And in This Corner: Conservators in Private Practice vs. Institutional Conservators?

“…the pursuit of important issues is always divisive and controversial, because it challenges the status quo. In my view, this is almost always the equivalent of being committed.”

– José Orraca, one of the founders of CIPP, in an Address to the CIPP in Vancouver, 1987 (1)

It has been 22 years since the Conservators in Private Practice Speciality Group (CIPP) was formed in an unscheduled meeting in Washington DC. According to Susan Barger, “The goals of this group were to provide support for conservators in private practice, to cultivate respect among conservators who worked in different settings, and to encourage wider participation in the AIC.” (2) Forming an new specialty group within AIC was no easy task, and the founders of CIPP displayed remarkable pluck and courage by encouraging the larger AIC board of directors to recognize the special needs of private practitioners. CIPP members initiated the AIC referral system and are responsible for many inventions in the field.

From the beginning, however, there were tensions between those who worked for institutions and those in private practice. For a while, there was a two tiered membership in CIPP, with “Real” CIPP allowed voting rights and “Occasional” CIPP (coined COPP, Conservators Occasionally in Private Practice) allowed to be nonvoting members. The following definition of a CIPP was adopted: “A conservator in private practice is an individual whose only employment in the profession of the conservation of artistic and historic works is as a proprietor or employee of a private, independent, conservation service or facility, and who is not a staff employee of any non­profit institution. CIPP Bylaws 1987.” (3) This important distinction performed a valuable function by preventing conflicts of interest from the staff of institutions and regional centers in developing the agenda of CIPP.

Things, however, have changed in past 22 years.

The membership of CIPP has hovered around 400 for most of its existence; current estimates rank the number of actual private practice conservators at 1,700. The job market, which once held to a fairly stark line between institutional and private practice, now offers a number of positions that blur the boundaries, and these positions seem to be becoming more prevalent, due to Cultural institutions adopting a corporate business model, rather than a philanthropic one. Now, for example, there are “project conservators” who work regularly for an institution for 10 years or more without benefits, underpaid institutional staff moonlighting evenings and weekends to make ends meet, labs who’s administrative workload has overwhelmed the staff so that they must hire those in private practice to do treatments, conservators who leave the institution to raise children while working freelance, large non and for profit conservation centers who don’t consider themselves to be in private practice, institutional conservators who have to work on non institutional work to raise money, and many, many other types of arrangements. Job situations have become much temporal and fluid in the past 20 years. Conservators move back and forth between private practice and institutional jobs several times in their career. Concentrating on differences has not allowed the mission of CIPP to flourish.

Things need to change in the next 22 years.

What was once necessary to demarcate the differences between those working in an institution and privately is becoming an impediment towards professional respect and exchange of knowledge. What was once healthy adolescent individuation is in danger of becoming resentful coveting. Some CIPP members envision a fairy tale scenario about the ease of the life of an institutional conservator, and resent the institutional authority conferred on those in positions of power, since we have to create reputations for our business and ourselves. Exaggerated rumors of this anger and resentment dissuade younger conservators from joining CIPP. Rather than spending our time looking inward (which is also a grave danger for AIC as a whole) we need to look for ways our particular interests and skill sets can interact with the whole of conservation.

Conservators in institutions need conservators in private practice— for special projects, referrals, expertise outside of their specialty, etc. And conservators in private practice need institutional conservators—for referrals, access to expensive equipment, research, etc. The relationship is becoming more symbiotic, not antagonistic. The skill sets inside and outside institutions are remarkably similar. Running a business, working within time and cost constraints, performing treatments, managing projects, supervising and training staff, documentation and analysis are similar in both contexts. At least in the book conservation field, if cost cutting and redirecting of funding towards digitization continues the majority of conservators could soon be in private practice.

Ultimately the goal of all conservators is the same: advancing the body of knowledge that allows us to provide the best possible preservation for the cultural property entrusted to our care.

(This is an expanded version of an address I gave to the Conservators in Private Practice Specialty Group of the American Institute for Conservation on April 24, 2008 at the 36th Annual Meeting held in Denver, Colorado.)


1. Barger et al. “CIPPing Champagne” AIC Newsletter, Lead Article, January 2007.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

An Unusual 18th C. French Headband Press?

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

close it.

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

considering, anyway.”



Poor Quality Steel and Sharpening

This is a great example of both sharpening problems and low quality steel. This photo is of the back of a curved leather paring knife. It is a bit difficult to see in the photo, but the darker, shiny area below the cutting edge has been highly polished. Unfortunately, our unnamed client,  let us call him Mr. B, neglected one of the first principals– feeling the burr. Once you feel a burr on a cutting edge, it means that the two planes (bevel and back of the knife) have gone past the point where they meet. As William Blake says in the Proverbs of Hell, “You never know what is enough unless you know more than enough.” The burr lets us know we have sharpened the edge more than enough, and can proceed to the next grit. A great deal of time was spent creating a polished area , that will not affect the cutting ability at all, and be instantly removed once someone attempts to regrind the knife.

The knife edge was dropped, and on the left side of the blade there are some chips, and on the right side you can see bent metal. What does this tell us? That the steel was improperly hardened. Any steel that is hard enough to pare leather (at least Rc 55 or so) should be brittle and chip if damaged, not bend like on the right side of the photo.

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