I’m very interested in 18th C. French bookbinding structures, techniques and tools. Pictured below is a French headbanding press taken from M. Dudin’s “The Art of the Bookbinder and Guilder”, Plate IX. If anyone has ever seen one of these, please let me know. It is a bit difficult to discern the dimensions, but I would estimate is it around 15 inches long, and the cheeks about 2-3 inches thick. I have never seen a press like this—the handles are placed somewhat like a wood clamp, so that one end can accommodate the book while it hangs off the table. Wood clamps, however, thread from either side of the press so they can be grasped by both hands and spun in a circle to rapidly tighten or loosen. The description of the plate states: “Figure 13, the book in position in the headbanding press; C D, side-pieces of the press; EE FF, the screws which tighten it; o, the core of the headband…” (Dudin 1977, 112)
It is the only traditional press I have seen that clamps the book outside of the screws, and it puts the book in a somewhat precarious position hanging off the edge of the table. In this illustration, the angle of the press cheeks doesn’t make sense to me- if it is accurate, press cheek D would only make contact with the book around the spine, and the foreedge would gape. If anything, it would make more sense to clamp the foreedge tightly, and the spine loosely to facilitate passing the needle and sewing thread. Given the careful attention to detail prevalent in the rest of the illustrations, I am hesitant to dismiss it as a mistake, however.
Since I couldn’t find an example to experiment with, I decided to make a replica. I purchased a Beale Wood threader kit (available from Lee Valley), and made the press below out of some quarter sawn cherry from upstate NY. The handles were turned on a small Jet wood lathe, and the cherry cheeks were hand planed with a Stanley #6 with a Hock A2 plane blade. The press with finished with two coats of boiled linseed oil and lightly sanded with a 320 grit sanding sponge. A coat of Renaissance wax was then applied. Too thick of a finish on book-presses can interfere with the friction necessary to hold the book steady, and necessitate extreme clamping pressure, especially with this style of press.
The cheeks are 15 inches long, and 2 x 2 3/8″ wide, but they seem quite large in comparison to the engraving. As I was making this, it seemed absurd to make the cheeks smaller– they might deflect when tightened, their small surface area might mark the boards, they might tip side to side or the press could fall off the table. The book in the photo, already headbanded and covered, is about 6″ tall and bound in 18th C. French style.
The Press is a bit awkward in use, because it is impossible to turn the book around without loosening the press. And if you lean a hand on the book or end of the press it can start to tip. In the text, Dudin offhandedly mentions that for a single headband the book “…is placed between the knees, or better in a small press… called a headbanding press” (Dudin 1977, 42) This seems to imply headbands were sewn seated, perhaps while seated at the sewing table? It is the only chair in any of Dudin’s illustrations of the bindery’s interior. Perhaps this press is intended for larger books, which would be difficult to headband if standing on the table. Or maybe the press gave some support to the book while the bottom rested between the headbanders knees? If the book were larger and heavier, however, I would really worry that it might tip it off the table. But having the headband at a lower height might explain the unusual method of clamping the book off the edge of the worktable.
Dudin’s illustration, however, shows the book on a fairly narrow table which is not pictured in the interior of the bindery. Diderot’s illustrations do not depict a press like this. All of the other presses pictured, and in Dudin as well, have small handles, scarcely larger than the screw threads, unadorned and unshaped for hand use: a press-pin is used to tighten them. Small, hand tightened presses for benchtop use are the norm now, a common one being the Dryad Model 1430B amateur book press, which was sold in the US by Craftool in NY. Could this French headbanding press be a link to our modern, bench top (not tub-based), hand tightened presses?
So much of craft knowledge has been lost– we are lucky to have Diderot and Dudin’s recording of the 18th C. structures, techniques and tools. If only I could spend a day in an 18th C. bindery and see for myself!
Dudin, M. 1977. The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder. Trans. R. Atkinson. Leeds, England:The Elmente Press.
Diderot, Denis and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. 1751. Encylopedie ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une societe de gens de letters. Paris, David l’aine, le Breton, Durand.
On April 28, 2008 Richard Minsky added:
“I have several headbanding presses, including ones
purchased from Rougier & Plé in 1971. They all look like the one in
the drawing, but have the screws closer to the end of the press. I
have never seen one built like the drawing, or used that way. It
makes no sense. If the book is clamped as shown how can you put
the needle into the section? I think the drawing is wrong. As you
point out, it can’t really be as shown, with the press closed so
much at the far end and the jaws in contact all along the book.
Unless the book is wedge-shaped.
The press as I was taught to use it is while seated with one end of
the press in the lap and the other on the table, tilting the book
toward you, with the tail of the foredge clamped between the screws
of the press, at an angle. The spine is totally out of the press.”
And on April 28, 2008 James Reid-Cunningham added:
“The French finishing press is really rather common over there. Frank Lehman
sells one made by Frank Wiesner in Australia. It is listed on Lehman’s
website as “Peller Finishing Press Inspired by Swiss Master Bookbinder Hugo
Peller, the two press cheeks are extended on one end to hold the book
upright when sewing head-bands.” Hugo really didn’t invent this press, just
popularized it when he was here teaching in the 1980s.”
