Book Restoration: Rice & Wheat Paste

Almost every book we've read about bookbinding or book restoration shares a recipe for wheat paste, and they all differ from each other.  Probably because it isn't rocket science to make a sticky paste using water and flour.  

We're going to share our recipe and what works for us!  We're also going to talk about the different uses for rice and wheat paste.

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One of the best qualities of rice and wheat paste is that it is extremely affordable!  We bought a small bag of rice flour (image below) two years ago for 88 cents at the Asian market, and I expect we'll get another year or so use from it.  This helps offset other expensive materials we use such as bookbinding leather.   

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The other and more obvious great quality about rice and wheat paste is that it's archival and completely reversable:  A very good quality to have, especially for conservationists.  Paste also gives you a long working time because it doesn't dry immediately, whereas glue grabs instantly; so for some proceedures this long working time makes life much easier. 

Recipe: Rice and/or Wheat Paste.

  • 1 part flour (refined rice or wheat flour).
  • 8 - 9 parts water.
  • Microwave in a glass  ramekin until paste becomes translucent and begins to thicken.  Make sure to stop and stir a few times so your paste doesn't get lumps.  The paste will thicken as it cools.  

It's that simple!  We usually make 1/4 tsp flour to 2 tsp water in a small ramekin (with 20 - 30 seconds of microwave time), and it usually lasts for a full day of restoration projects.  We've found it unnecessary to make a big batch in a pot over the stove as it's traditionally talked about, and a double boiler is unnecessary too.  We like to start with a new clean batch every morning, so we don't make it in bulk.  Of course if you're planning on making pudding or Alfredo sauce for dinner later, I'd say make a big batch!  Why not get a jump start on dinner! ;) 

All pastes aren't equal and so we use them differently depending on the project we're working on.  Rice paste is superior for repairing torn paper, repairing wtih Japanese tissue, and guarding signatures, because it dries transparent.  

When we're working on an historical binding that requires paste washed leather we'll usually use wheat paste because it is a little stickier, not to mention more historically accurate.  

I have heard it argued that one should always use rice paste or only make wheat paste from cake flour as these have a lower gluten content, which theoretically is a favorite food of bookworms.  However, I have several objections to this theory.  First, nothing in my examination of historical bindings seems to bear this out:  Bookworms seem fairly non-discriminate in their diet, and thousands of books bound traditionally with wheat paste have never been touched by the dreaded bookworm.  Second, all our fine bindings are destined for the hands of people who love books, know how to take care of them, and would never let a bookworm near them in the first place. Third, I have a knee jerk reaction against anything gluten free.   

Contemporary binders tend to rely on modern glues, but paste can open up a whole new world for you.  I'd say give it a try!  We'll save the talk about glues vs. pastes for another day!

 

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