Book Arts Website of the Month

History and information junkies will find a fascinating--and exhaustive--discussion in two parts on Medieval and Renaissance book production.

The ORB (Online Resource Book for Medieval Studies) Medieval Book Page

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For the Love of Books

A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. This month we walk through the process of designing and producing a hand-made book, articulating the myriad and interre
My past three weekends have been consumed with designing and producing a book as a going-away gift for a friend. This hands-on work has given me a new appreciation of all the interrelated decisions required for bookmaking: editing, typesetting, designing, compositing, prepress work, printing, binding.

Like most traditional book projects, my starting point was a text I had written. Because the text is about Catholicism, I felt the book should be traditional, rather than experimental. I wanted it to be rich in both color and feel, conveying a sense of the Renaissance period's reverence for books as both a container for knowledge and as a beautiful object of art.

Choosing the typeface seemed a logical starting point. I chose Galliard, an old favorite, because it is beautifully designed, highly readable, and sets well. The calligraphic quality of its italic version--particularly the lower case g and the ampersand--has Renaissance flair.

But before I could make decisions about type size and leading, I had to determine the size and format of the book. Since I am producing it myself in a very limited edition [two copies], I have a great deal of latitude. However, my inkjet printer will not handle paper larger than 8 1/2 x 14. I dislike, aesthetically, the proportions of the standard 8 1/2 x 11 business sheets; lately I have been drawn to nearly square formats. I make a few mockups and finally settle on a cover size of 6 1/2 x 7; page size of 6 x 6 1/2. (I set inside margins of 6 picas, outside 7, top 5 and bottom 4 to weight the text toward the center and the bottom of the spread.)

Book size settled, I return to typographic decisions. Even with that small a page, my text is rather lean. After experimenting with various sizes and leading, I settle on 11 point type on 20 point leading.

How to handle paragraphs? Because I want to convey formality, I justify the paragraphs. A four pica indent to each paragraph except the one immediately following a subhead-that I leave flush left-adds a modern flair.

Since there are no graphics or illustrations, I rely on subheads (set bold italic 13/20), large initial caps [bold 38/54 aligned at the baseline of the second line in the paragraph] and small caps (80% point size) for the first few words of the paragraph. The four-point paragraph and subhead indents give the initial cap a generous space to lead into the text. I space around the subhead (1p4 before, 0p4 after) to link it to the following paragraph but retain the 20 point leading grid so text aligns across the spread.

For pagination, I follow the traditional format of a half-title page, a full title page, copyright notice, and a dedication page. There are minor typographical decisions to be made, but the overall format and tone has already been established. The text block begins on a right-hand page eight picas below the top margin.

Typesetting and page layout complete, my next decision is paper. I want an uncoated stock, as heavy as possible to make up for the dearth of pages. In the Daniel Smith catalog I find Somerset Velvet Radiant White, a substantial 100% cotton paper originally designed for Iris output, now offered in smaller formats for desktop inkjet printing.

It comes in 13 x 19 sheets, so I figure I can print two 6-inch spreads from each sheet. My printer disagrees. It won't permit me to specify a non-standard paper for output and when I try to trick it into thinking it has a legal size sheet, it senses the missing paper and truncates its printing. I finally decide to waste paper by cutting down each 13x19 sheet to legal size, printing it, then trimming it again. Before I can print, I had to impose the pages. Fortunately, Adobe PageMaker has a wonderful Plug-in to do imposition, but I still had to decide on the binding technique.

I had originally planned a stab binding, primarily because that's what I've been working with a lot. But as soon as I made a mockup, I saw that there was a great deal of creep which, if I attempted to compensate, would throw off the entire page balance. Pamphlet binding was out of the question for the same reason.

So, as much as I wanted to avoid the codex format [because I'm still not very adept at sewing signatures together], that became the obvious choice. [It's also more historically and theologically relevant - see sidebar.] I have to admit that it makes for a more beautiful book whose pages lay flat. Since there are only 16 pages total, each signature has just four pages, one sheet printed front and back.

After numerous reviews and proof-reading, a few editorial changes, I had my text block printed, ready to trim, fold, and sew.

Now I turned my attention to creating a prototype cover. I do monotype printing, so wanted to use that technique to print the covers on rice paper. I had in mind richly saturated crimson overprinted with orange. The spines and corners of the book would contrast in majestic purple.

The rice paper took the ink well and proved to be surprisingly strong. It needed a fixative, however, since the waterbased inks transferred immediately upon handling.

Adhesives and I don't get along well, so I wanted to try an iron-on fabric adhesive. It worked great for fusing the paper to the covers but either a chemical reaction from the adhesive or heat from the iron itself darkened and muddied the printed paper. I decide to use Yes glue and/or Perfect Paper Adhesive for the real books.

Building the prototype cover revealed some design and construction flaws and showed me that, even though the text block is not very thick, I still needed a separate spine piece and a heavier cover board.

Looking through my decorative paper collection, I found the perfect end-paper to attach the text block to the covers. It's marbled with the exact colors-crimson, orange, and purple-that I had envisioned for the cover. Using it as a match, I adjust the inks for the cover.

At this point I change my mind about type color. I had originally printed the text block in black ink; now I decide to print in purple to pick up the cover accent color. I order more paper from Daniel Smith. I also decide to use fly leaves of Unryu and Thai Chiri papers to add visual and tactile richness as well as bulk up the book.

I find a black and white reproduction of Giotto's Lamentation. Partly because it was from the Renaissance, but more to the point, because its proportions fit well with my format, I color copy it in purple, typeset a caption, and paste it facing the half-title page.

All that's left is to embellish the cover. I rubber stamp a pattern of orange spirals and attach thin satin ribbons to wrap around the book and tie at the leading edge. Although a commercial book would have a title on the front cover, if not also on the spine, I feel that would add clutter, so omit it.

If I've made appropriate decisions and executed them carefully, my friend will notice a beautiful book that seems all of a piece-text, type, paper, colors, binding-with no one element calling attention to itself.

C. J. Metschke is a Florida-based writer and bookmaker. Contact her by email.


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