It’s hard to know where to start.
“But, but, Officer, I wasn’t putting PVA directly on the spine….”
It’s hard to know where to start.
“But, but, Officer, I wasn’t putting PVA directly on the spine….”
Constant Lem, Book Conservator at the National Library of the Netherlands, reviewed my 18th century French Bookbinding Workshop from last summer, which I taught in the Netherlands. Constant studied Medieval History at the University of Amsterdam. In the 1980s and 1990s he worked as a bookbinder. Since 2004 he is a book conservator at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague (The National Library of the Netherlands). Constant is very interested in historic bookbinding manuals and has long been intrigued by the peculiarities of the special French tradition of leather binding.
Translation by Herre de Vries.
The reconstruction of an eighteenth century leather ‘French’ binding with Jeff Peachey
Workshop organized by Restauratoren Nederland, May 2016
Making models of historical binding structures is a source of knowledge about the old book. The best way to make such a model is by working from contemporary manuals. The oldest known sources have a Dutch origin: Beschrijvinghe des Boeckbinders Hantwerck [Description of the bookbinder’s handcraft] by Anshelmus Faust (1612) and Kort Onderweijs van het Boeckenbinden [A short instruction in the binding of books] by Dirc de Bray (1658). These manuals however are written in such a manner that they contain many unclarities to the modern reader. These can be somewhat clarified by repeated empathic reading and by studying the historical examples of the described bindings: historical bookbinding manuals are a wealthy source of knowledge about the old and rare book, but these bookbinding manuals only allow for a good and thorough understanding through the study of actual books.
The most fruitful recreation of an historical model from an historical manual can be done under the guidance of a tutor who has profound knowledge of the manual and who has come across many of its unclarities before, who has solved some, but is continuously open to solutions seen and understood by others, people who have also dug into the subject or people who are completely oblivious yet and can approach it in open-minded fashion.
This type of workshop is exactly what the American bookbinder, conservator and tool maker Jeff Peachey offered. The subject of the workshop was the type of tight-back full leather binding which has been employed so ubiquitously on books in eighteenth century France. The place of action was Wytze Fopma’s studio in the Frisian town of Wier, the Netherlands. It was fascinating and instructional from day 1 through to 5.
Working in the company of book conservators — professionals from library, archive or private practice, and bookbinders — to construct a tight-back full leather binding, with raised sewing supports and a flush joint was recreated following the eighteenth century French manuals by Dudin, de Gauffecourt, and the plates accompanying Diderot. During the course long forgotten, unused techniques were employed, like the beating of text block and boards with a 4 kilo hammer and trimming the edges using a plough. One not only understands the nature of the work of the bookbinders of let’s say 1750, but one also gains insight into how different materials and a different way of processing them results in a different book. The tactility of the book is remarkably different compared to the models made without the use of mock old materials and without resorting to those obsolete techniques. You understand why boards are being laced on prior to backing and trimming and what is the consequence of backing a book in-boards. You get to understand how the final result contains closely observable and for this binding type very characteristic, but detailed differences. Some of those are described explicitly in the manuals, others can be deduced from what can be seen manifold on the historical examples.
Jeff’s teaching method is different to what particularly modern bookbinders will be used to. A cover’s square for many a modern-day trained bookbinder should be exactly 3 and not 2.5 mm, and a 90 degree backing shoulder is 90 degrees, and that’s just the way it is. While Jeff knows his sources damn well and he knows what he is doing, he seldomly gave clear, complete and compulsory instructions. He was well aware of the incomplete, sometimes deficient descriptions in the manuals and invited us continuously to ask questions — without necessarily always being able to answer them — and to make remarks and attempt to clarify up to a point, unclear parts of the descriptions. This ‘open’ approach and the pre-final result — the bound and covered, but unfinished book — seemed to bewilder some of the participants, probably used to clearer guidelines, more stringent instructions and straight lines. This bewilderment evaporated abruptly when the book underwent its final treatments and by applying a simple dotted-pattern surface decoration with iron gall ink and a finish of glaire and paste-wash it suddenly transformed into a historical binding quite convincingly. It suddenly looked all too familiar and many of its previous deficiencies seemed to have disappeared. In reality though they had contributed largely to the satisfying final result!
