Coloring Edges | Sprinkling | Egg, Spot, Comb or Nonpareil, Spanish Marble | Sizing

This entry is part 20 of 20 in the series The Art of Bookbinding (Joseph W. Zaehnsdorf, 3rd Edt, 1897)

Colouring the Edges

The edges of every book must be in keeping with the binding. A half roar book should not have an expensive edge, neither a whole bound Morocco book a sprinkled edge. Still, no rule has been laid down in this particular, and taste should regulate this as it must in other branches. The taste of the public is so changeable that it is impossible to lay down any rule, and I leave my reader to his own discretion. Here are various ways in which the edges may be coloured.

Sprinkled Edges

Most shops have a colour always ready, usually a reddish brown, which they use for the whole of their sprinkled edge books. The colour can be purchased at any oil shop. A mixture of burnt umber and red ochre is generally used. The two powders must be well mixed together in a mortar with paste, a few drops of sweet oil, and water. The colour may be tested by sprinkling some on a piece of white paper, allowing it to dry, and then burnishing it. If the colour powders or rubs, it is either too thick, or has not enough paste in it. If the former, some water must be added; if the latter, more paste: and it will perhaps be better if the whole is passed through a cloth to rid it of any coarse particles. The books may be sprinkled so as to resemble a kind of marble by using two or three different colours. For instance, the book is put in the lying press and a little sand is strewn upon the edge in small mounds. Then with a green colour a moderate sprinkle is given. After allowing it to dry, more sand is put on in various places, a dark sprinkle of brown is put on, and the whole allowed to dry. When the sand is shaken off, the edge will be white where the first sand was dropped, green where the second, and the rest brown. A colour of two shades may be made by using sand, then a moderately dark brown sprinkled, then more sand, and lastly a deeper shade of same colour.

Sprinkling Brush

There are a few of the “Old Binders” who still use what is called the “finger brush,” a small brush about the size of a shaving brush, made of stiff bristles cut squarely. They dip it into the colour, and then by drawing the finger across it jerk the colour over the edge. Another method is to use a larger brush,which being dipped in the colour is beaten on a stick or press-pin until the desired amount of sprinkle is obtained. But the best plan is to use a nail brush and a common wire cinder sifter. Dip the brush in the colour and rub it in a circular direction over the cinder sifter. This mode has the satisfactory result of doing the work quicker, finer, and more uniformly. The head, for-edge and tail must be of exactly the same shade, and one end must not have more sprinkles on it than the other, and a set of books should have their edges precisely alike in tone and colour.

Colours for Sprinkling

To give an account of how the various colours are made that were formerly used would be only waste of time, as so many dyes and colours that answer all purposes may be purchased ready for instant use. I may with safety recommend Judson’s dyes diluted with water.

Plain Colouring

The colour having been well ground is to be mixed with paste and a little oil, or what is perhaps better, glaire and oil. Then with a sponge or with a brush colour the whole of the edge. In colouring the for-edge the book should be drawn back so as to form a slope of the edge, so that when the book is opened a certain amount of colour will still be seen. It is often necessary to give the edges two coats of colour, but the first must be quite dry before the second is applied. A very good effect may be produced by first colouring the edge yellow, and when dry, after throwing on rice, seeds, pieces of thread, fern leaves, or anything else according to fancy, then sprinkling with some other dark colour. For this class of work body sprinkling colour should always be used. It may be varied in many different ways.

Marbled Eggs

The edges of marbled books should in almost every instance correspond with their marbled ends. In London very few binders marble their own work, but send it out of the house to the Marblers, who do nothing else but make marbled edges and paper. One cannot do better than send one’s books to be marbled; it will cost only a few pence, which will be well spent in avoiding the trouble and dirt that marbling occasions; Nevertheless I will endeavor to explain, it is, however, a process that may seem very easy, but is very difficult to execute properly.

The requisites are long square wooden or zinc trough about 2 inches deep to hold the size for the colours to float on; the dimensions to be regulated by the work to be done. About 16 to 20 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide will probably be large enough. Various colours are used, such as lake, rose, vermillion, king’s yellow, yellow ochre, Prussian blue, indigo, some green, flake white, and lamp black. The brushes for the various colours should be orf moderate size, and each pot of colour must have its own brush. Small stone jars are convenient for the colours and slab of marble and muller to grind them must be provided. The combs may be made with pieces of brasswire about two inches long, inserted into a piece of wood; several of these will be required with the teeth at different distances, according to the width of the pattern required to be produced. Several different sized burnishers, flat and round, will be required for giving a gloss to work.


