Category Archives: book conservation

Some Well Known Ex-Bookbinders

There are likely more famous people who apprenticed as bookbinders and left the field, than bookbinders who are well known. Hope for all of us in a second career?


George Davis, 1850-1907, Father of chemical engineering

Rudolf Diesel, 1858-1913(?), Inventor of diesel engine

Johan Most, 1846-1906, Anarchist

Michael Faraday, 1791-1867, Discovered electromagnetic induction

Johann Strauss, 1804-1849, Musician

Josef Sudek, 1896-1976, Photographer

William Swain, Inventor of Quack Patent Medicine “Swaim’s Panacea”



A Scrapbook? An Altered Book? A Work Book? Outsider Art? Something Else?

One trait that unites book people (bibliographers, typographers, librarians, book conservators, graphic designers, collectors, book historians, printers, booksellers, curators, papermakers, bookbinders, etc…) is an emphasis on using an accurate terminology when describing aspects of the material book. The problem is that these sects have developed their own distinct usage, which sometimes overlap, and sometimes don’t. For example, the term “text block” means something entirely different to bookbinders and printers.

Booksellers and bibliographers often refer to Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. Conservators are largely adopting the Language of Bindings from Ligatus, which is supposed to be available as a book from Oak Knoll soon. Binders usually use the lingo of the workshop where they learned the craft from. Printed resources include Etherington’s Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books and Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book.

Most of us learn our terminology haphazardly. Considered historically, prescriptive attempts at linguistic change often fail, even if what they propose is more rational or accurate. Given improvements in text searching, and the ease of taking and disseminating digital images, I wonder if the need to use a strict terminology is as important as it once was.

Top Edge. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

That said, I recently purchased a book that does not fit neatly into any existing descriptive framework that I’m familiar with. The distortions on the top edge of the book caught my attention when I looked at it in the store. Then I noticed the extremely crude backing, making it a useful “how-not-to” example when teaching. Many sections have two reverse folds! Then again, these reverse folds may have helped lock the sections into place, given the typical detaching of the spine linings: note the pages are not falling out at the foreedge. The binding itself is in good shape considering wear, even with an additional quarter inch or so of added material. The case binding structure is quite adaptable to different text block thicknesses.

But the real reason I bought it was for the neatly glued in newspaper clippings of quilt patterns on the first twenty-four consecutive recto leaves. As in the example below, they typically completely cover the entire text block. The high quality of the text paper has helped buffer the newsprint, preserving it, though at the expense of the host: note the extensive staining on page 92, again quite typical.


Typical layout of four patterns per page. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

It is not unusual for books to become repositories for all sorts of things: plants, leaves, receipts, scribbled notations, and the occasional hair-on mouse skin. I’m guessing the quilt patterns were added in the early 20th century. The additions cover and obscure the original text.

What to call it?  Gary Frost, I think, would consider this in his broad rubric as an “intervention”. While it is certainly an altered book, I don’t think it has the artistic connotation that the phrase usually implies.  It is not really a commonplace book, or an artist’s book. It is not extra-illustrated. It is more than a scrapbook, since the additions change the original book into something else.

Originally the book was about Daniel Webster, who created the first American dictionary, and a dictionary documents the recorded usage of words. This particular copy was altered in a way that obliterates the text in order to become a reference for quilting. Even through there is some text on the quilting patterns, images dominate. Likely unintentionally, this book is a physical manifestation of the conflict between text and craft, the book learning verses practical activities, the head and the hand. How are books used? More than reading, it seems.


While rereading this post, and looking through the book again, I noticed at least 22 pages near the end with pressed plants. Most seem to be intentionally arranged, resembling marginalia. or in this case the title page of the Doves Bible. Hmmm.

One of over 22 pressed plants. B.F. Tefft, Webster and his Master-Pieces. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1854. My Collection.

A Book Conservation Treatment Gets Personal

Most books I work, especially the ones that have been around for a while, have a name, bookplate, or other inscriptions in them.  Sometimes I can read these, sometimes I can’t. They are preserved as evidence of how the book circulated, how readers responded to it, which institutions collected it, dispersed it, and so on.  This evidence of use makes many printed books unique objects.

Even among private collectors and dealers, there is much more awareness of the importance of these marks, and a corresponding willingness to leave them in place. A couple of decades ago, many owners would want them to be removed, and I would have to persuade them to keep them.

