Category Archives: bookbinding

Losing It

At Hopes and Fears,  Jared Fischer asks a variety of educators, neuroscientists, and others the question: “How long does it take to lose a skill?”

Most of the answers are theoretical, and the main consensus is that it is dependent on the skill and how it was acquired.  Similar to the ‘you never forget how to ride a bicycle’ adage, crafts and activities that require extensive muscle memory to learn (and the least conscious attention to perform) tend to be the most durable. Many aspects of bookbinding and knife sharpening fall into this category, and these are some of the most difficult skills to initally learn.

It’s a great question, relating not only to the acquisition of craft skills, but the maintenance of them.  Some answers in the article may contain seeds of argument for institutional conservators who feel they are trapped in front of a screen and need to justify bench time. But no practitioners were ask to self-report on their own experience, so I will ask myself.

Q: Jeff, how long does it takes to lose a skill?

A: I usually don’t subscribe to the idea that various crafts and skills sets are so different that there are isolated muscle memories associated with them.  When I teach freehand knife sharpening, for example, I try to emphasize the relationship between sharpening and leather paring: the muscle memory that it takes to hold the knife freehand on the sharpening stone is closely related to the way you need to consistently hold the knife to pare. So in many regards, I think if you are active in some craft activity it can slow the erosion of neglected skills in another.

That said, when I was a kid I tried to learn how the juggle one summer.  It seemed like hundreds of hours were spent, essentially in failure.  But the next summer, I picked up the three balls and for some reason it just worked.  Juggling may be pure muscle memory, since it primarily depends on how accurate you throw the ball.  Now when I try it, I am not nearly as good, but can keep the balls in the air for a short time and suspect if I kept at it could return to a basic proficiency. So in this case, the skill is severely degraded, but not lost.

A dispiriting aspect of this question is that one’s intellectual knowledge of what constitutes skillful performance often increases during the time that the physical ability to accomplish this decreases.

Well worth reading other perspectives:  “How long does it take to lose a skill?”

Ellic Howe, Google Books, and a Bookplate

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Ellie Howe’s Bookplate. From the front pastedown of The Book-finishers’ Friendly Circular on Google books: https://books.google.com/books?id=LlwEAAAAQAAJ&pg=PAcontents.

When I worked as a book clerk at the late Gotham Book Mart in 1980’s, provenance, especially on modern books, mattered little to me.  So what if someone famous touched, looked at, owned, or read this particular book, I reasoned. What meaning could possibly be transferred from this?

But recently, while doing some research, I stumbled across the bookplate of Ellic Howe, from the digitized version of The Book-Finishers’ Friendly Circular, 1845-51. (BTW, this copy is much easier to read than the Garland reprint) Howe is a well known book historian and I consider his The Society of London Bookbinders, 1780-1951 the best book yet concerning the London Bookbinding trade.

The Book-Finishers’ Friendly Circular is a wonderful slice-of-life, filled with humor, history, poetry, practical information, and reports on meetings. There is endless arguing about who it making more money, quite similar to what binders often talk about now. The primary evidence in this book informed much of Howe’s publications.

Howe’s stunning bookplate made me realize this book once belonged to him. It illustrates a dramatic one point perspective view a private study. It establishes books as a transactional space between the past and the future: a storehouse of knowledge on the right side of the room, which are being used in this scholars library to create more books, his own writings spread out on the table. Howe’s name is projected on what could be mistaken for a movie screen on one wall, which illuminates the room along with the windows. Is this possibly an allusion to the power of the scholarly interlocutor?

More surprisingly, I felt a bit star-struck: even though I knew I was reading this book virtually, it thrilled me to know I was reading Howe’s copy.

A Guide to Swell

In bookbinding, the term “swell” describes the thicker area of a book block at the spine due to the addition of sewing thread. It depends on factors detailed below, but a binder or conservator generally does not have control over all these variables. Knowing how to estimate the amount of swell that will develop is one of the most important aspects when planning to sew a book, since it corrolates to the degree of round and the shape of the shoulders that a book will end up with.

Different binding styles need different amounts of swell. Too much swell creates a textblock that is unstable, squiggly, and difficult to back. Too little swell and there are insufficent shoulders which are necessary for some styles of binding. In all case binding structures, there is more leeway with amount of swell, and as long as it is not excessive it will be sucessful; with bound books the tolerances are much tighter. For example, if you are resewing an existing text block it is critical the new shoulders exactly fit the original boards.

Softer, multi-ply threads afford much more control of swell while sewing as compared to a hard modern thread. Currently, I primarily use threads sold by Colophon Book Arts, including the Colophon Best Blake Thread and the Londonderry Linen Lacing Cord #4. Both can be deplyed if desired to make them thinner. I also prefer to support smaller, specialist bookbinding supply companies. If you are using standard threads, 25/3  is a reasonable starting place. 

