Category Archives: 18th C. French bookbinding

Review of 18th Century French Bookbinding Workshop

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.

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The reconstruction of an eighteenth century leather ‘French’ binding with Jeff Peachey
Workshop organized by Restauratoren Nederland, May 2016
Constant Lem

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.

 

The Scratches Don’t Lie and The Big Board: Impressions from Teaching in the Netherlands.

Earlier this summer, I spent a couple of throughly enjoyable weeks in the Netherlands, teaching two workshops through the auspices of Restauratoren Nederland, at the beautiful bindery of Wytze Fopma in Friesland. First there was a 3-day sharpening/ spokeshave modification class, a wadlopen and tour of Mennonite sites, then a 5-day 18th c. French binding class. It was all very, very good.

Each time I teach, I keep adding current research. I’ve taught versions of the sharpening class over thirty times, and the French at least a dozen. It sounds cliche, but I do learn something new each time.

This class, Constant Lem, book conservator at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, convinced me of the importance of the 180 degree shoulder that the French bindings often have.  I’d considered and worked on this, however working together we made progress on this historically unique(?) structural feature.

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The steel folder, which Ben Elbel calls “score!”.

Before the workshop, I visited Ben Elbel, of Elbel Libro, in Amsterdam. He has a large studio, is doing some very nice work, and has a board beveling machine that I plan to steal at some point. Ben gave me a nifty steel folder which he sells. It is a nice size for detailed work, fitting comfortably in the hand, well made, and is also useful for blind lines. It comes in an attractive die cut storage folder. Metal folders keep popping up every now and then in the history of bookbinding: the earliest I’ve seen was patented in 1889.

Below are images from the workshop.

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Examining a spokeshave blade while sharpening.  Photo copyright Anke van der Schaaf, 2015. All rights reserved. http://www.fopmawier.nl

One of the most important aspects in freehand sharpening involves looking at reflections and scratch patterns in the blade, in order to understand what you are doing and what needs to be done. The visual feedback lets you know how to alter your hand pressure or technique. The scratches don’t lie.

 

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Tallying up The Big Board.  Photo copyright Anke van der Schaaf, 2015. All rights reserved. http://www.fopmawier.nl

The Big Board is a learning tool I use in the French class to keep track of questions, deviations from historic practice, instructor mistakes, material differences, etc.  Whoever has the most observations wins a prize, in this case a small lifting knife. Often there are over 150 observations. This helps keep us aware of inaccuracies generalized from our modern craft training that can creep into the historic style we are trying to understand.

As invasive treatments continue to become more infrequent in book conservation, the type of knowledge gained from making historic models will help keep book conservators relevant (I hope!), by increasing our knowledge of how these books were originally made.  Conservation as interpretation?

 

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Beating a textblock before sewing. Photo copyright Anke van der Schaaf, 2015. All rights reserved. http://www.fopmawier.nl

Not only did we have a custom made beating hammer, but we borrowed an anvil from the Blacksmith. A wonderfully solid substitute for a beating stone!

 

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Wytze’s large standing press. He said it took nine people to tilt it back upright after it was brought in through the door. A huge blocking press is on the left.  Come to think of it, EVERYTHING in the bindery was super heavy duty. My photo.

Wytze has the most massive operational standing press I’ve ever seen. He mentioned that it is the largest in Holland. He is operating the worm drive. Once the center screw is tightened as much as possible, to generate even more pressure, the drive can crank the main press screw another turn or so. The drive can be easily disengaged to quickly raise or lower the press. As a demonstration, he pressed some of our textblock paper so hard it sunk into the MDF pressing boards, creating a clamshell. It had little to do with the class, but was too impressive not to mention.

 

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Some of the class at work. Photo copyright Natasha Herman. http://www.redbonebindery.com

 

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The finished books. Photo copyright Anke van der Schaaf, 2015. All rights reserved. http://www.fopmawier.nl

On the left is an 18th century skull the Wytze found, the finished books, an 18th century (?) French (Dutch?) beating hammer on the right, and in the back, the printed handouts for the workshop bound en-broche by Wytze and Herre. We started with the same tan calfskin; the color variations on the finished books resulted from varying applications of glair, paste wash, and warm burnishing. These are powerful and inert ways to control the color and surface sheen of leather without dyeing.

The skull and beating hammer literally and symbolically bookend this workshop: we were working with the head and the hand, using theory and praxis, to learn more about the nature of 18th c. French binding.

 

 

Peachey’s Frottoir and Grattoir Collection

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My collection of frottoirs and grattoirs

#1, a grattoir. I made this one based on an image in Diderot’s Encyclopedie. I think it should be all iron.

