Gold Tooling and the Slipcase

Leather is a delicate material, as it’s easily damaged when it’s exposed to heat or pressure. So let’s do exactly that, shall we? 😀

In my last blog post, I showed you how I created the fine leather cover for our book. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can read the post here if you’ve missed it: Binding ‘In Memory’ — Part 2. In this third and final post in this series, I will show you how I decorate the book with gold tooling and how I build a slipcase that will protect it. As in the previous posts, I’m not showing all steps but instead focus on the important ones.

Gold Tooling

This would probably be the right place to ponder the alluring yet corrupting nature of gold and its unfortunate effect on people, and to quote one of the great philosophers. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, I’ll quote Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean:

“You’re right, the noble Captain Jack Sparrow can’t just sit idly by and let gold—I mean, this fine young lady—sail off to her doom. Clearly, we must go after the go—I mean, the young lady.”

Well said, Captain.

Decorating books with gold—known as gold finishing—is an old art form, and it’s the traditional choice for luxury books. Back in the days when binding books by hand was a widespread craft and the books were objects of great value, there were highly specialised craftsmen/-women who did nothing else than decorating books all day long. The reason for that is that it’s a difficult thing to do. It requires a lot of practise and patience, and the consequences of getting it wrong are often catastrophic, as there are only limited ways of correcting a mistake.

I am, in fact, still in the process of learning how to do gold tooling. I’m not yet at a stage where I can do intricate designs, and I’m using only a small number of tools and techniques. So my design for our book is rather simple in comparison.

For gold tooling, you need four ingredients:

  1. Gold (well, duh)
  2. Hand tools (also known as finishing tools) of the form or with the patterns you want on your book
  3. Heat
  4. Pressure

The dumbed-down process is very simple: the gold is placed on the leather of the book, the hand tool is heated, and then the tool is pressed onto the gold. The leather should then contain an impression of the tool’s pattern in gold.
There is also a technique called blind tooling, which doesn’t use gold but instead requires the leather to be moist. This results in a dark impression in the leather.

The hand tools used are made from brass, and they can have a variety of forms and shapes. A professional bookbinder will have a large collection of these tools, and they are often handed over to the next generation.
I only have a small number of hand tools, but they are sufficient while learning this technique:


Don’t they look pretty?

For gold tooling, the classic approach is to use gold leaf, which is gold that has been hammered to a thickness of about 1/250,000 of an inch. However, as using gold leaf makes the whole process even more difficult, I’m taking a shortcut for this book: I’m using gold foil, which is real gold (please don’t tell the pirates) on a plastic backing:


Using gold foil allows me to skip a couple of steps and makes my life easier. Well, in a way at least. There are drawbacks. But we’ll come to that in a minute.

Step 1 Tooling lines above and below the false bands

A classic design element is to have decorative lines above and below the false bands on the book’s spine. When you go to a library that has old books, you will see this a lot, and often in combination with other kinds of decoration.

In order to create the lines, a line pallet is used:


The pallet is heated on a standard cooking plate. The challenge here is to heat the tool to the right temperature: If the temperature is too low, the gold will not be fixed on the leather properly and will flake off. If the temperature is too high, then the leather will burn and deform.
And that’s where the first drawback of the gold foil comes into play: it requires the tools to be hotter than gold leaf would. This of course increases the chance that the leather is damaged in the process.

So how do you determine the right temperature? Well, books about bookbinding suggest a method which I personally find frustratingly imprecise, although it could also be seen as charmingly low-tech: You put a little saliva onto the tool and observe what happens. If the saliva bubbles or spits it’s too hot, if it slowly evaporates then it’s the right temperature.
Seriously, what kind of measurement method is that?
I don’t want to spit on my tools, so what I’m doing instead is to use a proper thermometer:


The temperature required varies from tool to tool, and the type of the leather can have an influence as well. You also have to be very careful with the temperature in case the leather is very thin, as it can actually happen that the tool burns through the leather.
In this case, the line pallet has to be heated to 160 – 165 °C.

