book arts


Calf Marbling.

Read almost any article concerned with calf marbled book covers, and you will probably see somewhere that it is accused of being deleterious to the life of the book itself, but in a book in preparation by Richard Norman, to be titled An Exploration of Calf Marbling published by The Golden Fish Press we see that surprising conclusions are reached that fly in the face of popular opinion on the subject. This article is all about calf marbled covers.

This is the first book I have seen that goes into some depth with regard to the chemical analysis of marbled calf covers. A fascinating insight into this rather arcane area of bookbinding. When available this publication will initially be available in ebook format, though plans are a foot to release a limp vellum bound version of the book.

The following is an extract from Chapter 3 of the book, concerning the Historical outline of the development of marbled calf, and the different styles.

Historical outline of the development of calf marbling, the different styles.

Calf leather has perhaps been subjected to more forms of decorative treatment than any other covering material, as, however, this essay is primarily concerned with decoration effected by chemical means I shall put aside such techniques as gilding and blind tooling with hand tools or panel stamps, there are many other books which deal with this subject in great detail. Although some of the following techniques employ the use of lamp black or inks to produce some of the black tooling to be discussed, nevertheless they are included as chemicals were also employed to achieve the same effect.

Sprinkled or Mottled Marbled Calf

all about calf marbling


This is the earliest form of calf marbling it is difficult to say with certainty when this form of decoration was first used but it was certainly in use by the middle of the 17th century. It may be that originally this form of decoration evolved from the need to disguise patched covers, certainly mention is made in early 19th century books on the subject, that patched leather must not be used on the books which are to be marbled with the translucent marbles.

The pictures contained in the following pages show typical early mottled and sprinkled marbled calf covers, the pictures taken of books contained within the library of Downside Abbey are reproduced with kind permission of the Librarian of Downside Abbey.

Various methods were employed to achieve the sprinkled effect; organic natural dyes and also ferrous sulphate in solution were used. A strong solution of potassium carbonate may have been used to achieve a dark brown sprinkle.

The mottled antique effect may have been obtained in a number of different ways. I have seen several recipes which involve the use of dilute solutions of ferrous sulphate, potassium carbonate and oxalic acid, applied with an open or ragged sponge.

A great deal of this type of work was carried out by provincial binderies.

The sprinkled decorations were not limited to browns and blacks; oxalic acid has a bleaching effect on leather and the picture below shows a cover sprinkled with reds and greens with a gold rolled border.

Cats Paw Calf Marbling

all about marbling

 Some of the simplest designs were produced by dabbing a sponge loaded with ferrous sulphate solution onto the cover, early attempts were rather crude and irregular.

A design that has come to be known as Cats Paw may have developed out of this practice. The pictures in the following pages show typical Cats Paw designs, a sponge or cloth places at regular intervals on the cover achieved this. I have seen very recent (1984) covers which use this technique executed by a provincial trade bindery, so the practice is still in use.


 Cambridge Calf

aall about calf marblingThis style of decoration which originated with the Cambridge binders in the late 17th century, involves the blanking out of selected areas of the cover, usually this takes the form of a rectangular panel and the cover is then stained or sprinkled, when the template is removed alternate areas of plain and stained or sprinkled calf remain. Further embellishments were made, they often took the form of blind or gold tooling around the panel and often features center tools impressed at each corner of the panel. In many examples the inner panel was connected to the outer border by means of blind diagonal lines.


Tree Marbled Calf

all about calf marbling

It seems that this form of decoration known as tree calf marbling may have been discovered by accident, whether or not this is correct is open to conjecture, whatever its origins, the earliest example dates from 1775. A Mr. John Baumgarten was the first to use the technique in England, having obtained it from a man called Wheeler who had seen it practiced in Holland.
The process involves the bending and angling of the boards, so that when the solutions were thrown on they formed rivulets which run down to the center of the book giving the impression of the branches and trunk of a tree.


Later in the 19th century an attempt was made to imitate this form of decoration by means of an engraved wooden block, the effect was considered rather lifeless and the technique was not much used.

Common Marbled Calf

all about calf marbling

Pre-dating tree marbling were several other types of marbled calf that employed similar techniques, that of throwing water on to the covers and as the water ran down the cover, other solutions were thrown on to form veins. The common marble was used on many books and the picture on the following page gives an example of this type of marble.




Coloured Marbles

all about calf marbling

Dillon’s of Chelsea produced coloured marbled calf from some time in the 19th century and earlier. One such marble is shown below, the book contained Dillon’s ticket.






Etruscan Calf

all about calf marblingThis form of decoration came into use between 1775 – 1820. Whether its origins should be attributed to the Edwards family of Halifax, or John Whitaker, a printer turned bookbinder is uncertain, certainly many fine examples exist carried out by the Edwards family, the covers are stained a terra cotta shade of brown and a rectangular or oval panel placed in the centre which may be marbled to resemble a classical urn, the outer border is surrounded by a border of Greek palmated leaves tooled in black. The black areas may have been achieved by means of ferrous sulphide or carbon black.

A rather poor example of this form of decoration can be seen in the picture above.


The earliest example of this type of decoration has been found on a binding presented to George III in 1777.
The cover is paste washed after being stained a uniform fawn colour; the design is then lightly traced onto the cover. The design may be in monochrome in which case varying strengths of ferrous sulphate were often used, if a coloured design was required, spirit based stains were employed.

Another method of effecting the design was to paint the design on paper which was then pressed hard onto the cover. The result was then finished by hand using ferrous sulphate and oxalic acid. Yet another method involved the use of an engraved copperplate, this method was devised by Charles Hulbert of Shrewsbury and was used by him in 1817.

By the mid 19th century marbled calf had developed to a high degree. Texts on the subject had been published which carried recipes and methods for the execution of hundreds of different types of marbled calf including the exotic gold marble usually carried out on covers coloured a translucent blue or green.

Though still carried out in the early 20th century it rapidly dwindled, little was done after the First World War and even less after the second. Today most marbling to calf is carried out to match old covers, or is practiced by individual binders such as Trevor Lloyd and Richard Smart.




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