On Sunday I set to teach myself onlays and the leather inset, which in my case is a pared leather onlay set in a recess made by stamping with a plate or a hand tool. I spent some time wandering around, looking for tools that would be simple enough without being completely boring, and found none. I resorted to three small brass plates intended for machine gilding. They were in fact quite easy to use as they were, as I could just sandwich the damp leather plaquette and the engraved brass plates in the nipping press. I made templates for the insets by inking the brass plates and stamping them on a piece of paper that I pasted on pared leather. These were then cut out with a scalpel. There might be a better technique for this, but the paper method is in fact quite painless too. The template peels off easily when the onlay piece is moistened a bit, and after that the piece can be pasted on.
This is all very simple but naturally it takes a while to get the hang of the details, such as handling the onlays (they are flimsy little things) and cutting the grooves well. My first try wasn’t very clever-looking because I cut the onlay too angular and accidentally shaved too much off, but the second one in terracotta looks surprisingly pleasant. I didn’t bother to finish the third one because it looked neat without the leather inset. I ended up re-stamping the first onlay with a secondary plate that had more detail than the plain one, which made it look more finished. I was too tired to try gold tooling on them so I left them be.
The difference between recessed onlay and inset, according to Philip Smith, is the depth and the method of creating the recess. Inset is made by pressing the leather so that an intaglio suitable for the decorative material is formed, whereas the recessed onlay is set in a recess that has been cut or carved in the board and usually the whole onlay lies a bit deeper than the surface of the cover. Then again, as I already mentioned, in New Directions in Bookbinding he also writes about the line-tooled recessed onlay. If I remember right, Douglas Cockerell calls this all an inlay but let’s not listen to him; I am personally prone to make the distinction that inlays are made in a hole cut in the leather, and onlays go either on the leather or on a recessed leather.
Non-raised unconventional onlays can also be made with back paring, but for some reason I have never gotten round doing that. Am I a bookbinder or what? Small floral onlays like mine would probably look quite nice on a back of the book with the title. There is however the obvious problem of stamping the back.. so other option is of course to make a traditional onlay and save all that amazing trouble.
Moby Dick in a full cloth case binding with parchment onlays
Making all these blank books can get kinda boring. Even though most of our training around the bindery is technical, it’s nice to get to put the creative side of my brain to work for a change. Despite the fact that Jeff is constantly reminding us that we are craftsmen, not artists, and this is not art school. I had a lot of fun making this; I know the design is a bit trite, but whatever. The onlays are done by cutting the design out of 20pt (card stock), then laminating that to the boards. The book is then covered in the usual way and the cloth is carefully worked into the design. The onlay has to be cut exactly to fit inside the impression and glued in place carefully. Then you, to quote my instructor, “press the shit out of it. ” Finally you go home and stay up all night worrying that maybe the onlay slipped out of position, or expanded too much from the glue while in the press. Stay tuned for fancy leather bindings, an austere existential rebinding and maybe some fun repair projects.