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Book Production Magazine, May, 1960, p. 19

Upcoming Lecture: The Conservation of Dante’s 1477 La Commedia


The Conservation of Dante’s 1477 La Commedia

Jeffrey S. Peachey, Independent Book Conservator, New York City

3:00 p.m.  Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Rare Books and Special Collections

102 Hesburgh Library

University of Notre Dame

South Bend, Indiana 



The conservation treatment of the Hesburgh Libraries’ important copy of Dante’s La Commedia (Venice: Vindelinus de Spira, 1477) will be detailed in this profusely illustrated lecture. Its deteriorated and damaging 20thcentury binding structure will be described, as will considerations and decisions leading to its resewing and rebinding in a historically sympathetic alum tawed goatskin conservation binding. Evidence uncovered during treatment, which suggests the Inferno and Purgatorio cantiche may have circulated separately at one point, will be explored. Differences between historic 15th century binding practices and modern conservation binding techniques will be highlighted, as will the sometimes problematic differences between historic and modern materials. An overview of aesthetic considerations for conservation rebinding will conclude the lecture. Bibliophiles, conservators, librarians, Italian scholars, and anyone curious about the physical structure of books will find this lecture of interest.

All are welcome to attend.

What is a Conservation Binding?

The term “conservation binding” gets thrown around a lot. It certainly sounds different than just rebinding a book. But what does it really mean?

It is unknown who coined the term, and a google ngram search shows its use beginning in the 1960s, and peaking in the 1980s. It wouldn’t surprise me if it actually started in the 1950s in England. The 1980s were the peak of rebinding in book conservation, which resulted in many treatments that we would now consider too invasive. But the ethos then was to treat a book so that it would last 500 years. Of course, the correlation between the use of the term and making a conservation binding is not known.


The trouble is, it doesn’t have any agreed upon meaning, similar to the even more ubiquitous term “archival”. All the usual suspects for bookbinding terminology — Language of Bindings, Carter, Etherington, The Multilingual Bookbinding and Conservation Dictionary — don’t have an entry for conservation binding. In practice, it can simply mean a binding done by a conservator. And anyone can call themselves a conservator. Or it can often mean a reversible layer of paste and Japanese tissue on the spine of a fine binding. Or it can imply the use of durable and modern conversationally accepted materials (i.e. linen, handmade paper, tawed skin) incorporated into a binding, with minimal attention paid to decoration and finishing.

So here is my first stab at a definition:

A conservation binding is a rebinding that is structurally similar and aesthetically sympathetic to the time the text was printed. It is durable, easily reversible, non-damaging and alters the original binding materials as little as possible. It does not fool someone into thinking it is an original binding, though it is harmonious with actual historic bindings.

A Copy Press With Two Threads

Mark Anderson, Furniture Conservator at the WInterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, is fixing up a copy press for their Book Conservation Lab.  At first glance, it is a large but typical press, though with a nice hand-wheel with spokes extending beyond the rim, useful for extra leverage or pretending to be a captain steering a ship.

Copy press usually have a steep thread pitch, which is great to move up and down rapidly, but they generate a lot of friction when tightening, therefore can’t generate as much pressure as a real book press. This is compounded by a common tendency of not attaching them to the bench. There is a reason almost all presses — like the one below — have four holes cast into the base, in order to screw into the bench! I guess that by having to hold a press with one hand, and tighten it with the other, the total compressional force is reduced by 25% or more.

Large copy press. Photo: Mark Anderson

Once Mark took apart the press to clean it, he noticed an unusual aspect: the central screw had two different screw pitches and diameters on it. Apparently the finer thread is internally threaded into the larger one, though it is currently frozen.

Two different thread pitches and diameters. Photo: Mark Anderson.

A similar style of screw is mentioned in the 1843 Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine. There  may be earlier examples. Even today, external threads are sometimes referred to as male, and internal threads as female. In a surprisingly contemporary note, the writer in 1843 recommends that this coarse language should be abolished.

Source: The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine, Volume 2, p. 204.

Although Mark’s example is inoperable at the moment, presumably the larger external coarse thread raises and lowers the platen quickly, and at the same time the internal thread moves more slowly, due to the finer pitch. But when the press firmly tightened, the smaller internal thread kicks in to apply more pressure. Fast operation and lots of pressure would be ideal for a copy or book press.

Source: The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine, Volume 2, p. 204.

For this to work, the finer thread needs to be affixed to the platen, as in the image from The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine. In the press Mark is working on, it looks like it spins in the top of the platen, like most copy presses. An alternative explanation might be that the finer threads were left over from a different project, or cut wrong? But if this mechanism works as advertised, why wasn’t this a more popular mechanism for copy and book presses? Hopefully he can get the screw unfrozen and we can find out.




