Category Archives: bookbinding

Christopher Sower Junior Died While Beating Books

“He began the process of binding these books by the laborious employment of beating them, as is usual, and imprudently completed as much of this work in half a day as is usually done in a whole day. The weather was warm, and by this exertion he became overheated. He went out to a spring where he drank so freely of water as to produce a fit of apoplexy, which soon after terminated his moral existence.”

-Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America 2nd. Ed., Vol. 1. (Albany, N.Y.: : Joel Munsell, printer., 1874), 280.

Christopher Sower Jr. (1721-1784) a Pennsylvania German Anabaptist who, like his father, was a papermaker, bookbinder, printer and jack of all trades. He reportedly preferred walking to any other method of travel, and could maintain four miles an hour. Although bookbinding research is generally a somewhat impersonal activity, this story struck home with me. First, I come from an Anabaptist religious tradition. Secondly, I have been spending a lot of time looking at the Pennsylvania German wood board bindings that Sower made, as well as the Bibles he printed. Thirdly, I recently wrote an article about the beating of books.

I think I will take it easy the next time I beat a text block when making a model….

Louis-Sebastien Lenormand: Scientist, Professor, Daredevil, Author of a Bookbinding Manual.

One may safely assume that most of the authors of bookbinding manuals tend to be somewhere between mild-mannered and introvertedly geeky. There are some starteling exceptions to this rule, however. Witness one Louis-Sebastien Lenormand. In the image below, he is hanging from the wood framed parachute, which he invented and publicly demonstrated.

From the wikipedia entry for Louis-Sebastien Lenormand

He coined the name para-chute (Greek-against, French-fall) and intended it to save people that had to jump from tall burning buildings. He also was a professor of physics, chemistry, and technology. In his spare time he was an editor of 27 volumes of Dictionnaire Technologique (1822-1827). And he wrote one of the best bookbinding manuals of the 19th century.

His 1827 Manuel du Relier  (Nouvelle Edition, 1833) was in print for over one hundred years.  He credits Dudin and Lesne as predecessors.  It is comprehensive and is especially concerned with technique. In addition to bound books, it also covers cartonnage allemand, or Bradel binding. There is a tremendous amount of interchange between English and French technical descriptions of bookbinding throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Hannett, in Bibliopegia, 1835, thought that Lenormand’s illustrations of the man ploughing and the disembodied beating hammer were good enough that he copied them. Even if you do not read French, the fold out plates are worth spending some time with, though unfortunately they were not opened when Google scanned Nouvelle Edition….

I won’t even attempt to speculate about the relationship between parachuting and bookbinding, other than that both fascinated Lenormand immensely. I can only applaud his life and work, like the cheering crowd in the image above.

Bone Folders: Our Nearest and Dearest Friend

John Farleigh, in a chapter about Sidney Cockerell from his book The Creative Craftsman, gives a particularly observant account of the relationship between a book binder and a bone folder.

“Another man is at work putting down a leather joint on the inside of a bound book, using a folder with quick, skillful movements reminiscent of the grooming of a horse.  The folder, a small ivory instrument that has to the ordinary eye the appearance of a paper-knife, is in fact a most important tool to the binder. Its shape is fashioned with great care and according to the habits of the craftsman himself. Every facet of its surface, every curve and subtlety of its edge, is known and used for a purpose, and no craftsman will readily part with this tool. This particular craftsman tells us, as he would talk of the loss of his nearest and dearest friend, that he has just broken his folder—an extra thick piece of vellum needing rather more pressure than usual found a weakness in the ivory—and we are shown the sad remains”

The finest bone folders on earth are being made today by Jim Croft, pictured below.  He processes wild deer and elk bones with his teeth and hands.  He also offers intensive workshops on making books from raw materials: toolmaking, processing fiber, papermaking, and wooden board binding with clasps. Below he is wearing his signature bone folder vest.  Check out his website, traditionalhand.com, or email him to purchase raw or finished folders: traditionalhand AT gmail.com

croft

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John Farleigh  The Creative Craftsman (London: G Bell and Sons, 1950) 92.

Profitable Hobbies: A Short Course In Bookbinding

profitable hobbies

Profitable Hobbies, March 1949, My Collection

Manly Banister’s “A Short Course in Book Binding” barely presents the rudiments of bookbinding, but it is well worth the price of admission for Banister’s entertaining hubris and the highly stylized cover imagery. The woman sewing seems to have an expression somewhere between extreme self consciousness—”how do you want me to hold the needle?”— and a seething annoyance at having to pose yet again. It also appears she is sewing a newspaper? The black and white cover with red is almost noirish in its use of shadows. Despite Banister’s minimal knowledge of the field, his diagrams of DIY equipment, the sewing frame, press and plough above, may be of use to some. But like many introductory bookbinding manuals, it is not so much the information they contain that is important, but the sense of the audience for the craft that I find of interest. Binders might question how profitable bookbinding as a hobby might be, yet according to Banister bookbinding is pure profit! His recollection about how he began bookbinding is a gem:

“I got started on bookbinding when I was confined to bed for a week with a touch of the flu. There was a forty-year old book on book on bookbinding lying around which I read for the lack of anything better. I had not read far when my fingers began to itch for the feel of needle and thread. Of course, I had no tools to work with, but I went ahead anyway, propped up on pillows. I had two boards brought to me and some cord, and their combination served as my press. My wife’s  old Bible was rapidly going to pieces, so I finished the process. The job was absorbing. I sewed the book and glued it and cut up an old leather jacket to cover it.”

