Guards! Guards! Part One: Design and Sample Board

I have never read much Terry Pratchett so this binding was an interesting challenge for me. A commission from the daughter of a client of mine, who grew up reading Terry Pratchett books as a child (chosen from a wall full of books by the author!), this was to be a surprise birthday present for her father. In her words, she said she was pretty sure that her view of the world has been very shaped by Pratchett’s books which she has her father to thank for.

The novel that was suggested to me for the commission was, Guards! Guards!, one of both her and her father’s favourite books. Guards! Guards! is a fantasy novel by British writer Terry Pratchett, the eighth in the Discworld series, first published in 1989. It is the first novel about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. 

An original hard-bound copy of the book was found and purchased. There is no concise way to describe the plot of such an imaginative storyline, the many quirks opening up numerous different design possibilities:

“The story follows a plot by a secret brotherhood, to overthrow the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork and install a puppet king, under the control of the Supreme Grand Master. Using a stolen magic book, they summon a dragon to strike fear into the people of Ankh-Morpork.

Once a suitable state of terror and panic has been created, the Supreme Grand Master proposes to put forth an “heir” to the throne, who will slay the dragon and rid the city of tyranny. It is the task of the Night Watch to stop them, with some help from the Librarian of the Unseen University, an orangutan trying to get the stolen book back.

The Watch is in bad condition; they are regarded as a bunch of incompetents who just walk around ringing their bells, and this is mostly true. The arrival of Carrot changes this; Carrot’s enthusiasm strikes a chord with Vimes; the Watch should prevent crime, not ignore it. Vimes begins investigating the dragon’s appearances, which leads to an acquaintance with Sybil Ramkin, a breeder of swamp dragons. Ramkin gives an underdeveloped dragon, Errol, to the Watch as a mascot.

The leader of the Elucidated Brethren is initially successful in controlling the dragon, but he has not accounted for the dragon’s own abilities. The banished dragon returns, and makes itself king of Ankh-Morpork and demands that the people of Ankh-Morpork bring it gold and regular virgin sacrifices.

Vimes is imprisoned in the same cell as the Patrician, who has been leading a relatively comfortable life with the help of the rats he uses as spies. The Librarian helps Vimes to escape and he runs to the aid of Sybil, who has been chosen as the first virgin to be sacrificed. The Watch’s swamp dragon, Errol, reorganises his digestive system to form a supersonic jet engine and fights the king, eventually knocking the king out of the sky with a shock wave. While a crowd attempts to close in on the King to kill it, Sybil tries to plead for it, while Carrot places it under arrest; but Errol lets the dragon escape, to be his mate. It turns out the King is a Queen.

The Patrician is reinstated as ruler of Ankh-Morpork, and offers the Watch anything they want as a reward. They ask only for a pay raise, a new tea kettle and a dartboard.”

~ Wikipedia

An original hard-bound copy of the book was found and purchased, the story had a lot in that could be used for inspiration. The main story is about a man summoning a dragon to terrorise the city. There are two dragons in the book. One is a majestic, traditional dragon type. It is bronze and has “great red eyes”. The second one is an odd little dragon named Errol…he’s pear-shaped, and can’t fly until he starts shooting fire out of the wrong end to propel him. The story ends with the two dragons fighting and then flying off together.

It was decided that the cover design would be based on a traditional type of dragon (rather than Errol!). The first challenge was finding a suitable dragon image to base the design on so I searched for images of dragons for inspiration. There are many such images online however I had to find one to fit the right look for the traditional dragon in the book.

I had already discussed with the client perhaps having a detail of scales rather than a whole dragon on the cover so I set out the design with that in mind.

I initially worked on two drawings. The idea for the first design (below) was that each of the cross-hatched central sections of the scales would be made as a metallic bronze/gold onlays, with the outlines of the scales embroidered. If the client wished for the binding to be titled, I thought this could have been worked into the shape of the scales too. The head and tail of the dragon weren’t drawn into this design but compositionally I felt having a little extra ‘detail’, in this case sort of dragon ‘fins’, would be good to break up the solid block of scales. 

The concern I had with this design was in terms of how the binding was going to function. There are two flexible board joints where the front and back covers of the book open and close that run head to tail through the design. Ideally when drawing out a design for a binding cover I try and avoid having too much detail across the joints, and in this case I wanted to avoid placing too many leather onlays across these for fear they may lift over time.

~ Drawing design number one

So, I came up with a second design which offered a way around this as the composition was such that the central section of the design, where the spine of the book lies, had no scales on it. The horns and hair offered a visual break to the scales, and the hair would also be an excellent opportunity for embroidery threads of different colours.

