairs you will need:

  1. A sheet of Japanese rice paper
  2. Awl (or needle) and ruler
  3. PVA glue
  4. Bone folder
  5. Tea stain or antiquing dye
  6. Wax paper
  7. Methyl cellulose (optional)

A word about the materials you'll be using: Japanese rice paper is ideal for such repairs because it is made with long, strong fibers and is PH neutral. It comes in various weights, but for this type of repair, medium weight is best - from 27 to 36 gsm. Some possibilities include Hosokawa Ohban, Kaji, or Sekishu tsuru. Prices vary from about $5 to $20 a sheet, and some online vendors require a 5-sheet minimum. Another possibility is Mulberry; it's more economical although heavier at 45 gsm and may be too thick except for large books. If you have an art store in town such as Flax, Dick Blick, or Utrecht, they often carry single sheets of rice paper. One online source for all of these papers is Gaylord Brothers.

The main thing is to look for papers that note they are suitable for backing or hinging.

Japanese paper also comes in a variety of white, off-white and ecru colors, also in an assortment of standard colors. White or natural is most economical because if it doesn't match the shade of paper in the book, you can use tea stain to darken it. Just do your staining before you glue the strip to avoid getting the book wet.

For dying rice paper to match a book, any sort of black tea will do. Steep the teabag in a few ounces of boiling water about 5 minutes. Alternately, art & craft stores often carry dyes for antiquing papers or fabrics. Swab the paper, blot off the excess, and press between wax paper so it will dry straight. Once dry, check the color against the book's pages. (Remember, wet paper is darker than dry.) If it's not dark enough, repeat.

If the pages are very brown and crisp, the book probably isn't a good candidate for repair because the repaired area will be too strong for the book and could cause pages to be damaged further. Most books produced before the turn of the 20th century were made with rag paper and won't have a severe browning problem, but books published later were made mostly of wood pulp, and the acids in them often degrade the paper to a state too fragile to repair.

And now a brief note about glue: PVA glue dries very quickly, setting in about a minute, which means you must work quickly. If you feel you need extra time to reposition the strip, you can prepare a mixture of methyl cellulose and PVA to extend drying time. Methyl cellulose is produced in powder form and can be mixed as needed. For mixing with PVA, combine tsp of methyl cellulose powder with one ounce of water, mix thoroughly with a fork or small wire whisk, add 2 oz of PVA, stir, then let stand 30 minutes until thickened. Your purchase of methyl cellulose will not be wasted; it's also an excellent reversible adhesive for repairing torn pages with light-weight rice paper, especially in fragile books, and in removing animal glues from spines.

Now let's turn our attention to these two similar repairs.

In the case of the center-cracked book, lay the book open flat at the point of the crack. Cut a strip of Japanese rice paper the length of the text block and wide enough so that you will have to inch on either side of the crack, depending on the size of the book and the width of the gutter. Use a ruler and an awl or needle to cut through the paper just enough so that you can tear out the strip. This will leave a feathered edge and help the strip blend in better with the book's pages.

Before gluing it down, check to make sure it was cut to the correct size and that you're satisfied with how much of the gutter it overlaps. Fold the strip in half and crease it with the bone folder. Put a light coat of PVA glue on one side of the crease and attach it to one side of the cracked text block leaving a flap. Gently bone it down, remembering that wet paper is fragile, and let dry. Unless the book is cracked in the very center, attach the strip to the thickest side. It will be easier to maneuver the lighter side.

Place wax paper against the edge, flush in the crease, to avoid gluing the pages together when you do the other side.

Fold the flap down over the wax paper and apply a light coat of glue. If you get any glue on the wax paper, replace it with a clean sheet. Now comes the tricky part. It may be easiest if you place the book facing you and use both hands to lift the other side of the book. Make sure the text block is aligned and press it against the flap you just glued. Once pressed together, open the book slightly and use a bone folder to smooth the just-glued strip.

Make sure a piece of wax paper is in the glued area, all the way against the center crease. Close the book, press and let dry. In about 30 minutes, open the book to the repaired area. If the crack seems weak, you can take a very small brush and spread a thin line of glue in the crease. Mask off the rest of the page by laying in a sheet of wax paper no more than " from the center and close the book once more. Press and let dry.

The book with the broken front hinge can be repaired with the same method. Because this book's pages are slightly browned, I stained the rice paper to match. As it also has a gold stamped border on the inside front board, the repair strip was cut short enough to avoid covering it, rather than measuring it against the text block. The strip was then glued to the text block-because it will be easier to maneuver the cover-and allowed to dry.

Once again, wax paper is fitted up against the hinge, the other side of the strip is lightly glued, and the cover is pressed down on it. With the wax paper still in place, the cover is closed and the book is pressed and allowed to dry.

The after picture shows how the hinge repair turned out.

While not entirely invisible, it is not obtrusive and should return at least some value to the book.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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