Gothic style manuscript prior to covering in alum-tawed skin
Behind the scenes Collections Series Short read

Materials of the Book – Wood

Wood is strong and easily shaped, allowing for the creation of practical and beautiful things, for books it creates the quintissential hardback

Wood has been used throughout history by human civilization, in such forms as fuel, shelter, transport, tools and decoration. It is renewable and versatile; strong but easily shaped by basic tools, allowing for the creation of practical and beautiful things.

Wood in primarily made up of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, in a rough 2:1:1 ratio (dry weight), varying by wood type. Cellulose forms the main structure, with hemicellulose binding and filling gaps and lignin providing stiffness and halting rot.

Boards for books can be made from wood and either covered in leather, alum-tawed skin, parchment or textiles. In some historic styles and designer bindings the wood is left whole or partly un-covered, polished and shaped to highlight the grain and natural beauty of the wood.

Front of a Latin manuscript with uncovered wooden front board

Wood provides stability to the book by supporting the binding, if suitably attached.  The weight keeps the pages flat and compressed, which is important for books written on materials that want to move and distort like parchment.  The quintessential hardback.

All manner of wood varieties have been used in bindings, including: oak, birch, poplar, pine, walnut, cedar, olive and fruitwoods.  Like many materials, availability tends to dictate choice unless a specific property is required.  Importantly, it is the way boards are cut that maximises their stability.

Quartered boards, either split or sawn, are cut radially from a log.  The growth rings of the tree are therefore perpendicular to the face of the boards and less liable to warp.  Depending on the thickness of the boards and size of the log, the width of boards is varied to make the most economic division of the wood.

Radial divisions of a log cross-section

Quarter-sawn Oak boards were used in the recent rebinding of Latin MS 164, a Book of Hours.

Explore our digital collections, especially the Latin Manuscripts, for more examples and glimpses of wood used in books

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