Many early binding structures—even up to the late 18th century—manipulate the shape of the boards to fit the spine, rather than the modern fine binding tendency to fit the boards to a 90 degree shoulder.  This makes it easier to fit a wider range of boards to a given swell. Obviously, this is not an option for many binding structures.

There is no formula, instead these ten aspects need to be considered:

1. THICKNESS OF THREAD. Thick thread (or more plys) = more swell. Thin thread (or fewer plys) = less swell. Although not ideal, the thickness of thread can be changed during sewing if too much or too little swell develops. 

2. HOW HARD OR SOFT THE THREAD IS. Hard thread does not flatten in the signatures = more swell. Soft thread flattens in the signatures = less swell. A compressible thread gives more control. It is often advisable to untwist hard modern threads a bit to make them softer by running them through your fingernail and thumb, and let them relax.  Waxing thread also makes it harder, so I generally avoid it if possible. Sometimes excessive kinking and twisting comes from using too small of a needle. Softer thread can fray more during sewing, though. 

3. THICKNESS OF THE TEXT PAPER. Thick paper absorbs more thread = less swell. Thin paper absorbs less thread = more swell.

4. HOW HARD OF SOFT THE PAPER IS. Soft paper absorbs more of the thread = less swell. Hard paper absorbs less thread = more swell. It is easier to control swell with softer paper. Guarding the spine will increase swell. Washing and resizing can also affect how much swell develops. Swell can also be adjusted before sewing by beating or otherwise compressing the sections.

5. HOW MANY LEAVES ARE IN EACH SIGNATURE. More leaves can absorb more thread = less swell. Fewer leaves = more swell.

6. HOW MANY SIGNATURES THERE ARE. More signatures = more swell. Fewer signatures = less swell. Some binders like to visualize this by wrapping the thread around a pencil the same number of times as there are signatures.

7. SEWING STYLE. All-along, two-on, three-on, etc. All-along produces the most swell, more “-on” sewing styles = less swell. Packed sewing produces more swell due to a small overlap of thread. This can be controlled, to produce naturally packed sewing, which has one length of thread on the cords for each signature.

8. SEWING SUPPORTS. Tapes, cords, thongs. Tapes produce the least swell, cords and thongs slightly more since the thread can overlap slightly inside the signature. Supports also differ in the amount of adjustment that can be done after sewing, ie. how much the thread can move on the supports during consolidation and backing. A professional sewing frame, such as the Nokey makes this easier.

9. HOW MUCH CONSOLIDATION IS PERFORMED DURING SEWING. More consolidation during sewing= less swell. I have often observed students sewing identical text blocks, with identical thread, end up with significantly different results. A loaded stick, or knocking down stick can help with compression, although some people prefer to use a bone folder or wedge shaped piece of wood.

10. TIGHTNESS OF SEWING. Tighter sewing makes a thinner book before pressing. Looser sewing can develop due to improper tensioning or too large of a needle. A book sewn too tightly can develop a “banana” shape, thinner at the kettle stitch. Even tension is crucial.

Best practice: sew with the thickest thread possible.

News from 1886: Hand Bookbinding is Slowly Disappearing

“Bookbinding on a small scale seems to be one of those minor industries which are slowly disappearing. Yet we think that there is always a certain need of a good bookbinder in every country town. We recollect how such a person was once maintained in a small European city by official work, and now and then a few orders from the country gentlemen. Shopkeepers and farmers as a general rule are not bibliophilists. When, however, we come in this country to look upon a book as something of intrinsic value, we will insist on real books, in proper shape and goodly binding, and then the bookbinder’s day will have come.”

The Bookmaker: A Journal of Technical Art and Information, January 1886, p. 16.

 

Weights of Litho Stones

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G. Ruse and C. Straker. Printing and its Accessories. London: S. Straker & Son., 1860. Robertson Davies Library, Massey College. University of Toronto.

This is a pretty handy chart if you are considering purchasing a litho stone, or even picking one up to move around.  For example, a 16 x 12 inch stone weights 43 pounds per inch of thickness. This was pasted onto the inner face of the front board of Printing and its Accessories from Massy College.  Another reminder that many printed books contain unique, owner added paratextual information.

Book Slate

Nelson’s School Series Book Slate for Home and Student Use (London & Edinburgh: T. Nelson and Sons, [1900?]) is an odd structure, a diptych in a case binding. The exterior looks like a standard quarter cloth case binding with printed paper sides. The interior, however, is made from a painted slate-like material. It can be written on and erased. The earliest known diptych is from 14th-century BCE, making the codex seem like a newbie.  Is the laptop a 20th century iteration? Long live the diptych!

book slate

Nelson’s Book Slate. Exterior front board. This is a well used, but largely intact book. My Collection.

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Nelson’s Book Slate. Open. Chalk marks of addition and subtraction. My Collection.

On Rushing

rushing

 

Rushing is an insidious demon in craft work. Its lures are many. It occludes the memory of its last appearence, trapping you once again. Resist with constant vigilance!