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Working with 300-Year Old Paper

Posted on by Jordan Hurder

Last you heard, we were working on a hardcover, deluxe edition of the Inkpoems book by MJP. Because the paper MJP uses for these works of art is so distinctive, I wanted to use it to cover the boards of the hardcover, making it the dominant component of the binding. Originally I thought I would use it more as an accent, since my idea was to include an original ink poem with each copy as well. However, one of my pet peeves in art vs book collecting is how individual pieces of art are valued so much more highly than art that is attached to a book… that the uncouth book drags the spiritually pure artwork down to the level of a commercial object. (For evidence of this, refer to the results of a recent auction of work by Charles Bukowski in which a painting that literally looks like it was finger painted in diarrhea sold for over $10,000, while a drop-dead mint copy of his most collectible book (Post Office) with a much more attractive painting tipped in sold for $6,600.) So, rather than using the 300-year old paper as a design accent, I decided to make it the centerpiece of the book and then ask the artist to paint an original ink poem on each cover. This way, the art isn’t a bonus or an add-on (or something you can carefully separate, frame, and later sell at auction) – it IS the cover. Take that. This book is for book collectors, not art collectors.

The problem, however, is that the paper is fragile. Normally, to bind a book like this, I would use Gudy adhesive film, since, as I’ve previously noted, I’m not particularly worried about Gudy breaking down chemically and staining the cloth over time, since it is very stable (and the bookcloth we use has an acid-free paper lining, providing an extra layer of material between the adhesive and the cloth). In this case, though, I don’t want a pressure-sensitive adhesive anywhere near the old paper. It would probably be fine, but I’m not taking any chances with it – it is remarkable that it has survived 300 years in the first place, and so I only want it to come into contact with materials that meet the highest conservation standards.

That being said, I didn’t really want to start slathering it with glue, either. My glue of choice for this (and really for anything that requires glue from now on) is Beva Gel. I like Beva Gel for a few reasons. First, unlike most PVA formulations, Beva Gel (which is an EVA formulation) has a very low water content, meaning it forms an adhesive layer that sits on top of the material without really being absorbed into it. This can make it difficult to work with, since it dries very quickly, but this property has some advantages as well. It is less messy to work with, since it performs best if left to dry momentarily before being applied and then being brayed heavily after application. Because it is partially dry before application, it can be repositioned without making a mess – and if it dries too much, it can be reactivated (although not fully removed) with heat. But, like I said, given the fragility and thickness of the paper, I didn’t want to start spreading thick glue all over it, fearing that some of the adhesive would be absorbed inevitably, and imagining some detrimental effects that this would have on the appearance of the paper. Also, covering boards with paper is rough on the paper – this is less of an issue with strong paper purpose-made for art applications than it is when you’re using paper made for commercial books in the 1700s. Although this paper is nice stuff – fairly thick rag paper with a really nice feel to it – I was still worried about the paper splitting and cracking where it is folded over the edges of the boards.

So, to add an absorptive layer to the paper and to provide tensile strength, I selected a tissue-weight Japanese Tengujo paper as a lining. I didn’t want something that would be too thick, since that would make the end result too thick and potentially difficult to work with, and I like Japanese papers for their strength – they are often much stronger and much lower weights than Western paper. To join the two layers, I used a heat activated Beva 371 film with a 1ml thickness. This way, there is a permanent, flexible bond between the paper and the lining that further boosts the tensile strength, since it is an actual EVA film and not an adhesive substrate like many films. (In other words, when Beva 371 film is hot, it acts like glue, but when it cools, it feels like very thin SaranWrap.) After letting the adhesive cool, I trimmed the paper to size and applied the glue in order to bind the books.

For the spine, I used Genji bookcloth, which is a Japanese handmade cotton/rayon cloth that is one of the most high-quality bookcloths available. It has a sheen that isn’t really visible in the photos below, but rest assured it looks very cool.