Bokeh: A Little Book of Flowers

It is always a pleasure to bind a speculative book, and to be able to choose what you want to bind. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being given specific books to work on, but being able to select your own text block provides a certain sense of freedom.

In March there is to be a Designer Bookbinders exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery in London. This is one of three that are taking place there over three years. The first in the trilogy took place from March 15th – April 15th in 2023, and was a retrospective of the work by Faith Shannon MBE. The exhibition focussed specifically on Faith’s seminal labour of love – Stone: Ten Bindings, a collection of bindings for ‘Stone’, a book comprising poems by George Mackay Brown and photographs by Gunnie Moberg. Created in and inspired by Faith’s home on the West Coast of Scotland, the project took a total of 16 years to complete, with the final collection of works now widely regarded as a masterpiece. The Stone bindings were accompanied by poems and photographs. The exhibition also featured a small workshop room offering a glimpse into the artist’s mind and process of making, alongside some earlier bindings by Faith Shannon from the Crafts Council Collection.

The second upcoming exhibition curated by Designer Bookbinders, is to be a joint exhibition with the Society of Scribes and Illuminators and will showcase work from across both societies alongside each other. I had been looking forward to binding another of Midnight Paper Sales, Gaylord Schanilec’s, beautiful books for a long while, and had had a set of sheets sitting patiently in my ‘to bind’ drawer for a long while – this was to be the perfect project to bind them. 

Gaylord Schanilec is a master fine printer and wood engraver, using time-intensive working methods to create his art. With his private press, Midnight Paper Sales, he has produced over forty limited edition books that are often inspired by historical texts, his rural Wisconsin surroundings, and poetry. Many of his books focus on the intersection of science and art, and reflect his abiding interest in ecology, natural history, and landscape. Collected nature specimens such as fish, mussels, trees, and mayflies inform the print imagery in many of his exceptional books.

The book waiting to be bound was a copy of his 2020 publication, Bokeh: A Little Book of Flowers, which was awarded the inaugural FPBA Collector’s Prize at the 2020 Manhattan Fine Press Book Fair. This is the third book in a trilogy documenting one man’s struggle with the reality of growing old. After a quarter century living in the rural midwest he moves to the city where he observes the isolation of urban life and the tenacious existence of the plants, birds, and animals living there—a roster of beings that includes himself. Bokeh: A Little Book of Flowers was preceded by A Little Book of Birds (MPS 2017), and Departures (Ninja Press, 2019).

This book was printed in an edition of 119 copies on Velké Losiny and Zerkall papers. Eight multiple colour wood engravings with poems handset in Polipholis, Bembo, and Blado types. Pages of the text block and the beautiful engravings are pictured below.

The text block was collated and folded, with some deckled edges and some cut edges to the pages. I decided to add a deckled effect to the bottom and foredges of each of the pages, with the top edge being cut straight so that I could add edge decoration here once the pages were sewn together. I achieved this using a scalpel with a size 23 blade in it, and carefully worked my way through the sheets slicing off slivers of the paper to give a deckled appearance, as can be seen in the image on the left below.

The text block itself had been printed with the wording passing across the folded gutters of the pages. This created an interesting challenge: how to bind the book so that the wording here remained easily visible. I have bound many books on stubs, for a variety of reasons (either the grain direction of the paper was the wrong way round, the book was printed on individual sheets, or it was a miniature so this would aid the opening). This book was also the perfect candidate for a stub binding, which would allow the sections to open flat when the book was used.

It helps me to visualise where all the sections will go in comparison to the stubs, as the number of stubs doesn’t always equate to the number of sections and extra stubs are added to make up the thickness.

~ Diagram for stubs placement

As each section centre was different with the placement of the text in different places I set the sewing stations in the relevant positions down the gutter so as to avoid the central thread passing across any of the wording. I don’t have images to show here but the sections were sewn to the stubs using different coloured threads too, the image on the below right used grey thread but some sections were sewn in yellow and others in white.

The stubs were sewn in turn to the sections, with the total folded thickness of all the stubs matching that of the total thickness of all the sections stacked up. As you can see in the images of the wood engravings at the top of this blog post, apart from the vibrant turquoise print they are largely muted in tone with lots of greys, yellows and pinks. I therefore set this as the colour palette for the binding and chose to use yellow Satogami paper for the folded stubs.

The sections with their attached stubs were then sewn onto five tapes, and leather-jointed endpapers were also sewn on. The spine had PVA glue applied to it between the tapes and was then rounded and backed.

The top edge of the binding was ploughed and sanded flush using sandpaper until it was totally smooth. I decided to apply a painted effect to the top edge of the book using watered down acrylic paints and a very fine brush. I used a mixture of yellow, pink and burgundy to build up the effect, painting up to the yellow of the stubs. Once dry, the top edge was burnished using a flat agate burnisher to bring up a sheen on the page edges.