Long Live the Superstrop

I introduced the Superstrop about eight months ago, and have been using this one for over a year without having to recharge the substrate, which is a .1 micron Poly Crystalline Diamond spray.  And last month, seven students used it to make a total of 24 leather bindings. So I’m guessing one application of the diamond compound, which comes with a new strop, will last at least a number of years under normal use. The substrate itself is more durable than leather. It holds the small diamond particles in place, allows them to move around a little to expose sharp edges, and doesn’t glaze over.The small knife at the top right is a prototype paper conservation scraping knife. Get the Superstrop here

2018 Historical Book Structures Practicum: Demonstrating, Draw Knives, and Paring Tawed Skins

I recently finished teaching a month long workshop on historic bindings for the Library and Archives Conservation Education Consortium of Buffalo State University, New York University, and the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. LACE for short. Seven MA students in conservation completed six historic models from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

This year it was hosted by The Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and took place in the first year student classroom, which is a really great space to teach in. The room has individual work stations for the students, as well as a group area with moveable work tables for lectures, ppt’s, discussion, and demonstrations.

One configuration of the classroom.

It is important that the students can be comfortable and close enough to observe details during demonstrations. In this configuration, students could sit to watch and take notes, and I could stand, which is how I like to work. Having a task light would have made it ideal.

Edge of a bookblock cut with a drawknife. Photo Nicole Alvarado.

For our late Gothic model, some of the students wanted to try out a drawknife instead of a plough for edge cutting. Nicole Alvarado worked the edge in the above image. We found it quite difficult it is to achieve an edge that looked like historic examples. We had to start with the sides of the bookblock in order to shave it down. The resulting edges did not look like the example depicted in Fig. 9.14 from J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding or on a first first folio of Shakespeare.

The edges on the Shakespeare and in Szirmai were presumably cut with a skewed and sliding stroke of a drawknife, with one stroke at a time advancing a significant amount through the book. It is easy to imagine this when looking at the images. We found it impossible to replicate this, though. Was our drawknife too small, the blade angle too obtuse, modern paper too hard, or our arms too weak?  A combination of all of these? Or was a different tool used? In both of these examples, each chop could have been caused by an aze or adze, in order to penetrate so far through the thickness of the bookblock. Time for more experimentation!

Paring and scraping a tawed skin with a round knife. Photo Karissa Muratore.

In bookbinding, usually vegetable tanned goat is the easiest leather to pare, followed by vegetable tanned calf, then tawed goat or calf. Tawed pig the most difficult. Tawed skins are quite abrasive, and quickly dull any knife. Karissa Muratore did a wonderful job of paring an alum tawed calfskin for her Gothic Model binding. Although tawed pigskin would have been traditional, all of the major bookbinding leather producers are no longer offering them, citing difficulty in obtaining quality raw skins.

Karissa’s image illustrates how a rounded blade knife can be used for edge paring (note the pieces in the foreground) and scraping (note the shavings in the background). Scraping is a safe, but slow way to even a skin out, as well as thin the spine and headcap area. I think that 15th century binders would have received the skins the appropriate thickness overall from the tanner, and only had to edge pare.

This late Gothic binding — clasps, alum tawed skin, wooden boards, double cord sewing —  is a satisfying final project, combining bookbinding, woodworking and metalworking skills.

By the end of the month, the students were more than happy to demonstrate what they learned about safe, professional, and thoughtful tool use.







An Excellent 1901 Hand Exercise

Many people who work with their hands find them sore and tired at some point. Book conservators are especially hard hit, since most of the time our hand skills involve depressing a small key a couple of millimeters while staring at a screen. Then we have to put in some long hours at the bench with a variety of knives, spokeshaves and other hand tools.

This exercise comes from Adrian Peter Schmidt’s 1901 Illustrated Hints for Health and Strength for Busy People. He self-published the book, and was the illustrator. Doing this exercise a couple of times a week has increased my finger, hand and forearm strength.

Adrian Peter Schmidt Illustrated Hints for Health and Strength for Busy People (New York, Adrian Peter Schmidt, 1901)

You simply take a sheet of newsprint, then proceed to crumple it up in your hand using only that hand. Then do the same to the other hand. Or do them both at the same time once you get the hang of it. Step two is to squeeze the crumpled ball a few times. That’s it.

He considers this deceptively simple exercise a warm up, to “stimulate energy in a mild way on mornings when you do not feel inclined to exert yourself.” I’m not sure how much energy it stimulates, but it certainly works the hands in what seems an even manor.

And I swear I’ve seen Schmidt walking around in Brooklyn.