#2, a grattoir. I made this based on an image in Dudin’s Relieur. Traditional ones are iron and wood.

#3, a frottoir. Wood handle with iron. It resembles a fishtail chisel in profile and is similar to the older form of #2.

#4, a combination frottoir/grattoir. Likely French, has enormous, sharp teeth.

#5, a combination frottoir/grattoir.nLikely French. Smaller teeth but larger overall.

#6, a froittoir. I  based this one on models similar to #4 and #5 above. I use brass because I don’t want to risk rusting paper. It can be purchased in my shop.

#7, a froittoir. Looks vaguely German to me. It is very light. Generally, a German style frottoir is much thicker, and used perpendicularly to the spine-folds, rather than parallel, so I’m still searching for information about this one.

#8, a froittoir. Looks to mid-20th century to me, and is in clean, working condition. A great story accompanied this one via Jan Camps.   J and J Camps.  Jan relates that it was from the workshop Mr. Volkaerts, from Mechelen (a town in Flanders between Brussels and Antwerp). He studied bookbinding in La Cambre in Brussels. He got married, and for some reason his wife forbade him to start his own studio, instead he spent his whole life working a day job as a government official. In his spare time he bound books and managed to form a huge collection of gilding tools. After his death, his wife sold the books, stored away his machines and his collection of gilding tools. After she her heirs sold these boxes to Jan.

#9, a froittoir. Similar to #8 but older, much heavier, and much more comfortable to use. This could also be of German origin, Peter Verheyen mentioned to me it is called a called a Cachiereisen/ Cachier-Eisen /Kaschiereisen/Kaschier-Eisen.

#10, a froittoir. Old wood, wonderfully heavy and a great patina. This shape is very interesting to me, especially the offset “foot”. I would like to see how it is traditionally used.

#11, a froittoir. Heavy wood and beautiful curve. The presence on paint or stain on both #10 and #11 suggest they might have been used for leather marbling or edge sprinkling.

#12, a froittoir A modern, lighter beech version of #10 and #11.   J and J Camps bought it in an antique market “place de jeu de balles” in Brussels.

#13, a froittoir. I wondered if a smaller wood one could work as well as a iron one. It doesn’t. Based on a shape found in Dudin’s Relieur, though I think the original was iron.

#14, a froittoir. Currently sold by TALAS. I find it useless because the ends are too rounded and the handle is too straight to comfortably hold, and the pores in the wood absorb too much paste. However, a similar one is pictured in Edith Diehl’s 1946 Bookbinding: Its Background and Technique, p. 142.

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Note: I acquired numbers 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 from J and J Camps in 2016. According to him, they originally belonged to Renatus De Cock, a binder in Mechelen. A biography of De Cock, in Dutch, but with pictures is here (http://www.boekbinderij-camps.be/content/files/111-229-engramzine-r-de-cock-af0cc7.pdf). De Cock studied bookbinding and gilding in Brussels at “Institut des Arts et Métiers de la Ville de Bruxelles”, his teacher was Louis Malcorps. De Cock bought some old workshops when he was a student and in the beginning of his career, the frottoirs/grattoirs where part of these workshops and likely date from around 1900 or earlier.

 

Useful Phases for Insulting Bookbinders in French from 1729. Cette relieure n’est pas bonne!

Abel Boyer, The Compleat French-master, For Ladies and Gentlemen, Tenth edition,

London: Printed for Samual Ballard, 1729

There are two particularly interesting phrases in this text.  “Will you have them bound in sheeps, calves or Turkey leather” indicates that the bookseller was selling unbound sheets or books in a temporary binding. “This binding is not good.” suggests the purchaser was considering the purchase of a bound book. Together they seem to indicate there was not a set standard regarding the purchase of books bound or in sheets in early eighteenth century France. There is also a clear distinction between the items for sale by the stationer— paper, pens, etc.—and bookseller.

Upcoming Lecture at Rare Book School, University of Virginia

Reconstructing Diderot: Eighteenth Century French Bookbinding

Monday, June 4, 5:30

 Auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Rare Book School

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

This is an image driven (150+), fast-paced, terse overview of the research I have been doing on eighteenth century French bookbinding. The extensive documentation concerning eighteenth century French bookbinding, as found in Diderot, Dudin, and other sources, form a unique starting point in the examination of the larger questions associated with the history of craft and material culture, the transmission of textual information, and, of course, the history of bookbinding. Book structures of the late eighteenth century stand at the cusp of one of the most radical transformations since the invention of the multi-section codex: by the mid nineteenth century, the machine made cloth case binding begins to dominate book structures. In this talk, I will illustrate the historical context of how these books were made and compare this with physical evidence of books from this time. Particular attention will be given to the tools and techniques used to produce these bindings.