It is not always necessary to title a book, I often don’t, but gave the option to the client in both cases for where this might be able to go. In design two the possibilities were either to add a title as shown on the ‘tendril’ running across the design, or try and work it into the scales like in design one.

~ Drawing design number two

After showing the two designs to the client, although version two was heading in the correct direction it was felt that it was a little too abstract, and that she wanted an element of the dragon’s head on the front cover. So version three was drawn out so that the spine was largely blank with only a few onlays at the bottom, reducing the risk of too many being glued across the board joints.

The scales were later and more graphical, allowing for the cross-hatched pieces to be cut as onlays, and I also included some wing and tail detail as well as part of the head of the dragon.

~ Final design for book cover

Once the design was agreed I started thinking about the colour palette. I felt that a dark covering leather in black would work best with highlights of copper, bronze, gold, red, purple and maroon making up the dragon.

~ The colour palette for the binding

A few years ago I purchased some bull skin leather from Tannerie Carriat in France, two skins of which were mechanically patterned into a sort of scaly-texture, looking bit like miniature dragon scales! I have it in both a burgundy red and a sage-green colour, and thought that the red could work really well for this design in combination with the black covering leather.

I bought some iridescent bronze oil paint, plus some printing medium to thin it down, so that it could be rolled with a hard rubber brayer onto the surface of the leather. I tested applying the paint onto the skin, and due to the pattern of the texture on the skin, the ink just stuck to the raised bumps giving a great effect.

The issue I had was that I wanted to use this leather for onlays, so it needed to be pared down thinly on my Brockman paring machine which was tricky to do once it had been painted as a lot of handling affected the irredecence of the bronze on the surface of the leather. But I couldn’t do it the other way around and pare it first as the mechanical patterning of the leather was lost when the leather wa stained so it wouldn’t have picked up the patterns well if the ink was rolled on afterwards.

This is all great reason to test out such unknowns on the sample board for this binding though. the next stage was to select a small portion the cover design to work on. In the case of this binding, I scaled the design down so that I could get more of the design onto the 75mm x 125mm sized board. Firstly I cut out the scales from the printed leather.

~ The dragon scales for the sample board

Once the scale onlays had been cut out, I placed the tracing paper template over the top of the leather and pricked through the outlines that were to be embroidered so I knew where to stick them down.

~ Sticking down the leather onlays

Once the scales were done I moved onto the other details. Where I didn’t have pieces of leather to make up the whole of the shape I needed, I cut them out as individual pieces with an overlap – seen below with the gold onlays. I made sure that where the join fell would be where a line of embroidery would sit to hide it.

~ Sticking down the other onlays

Once all of the onlays were stuck down, the leather was turned over and back pared. It was then time to work on the embroidery for the sample board. Using a mixture of coloured and metallic threads, detail was built-up using a variety of stitches.

It became clear during the embroidery process that the paint applied to the patterned bull skin wasn’t sticking properly and rubbed off a lot through the handling of the leather. I therefore chose to change the leather in these areas to a magenta-coloured Pergamena skin.

~ Detail of the embroidery work, plus the bull-skin onlays before they were changed

Once I was happy that all of the embroidery was complete, I stuck the leather onto the sample board with paste and left it to dry for 24 hours under a light weight between blotting paper. A bit of smoke was added for good measure, coming from the nostril of the dragon. This was applied using white acrylic paint on the end of a cotton bud.

~ The front of the finished sample board


The idea for the endpapers and doublures was devised in collaboration with the client: a miniature library. Due to the reference of libraries in the book, and the fact that her father is a collector of books we thought it would be great to create a miniature set of shelves in this part of the binding, including books with titles from his own library, plus titles from within the story. There will be more specifics explained about this in the next part of this blog post.

I designed the paper to appear like library shelves, sat in a grid of different sized cubes to hold different sized books, like in the image below. The bindings were each made from thinly pared leather, with gold leaf detail, tooling and embroidery threads used to build up more intricate detail.

~ Detail of the library being created on the back of the sample board

I also wanted to include a library ladder, made from wood veneer, on the front doublure of the book so this was the perfect opportunity to test out how it would work. Some wood veneer was backed with thin card, and cut to shape. The shape was then marked onto the doublure (once it had been stuck down to the reverse of the board). The paper was then peeled away from this area.

~ Cutting out the recess for the veneer ladder to be glued in to

The veneer was then glued into place on the back of the board, thus completing sample board number fifty eight!

~ The completed back of the sample board

I look forward to sharing with you in more detail the books chosen to adorn the shelves of the miniature library, plus other extra details that were chosen to compliment the book design.

4 thoughts on “Guards! Guards! Part One: Design and Sample Board

    1. Thank you so much. I generally say that my bindings take on average 150-200 hours – although in reality that is probably a vast underestimate as it doesn’t take into account all of the thinking and preparation time!

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