The point being that while making historical models you should avoid observing with the modern eye and from modern concepts. You should put aside — nearly impossible — all you know and can do, the result of two centuries of a bookbinding tradition constantly working more set and more straight, and to try and settle into the old knowledge, attitude and methods with an unencumbered mind and let it work from within you. With his experience and knowledge Jeff Peachey has given us access to that knowledge, learned how to interpret sources and to work according to methods of that period and as a result of that process has given us moments of great satisfaction.
Zaehnsdorf’s A Short History of Bookbinding, originally produced as promotional material, contains some nice images of his premises and details of several steps in binding. Even in these low-res google scans, interesting details can be observed: the headbander using an upside-down plough, the massive finishing press with wood top (replaceable, to protect the press from glue?) used for spine lining and finishing, the sewer working inside the frame, etc….
Notably, some of the steps are described as a generic action — “backing” — while some have the specific names for positions — “collater, cutter-out and coverer”. Small clues like this can help to understand the divisions of labor in Zaehnsdorf’s large nineteenth century bindery.
I also noticed that Zaehnsdorf’s The Art of Bookbinding is available as a 6 hour audio book. It would be an interesting experiment to listen to his instruction, while following along. I doubt I will do this, but if you do, let me know how it works!
Lee Valley, one of my favorite innovative woodworking tool makers and retailers, is now selling a variety of items — wallets, totebags, pouches — made from what they call Tree Leather (TM).
Tree leather is what the rest of us call paper.
I purchased a small bag, and played with it a bit. Like a paper bag it is highly puncture resistant, and for a fairly thick .023″ does not seem to delaminate internally when repeatedly folded. Tear strength is good, but not exceptional, roughly on par with vegetable tanned leather this thick. The surface pH is quite low, 4.5.
Lee Valley describes the tree leather as being made from long fibered kraft paper, and I bet there is some polyethylene added as a protective coating, giving it the washability they tout.
It is not a huge surprise to anyone involved with books or conservation that paper is quite durable and strong. In fact, many book conservators tend to view leather as a cosmetic, not structural aspect when repairing a binding.
But it is an example of how the notion that leather is strong and durable, and paper is weak still persists. This despite being challenged in print for over 100 years. See Viscount Cobham and Sir Henry Trueman Wood Report of the Committee on Leather For Bookbinding (London: Published for the Society of Arts by George Bell and Sons, 1905.)
I had a sudden and strong compulsion to make wooden spoons around nine months ago.
Part of it was a way to avoid some extremely tedious conservation work. Part of it was a desire to emulate the beauty, at least in spirit, of traditional Swedish wooden spoons. Part of it was an excuse to buy some new tools.
I also wanted to test out some longstanding questions; primarily, as where does technique reside? Traditionally Western craft technique is taught by close contact and imitation of a skilled practitioner. Now it is common to learn by reading a how-to-manual, watching a video, or maybe taking some classes. Technique is often regarded as solely residing in the practicioner.
Many aspects of technique may also reside in the tools themselves. Since I didn’t know anything about spoon carving, this might be a good test: How much could I learn by letting the tools teach me how to make a wood spoon?
Of course, I had to start with the best quality tools I could find. The odd thing was, after I made a dozen or so spoons, the compulsion disappeared almost as quickly as it came on. This may be explained by the thrill of accomplishment when beginning to learn a new craft: mastering the final 20% can take a 1000% more time than the original 80%. One reason many people jump around to different crafts; jonesing for a new quick rush, weary of the long path towards mastery.
This was not a true test of technique completely residing in a tool. I have been whittling since I was a kid (ball in cage!), professionally make and sharpen knives, and use axes quite a bit. Nevertheless, it does speak to the relatively easy transference of tool based knowledge, rather than traditional object based craft education. Does the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” serve to warn against tool based knowledge? Could it be dangerous?
I still use the spoons I made and didn’t give away, they are serviceable and some ended up quite elegant, in my opinion. The one above sees the most use in my kitchen. The handle is comfortable in a variety of grips, and I intended the shallow bowl to be good for tasting while cooking. Wood feels weirdly sticky in my mouth though, like a tongue depressor, so I don’t do this.
I’d forgotten about this episode until a couple of days ago, when I received a blog post from a professional wooden spoon maker, Jarrod Stone Dhal. The Trouble with The Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor.