This lecture is free and open to the public.

Possible Origins of the Board Shear

Tom Conroy  speculated in an informative comment on my post about millboard shears, that the basic principals underlying the board shear may have originated from playing card shears of the 1760’s. I thank him for bringing this to my attention, and I’ve commented on some of his points, and added some visuals for clarity. The images below are from ARTFL, an on-line project that reproduces  the first printing of the Paris edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedie, a wonderful resource with over 21 million words and 2,569 plates — over 75,000 objects identified. Incroyable!


Fig. A.  Detail of two types of playing card shears, from Diderot’s Cartier (Plate III)


Pictured above are the playing card shears as depicted in Diderot’s cartier. I’m puzzled by the top piece (rod? screw?) in Fig. 12, No. 2, the text mentions it forms a blade stop– to keep the upper blade rigid, and move it in and out?  It almost appears this same piece is stuck into part 12, in Fig. 12, No. 3? The pins (number ‘3’) are identified in the text to guide the card, in order to keep it from bending to achieve accurate alignment?  The wing nut under the shear could be loosened to move the shear, or wedge under the board, to alter the width of the cut, which presumably would not be done very often, if the playing cards were a standard size.  It is an appealing idea that playing card makers adapted a guillotine type cutter from the type more suited for aristocratic neck trimming; alas, no evidence supports this. Supposedly, in 1789, French physician J. I. Guillotin thought a blade falling more compassionate than the traditional use of an axe, and created the guillotine.  The guillotine paper cutter seems to be a mid 19th century, English invention, however this is another topic which needs more investigation.

Fig. B. Detail of Diderot’s Cartier (Plate I) Carton shears in action.

 

The shears themselves look like large gardening loppers, and must have been capable of cutting through playing cards, which at this time were made from four layers of paste-board: a double layer of brown paper in the middle (to prevent show through of the printing)  sandwiched between playing-card paper  and pot paper on the outside. It is hard to imagine they could cut through a thicker material like the boards binders used, however.

French bookbinders at this time would have used a thicker pasteboard which would be cut to the desired size with a large pointe. A little later, English binders would have used a millboard shears to rough out board to size.  Afterwards, the boards were trimmed more precisely with a plough. The board shear combined both of these functions in one machine– cutting down large sheets of thick board with precision, which was perfect for later, out-of-boards binding styles.

In Salamon’s Dictionary of leather-working tools, there is an illustration of what is labeled a “bench knife (Card shears)” (p. 9) Regretably, the source of and date of this illustration is not recorded, but it seems to date between the French card cutter and the early board shears.  The upper blade is curved, and it has a class two lever, an integral handle, a 12-25 inch blade and this one clamps onto holes in a bench.  Salamon mentions some of them have their own base– an early version of what we now call a paper cutter.  Many of us have fond memories of these green, gridded, dangerous machines from grade school art projects.

Fig. C. ‘Card Shears’ image,  reproduced in Salaman’s Dictionary of Leather-Working Tools. Early 19th Century?

 

If playing card shears served as a precursor to board shears, the question might be how and when did playing card shears evolve from a class one lever to a class two lever occur?  One tiny clue might be the handle of some of the early shears — they often look small and stuck on, as it they are an afterthought.   It also looks like the length might be adjustable, yet any advantage in leverage would seem to be negated by the additional deflection of the thin supporting arm. Of course, there are other important, as yet untraced defining characteristics of board shear:  its curved upper blade, fairly obtuse cutting angle,  the lower blade mounted flush to the table, a bottom gauge fixed at 90 degrees, and the foot clamp.

Fig. D. From Knight’s  A Day at the Bookbinders, 1842. ( p. 341) Later used in Dodd’s Days at the Factories (1843), and Walker’s The Art of Book-Binding (1850).

 

 

 

 

Unusual Leather Decoration

Kristen St. John, a book conservator at UCLA, has an intriguing post on their Preservation blog.  She has found an unusual method of leather decoration.  The book is French, from 1753.  It appears to be some kind of block print, although it she mentions it might be a stencil.  There are many more pictures on the blog, including some close ups. I haven’t seen any decoration like this before, and there is no reference in either Diderot, Dudin or Gauffecourt about the use of stencils in leather decoration, in eighteenth century bookbinding. ?

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J-V Capronnier de Gauffencourt, Traite de la Relieure des Livres, W. Thomas Taylor, Austin, 1987.

Diderot & d’Alembert, Encyclopedie, Neufchatel [Paris], 1765.

Dudin, M. The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder, The Elemente Press, Leeds, 1977.