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The Final Steps

After the laborious process of fastening the quires, it was time for the gluing of the leather. We set an old tin in a pan of water on the stove, creating a makeshift double boiler. Into the tin we put hot water and the dry rabbit hide glue until it seemed sufficiently thick. We had to base the sufficiency on personal preferences for consistency, or goopiness if one is half so tired as we were, for we were not able to find any literature on glue proportions.

Mixing the Glue.

We glued the leather on in portions, starting with the top, because we did not wish for things aligned to slip while setting another part. Before we started gluing, a rough shape of the leather was cut out with the removable blade of an old style safety razor (Topaz brand blade). Unfortunately, it is only a safety razor when the blade is mounted. Free wielding of the two sided blade resulted in a fine lattice upon my fingers. Applying glue with a brush, we fastened the leather to the boards, cutting as needed. We encountered some difficulties in the leather’s inconsistent pliability. The edges would become strange shapes and get up to al sorts of mischief whenever our backs were turned. The warm glue further affected the pliability of the leather, but we were able to use this to our advantage when shaping deviant bits of cow.

Allowing the glue on the spine and outer-board set.

For the folded over corners, we decided to cut in at a forty five degree angle and has been most common with most binding techniques (Szirmai 1999). This seems to have been left to the judgement of the binders of each manuscript, and we thought this method looked nice.

The Corners.

For the final setting, particularly of the corners, we weighted the top and bound the edges with twine to hold the leather in place while the glue was drying. Scrap sheets of paper were set in place to protect the pages from any misplaced glue. After spending a restful night in the kitchen, the glue decided to set nicely and allow us to be finished. Judging by our progression, we would do a better job on the next one. I assume the creators of the original were able to practice once or twice with book binding before, so they had certainly had an advantage. Nonetheless, I am pleased with what we have produced and even more so with how we improved our techniques as we progressed.

It opens!

On a cushion.

A distinguished spine.


Once the pages were finished and the boards had been drilled it became apparent that the disparity in thickness between them would result in a particularly strange looking volume. The fir boards we purchased were approximately 18mm thick (compared to 3mm for the 9.1 x 13.4cm St. Cuthbert Gospel and 6mm for the Victor codex, another codex from the late 7th or early 8th century measuring 13.7 x 28.6cm (Leahy 2010, p. 92-93)), because these were the only boards we found that were wide enough for our 15.5 x 24.2 cm volume. In hindsight it would have been preferable to use veneer designed for finishing woodwork, as this would likely have been closer to the thickness of the boards used for medieval manuscript production. However, on benefit of the thicker boards was an increased amount of leeway in terms of accuracy for the hole drilling. In the end additional paper was purchased to “bulk up” the book. We chose to use simple cartridge paper, as this portion of the book would not be used for inking or illumination, and was instead present to test the stitching technique. This choice saved a significant sum for a project already approaching the $200 mark for materials and supplies, with a pack of 40 pages costing only $6 as opposed to the $2 we paid for one sheet of parchment paper.

Board holes highlighted with some fancy pins

The next task was the binding of the book using the pattern described in a previous post. We practiced several quires of cut lined note paper before attempting the actual manuscript.

Practice book bound to the boards of the case

Here the stitching work can be seen on the practice book

The cartridge paper was cut to size (using a modern paper cutter) and v-shaped slits as described by Szirmai (1999, p. 97) were added. During the cutting of the slits, the pages were held using yet another makeshift tool: a vice composed of a plastic cutting board, a ruler, and the ever popular vice grips, then cut with a razor blade. The advantage of the v-shaped slits is that they guide the needle into the hole and reduce the likelihood of tearing the paper. This also addresses out second research question:

2. How does needle size affect the ease of stitching parchment, and what is the optimal needle thickness for the parchment we have obtained?

As it turns out, the answer is: not much at all. Because the pages were pre-cut the needle thickness has minimal impact. Needle length becomes more of an issue than thickness, because to accomplish the loop which holds each quire to the previous on the needle must be threaded between the pages and pulled out on the other side of the stitching, which is more difficult with a shorter needle. This process of looping behind the stitching would be made significantly easier still if curved needles were utilized.

