Category Archives: book conservation

Thinking About Making: You, Artifact and Tool


A work-in-progress diagram of the interactions that take place when performing a craft.

I’ve been thinking about using tools for a while now, starting in 2004 with a preliminary (and upon rereading inadequate) exploration in Vol. 1, No. 1 of The Bonefolder. Since then, the cultural literacy of tool use continues to decline. In fact, I often encounter people who think they can pick up any tool and it will work fine without any evaluation, prepping, sharpening, maintenance, etc.  If nothing else, thinking a bit more about tools before using them can lead to more successful craft outcomes.

This work-in-progress diagram summarizes some of my thinking. David Pye’s concepts of “workmanship of certainty” and “workmanship of risk” fit nicely into it; technique forms a continuum between you and the tool, not residing completely in one or the other. In paring leather, for example, using a schar-fix or Brockman paring machine involves relatively little technique from you, but resides mostly in the machine. Of course, you still have to know when to use it, and set it up and maintain it. Failure is often catastrophic, it usually works well or it doesn’t. This is the nature of the machine.

A middle ground between you and the tool might be the spokeshave.  Although a 151 spokeshave needs to be modified to work well, it is safer and quicker than using a French or Swiss knife to scrape the leather. It requires more skill to use than a paring machine, but accidents are usually small tears, or sometimes chatter, rarely catastrophic, can lead to uncomfortably small small pieces of leather.

The most risky way to pare leather overall is with a French or Swiss knife.  The locus of technique is almost entirely dependent on your skill.  It takes a steady hand and a lot of practice, but I have seen binders become suprisingly adept at it. Similar to the paring machine, failure can be catastrophic, like cutting a hole in the middle of the spine. All three of these methods of paring are not mutually exclusive, often they are all used by the same binder for various purposes at various times.

There is also room for conservation work in this diagram. Your intention on the artifact is much more limited due to ethical considerations about preserving existing information inherent in the artifact, there often has to be more creative thought put into material selection and tool use. If you are paring the leather on the original spine of a book that will be rebacked, there is little or no margin of error. A loss becomes a loss of information in the artifact. You can’t buy another one. Your tools have to work perfectly.

Materials also place limits on an original design. Often beginners want to experiment with something new, unique or unusual.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it is usually much more difficult than performing a craft activity in a more traditional manner. Unusual materials can require unusual tools.

One of the joys of craft is when the three elements in this diagram are so integrated that we think through the tool and into the artifact. It becomes embodied, a natural extension of our hands.  We often call this muscle memory, or getting a feel for something. Again to use a paring example, when you are competent, the leather pares down quite simply and easily without much conscious thought. When you first learn to pare leather, you need to conscious of how hard, soft, stretchy and thick the leather is, how sharp your knife is, the blade angle of the knife, the bevel angle of the knife, the angle you hold the knife at, where you start the cut, and the amount of leather you are cutting at one time.  This is a lot to keep track of.

I think many of us forget how much of an interplay there is between these three elements. It is important to remember that when things are not going right in any craft, it is not completely your fault, or the tool, or what you are making: it is usually an inter-relationship that can take some time to sort out. That’s one reason why we take classes to learn things.

To be continued….


The BABEL Conference 2015: Off the Books, University of Toronto, October 9 -11

Originally posted on McLuhan Galaxy:

This is a conference that McLuhanists and media ecologists, among others, would be interested in.


*an image from Sean Kernan, Secret Books

BABEL Conference: OFF THE BOOKS: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering

The BABEL Working Group is a non-hierarchical scholarly collective and para-institutional desiring-assemblage. BABEL’s chief commitment is the cultivation of a more mindful being-together with others who work alongside us in the ruined towers of the rubble of the post-historical university. 

From Oct. 9-11, the University of Toronto will host the BABEL Working Group Conference “OFF THE BOOKS: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering.” The conference has a dual focus: on the one hand, a rigorous study of book history and media studies, and on the other, serious discussions about academic activism, para-academic pursuits, and the current state and future directions of the modern university. The conference also has a number of artistic and performative contributions.


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Delrin Lifting Tool


Top of Delrin lifting tool. The tip is sharp for about an inch on each side. The rest of the tool edges are rounded for a comfortable grip..


Detail of the general shape of the tip.


Detail of the gradual reduction in thickness at the tip.