The first process in marbling is the preparation of the size on which the colours are to be floated. This is a solution of gum tragaeanth, or as it is commonly called, gum dragon. If the gum is placed over night in the quantity of water necessary it will generally be found dissolved by the morning. The quality of gum necessary to give proper consistency to the size is simply to be learned by experience, and cannot be described; and the solution must always be filtered through muslin or a linen cloth before use.

The colours must be ground on the marble slab with a little water, as fine as possible; move the colour from time to time into the centre of the marble with a palette knife, and as the water evaporates added a little more. About one oz. of colour will suffice to grind at once, and it will take about two hours to do it properly. Having everything at hand and ready, with the size in the trough, and water near, the top of the size is to be carefully taken off with a piece of wood the exact width of the trough, and the colour being well mixed with water and a few drops of ox gall, a little is taken in the brush, and a few very fine spots are thrown on. If the colour does not spread out, but rather stinks down, a few more drops of gall must be carefully added and well mixed up. The top of the size must be taken off as before described, and the colour again thrown on.

If it does not then spread out, the ground or size is of too thick consistency, and some clean water must be added and the whole well mixed.

If the colour again thrown on spreads out, but looks rather grayish or spotty, then the colour is too thick, and a little water must be added, but very carefully, lest it be made too thin. If the colour still assumes a grayish appearance when thrown on, then the fault lies in the grinding, and it must be dried and again ground.

When the colour, on being thrown on, spreads out in very large spots, the ground or size is too thin and a little thicker size should be added. Now, if the consistency or the amount of gum waster be noticed, by always using the same quantity the marbler cannot fail to be right.

If the colours appear all right on the trough, and when taken off on a slip of paper adhere to it, the size and colours are in perfect working order.

The top of the size must always be taken off the piece of wood before commencing work, so that it be kept clean, and the colours must always be well shaken out of the brush into the pot before sprinkling, so that the spots may not be too large. The marbler must always be guided by the pattern he wishes to produce, and by a little thought he will get over many difficulties that appear of greater magnitude than they really are.

Spot Marble

The size is first to be sprinkled with a dark colour, and this is always termed the “ground colour,” then the other colours; bearing in mind that the colour that has the most gall will spread or push the others away, and this colour should in spot marbling to put on last.

With very little variation all the other kinds of marbling are done; but in every case where there are more books or sheets of paper to be done of the same patter than the trough will take at once, the same order of colours must be kept, and the same proportion of each, or one book will be of one colour and the second entirely different.

Comb or Nonpareil Marble

The colours are to be thrown on as before, but as fine as possible. Then if a piece of wood or wire be drawn backwards and forwards across the trough, the colours, through the disturbance of the size, will follow the motion of the stick. A comb is then to be drawn the whole length of the trough in a contrary direction. The wire in the combe will draw the colour, and thus will be produced what is termed comb or nonpareil marble. The size or width of the teeth of the comb will vary the size of the marble.

Spanish Marble

The ground colour is to be thrown on rather heavily, the others lighter, and the wavy appearance is caused by gently drawing the paper in jerks over the marble, thus causing the colour to form small ripples. A few drops of turpentine put in the colours will give them a different effect, viz., – causing the small white spots that appears on the shell marble.

There are various patterns, each being known by name: Old Dutch, nonpareil, antique, carl, Spanish, shell. An apprentice would do well to go to some respectable shop and ask for a sheet or two of the various kinds mentioned, and as each pattern is given to him, write the name on and back and always keep it as a pattern for future use and reference.

Edges are marbled, after making the desired pattern on the trough by holding the book firmly, pressing the edge on the colour and lifting it up sharply. The foredge must be made flat by knocking the book on its back, but the marbler had better tie his book between a pair of backing boards, so that it may not slip, especially with large books. Care must be taken with books that have many plates, or if the paper is at all of a spongy nature or unsized. If a little cold water be thrown on the edges it will cause the colours to set better. In marbling writing paper, a sponge with a little alum water should be used to take off the gloss or shine from the edge, occasioned by the cutting knife, and to assist the marbling colour to take better.