“Bookbinding is easy. Anyone can bind a book—you and you and you! You just set your mind to it, and that’s all. If you can thread a needle, cut and fold paper, you can bind a book.”

The power of positive thinking aside, this issue of Profitable Hobbies does contain an important description of the Flash Dry method of printing, which was used by R.R. Donnelley & Sons for printing this very magazine, as well as Time, Life, Fortune, Farm Journal and Pathfinder. It supposedly is responsible for the “fine halftone work.”

Amish Punk Books

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Both images courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century Pennsylvania German Wood Board Bindings often resemble Gothic bindings. They often have thick wooden boards, bosses, center pieces, corner pieces, and clasps.  These bindings also share design elements with other Amish and Mennonite folk art traditions, including Fractur, needlework, carving, etc….  The books pictured above, however, with their studded spine straps and covers, look more like a punk rock wristband or studded motorcycle jacket.  Although Amish and punk culture may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, both embrace a locus of identity outside of mainstream culture and use their distinctive clothing styles to visually represent this.

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A Cool Press

Luke Herbert. The Engineer’s & Mechanics Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 , 1849 (p. 333)

The above press won a prize for it because it demonstrates the five mechanical powers of a simple machine: the wheel and axle, lever, wedge, inclined plane, and pulley. Sometimes a screw is also considered a sixth basic function, although it is essentially an inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder. Herbert’s article on presses also illustrates a number of high tech screw presses used by bookbinders from this time. The state of the art information contained within this book is reflected by its binding: my 1840 edition is in a caoutchouc binding, which was invented in 1836.

A Book Conservator Goes to Hollywood: or, Pretending to be an Actor Playing a Bookbinder

It is pretty unusual—once in a lifetime?— for any craftsman to appear in a Hollywood commercial. I had my chance last week. In many ways it was almost the stereotypical experience: a phone call out of the blue, sending a production company a couple of images of me and my work, a bunch of phone meetings, sending more pictures, then all of the sudden a limo was picking me up at 5:00 am to fly to Los Angles.

The first day was spent meeting the director, producers and wardrobe fitting.  My “costume” was chosen, which was surprisingly similar to the kind of clothes I usually wear.  Loose linen shirt and blue pants, though they did make me wear a kind of silly looking heavy duty leather apron.  Wardrobe went to do a few alterations and I was driven to look at the set.

The set really looked like a bindery, even though much of it was from other trades.  All the small details were wrong, but the overall feel was right.  The director of photography was there with a top of the line DSLR, so I left thinking this was going to be a small, intimate shoot.

The next day my driver picked me up and the scene had changed dramatically. The crew parking lot was filled with over 70 cars.  The caterer had 4 tents set up.  All of these people would be filming me for the next couple days, and I’d never acted before.  I was playing with the big boys.

As my make-up was being applied and my hair cut, I kept thinking that my experience in teaching should help me out, since I’m used to having people watch me work.  Or maybe I should think of this as extreme method acting: I’d practiced bookbinding for 23 years, and now was my chance to perform in front of the camera?

I saw the real camera for the first time; one of those monsters used for film shoots that three people ride on. We shot the various stages of book binding at different times.  Often I had to repeat an action three times, for a wide, medium and tight shot. The raw footage I saw looked amazing; the most professional, seductive looking images of bookbinding I’ve ever seen.

Seductive images of craft are great PR.  I still remember how appealing Bernard Middleton’s hands were on the cover of The Restoration of Leather Bindings.  Quite likely it was a reason I got into bookbinding in the first place. Could the less scientific, and more romantic side of conservation be emphasized a bit more for public appeal and possibly funding? Or does it land us back in the murky world of craft and restoration which conservation strives to differentiate itself from?

Film shoots are pure chaos.  As one crew member recommended “embrace the chaos”.  But the crews were remarkable in the way they worked together, thought creatively and spontaneously, and in the end got the job done.  It was great to get a glimpse at this world.

If you happen to find yourself being filmed using a sewing frame, which is a de-rigor shot, use pre-pierced the inner folios but not the outer one.  This way you can feel the hole on the inside with the tip of the needle, and burst out through an unpierced outer folio with frightening precision, without having to look inside the book. Smooth.

The most difficult thing for me was doing a familiar action differently or at a different speed—either to show it better on camera or because the director wanted it. I spend most of my time thinking about pragmatic realities—reattaching a board to fit the textblock exactly, mending paper fibers to realign or grinding a knife to exactly 13 degrees— so it was a bit difficult for me to get my head around the “prop” mentality, and how much the camera would see, and concentrate on the action, not the object. It was hard work to repeat an action over, and over, and over. “Show the leather more love when you touch it!” In the end I was left with much more respect for “real” actors; it is hard, skilled work.

And how quickly I become accustomed to being treated like a star!  By the end of the second day, it seemed natural to have a driver, someone yelling “talent on the set” and “talent stepping down” when I moved on the set, a hairstylist preening me every 30 minutes of so, food and water brought constantly the minute I sat.

I signed a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) so can’t go into any details until December.  Once the commercial is live, I will post links to it on this blog.

Now, back to reality. Finish sewing an endband, then edge paring, spokeshaving, and covering an appealing well used edition of Luther’s Commentarie on the Epistle of Saint Paul, London, 1616. I keep telling myself I’m glad to be back in the real world. But….