There is an ongoing exhibition at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives entitled Nature of the Book. It looks at the ingredients in and processes of creating books, specifically, the older books that were printed and bound by hand. In case you can't make it to Washington on time, there's an accompanying online video presentation that will help explain how all this was done. You still have lots of time to get to Washington as the exhibition runs through March 17, 2024.
The video takes you through the process of producing hand-made books, from paper, to printing, to binding and decorating. There is a particularly interesting section on the complicated process of binding a book by hand. You can explain it in text but seeing the various stages of the process makes it more understandable than trying to picture it in your mind. Among the resources used were scraps from unwanted older books which today has become the source of information about those books when no copies are still extent.
In examining the “nature of books,” they found 65 substances, animal, vegetable, and mineral. Most are relatively harmless, but some smell really bad and others are poisonous. The poisonous minerals, including lead and arsenic, were not recognized for just how toxic handling them can be. Arsenic was used to make some of the brightest greens while lead can provide a red-orange color. Various beetles and other insects have been used for coloring as well. Best known is the cochineal, an insect from which a bright red dye can be produced. That isn't so bad for book illustrations, but the fact that it is also used for dying food is a bit more gross.
Insects were also the inspiration for one of the most important advances in making books. Prior to Gutenberg, manuscripts were made from vellum, of which there is a limited supply. Paper based on using old linen rags greatly increased production, but paper made from wood pulp really opened the doors to books being produced in huge quantities. The inspiration was wasps, who countless years earlier learned how to turn wood, with the help of chewing and saliva, into paper nests.
Along with the ability to produce more paper, the exploration of European voyagers opened the world to more trade. That brought about access to other cheaper materials, making books even less expensive. Add improving literacy to that and books would see continued growth, and finally, automated presses would bring about the end of the old methods, at least until restored by the fine presses that appeared in reaction to mass produced books.
You can view this video on the Nature of the Book by clicking here.
As an unintentional humorous aside, you can follow the captioning while listening to the video. The transcriber was evidently not well-versed in books and had a lot of trouble with the terms.
Printers used printer's ink, not “printer zinc.”
Readers may have marveled at some of these books, but the books used marbling, not “marveling.”
Russia leather may be a luxury but “Russia weather” certainly is not.
Eighteenth century illustrator Joseph Groupy was not named “Joseph Goofy.”
Schweinfurt green, the arsenic-laden green dye also called emerald green, is probably not German for “swine fort green.”
Cochineal, the red dye, is not “coach and neil” nor “Kosher neil.”