I made some made double-core endbands and stuck them to the head and tail of the spine. The primary core was covered in yellow leather with some burgundy thread detail sewn onto it, and the secondary core was covered in grey leather with a central white thread detail. The whole spine was then lined with a layer of archival Kraft paper and left to dry before applying a one-on, two-off hollow to the spine. These spine linings were left overlong and cut to the length of the spine once dry.

The laminated boards were ploughed to size (I always make them up larger than they need to be and cut them to size once I know what the size of the text block and the squares need to be). The boards had a spacer of 1mm Gemini board stuck to their inner edge to allow for the correct movement in the board joints once the text block is covered in leather.

The position of the tapes was marked onto both boards and then a modified chisel, the same width as the tapes, was driven through the boards at a shallow angle at each point to allow for the tapes to be passed through. They were glued in position with a mixture of paste and PVA glue and left to dry. The boards were flattened as much as possible with a hammer in the positions of the tapes and sanded to remove any uneven areas. Finally, a layer of handmade paper was stuck down on the front of each board and further sanded once dry.

Whilst all of this forwarding was going on, I was working away on a decorative sample board in the background. Having selected my colour palette I decided I wanted to depict some flowers in a fashion that would compliment the wood engravings within the book. We have lots of poppies in our garden and I love the delicate nature of their petals so this is what I opted for. Poppy flowers can be smaller than a thimble or larger than a dinner plate – plus they come in colours from translucent white through ivory, yellow, golden, orange and red, even ranging into shades of blue and purple.

I chose to use a grey goatskin for the covering leather, and initially did some test applying embroidery threads in thin lines to try and build up the appearance of a petal. I also tried using some lino cutting tools to add extra carved detail to the leather.

~ Test embroidery technique

Instead I decided to coloured leather onlays for the poppy flowers to create a more intense colour block for the flower. When looking through my bags of leather off-cuts I found some muted pink suede splittings that I was drawn to, as to me they were similar in appearance to the look of the coloured wood engravings. The poppy petals were cut out and applied to the grey leather, with small yellow leather onlays cut and stuck down for the stamens. The central seed pod was cut from pale green leather.

I painted the pink suede with acrylic paint so give it a more graduated look and then started to embroider the detail onto it. I decided from the beginning that I would sew the vast majority of the detail on this book using black thread, again to be similar in appearance to the printed wood engravings.

Rather than the flowers just floating on the book cover I decided to add a series of sewn lines to the book cover, sewn at a 45 degree angle to the book boards. I chose to do this to try and give the appearance of wood engraved lines to the front cover. I drew a series of lines 1mm apart on the back of the leather with a black pen and used these as a reference for embroidering the lines, which were done using long couching stitches that were then whipped with the same colour thread. Below you see the reverse of the leather, which in fact was very hard to follow as the black pen lines were the same colour as the thread so it was tricky to work out where to go next as the threads were somewhat camouflaged on the back of the leather.

As well as black lines, I also added a few in pink and yellow in between the black lines for effect. The leather was then pasted to the laminated inner board and left to dry.

It was then time to move on and work on the leather for the book using the same approach. The petals of three flowers were cut from pink, yellow and orange suede splits. As the pieces I had were only the width of a razor blade, as they were the leftover parings from other pieces of leather, I had to be a bit creative with how to place the shapes to use up the materials I had. On a couple of occasions I pieced two strips together to get the width I needed, knowing that ultimately the join wouldn’t really be seen once all of the embroidery was done on top of the onlays.

I stuck the petals down onto lens tissue, so I could build up each flower in one piece before sticking it down onto the covering leather.

As with the sample board, I applied acrylic paint to the flower petals to graduate the colour and add shading to them. The flowers were then stuck down to the grey leather using a tracing paper template as a guide for the placement. Once dry, the goatskin was back pared to remove some of the leather on the reverse so that the flowers onlays would lie more flush on the cover.

I added tiny yellow leather onlays to each of the flowers for the stamens, in two rings around the central seed pod. These were held with fine-tipped tweezers and glued in position. I could then commence the embroidery (the bit I love the most!).

Firstly I outlined each of the petals with black thread. The initial stitches were built up with a running stitch, which was then whipped with the black thread to consolidate it.

Once the outlines of the petals were done I then gave the stamens the same treatment, working my way around the centres to build up the detail.

I then applied small seed stitches to the edge of each of the petals. I pricked a series of holes first then added in the black thread detail, as you can see in the below right image.

The central seed pods came next, using a small cut-out paper template to get the lines in the correct place. I pricked small holes with my needle pricker for reference and then lightly drew the lines onto the leather using a pencil so I could visually see where the stitches needed to go.

The next black thread detail was wavy lines on each of the petals, sewn at random along faintly drawn pencil lines.

