The Object

Creating books about books with Tom McEwan

The Object is a new interview series with Scotland-based makers that explores the story behind a singular craft object.  

This series offers an insight into each maker’s creative process and the materials, techniques and ideas that make their work unique.  

Read more in the series with Keiko Mukaide exploring memories through glass, and jeweller Misun Won on the Korean patchwork inspiration behind her jewellery designs

In our third instalment for The Object series, bookbinder Tom McEwan tells us about his work on a limited-edition copy of late 20th-century British book designer, John Ryder’s collection of essays “Intimate Leaves from a Designer’s Notebook”.  

Discover how Tom created a unique design referencing the process of bookbinding itself, and the techniques he uses in his award-winning work.  



Hello Tom, can you tell us a bit more about you and your practice? 

I am a design bookbinder working from my studio at WASPS, Irvine Harbour, on the Ayrshire coast. I work to commission or for exhibition on unique, one-off, design bookbindings. 

Examples of my work are held in public and private collections in the UK, Europe and USA. I also teach bookbinding from my studio, or as a visiting tutor, as day workshops or as structured courses. 


My [book]bindings always relate in some way to the text of the book but may also be further influenced by aspects of the life of the writer (…) background research is often essential.


What is the object you have chosen to talk about?  

The object I chose is a binding of John Ryder’s book “Intimate Leaves from a Designer’s Notebook”, bound in 2013.  

It uses natural leather, with detailing in coloured silk thread and gold leaf. It was sewn on linen tapes and laced onto laminated and cushioned millboards. Page edges are decorated with gold leaf, transfer print and acrylic inks. The binding measures 250 x 158 x 26mm and is housed in a custom-made, suede-lined drop-back box. 


Open book showing back inside cover design

View of front and back cover of a bookImage: Tom McEwan bookbinding of John Ryders' “Intimate Leaves from a Designer’s Notebook”, 2013 / Photography by the artist


What inspired you to create this binding of John Ryder’s “Intimate Leaves from a Designer’s Notebook”? 

This work was a personal project. I have long admired John Ryder’s books and articles – mostly focussed on book design, letterpress printing and typography – and this particular book was beautifully printed by an important private press, Gwasg Gregynog, as a limited edition of 400 in 1993. I acquired the book in printed sheet form (unbound) from the estate of Trevor Jones, who was a highly influential and innovative late 20thCentury design bookbinder, so it already had an existing history and association with fine printing and design bookbinding.   

The book also provided a fresh and interesting challenge as it was the first non-fiction text I had worked with. 


I took photographs at key stages, and those images provided the source material for the design work applied to the endpapers. (…) [It] proved to be an exciting adventure and the process quickly gained momentum and took on a life of its own.


What is your process and technique, from design to making, when creating a new bookbinding, and did this work differ from this?  

My common practice is first to read the book, taking notes that I feel may assist the subsequent design and practical processes.  

My bindings always relate in some way to the text of the book but may also be further influenced by aspects of the life of the writer and/or illustrator, the subject matter, historical or political settings, for example. Background research is often essential. 

The design process I adopted for this John Ryder’s binding was an unusual one for me, no doubt partly due to the non-fiction and at times technical nature of the book.  

The text is a series of studies on illustration, design principles, graphic art, aesthetics, book design, letter form and typography – in short it is very much a “book about books”. With this in mind, I decided to respond in kind and made the “binding about the binding”. For example, when I started to sew the book, I took photographs at key stages, and those images provided the source material for the design work applied to the endpapers.  

The completed endpapers were then photographed and became background textures on subsequent inlayed details. The binding also features green tinted panels framing images of my own hands, holding a scalpel, in the process of cutting the recess for an inlay. This image was later transfer-printed to the leather used as the actual inlay; essentially the inlay documents the creation of itself. 

This design strategy was not without significant risk as I had little more than a vague notion of what the final object would look like! Nonetheless, it proved to be an exciting adventure and the process quickly gained momentum and took on a life of its own. 

Although this particular binding contains a lot of images, I normally work in a more abstract way using a range of stains and dyes in combination with resist and printing techniques. I also use inlay, onlay and scarf jointing structures on most of my bindings, including this one, and this has created a distinctive style. However, I adapt, refine and evolve these techniques continually. 

Oddly enough, when I work on a binding I never feel that I’m “designing”; my approach is often much more instinctive. I try to produce bindings which enhance the book and, I hope, express something of what I feel for the book. 


View of a bookpress pressing a book in a bookbinding workshop.

View of the front and back cover of the book where the image of the bookpress depicted above is visible.Image: photographic documentation of Tom McEwan at work on the early stages of the bookbinding (top), the same photograph rendered on the final design of the book cover (bottom) / photography by the artist


Can you tell us more about the materials you used? 

The main material is vegetable tanned goatskin. Goatskin is a wonderful – though sometimes testing! – material to work with. It is applied to the book with a liberal application of paste which provides the adhesion but also renders the leather elastic and pliable, allowing it to be shaped and moulded to the contours of the book. 

I source the leather in person at the tannery, as we are so fortunate in Scotland to still have a tannery which specialises in fine bookbinding leathers, and carefully select skins with interesting grain/texture and always natural in colour. I then hand-dye the leather at my bindery as the tannery-dyed colour range is rather limited. 

There is also generous use of gold leaf on the binding. Gold leaf, again, can be a challenging material to work with but has such distinctive and expressive qualities when combined with leather and paper. 

Detail of a leather book cover with gold inlays.Image: close up of the final book cover / Photography by the artist


When creating a new bookbinding, what are specific parameters that you need to consider? 

Design bindings tend to be applied to books which already possess significant craft, design, literary and artistic value. Generally, the book will be letterpress printed on a handmade or high-quality, mould-made paper. If illustrations are present, they too will be of a high calibre and hand-printed on fine-papers, typically as woodcuts, etchings, lithographs or photographs.  

I’m always aware that the binding is a collaborative extension to this and, ideally, should enrich and complement the craft, design and literary work already present. For me, design bindings should certainly go beyond decoration and/or illustration. 


Tom McEwan at work in his studioImage: Tom McEwan / Photography by Alex Boyd


Where is the book now?  

The binding won an award as an entry to an International Bookbinding Competition and is now in a private collection. 


Has your relationship with this work on the John Ryder’s bookbinding changed over time? 

Not really, but it’s interesting to now look back on this binding and recognise it as a key stage of my work as a design bookbinder. 




Tom McEwan works on the Ayrshire coast. Find his work on his website at mcewan.co.uk and on Instagram


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

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