This delrin lifting tool is useful for general lifting, mechanical backing removal, and whenever you need to gently pry or delaminate something. Both book and paper conservators will find this an essential component of their toolkit. Although it is thicker than the carbon fiber lifter I make and sell, it has a slightly lower coefficient of friction, so slides a bit better, and it is more ridgid. If you like your teflon lifter but are tired of how easily the cutting edge bends, this might be the tool for you. Obviously, it is not as durable as metal.  But it is always great to have as wide of a range of tools as possible.  These delrin lifters are hand sharpened to achieve the best possible balance between initial cutting performance and edge retention. The edge is easy to maintain by sanding or scraping. Click on “Tool Catalog” above for ordering information.

DELRIN LIFTING TOOL.  Around 12 x 1 x .125″.  $40


The Importance of Papryus in the Sixth Century

In the sixth century, Cassiodorus wrote this wonderful description of the impact of writing on papyrus on the thought process:

“Before [papyrus was discovered] the sayings of the wise, the thoughts of the ancients were in danger. For how could the writer have been able to write quickly, when, the hardness of the bark resisting him he would scarcely have been able to be ready? The excitement of the mind submits to the unfitting hindrances; when the words are harassed, the mental powers are compelled to grow lukewarm … This was fit only for the beginnings of the world. Then papyrus was discovered, and therewith was eloquence made possible … So smooth and so continuous, the snowy entrails of a green herb, which keeps the sweet harvest of the mind, and resorts it to the reader whenever he chooses to consult it; which is the faithful witness to all human action.”

-Elspeth Whitney, “Paradise Restored: The Mechanical Arts from Antiquity through the Thirteenth Century”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 80, Part 1, (1990): 67.

Book Review: A Bookbinder’s Miscellany by Bernard C. Middleton

Bernard C. Middleton.  A Bookbinder’s Miscellany. Oxford, England: Alan Isaac Rare Books, 2015. xv, 114 p. ill. 25 pounds sterling, plus 9 pounds shipping to USA. 500 copies.

When I attended the Bookbinding 2000 Conference, I thought it might be Bernard C. Middleton’s last hurrah. After all, he had brokered the transfer of his extraordinary collection of books about bookbinding to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Wallace Library Cary Collection. He was 75 years old. He had written two of the most influential books on the craft of bookbinding in the 20th century. The elegant hands (his?) on the cover of the Restoration of Leather Bindings possibly inspired more of us to enter the is field than any of his writing. The bindings I’ve handled of his have been exemplary. What was left to do?

Fifteen years later, we have another book, consisting of three new essays and nineteen previously published ones. Most appeared originally in Paper & Print, The British & Colonial Printer, Printing World, and The Book Collector in the 1950’s, but all were new to me. This is another essential book, written in Middleton’s straightforward style and packed with observations on forwarding, finishing, and the state of the craft in general.

This book pairs nicely with his indispensable History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique, because it does deal with technique, while despite the title, his History primarily concerns structure.  Technique is an elusive beast. Only traces of it remain in artifacts, and it is often difficult to understand how a particular action was accomplished, even if one can arrive at a similar looking result using current tools and techniques. But understanding and interpreting historic subtitles are essential for understanding the evolution of any craft.

This is precisely why A Bookbinders Miscellany is so important: it is a first hand account (and quite often critique) of fine, trade, extra, craft, restoration, and art binding techniques in the mid-20th century. It is invaluable to gain insight into what binders were doing and discussing, especially if it is now considered dated from our current, conservation oriented approach.

The book also records the tension between art school training, with its emphasis on design, and a decline in craft trade binding skills in the post WW2 era. Bookbinder Sam Ellenport’s introduction situates the book within this milieu.

For readers not so interested in binding history or design philosophy, this book also contains many practical tips for full leather binding.  “Notes on The Art of Covering with Leather”, and “Notes on the Hand Sewing of Books” both contain extremely useful how-to information. “The Supported French Groove” details this often forgotten binding which combines advantages of the case and in-boards binding.

In possibly his most personal essay, published for the first time, “Old vs. New: A Division of Interest”, Middleton reflects on the nature of design, restoration, disorganization, and the value of dirt in his bindery. He considers his professional life “… a muddle — a muddle which, though it constantly exasperates me, certainly provides a wealth of interest.” (p. 106) Frankly, it is hard to consider this scholar and craftsman’s career anything close to a muddle, and I hope this is just an example of English self-deprication.

So why is this excellent and informative limited edition book priced so low? Come on, for all Middleton has given during his life, can’t we give a little more back to him? If bookbinders do not value the physical book, can we expect anyone else to?

