Action packed boxmaking

Hello all,

As we near the end of conserving the Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records, I have been busy completing the final lot of repairs to especially damaged material and creating bespoke boxes. Today I thought I would share how I’ve been making the enclosures.

Bespoke enclosure for Poor Law Union volume

Around fifty of the Poor Law Union volumes are too large, too damaged, or otherwise poorly suited to fit inside our standard archive boxes (or would rattle around our next standard size). In creating bespoke enclosures, I was looking for a design that would be:

  • Simple to make
  • Create a minimum of waste board or card
  • Did not require rivets (to avoid purchasing materials and equipment we didn’t already have).

After completing several tests designs, I found a one that fit the bill. Once a workflow was established, these enclosures could be completed in about 20-25 minutes each, doing four to six at one time, as the space allowed.

I choose a four flap design, made with 1000 micron (1mm) archival laminated boxboard and tied with 16 mm unbleached cotton tying tape. I based the design on this one here, but modified slightly it avoid having the abrasive tapes directly against the books (a majority of the volumes had red rot damage which was just consolidated).

Below is a diagram of the boxboard construction and measurements.


First, the volume is measured using a book measuring machine, which helps ensure that any wonky books are accurately measured at their largest dimensions. These dimensions are entered into an excel file I created with the box formula (linked at the bottom of the post). It doesn’t take much time to calculate by hand for one or two enclosures, but when completing them in batches, I found this system reduced the overall making time since the measurements could be done ahead of time and boxes completed when it was convenient.



The boxes are made from three pieces of board (protector piece A, vertical piece B, a horizontal piece C ) that are cut and creased so that they fit snugly against each other. The two pieces of equipment have been helpful is a board chopper and a board creaser, which improve accuracy and speed when creating the boxes. The pieces are then rounded at the corners with a corner rounder, and then folded into shape.



I use a straight chisel to create a slot one-third of the way from the top and bottom edge of each side of horizontal piece C.  The tying tape is threaded through the slots using a piece of polyester as a needle to pull it through, this holds the tapes in place when the enclosures are tied. Pieces B and C are then adhered together with EVA and weighted down until dry.


Once it is tested for size, the enclosure is now complete! 

Volume in enclosure

Thanks for reading!


Link to the excel Four flap enclosures template.




Conquering the Dreaded Red Rot


Throughout the Past Caring Project we’ve often mentioned the term red rot as a major part of the collection’s conservation issues. As I’ve recently completed consolidating one hundred degraded leather bindings of the Poor Law Union and Workhouse collection, it feels like a great time to write a post on the topic.

However foreboding the name, red rot is a fairly common type of leather degradation that most often occurs in bindings from the late industrial revolution onwards. Leather, like all organic material, breaks down and degrades over time. However, due to changes in the manufacturing process of leathers during the 19th century, the material from this time period is often in poorer condition than earlier leathers. On red rotted bindings, the leather is fragile and weak, often splitting, cracking, and coming off the binding at the joints, corners and top and bottom of books. The leather is also easily abraded and scratched. In its poorest states, simply placing the book on a work surface causes powdery leather fibres to fall off. Over half of the books of the Poor Law Union and Workhouse have this kind of degradation, with 300 large Minute Books and Ledger  bindings that are damaged enough to require a conservation treatment.

Fun with a microscope!

For a visual comparison, I took two small fibre samples from new and red rotted leather to photograph under a microscope. These fibres were gently scraped with the back of a scalpel from the flesh side of the leathers (the side without the grain).

Leather fibre samples

New leather sample (left) and historic sample (right).

The sample on the left was taken from a new piece of archival quality leather; the fibres were reluctant to come apart during sampling. The sample on the right was taken from the inside of an 1846 Minute Book and was noticeably easier to tease apart.

Samples at 55x magnification: new leather (L), red rotted leather (R).

Samples at 200x magnification

Under magnification, the fibres from the new leather are longer and more cohesive, which gives strength and durability to the leather. The shorter, less cohesive fibres of the Minute Book is why the leather on the latter binding is fragile, easily abraded and ends up all over hands and clothes during handling.

What changed during the industrial revolution? Why is it called red rot?

To transform animal skin (most commonly calf, sheep, goat, and pig in the UK) into bookbinding leather, the skin must go through a chemical process called tanning, which makes the skins resistant to putrefaction and decay. During this process, the animal skin (which is previously  prepared by removing hair and flesh) is submerged in the tanning liquor- an astringent liquid made from leaves, twigs, wood and bark of plants (two examples are sumac and chestnut). The tanning liquor attaches and coats the fibres of the skin, preserving it in a way that creates flexibility and malleability while resisting biological attack. After this, the leather is dyed and ‘finished’ to create the final product. This process can take several months or more.

