A Mesmerizing Look at the Making of a Late Medieval Book from Start to Finish

Hand bind­ing a book, using pri­mar­i­ly 15-cen­tu­ry meth­ods and mate­ri­als sounds like a major under­tak­ing, rife with pit­falls and frus­tra­tion.

A far more relax­ing activ­i­ty is watch­ing Four Keys Book Arts’ word­less, 24-minute high­lights reel of self-taught book­binder Den­nis tack­ling that same assign­ment, above. (Bonus — it’s a guar­an­teed treat for those prone to autonomous sen­so­ry merid­i­an response tin­gles.)

Den­nis, whose oth­er recent for­ays into bespoke book­bind­ing include a num­ber of ele­gant match­box sized vol­umes and upcy­cling three Dun­geons & Drag­ons rule­books into a tome bound in veg­etable tanned goatskin, labored on the late-medieval Goth­ic repro­duc­tion for over 60 hours.

For research on this type of bind­ing, he turned to book design­er J.A. Szir­mai’s The Archae­ol­o­gy of Medieval Book­bind­ing, and while the goal was nev­er 100% peri­od accu­ra­cy, Den­nis notes that the craft of tra­di­tion­al hand-bind­ing has remained vir­tu­al­ly unchanged for cen­turies:

The medieval binder would have found many of the tools and tech­niques to be very famil­iar. The sin­gle biggest anachro­nism is my use of syn­thet­ic PVA glue rather than peri­od-appro­pri­ate ani­mal glue. The sec­ond his­toric anom­aly is my use of mar­bled paper, though it could be argued that the ear­li­est Euro­pean mar­bled papers of the mid-17th cen­tu­ry do over­lap with this bind­ing style. The non­pareil pat­tern I have cho­sen for the end­pa­pers, though, dates from the 1820’s, and so is dis­tinct­ly out of place. But apart from those, vir­tu­al­ly all of the oth­er mate­ri­als in this book would have been avail­able to the medieval book­binder.

Those crav­ing a more step-by-step expla­na­tion should set time aside to view the longer videos, below, in which Den­nis shares such time-con­sum­ing, detail-ori­ent­ed tasks as trim­ming and tidy­ing the edges with a cab­i­net scraper and book­binder’s plough, sewing end­bands to sup­port and pro­tect the book’s head and the spine, and dec­o­rat­ing the leather cov­er with a hand-tooled flo­ral pat­tern embell­ished with gold foil high­lights. 

Rather than cut cor­ners, he lit­er­al­ly cuts cor­ners — the met­al clasp and cor­ner guards -  from a .8mm thick sheet of brass.

Only the final video is nar­rat­ed, so be sure to acti­vate closed cap­tion­ing / sub­ti­tles in the YouTube tool­bar to read his com­men­tary.

Mate­ri­als and tools used in this project:

Text Paper: Fab­ri­ano Accad­e­mia 120 gsm draw­ing paper, 65 x 50 cm, long grain

End­pa­pers: Four Keys Book Arts hand­made mar­bled paper, Fab­ri­ano Accad­e­mia 120 gsm draw­ing paper, red hand­made paper

Thread: Undyed Linen 25/3, unknown brand

Cords: Leather, unknown type, rough­ly 3 oz/ 1 mm

Wax: Nat­ur­al Beeswax

Glue: Mix of Acid-Free PVA and Methyl Cel­lu­lose, 3:2 ratio.

Paper Knife (made from an old kitchen knife)

Bone Fold­er (hand­made in-house)

Scrap book board, var­i­ous sizes/thickness

Press­ing Boards (1/2″ maple ply­wood, made in house)

Cast-Iron Book Press (Patrick Ritchie, Edin­burgh, cir­ca 1850)

Stain­less Steel rulers, var­i­ous sizes

Small Stan­ley Knife

Maple Lay­ing Press (hand­made in-house)

Small Car­pen­ter’s Square, unknown brand

Pen­cil (Black­wing)

Steel dividers, unknown brand

Lith­o­g­ra­phy Stone (cir­ca 1925)

Cot­ton Rag

Agate Bur­nish­er

Pierc­ing Cra­dle (hand­made in-house)


2″ nat­ur­al bris­tle brush, gener­ic

parch­ment release paper

blot­ting paper

Acetate bar­ri­er sheets, .01 gauge

Dahle Van­tage 12e Guil­lo­tine (found at a thrift store)


Book­bind­ing Nee­dles

Sewing Frame (hand­made in-house)

Brass H‑Keys (hand­made in-house)

Linen sewing tapes, 12 mm


Watch a full playlist of Four Keys Book Arts’ Medieval Goth­ic Bind­ing videos here. See more of Den­nis book bind­ing projects on Four Keys Book Arts’ Insta­gram.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

When Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Recy­cled & Used to Make the First Print­ed Books

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece, the Book of Kells, Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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