The stitching is accomplished by setting up paired sewing stations (depicted with cross section of the second station here here and seen above in the practice book. We decided to carry out the sewing with two people at once, each in charge of one needle at any given time, and switching when the stitch passed through the middle of each quire.

The first few quires sew onto the board at the first pair of sewing stations

After some of the stitching had been completed it was discovered that each sewer produced slightly different stitches, despite the fact that the steps involved in stitching were the same. This is most likely due to different thread tensions; with one participant more fearful of a ‘loosely bound’ volume than the other, the source disparity was easily identified, and by the final stages of the binding process the stitches were more uniform between the two sewers.

Slightly different stitching patterns are created by each sewer

Eventually, the stitching was completed and the top board was attached. The first attempt at stitching the pages in had to be pulled out and repeated because the sewers collectively miss-stitched the pages by neglecting to loop the thread underneath the previous quire. This experience was not without its benefit however, as it provided an opportunity to examine our third research question:

3. Based on the level of interconnectivity between the case and codex, to what extent would the replacement of case affect the codex?

This question cannot be fully answered at this point as the leather has not been attached, but providing the pages were reasonably intact and the leather was not glued to the pages themselves (which we did, and as was on occasion the case with medieval codices  established by Artemis and Bish (2006, p. 51)) the binding threads can be sliced between the quires and the quires are easily separated from each other and the binding boards.

View on the open book from 'below'

The stitched but not yet covered book

Stitched book sitting on leather covering

The next step of the binding process was to attach the leather to the book boards…


Artemis, L & Bish, T 2006, ‘Preservation ethics and practical digitization’, in P  Springborg  (ed.), Care and conservation of manuscripts 9: proceedings from the ninthe international seminar held at the University of Copenhagen 14th-15th April 2005, Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen.

Leahy, K 2010, Anglo-saxon Crafts, The History Press, Gloucestershire.

Szirmai, JA 1999, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbonding, Ashgate, Aldershot/Brookfield.

Pictures of Our Finished Illuminated Pages

The Gospel Book of Durrow

The Four Evangelist Symbols fol. 2r

The Gospel Book of Durrow

The Gospel of Matthew fol. 21v

The Gospel Book of Durrow

The Gospel of St Mark fol. 86

Making the Images: Some Final Observations on the Process

What is astoundingly clear after duplicating some imagery from our model the Gospel Book of Durrow is that this is a time consuming and hard process.

The Celtic knot work and interlace that occurs in the images was far too complicated to accurately replicate. This implies that the monks had training in how to create these very intricate forms. They understood how to look at their line work and make sense of the ways the lines move under over and around each other in a continuous form. This is just an observation, after staring at the interlace designs for several hours, but they seem, somehow reminiscent of plant forms that would occur in nature. Perhaps suggesting that the insular artwork present in the Gospel Book of Durrow is based on a long and complicated tradition of replicating these forms because of their significance to earlier medieval people.

However, I digress, the drying times for the pigments mixed with the egg yolk or the egg white binder was10 minutes. However, the India ink can take longer, 20 minutes to fully dry. The egg yolk binder paints acted like our modern acrylic paints and formed a thick glossy, colourful layer on the page. Though, you still have to be careful because the addition of this paint can make the India ink smudge, even after three hours of drying time. Two layers of this paint had to be added to get an equal coat.

In contrast, the egg white binder paint performed more like our modern watercolor paints. This meant that even after three coats of the paint the colours were not as brilliant or saturated as those mixed with the egg yolk binder. This paint also had a more severe reaction with the India ink, which would cause it to smudge on a much greater level even after drying for the same three hours.

While the paint mixtures sit the pigments will settle to the bottom and have to be continuously mixed back into the water and binder. It is also very hard to measure out equal parts of pigments, water and binder to mix together to make consistent paints!

Ink and Pigments

Why India Ink?

To re-create the black ink used in the Gospel Book of Durrow we carefully selected non-waterproof India ink. We used it to create the outlines of the decoration and lettering, just as it appears in the actual codex. Black ink in the medieval period was made either from iron salts or a fine carbon soot called lampblack in a mixture of gall and vegetable gum and water (Glossary of Terms). In our modern days the closet we can get to this solution is to use the non-waterproof India ink, which today, follows a similar (if not close to the same) recipe used for hundreds of years (Dreisbach 2010). This is a mixture of lampblack, water and vegetable gum. I must be persistent in saying non-waterproof India ink for the soul reason that water resistant inks will often use a modern acrylic binder or glue, not available in the medieval era.