Leather tanning from Diderot's Encyclopaedia

Engraving of leather tanning from Diderot’s Encyclopaedia. (Link for more images of leather processes here). Image: public domain

As demand for leathers increased in the late 18th and 19th C, leather makers began using more astringent plant matter (such as Hemlock and Gambier) to speed up the tanning process. These quicker tans have a slightly different chemical makeup and result in leathers more susceptible to absorbing pollutants from the atmosphere- which plays a large role in its deterioration. Once absorbed, the pollutants react with the tannin and become acidic, which increases the rate that the leather fibres break and degrade, reducing its strength. These speedier tannins also react with light to create the characteristic red and oranges tones of red rot, while poor storage conditions exacerbates deterioration.

What are we doing to help?

While there is no way to fully halt or reverse red rot, one of the main goals of the Past Caring project is to slow the rate of degradation and enable readers to access the volumes without causing further physical damage to the items. We also aim to reduce the amount of powdery leather deposits that gets on the users, tracks through the bindings, and are potentially inhaled during use.

With the above goals in mind, we chose a two step approach: first treating the leather with a very light consolidant (adhesive) to prevent the leather fibres from coming off the binding, then creating a user friendly cover to minimise the amount of abrasion and direct contact with the leather during use.

Consolidant testing

Initial testing of the consolidant at different concentrations.

The leather consolidant is a mixture of Klucel G© (a light adhesive with proven longevity) which is dissolved in an isopropanol (a purified version of rubbing alcohol). The consolidant mixture was chosen because it did not blacken or significantly darken the leather, which retained the binding’s original appearance, while being a relatively benign treatment in the long term. The consolidant is gently applied with a large brush and after it is dried, a bespoke cover made from archival polyester is created to protect the binding. We chose polyester as it is smoother and less abrasive than a card cover, while enabling the spine or any label markings to be viewed on the binding. The bindings are then housed horizontally in low-acid archival boxes which will help to protect the bindings from any environmental or physical damage, while absorbing excess acidity.

Phew, only 200 more bindings to go!

Thank you for reading! Please feel free to leave a message below or email me at tiffany.moore[@] for with any questions or comments.





Kite, M., & Thompson, R. (2008). Conservation of leather and related materials. Oxford, Burlington, MA.

Larsen, R., & Vest, M. (1994). STEP leather project: evaluation of the correlation between natural and artificial ageing of vegetable tanned leather and determination of parameters for standardization of an artificial ageing method. København, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Conservation.

Roberts, M. T., & Etherington, D. Vegetable Tannins. Bookbinding and the conservation of books: a dictionary of descriptive terminology. Online edition. [Accessed 05.08.2017].

Vidler, K. (2014). ‘Collagens and Tannins in Bookbinding Leather’. Conservation of Leather Bindings. West Dean College. Unpublished.

Vidler, K. (2014). ‘Common Types of Bookbinding Leather Deterioration’. Conservation of Leather Bindings. West Dean College. Unpublished.


A Visit to the Teesside Archive

Helen Kendall in Teesside Archive strongroom

Helen Kendall (ACR) showing me around the Teesside Archive stores.

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Teesside Archive in Middlesbrough and speak with conservator Helen Kendall (ACR) about some conservation/preservation techniques, as well as have a tour of the building and archive store.

I’d been having several practical issues while consolidating degrading leather bindings of the Past Caring Project. Some of the bindings are covered in full leather, bound with the flesh side out (also called reverse leather). During the application of a consolidant to help reduce powdering, the consolidant mixture was occasionally leaving brush marks on the leather, even after drying. I reached out to some conservators in the area to see if anyone had a similar experience, hoping to receive some tips and tricks to help reduce the undesired effects. Through this, I met Helen, who is also working series of reverse leather bindings.


One of my favourite little bits of the tour was seeing a series of picturesque wooden slide boxes in one of the strongrooms.

Helen also showed me around the conservation space, which among many things, houses a large upright light box and an freestanding press.

Helen demonstrated her technique for consolidation and we talked about methods for protecting the binding after the treatment, which I found very helpful to see in person.


I will be certainly applying some of the techniques to the Past Caring Project work.


Thank you to Helen Kendall and the Teesside Archive for the day, it was a lovely opportunity to visit and speak with another North Yorkshire conservator.


For more information on the Teesside Archive:


Images: Tiffany Eng Moore

Call for Preservation Volunteers

We’re currently looking for volunteers for the Past Caring Project! If you are interested in the Archives or enjoy doing practical work (no computers involved!) this is the role for you. No prior preservation experience is necessary.

You will be handling original nineteenth and twentieth-century records: cleaning; relabeling; repackaging; with the potential for more in depth work if you’re interested. The work you carry out will enable these records to be used by readers/researchers and will help protect the records from further damage.

Through the work you will have the opportunity to learn basic archive preservation skills.

We are looking for volunteers to help us on a Friday morning or afternoon slot (10-12:30 or 2-4.30pm) for a period of up to 22 weeks. The volunteer project will commence with an introduction and training session the afternoon of June the 23th 2017. At the completion of the project, an optional fun bookbinding related workshop will be held.