And on April 30, 2008 Frank Lehmann added:
“I use the headbanding press that Hugo Peller/Frank Wiesner developed
together. It’s basically a light weight finishing press that has one
end extended a few extra inches beyond the screw.
It is used just the way that the illustration from Dudin
shows. The book is clamped between the outer edges and hangs over the
bench. If the book is a heavy one, then all you need to do is put a
weight on the other end to prevent it from tipping over. You can
easily position the book to do the headbanding while seated. The
innovation that Peller/Wiesner came up with was to round the cheeks of
the extension. This makes it easier to work on small books and
prevents the silk thread from snagging on the cheeks.
I think the error in the illustration is one of visual perspective. In
use, the cheeks of the press are pretty close to being parallel. I
think the artist got a little bit carried away, trying to make the
press recede into the background – although he forgot to make the
cheeks diminish in size.
My guess would be that in the 18th Century, French binderies simply
used finishing presses that had one end slightly extended beyond the
screw. That’s one of the nice things about this press – it makes
headbanding much easier and doubles as a perfectly good finishing
press. The English used to use old ploughs to hold the book while
NOTE: The Hugo Peller/Frank Wiesner headbanding press can be purchased from Frank Lehmann:
And on May 6, 2008 Tom Conroy added:
“On Dudin’s drawing of the headbanding press, I think
that the closeness of the cheeks at the far end is
perfectly well observed, and indicates the internal
structure of the press.
In the 18th century, a few wooden-screw presses,
vises, etc. had pegs, “garters”, or other keys to make
the near cheek follow the handles when the press was
opened; but most did not. When the screw was run-out
with a non-keyed press, the handles would simply move
out of the near cheek; for the cheeks to separate you
had to push them apart with your hand. If you look at
Dudin’s exploded drawings of presses, ploughs, etc.,
you will (if I remember correctly) see that some of
them show the peg key but most do not. Landis’
“Workbench Book” has information on early French vises
and screws that indicates the same thing, with the
place of the peg taken by a similar scructure called a
“garter”. As late as the end of the 19th century many
wooden-screw woodworkers’ vises were unkeyed.
With a non-keyed press, when you place an object
between the jaws but outside the screws, and tighten
the press, the near screw will be active and bear on
the object. However, as you close the far screw it
will have nothing to pull against, and in consequence
the cheeks will skew inward just as is shown in the
drawing; in fact this skewing inward will happen even
if the far screw is not tightened. For comparison, the
two screws in a traditional all-wooden handscrew for
woodworking are superficially very similar to this
press; but one of them pulls on the cheeks to close
the handscrew, while the other pushes on the cheeks to
It seems to me that the angling-in of the headbanding
press shown by Dudin shows that this was an unkeyed
tool; more, it seems to me that the tool was at this
point in process of evolution from an unusual use of
a press that coincidentally had extra length beyond
the screws into a special-purpose adaptation.”
The above comments got me looking again at Plate X from Dudin. (Dudin 1977, 115) This clearly shows the peg “l” on the standing press at the top middle piece marked “H”. As Conroy mentioned, this would fit into the groove marked “m” on the standing press screw at the left. It also shows that in the small press in Fig. 25, identified in the text as a headbanding press, and it does not have a key. “Figure 25, headbanding press seen assembled at S and and in detail in the illustration above; TT tt, the sidepieces; vv the two screws; x book.” (Dudin 1977, 114)
The book is inserted in the press as Minsky mentioned in his comments above, but it is unclear if the spine is completely out of the press or not. The book is positioned outside of the press screws, not between them as is usual. Was the earlier depiction of the book hanging off the table just for the purposes of showing the headband, or like most tools is this press designed to be used in various ways by different workers?
Again the engraving is confusing- the spacing of the screws on the cheek closest to the viewer appear equidistant from each end, while on the farther cheek they look much more like the headband press pictured previously. The cheeks are unmistakably parallel, however they seem to be positioned much further apart than the thickness of the book. The book, in fact, seems to be canted at a strange angle within the press. This would only be possible with some kind of shim in the press, which would be strange to say the least. The left screw does not seem to match up properly with it’s handle. The perspective in most of these engravings is very accurate– consider the standing press in the bottom left corner.
It almost looks like, if the book is sewn on five cords, and the bottom support is hidden, that the edge of the book rests on the screw of the press and the corner of the book on the table. Dudin, when describing the spacing and number of sewing stations states “…octavo, twelvemo, and smaller volumes with five bands.” (Dudin 1977, 17) But the height to width ratio of the 18th C. French books of I have seen makes me think the boards of this book must end about at the front cheek, so it would only be sewn on four cords.
The book also seems to be covered, which might suggest that that it was staged for purposes of illustration rather than depicted as it was used.
On May 8, 2008, Tom Conroy added:
“Looking at Dudin’s headbanding press images, I’m going
to offer my own odd-perspective notion. In the use
picture [ ed. The first picture in this post], I think that the area beyond the far screw
looks long; possibly not as long as the area holding
the book, but still not just a stubbed-off length like
a modern finishing press. This would be in accord with
the square views; and the extra length on the right
(far) end would help to counterbalance the book and
the part hanging off the edge of the bench. Worth