Once the petal detail has been completed, it was time to move on and work on the linear detail surrounding the flowers. From experience with marking these lines in black pen on the reverse of the sample board leather and getting rather lost, I chose to mark them using orange a purple pens. The purple lines were every 5mm apart, and the oranges every 1mm apart between them. This method made it mush easier to visualise where the black threads had already been sewn. If you look at the below right image this is hopefully clear to see!

One specific challenge I had was how to deal with the edges and the corners of the covering leather and how the stitching would flow around the board edge. I had to take care to embroider the lines so that they would wrap around the edge of the boards once the leather was stuck down, without being so long that they wrap onto the inside of the board. If this were to happen then the sewing would be at risk of being sanded when the inner boards were being prepared and levelled for the doublures.

If you refer back to the above right image, you will see two border lines drawn on the back of the leather. The inner line is the topmost edge of the board and the outer line is the inside edge of the board, so in theory the gap between them is the thickness of the board. There was a little distortion to the leather during the embroidery process, so I would have to take care when pasting the leather to the book so that the embroidered lines would sit where they were meant to. It was a pretty satisfying thing to look at once it was done though!

Extra pink and yellow embroidered lines were added in between the black lines at random, and also some tiny white stitches were added to the inner edge of each of the petals to add highlights.

It was then time to move onto applying a title to the spine of the book. The title page of the book had the ‘W’ of ‘FLOWERS’ printed in yellow, which I felt I just had to honour on the book cover. I had been experimenting with different ways of titling a bit when working on this book and thought I would use a combination of black leather onlays and a pierced ‘W’ backed with yellow leather for the ‘FLOWERS’ piece of the title.

I carefully pierced out the W, using a template of the title and pricking holes around the outline before piercing through the leather with a very sharp scalpel. A small piece of thin yellow leather was cut to shape and stuck to the reverse of the leather. I then stuck down the rest of the black letter onlays in position on the spine.

The rest of the title would be sewn in pink thread. I used pins to hold a paper template in place and then pricked reference holes for the rest of the sewing. The template was then removed and the title sewn and whipped with pink thread.

Once the title had been applied it was then time to stick the leather to the book. I made sure that the hollow was split and the boards had been back-cornered and made up to paste in preparation.

The front of the leather was dampened using water sprayed with an atomiser. This stage is important so that the paste gets drawn evenly through the leather and doesn’t leave and blotches once it dries. The back of the leather had the paste applied three times, leaving it to penetrate in between applications. I always apply some PVA glue to the joint area of the text block before sticking the pasted leather to it too, to ensure good adhesion in this area.

Once the leather had been stuck to the book and turned in, and the endcaps formed, it was placed between two pieces of blotting paper and put between boards under a weight and left to dry. The blotting paper was changed regularly to draw the moisture out.

Twenty four hours later it was time to look at the book and open up the boards – I always dampen the leather at the boards joints and let the moisture penetrate in before moving the boards for the first time. The text block could then be uncapped, the leather joints glued down and the turn-ins trimmed square.

A piece of watercolour paper, the same thickness as the leather turn-ins, was cut to size and glued into the centre of the boards and sanded flush. There was a bit if a discrepancy in the levels of the leather at the mitred board corners so this was built up using small strips of watercolour paper, as is visible in the below left image.

The final layer added to the inside of the boards was a piece of Zerkall, which was left to dry and sanded flush. I was then able to stick down the paper doublure, which I chose to be pink in colour. Due to the difference in colour between the dark grey of the leather turn-ins and the bright white of the infills, this was a little bit noticeable behind the pink doublure paper but I chose to live with that. Upon reflection I should have perhaps added another layer of Zerkall before sticking down the final pink doublure, or I could have used a darker paper for the infill in the centre of the board – these are all learning curves.

The book would be housed in a wooden box. I wanted to apply a leather label to it, with stitch markings to match that of the book cover. I worked out the label size and created a border from thread, by drilling small holes through the wood and passing black thread back and forth before whipping it with the same thread. I also added a few 45 degree lines, sewn in the same way with a mixture of the black, yellow and pink threads. The ends of the threads were glued to secure them inside the box lid and the label then stuck in place on the lid of the box.

The onlaid title letters had shifted a bit during the covering process so I decided to reglue them into position. Unfortunately I noticed the ‘W’ was ever so slightly off centre once the book had been covered so I shifted the black leather onlays ever so slightly from their original position so that they at least were truly central.

As well as playing around with the title on the book, I worked on three other titles too: one for the lid of the wooden box; another for the outer conservation box that the wooden box would be housed in; and finally one for the reverse of the sample board.

The very final stage of the process was to add some extra pen detail to the leather onlays. This extra detail gave it the appearance I wished for, breaking up the blocks of the colour on the petals more.

You can see all the images of this completed binding and wooden enclosure on my website here.

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