If you are interested in participating in this project, please email me at by 16 June 2017.

You can visit the project page on our blog for more general information on the Past Caring project:

And for all project updates:

Why Conservation?


In the Past Caring project, there are approximately 2000 bound items and boxed paper documents of the York Workhouse and Poor Law collection which are in need of some form of preservation or conservation action. That’s a lot of items to go through! Before their arrival to Explore, the collections were housed first in the Workhouse and Poor Law Union’s deposit and then the York City Art Gallery. Through general use and non-ideal storage conditions of the collection’s 200 odd years, some of the documents and books are in a physical state where they can’t be produced for users without incurring further damage. The purpose of the conservation aspect of the Past Caring Project is to make sure the collection is stored, produced, and used in a way that will help maintain its longevity. Items that are especially damaged or vulnerable will be given remedial repairs and practical treatments to stabilize and help avoid future damage.

An overview of the historic damage

While some of the collection is in relatively good condition for its age, many paper documents and volumes have issues that present challenges. The following types of damage are common for archive material, but in this collection the problems have been exacerbated by its previous storage conditions.

One of the major challenges to be addressed is the significant amounts of powdery red rot in the collection’s leather bindings. Red rot is the acidic degradation of leather, which over time causes the leather to become weak, often splitting or breaking on areas it should flex. Many of the affected bindings are in the later stages of deterioration, the leather becoming powdery and coming off. This is problematic for users as it is a skin and respiratory irritant, but also because the powdery deposits easily transfer to shelving; reading room surfaces; on and inside other documents; and the readers themselves.

At one point in its history, the collections have been stored in humid or damp conditions. This allowed for severe mould damage on occur a portion of the bindings. While the mould is currently inactive, large deposits remain on the volumes and documents. Inside the bindings, the text blocks are cockled and discoloured, with losses and pages adhered together. As the bindings are fragile and the mould deposits are a health and safety hazard for users, the bindings cannot be accessed in their current state.

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Many bindings have physical damage from heavy use and improper storage. This includes abrasions, bumped corners, tears, covers falling off, spines detached, and more. The paper documents have rusting metal fastenings and severe paper tears, pleats and crumpling which limits readability and cause handling difficulties.

Other types of damage include extensive sooty black dirt throughout the collection, brittle papers, and iron gall ink damage. Through the course of the project I will blog further about the conservation issues described.

What’s the plan?

The specialized archive store where the collection is currently housed was purpose built to hold Explore’s on-site collection (for more information, read about the Gateway to History project). The store operates within PD5454:2012 guidance. This means that the store follows published recommendations for the storage of library and archive materials, which include guidance for ranges of temperature and humidity levels within the store that the collection is best suited. This aids in slowing further degradation of the material. The archive store also has a security system and measures against water ingress and fire.

The items which have been damaged by improper packaging or storage will be addressed by repackaging to mitigate further damage when it’s used and moved.

Using a variety of conservation techniques, the project will address the most pressing of concerns for the collection, with the goal of making the material available to use. This includes surface cleaning of documents to remove heavy deposits of sooty black dirt; making paper documents accessible by unfolding and pressing; repairing severe tears and losses to paper documents and bindings; cleaning and removing deposits from mould damaged items; consolidating the leathers and providing protective covers on bindings with red rot to enable reader handling.

I will continue to post about the project  and  the conservation as it progresses, if you’re interested in reading about a particular topic, feel free to contact me with suggestions!

Thanks for reading,



For more information about conservation I’ve added some links that may be of interest

Institute of Conservation

Archives and Records Association


A new addition to the Past Caring team


Hello all,

Today I am writing to introduce myself as the newest member of the York Explore team: the Past Caring Project Conservator. Over the next year and a half, I will be working with the Project Archivist Julie-Ann Vickers on the Past Caring Project (find out more about the Past Caring Project on our dedicated page, or our previous blog posts).

While Julie-Ann works on researching and cataloguing the informational content of the archive, my task is to take care of the physical aspects of the collection. I will be assessing the condition of the archives and carrying out preservation and remedial conservation work to ensure the material can be handled by readers, as well as ensuring the future accessibility of the material.

As a book and archive conservator, my goal for this project is to help balance the preservation and access needs of a collection. Maintaining the physical collection is important to keep the records available for the long term and to enable readers access to its intellectual value. In my next blog post, I will talk more about the specific conservation issues of the Past Caring project.

In the months ahead I will be looking for volunteers to help with the preservation and conservation process, so if you are interested in working with historic material, drop me a line or keep up to date with the Explore York blog as more information on how to volunteer will be posted in future blog posts.

I will be posting here about once a month and regularly contributing to our twitter account.

Thanks for reading!


Thoughts? Questions? Just want to chat about conservation? Feel free to email me at