Paper is marbled in the same way by holding it at two corners; then gently putting it on the colour and pressing it evenly, but gently all over, so that the colour may take on every part. It must be lifted carefully, as the least shake by disturbing the size will spoil the regularity of the pattern. Paper should be damped over night and left with a weight on the top. When the paper has been marbled and is dry, a rag with a little bee’s wax or soap should be rubbed over it, so that the burnisher may not stick, and my give a finer gloss; this applies also to the edges in burnishing. Marble paper manufacturers barnish the paper with a piece of polished flint or glass fixed in a long pole working in a socket at the top, the other end resting on a table which is slightly hollowed, so that the segment of the circle which the flint takes is exactly that of the hollow table. The paper is laid on the hollow table, and the burnisher is worked backwards and forwards until the desired gloss is attained. By the best and latest method, the paper is passed between highly polished cylinders. It is more expensive, on account of the cost of the machinery, but insures superior effect. A great deal of paper is now being made by means of a mechanical process. It has a very high gloss; it is used on very cheap work.


Paper should be always sized after being marbled. The size is made by dissolving one pound of best glue in five gallons of water with half a pound of best white soap. This is put into a copper over night, and on a low fire the next morning, keeping it constantly stirred to prevent burning. When quite dissolved and hot it is passed through a cloth in a trough, and each sheet passed through the liquor and hung up to dry; when dry, burnish as above.

But it will be far cheaper to buy the paper, rather than make it at the cost of more time than will be profitable. The charge for demy size is at the rate of 20s. to 95s. per ream, according to the quality and colour; but to those to whom money is no object, and who would prefer to make their own marbled paper, I hope the foregoing explanation will be explicit enough. The “English Mechanic,” March 17th, 1871, has the following method of transferring the pattern from ordinary marble paper to the edges of books:- “Ring the book up tightly in the press, the edge to be as flat as possible; cut strips of the best marble paper about one inch longer than the edge, make a pad of old paper larger than the edge of the book, and about a quarter inch thick; then get a piece of blotting paper and a sponge with a little water in; now pour on a plate sufficient spirits of salts (muriatic acid) to saturate the paper, which must be placed marble side downwards on the spirit (not dipped in it); when soaked put it on the edge ( which has been previously damped with a sponge), lay your blot paper on it, then your pad, now rap it smartly all over, take off the pad and blot, and look if the work is right, if so, take the book out and shake the marble paper off; when dry burnish.”

At a lecture delivered at the Society of Arts, January, 1878, by Mr. Woolnough, a practical marbler, the whole process of marbling was explained. Mr. Woolnough has since published an enlarged treatise on marbling, and one that should command that attention of the trade. A copy of the Society’s journal can be had, describing the process, No. 1,314, vol. XXVI., and will be of great service to any reader, but his work is more exhaustive.

A transfer marble paper may now be had, and from examples sent me the process seems fairly workable. The following is the method of working sent by the importers of the paper:- “Place the book in the press. The Book edge which is to be marbled has to be rubbed with pure spirits of wine; the dry strip of transfer marble is then to be put on the edge. The white back or reverse side, whilst being pressed hard against the book edge is to be moistened carefully with boiling water, by dabbing a saturated sponge on it; this dabbing process to be continued so long till the colour will show through the white back – a proof that it is loosened form the paper. Then remove the white paper, and let the edge dry slowly. When quite dry burnish.” Another invention is to marble the edges by means of one or more rollers. The top roller or rollers holds the colour, which is distributed on the under rollers; these, in turn, ink the edge on being passed over it. The books are naturally held in the press whilst this is being done.

From a book, the “School of Arts,” third edition, 1750, which has a chapter on marbling, the following, with cut, is taken:- “When thus you have your colours and all things in good order, then take a pencil, or the end of a feather, and sprinkle or put first your red colour; then the blue, yellow, green, etc.


Begin your red from No. 1, and go along your trough to No. 2, also the blue from No. 3, all along to No. 4; the yellow and green put here and there in the vacant places. Then with a bodkin or a small skewer draw a sort of a serpentine figure through the colours, beginning from No. 1 to No. 2; when this is done, then take your comb and draw the same straight along from No. 1 to No. 2. If you have some turnings or snail work on your paper, then with a bodkin give the colours what turns you please. (See the plate.)

“Thus far you are ready in order to lay on your paper, which must be moistened the day before, in the same manner as book printers do their paper for printing; take a sheet at a time, lay it gently upon your colours in the trough, press it slightly with your finger down in such places where you find the paper lies hollow; this done, take hold at one end of the paper, and draw it up at the other end of the trough; hang it up to dry on a cord; when dry, glaze it, and it is done. You may also embellish your paper with streaks of gold, by applying mussel gold or silver, tempered with gum water, among the rest of the colours.”


This last paragraph shows that the gold vein which is now in such demand is really over 150 years old. Messrs. Leo, of Stuttgart, have put together a complete marbling apparatus, containing colours, gall, cups, combs, sticks, filter, brushes, etc., the whole in a box. To a small country bookbinder this is indispensable.

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