There are many aspects of his post that anyone involved with crafts will find of interest. One of his questions revolves around the almost impossible desire to make quality handmade objects at an affordable price. When craft objects get too expensive, people put them on a shelf and are afraid to use them. This might also be part of the reason many craftspeople sell their wares absurdly cheap, and are regarded as failures at business. I doubt that large companies like Walmart care if what they sell is used. People who make functional items want them to be used.
But how many handmade books — including etsy style blank books, seeming sold for less than the cost of materials — actually end up getting used? many books get read? When I worked in an academic research library, I bet almost 10% of the books I recased had never been read.
Much modern craft philosophy emphasizes the making of something as the primary fulfillment. Being in the moment when making, zen like, and so on. This romantic attitude might have inadvertently contributed to public reluctance to pay for the time and skill of craft. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be doing it for the love? You want to get paid too!?”
Historic Book Structures for Conservators
The Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. June 1-30, 2017.
For the third time, I will be teaching Historic Book Structures for Conservators. For the second time, it will be held on the grounds of the Winterthur. The Winterthur is a museum, garden and library consisting of 1,000 acres of rolling meadows, gardens and woodlands. It is also home to the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). The Winterthur is a perfect setting for this class: excellent workshop facilities, a first-class conservation literature library, supportive colleagues, and an atmosphere conducive to sustained and productive learning.
This month long course is designed for conservators to refine bookbinding bench skills in order to understand the craft techniques used to make historic book structures. We will focus on books bound in-boards from the 16th through 19th centuries. The binding of historic models are the basis of the course, although an independent research project will also be required, as well as other assignments. There will be 24/7 studio and library access. There will be field trips; in 2015 this included the Mercer Museum and some tool related flea market exploration. Expect to work at least six days a week. This course is open to anyone passionate about book conservation and intending to make it a career, though I’m hoping there will be a mix of experience levels, from pre-program to mid-career. If a disproportionate amount of your time is spent on administrative duties, this might be an excellent chance to tone your bookbinding muscles.
To apply, please send me the four application requirements listed below. Please submit all of these together in an email attachment, via dropbox, or through a link to your site.
1) A one page personal statement on your interest in book history/ book conservation and how this class will help you in your career.
2) Your resume or cv.
3) A portfolio of bookbinding, book conservation treatments, or other craft activities that exhibit hand skills and attention to detail. You should submit images of two or three books: no more than one or two overall shots and one or two details. Please include no more than a one paragraph description of the book or treatment. Information can include when you did it, how it was made, before and after condition, a treatment summary, materials, techniques, or other information.
4) A letter of recommendation from a professional in the conservation or preservation field, or a teacher who is familiar with your work.
Only complete applications will be considered. After reviewing the above material, finalists will be interviewed by telephone or skype.
The deadline for application is February 15, 2017.
Finalists will be notified March 1, 2017.
Decisions regarding acceptance will be made by March 15, 2017.
The class will be held June 1-30, 2017. You can arrive May 31, and the class will officially begin June 1. The last day of class is June 30, and you will need to vacate the housing on July 1.
Accepted students will receive a full scholarship for tuition costs and be able to live on the grounds of the Winterthur for $550. It is a very beautiful place! Housing includes private bedrooms, wifi, shared kitchen and shared bathrooms. Students will need to pay for their own travel, food, bring a computer, and supply their own basic bookbinding hand tools. Historic equipment and specialized tools — including a paring knife, spokeshave blade — will be provided. There is a materials fee of $425.
This class is a unique and intensive opportunity to geek-out, discuss, explore, and immerse yourself historic bookbinding structures and conservation for an uninterrupted month. If it is anything like previous classes, it will prove to be energizing, exhausting, and unforgettable.
For questions about applying or the content of the class please contact me.
For other questions please contact Melissa Tedone: mtedone <at> winterthur <dot> org.
According to Google translate, the title of this article roughly translates as; “Jeff Peachey The Importance of Good Tool”.
It is vaguely unnerving to have a multi-page article written about you in a language you can’t understand.
But I’m not complaining! The author of this piece, Henk Francino and I talked for quite some time (in English) about how tools — specifically hand tools — seem to be increasingly under-appreciated, and under-valued by contemporary society.
Isn’t knowing “how-it-was-made” a key component in understanding an object, and the tools used an important aspect? Are only materials to be conserved? Is it even possible to conserve technique? If so, aren’t the tools a critical aspect?
Read it all: Hank Francino, “Jeff Peachey Het Belang Van Goed Gereedschap” in Handboekbinden, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2016. (pp. 112-117).