Tag Archives: Cambridge panel binding

Rebinding Newton’s Principia

By Michele Brown

This year, the curator of the History of Science Collections requested a new binding for Cornell’s copy of the first edition (1687) of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton, generally referred to as Newton’s Principia.







It had been rebound in the 1970’s in a way that was unsympathetic with the date of its printing.  This by itself would not normally be a reason to rebind it, but the sewing had broken, there were water stains throughout, and mold growth had damaged the edges of many pages.  As a whole, the volume was fragile.

It is used frequently for teaching, and its deteriorated condition made this difficult.

The curator was anxious for this work to have a more appropriate binding. Since the book needed to be resewn,  he agreed that washing the pages could improve their flexibility and increase their longevity.


Washing and paper repair

The pages were washed using filtered water alkalinized to a pH of 8.5. They were deacidified using a  calcium hydroxide solution, and then re-sized with 1% gelatin solution.  We were concerned with lightening the paper excessively and losing any of the manuscript notations. Washing  and resizing removed much of the staining and returned flexibility to the pages. In the photo above, the pages on the left have been washed.

Each folio was reinforced with thin usumino (from Hiromi) using wheat starch paste (Aytex P from Talas and filtered water). Paper edges damaged by mold were reinforced with thin usumino or tengujo tissue (also from Hiromi). It was resewn onto 5 raised cords, reusing the original sewing holes.


Unfortunately, there is no record of the original binding. The original endbands were also gone—replaced with machine-made endbands in the 1970s—but since a fragment of green thread remained I sewed on new green and white endbands.

It was covered as a tight back using fair calf (from Hewit’s) that was dyed using Hewit’s water-soluble aniline dye and Fiebing’s leather dyes.

We decided a Cambridge panel binding was appropriate for this time period. We found two valuable resources for deciding on the design. The Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies had several images of bindings for this period. English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800 by David Pearson (British Library and Oak Knoll Press, New Castle: 2005) was also a good source.

Terry Buckley’s 1996 Guild of Book Workers presentation on leather staining and dyeing provided valuable guidance for dyeing the leather for the Cambridge panel design.

The new binding is more attractive and opens easily, making it more useful as a teaching tool. It is also in a better condition for digitizing, should that option be considered in the future.