“Bookbinding is a challenge — a challenge to our skill and our intellect. To master this craft is to master many things. True mastery has yet to be achieved, but we must all press forward in the endeavor to create the nearest approach to the Book Perfect.” (p. 44) Middleton is realistic when describing the present state of binding, but retains hope for the future. I’m inspired to do the same.

Available from Alan Isaac Rare Books.






Mosda Clipless Paper Fastener


Fig 1. Mosda stapleless stapler. Approx. 9 x 5 x 7 cm. My Colllection.

This Mosda clipless paper fastener is one of a large number of machines designed to attach sheets of paper together without the use of external materials. They date from the early years of the twentieth century and are often referred to as stapleless staplers. These are admirably simple and efficient machines.

My machine was made in England, and  looks like it is from around 1930. The Early Office Museum has some great information on the history clipless paper fasteners, unfortunately it does not record the cutting patterns of the machines, which is necessary to determine what particular machine was used. The wonderfully detailed blog, The American Stationer, examines a number of paper fasteners, but not the Mosda. Except for a couple of ebay and etsy sales, I’ve not found much info about it, other than an almost exact copy ( maybe the original?) machine called the Chadwick. (Fig 2.)


According to the Early Office Museum Website, machines for stapleless paper fastening started in 1909 by two competing firms, the Bump Manufacturing Company and The Clipless Paper Fastener Company.  There is some confusion as to which company came up with the first machine. Yet even today, you can buy a new Japanese machine,  which uses almost the exact same punching configuration, though in tandem.

The mechanism is quite ingenious, and even though this machine is very well used and the blades slightly dull, it still creates a surprisingly secure paper attachment with a single push on the top knob. My machine is missing a spring under this knob, so I need to manually lift the knob back to the start position before making a new attachment.



Fig 3. The “U” shaped punch and the slitter punch on the left side.

First the stapler punches a “U” shape and a small straight line behind it. For clarity, I am showing the mechanism on the bottom of the machine. In use, the paper is inserted in the slight gap between the bed and the half arch head as seen in Figure 1.


Fig 4. This shows the tongue which pushes the punched paper tab (from the “U” anvil) into and through the stack of paper. It locks the paper into place by pulling it through the slit when the mechanism is raised.

Next, a tongue pushes the attached tab of paper from the  “U”  punch through the slit. This is then raised to the top of the papers, securing them. Other manufactures report that six to twelve sheets are the maximum number that could be punched through, though of course this depends on the thickness of the paper. I’m pleasently surprised this machine works so well, as can be seen below, considering that the punches are unhardened pressed steel.


Fig 5. Paper attachment as viewed from the top. Ruler in cm.


Fig 6. Paper attachment viewed from the bottom. Ruler in cm. There are small tears on either side of the slit, which happens when the tongue pushes the paper through the slit.

Examining these stapleless fastenings could even generate useful information, such as establishing the  terminus post quem a stack of sheets were assembled. With such obvious tool marks, I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a sense of a range of shapes and match them to extant machines. Or maybe these antique machines still have uses for the inventive book artist, like non-adhesive corner locking for limp structures?


Sobering Statistics Concerning Book Conservation

There are some sobering statistics in The FY2014 Preservation Statistics Report, by Annie Peterson, Holly Robertson, and Nick Szydlowski.  Eighty-seven cultural institutions responded; primarily academic libraries. Although the authors caution about extrapolating the data since the respondents were self-selecting, I find it difficult not to view the results as roughly indicative of general trends in libraries. The most striking finding is the steady decline in the money spent for bound volumes.

The treatments reported tend to be quite utilitarian, more aimed at circulating rather than special collections. For example, a Level 1 treatment takes less than 15 minutes, a Level 2 between 15 and 120 minutes, a level 3 more than 120 minutes. Most conservation treatments for special collections materials take much longer than 120 minutes.

The authors report that “from 2000 to 2014, total conservation treatment of bound volumes declined faster than commercial binding; treatment declined by 77% in that period, while commercial binding declined by only 69%.”  This survey includes in-house and outsourced conservation activities: 92% of respondents had at least some type of in house conservation program, and 70% outsourced at least some treatments. In all, the survey encompasses the treatment of 1.6 million items.  The only growth area is a slight—though not dramatic— increase in spending for digitizing and in reformatting of audiovisual materials.

No, the sky is not falling, but as a book conservator, it is worrisome to see these trends. Frankly, I don’t see the situation changing significantly in the coming decades, until we reach the point where the book and the text have become totally individuated. Then, hopefully, the book will experience a reappraisal.

It is well worth reading the full report:  The FY2014 Preservation Statistics Report.