The use of book clasps appears
to be as old as the codex itself. In its earliest form,
which was Coptic bindings, the book clasp consisted of a
strap attached to the fore edge of the upper cover and
wound around the book over the fore edge several times,
the bone attached to the end of the strap being tucked
between the strap and the lower cover.
Another method, which may
actually have been used more often than the strap, consisted
of the plaited thong with loops which fit over bone pegs at
the edge of the lower cover.
Book clasps of this type
seems to have been used in England at least as early as the
12th century. The strap was fastened to the fore edge of the
upper cover, and the end, which had a metal-rimmed hole, was
taken around to the middle of the lower cover and was
attached to a metal pin.
English book binders of the 14th century
began using two straps instead of just one, something which had
been done earlier and more often on the Continent of Europe.
The hole and pin type was more or less abandoned early in the
14th century and replaced by clasps and catches attached to the
fore edge. Initially, each clasp consisted of a strip of
leather having a metal hook on one end.
Later, the metal part of the clasp was
the full thickness of the book and was sometimes attached to
the board by means of a metal hinge. In bindings of the 15th
and 16th centuries, and probably earlier, the location of the
book clasps is a reasonably accurate indication of the country
of origin. English and French bindings usually had them
attached to the upper cover with the catch on the lower, while
bindings of the Netherlands and Germany had the catch on the
upper cover. Italian binders often attached the clasp to the
upper covers and often used as many as four clasps.
The velvet-covered books
of the royal collection in England in the 15th and 16th
centuries often had ornamental gilt clasps, which were
often combined with elaborately ornamented gilt corner
pieces and centerpieces which helped prevent abrasion of
The use of metal clasps began to decline
early in the 16th century, probably because they could not be
securely attached to the pasteboards which were replacing
boards made of wood. The weight, size, and material of the
books being published at that time did not require clasps, and
clasps were no longer economically feasible for the normal run
of books. In most cases they were replaced by Ties .
Clasps made of brass were still used in
the 16th century for some books which were bound with boards of
wood, and silver clasps and corner pieces were often used on
small Bibles and other devotional works as late as the late
17th and early 18th centuries. In certain German bindings,
however, e.g., Bibles, clasps were used continuously until the
end of the 18th century. This was notably true in America, for
example, where almost all German-American bindings, e.g., the
Saur Bibles, were issued in calfskin over wood with two heavy
clasps attached to the lower cover.
Brass clasps were revived during the
latter part of the 19th century, mainly for Bibles and prayer
books, but also for photograph albums, diaries, and the like.
They were often attached to metal frames which protected the
edges of boards.
There are very few
suppliers of book clasps and related fittings. In Europe;
the Muller Bindery in Germany produces certainly the
most comprehensive range of reproduction period fittings
in the world, here is a picture representative of the
range they carry.
Most book binders at some
stage put their hands to making book clasps themselves, I
made the fittings for the book shown on the left, but
their is no quick fix when it comes to making clasps like
It takes time to make clasps like this
out of brass and cut with a jewelers saw and small files. The
thongs are made from alum tawed leather, backed with vellum to
prevent stretching and give extra strength.
These clasps are a pleasure
to make, I used silver wire hammered flat and plaited with
vellum, they should prove to be extremely
Please note there is a
tutorial available from this site which shows you
in detail how to make a set of silver book clasps like
In the USA Joycelyn Merchant is also making book
clasps. After a 25 year career as a jewelry designer and
metal smith she became interested in the Book Arts.
She now teaches classes and gives a
workshop on making metal book clasps
in which she teaches bookbinding students enough
simple metal working techniques to enable them to easily
make their own clasps using readily available tools and
Bookbinding and the Conservation of
books. A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology
Matt T. Roberts and Don Etherington
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