Dreisbach, E 2010, India Ink Ingredients, viewed 7 July, 2011, <>.

Glossary of Terms, viewed 7 July, 2011, <>.

The Pigments

Through a visual examination of the Book of Durrow any viewer will quickly recognize that the colours used in its illuminations consist of yellow, red and brown.

But, what was used to make those colours in 7th century Ireland?

According to Clarke (2004), Anglo-saxon’s have a long history of manipulating their environment, including many different plants and ochre to make different paints with an egg white binder called glair.

Thus, the decision was made to use only naturally occurring pigments to create our paints. This however, is much easier said then done. Most paints and pigments today are made from a combination of natural and artificial indigents. Which is made only more difficult by the fact that they do not have to list their ingredients on their products. Furthermore, there is little market demand for naturally occurring pigment products that have not been mixed and packaged with a modern binder. Finally, after much searching, purchased at great expense were yellow ochre, red sienna and green oxidized chrome. While all of these are correct to our period in that they are all naturally occurring and could have been obtained through trade or local harvesting, the green would have been more accurate if it was an oxidized copper. These will be mixed with water to create a coloured mud that will be furthered mixed with the egg binder to create tempura paint.


Clarke, M 2004, ‘Anglo-saxon manuscript pigments’, Studies in Conservation, vol. 49, no. 4, pp. 231-244, viewed 7 July 2011,

Egg White Binder

Because tempura historically can be made from either egg whites or egg yolks, we used both in our manuscript.

The Recipe:

  1. Take you egg and separate the yolk from the egg white, placing the egg white into a bowl. Discard the egg yolks.
  2.  Whisk the mixture into a meringue-like consistency. This can take as long as 45 minutes when done by hand without modern electric eggbeaters.
  3. For each egg white in the bowl add ½ eggshell of water and stir into the mixture.
  4. Cover and let sit overnight in a cool place. This will be a refrigerator in our modern times.
  5. In the morning the mixture will have separated into two distinct layers, a thick fluffy layer on top and a clear liquid on the bottom. Scoop out the top layer and mix the bottom layer into your prepared pigments, it’s your binder!

Unlike the egg yolk binder this one is easy to make.

Drilling and blind tooling with makeshift tools

The binders too have been busy this weekend. After an expedition to the hardware store to purchase some fine boards for the case as well as drill bits, it was off to work. (The only planks of appropriate width were fir, but this is a fair approximation for the birch used in the St. Cuthbert Gospel which we are emulating (Szirmai p. 97).)

The drilling of the boards proved moderately difficult; as we did not have a auger we resorted to holding the drill bit in a pair of vice grips. An additional issue was the fragility of the 1/16th inch drill bits we chose. Four bits were broken due to the combination of bit fragility and inconsistent “drill” angle. However, by the 32nd hole (yes, I drilled 32 holes by hand with a pair of vice grips) the technique was somewhat improved. The key appears to be in removing the bit from the hole several times throughout the drilling process, both to let it cool down, and ensure straight(ish) entry.

Alicia drills the case board

Blind tooling was achieved with the use of several different implements. Initially a small key with its neck wrapped in a piece of scrap leather was used; this created clean squared lines, but grew hot easily and as such was difficult to hold onto. The next attempt at a blind tooling device was a piece of twisted copper wire with twine wrapped around the shaft.  Unfortunately the wire did not hold heat very well, and as such, though it offered more comfortable control than the key, was not as effective. Finally, a phillip’s head screw driver was used to go over the knot design. The screwdriver held heat better than the copper as well as being easier to hold onto than the key.

Devin heats the leather wrapped key with a candle

Practising blind tooling on scrap leather

The copper tool

The design for the knot on the front cover is taken from on of the carpet pages in the Book of Durrow, while the frame style is mirrored after the St. Cuthbert Gospel.

Knot pattern taken from one of the carpet pages

Frame drawn in chalk on the leather