Once the tool has reached the right temperature, a piece of the gold foil is stretched over the leather underneath the first false band:


Then the line pallet is positioned and moved along the false band while applying pressure:


The right position of gold foil and pallet is crucial (you don’t want a crooked line, and it should be perfectly parallel to the false band), as well as the amount of pressure and the speed with which the pallet is moved. When this is done correctly, the result is a clean golden line:


This is repeated above and below all four false bands:


Step 2 Tooling corner decorations

The spine already looks much nicer than before, but I want to further decorate the top section. For this, I’m using a tool with an engraved pattern that can act as a corner decoration:



Again, the temperature, amount of pressure, and dwell time is important. In addition, a hand tool like this needs to be “wiggled” a bit in order to ensure that the golden impression is even and the gold is fixed properly in all areas of the pattern.

Tooling so close to the edge of the spine is problematic as it tends to give way, and this can lead to an impression in which the gold isn’t fixed on the leather correctly in all places. In this case, it’s necessary to re-tool it. However, therein lies a problem, as this requires to position the hand tool in the exact same place as before – and by using golf foil, this is far from easy or safe, as the foil is opaque as you can see. This can result in having two impressions that are out of alignment instead of having one clean one, which is ugly as hell and cannot be repaired without leaving traces.

Luckily, in this case tooling the corner decorations worked fine:


Now, you might wonder why I’m only decorating the topmost section. The reason for that is that the corner decorations act as a “frame” for the label which I will attach later on.

Step 3 Tooling decorations on the front and back of the cover

The spine is done, so we can turn our attention to the front and back of the cover. My plan is to decorate their borders with “flower tendrils”. This might sound weird but it will look great, just wait and see.

And here we have the third challenge when it comes to using gold foil: it doesn’t allow you to use a template. When using gold leaf, you can plan your design on a piece of translucent paper, and then transfer the design to the leather by gently pressing the according tools onto the paper. This will leave shallow impressions in the leather, which are still visible when applying the gold leaf.
This doesn’t work with gold foil, so I have to use a workaround: I have prepared templates which I can affix on both sides of the gold foil, and which allow me to position the tools correctly:


To create the tendrils, I’m using a gouge, which is basically a line pallet with a curve:


The gouge is heated, and I can then use the markings on my templates to correctly position it:


So that’s the first one. Repeat 43 times.



In the next step, I’m using two different hand tools to add flowers to the top of each curved line. These tools have to be heated to 170 °C.



This also has to be repeated 43 times. It’s hard work, as the tools are so hot, but in the end it’s totally worth it:


Step 4 Attaching the label

The final touch is to attach the book’s label:


As you can see, it fits nicely between the corner decorations.

And that’s it. The book is done:


Step 5 Building the slipcase

Now that we have such a beautiful book, we need to make sure that it’s protected. For this purpose, I’m building a slipcase.

The slipcase has three functions:

  1. It protects the book from accidental blows or scratches.
  2. It ensures that the leather doesn’t get too much direct sunlight.
  3. It keeps the back and front covers in shape. The grey board from which the covers are made can bend over time due to changes in humidity and room temperature, and the slipcase helps it to stay straight.

The slipcase consists of one large piece of grey board for the sides and the back, and four smaller pieces that will form the top and bottom:


Those pieces that will be visible on the inside of the slipcase have been covered with the same kind of paper that was used for the book’s end-papers.

The large piece of grey board is now cut in two places. The cuts should be as deep as possible, but not so deep that they actually cut through the whole way.


The sides can then be folded over, which creates the rectangular shape of the slipcase:



After gluing the small pieces of grey board to the top and bottom, we have the basic slipcase:


Now the slipcase can be covered with some nice material. You can use any kind of paper or linen for this (I’ve never seen one covered with leather, but this, too, would be possible), but it should of course fit the book the slipcase will hold. For this project, I’m using a material that imitates brocade from China and that looks great, especially in the sunlight where it shimmers.


As you can see, the grey board is also no longer visible on the inside:


The finished book

And there you have it: the luxury hand-bound edition of In Memory – A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett:




I hope you enjoyed reading about this project. And maybe it even made you want to start doing bookbinding as a hobby yourself (which you totally should). In the meantime, don’t forget to buy and read our wonderful anthology and help us support Alzheimer’s Research UK 🙂




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