I’m especially thankful that no previous binder or owner cleaned up the inscriptions in the book below.

Concordantz, ca. 1550. Inscription and title page. Courtesy Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, Indiana.

When initially examining this book, the Concordantz, the curator of the Mennonite Historical Library dropped a bombshell on me. He informed me that the inscription on the left in the above image, is from my sixth great-grandmother, written in 1751.  “Wow, this is pretty cool!” was the most coherent professional thought I could express at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to decipher this inscription.

The inscription reads, “This little book belongs to me Lisi Joder, written in the year Anno 1751.”  It is also signed by my fifth great-grandmother in 1787. In 1811, the book went to an older sister of my fourth great-grandmother, thus breaking the direct connection to me. It entered into the Mennonite Historical Library in the 1940’s. I promised the curator not to repatriate it to my family!

I intend to write a longer account of my treatment, the importance of books, and my relationship to this treatment, after some more reflection.


Board Slotting at John Hopkins Department of Conservation

Jennifer Jarvis, Conservator in the John Hopkins Department of Conservation and Preservation, demonstrates how fun book conservation is using the Peachey Board Slotting Machine.

John Hopkins Department of Conservation and Preservation recently acquired a Peachey Board Slotting Machine as another technique in their book conservation arsenal to reattach detached boards. Detached boards are likely the most common place books fail. This machine accurately cuts a very small slot, as thin as .015″, to allow a hinge to be inserted without disturbing the covering material or obscuring evidence of lacing, board attachment, etc…. The machine is manually operated, and can accommodate boards up to a 18″ high. The start and stop of the slot is controlled by setting adjustable stops.

No matter which side of the fence you are on regarding the use of leather in book conservation, board slotting with a cotton or linen hinge is a strong and durable base. The fabric can be left alone or colored with acrylics for fast repairs. Or board slotting can be combined with other treatments — such as tissue repairs, cast acrylic repairs, and leather onlays — to achieve a high degree of aesthetic integration. Board slotting is especially suited to nineteenth century leather bindings with a made hollow. More information on different structures for board slotting.

Contact me for a price quote.

Jennifer Jarvis aligning the height of the blade where it will begin making the slot. This is much easier on the new machine, since you can sight the length of the board from the end of the machine.


A Craftsman Reads “Craeft”

The idiosyncratic spelling of “Craft” is intended to reference the earlier Anglo-Saxon conception of craft. The 2018 American edition is titled “Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts” The 2017 English edition is titled “Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making” Does the publisher think Americans like the “true meaning” of crafts? And the English assume craft is just about making stuff?

Book Review. Alexander Langlands, Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.

People working in craft often have philosophic inclinations. We work outside of mainstream society. We make objects that are not strictly necessary anymore. Combine this with long hours working alone, extremely repetitive hand work which affects the rhythm of our thoughts, getting lost in archaic techniques, and it only seems natural existential questions arise. What am I doing?  Why am I doing this? (and the annoying corollary, why am I doing this for so little money) Does it matter? Is craft in the 21st century anything more than a marketing term for a new cider? As partial compensation, I habitually buy most new books on the philosophy of craft, which means I must be looking for some new insight or different perspective.

With a few significant exceptions, the history of craft is recorded by writers and artists who described the actions of a craftsmen, but were not experts in the fields they described. Alexander Langland continues in this tradition. “I’m no craftsman” he announces near the end of his book. (297)  He does consider himself a “jack-of-all trades, master of none”, though. There is an almost universal prohibition against attempting to learn too many trades in most languages and cultures on earth. But why? Most people I know who are good with their hands are adept at a number of crafts. Is mastering a craft a different category altogether?

Langlands writes with a poetic sensitivity detailing the activity of handwork which renders the fact he is not a professional craftsman irrelevant. I became completely absorbed in his descriptions of hand work. David Esterly’s Lost Carvings (my review here) may have been the model for this style of craft writing: you feel you are inside a craftsman’s head, thinking what he is thinking while he moves his hands and tools. Esterly is a master craftsman writing about his own long years of carving. Langlands admits he is good at talking about it. (297)

Over a dozen crafts are described in Langlands book. Descriptions of performing a craft can sometimes go on for pages, and could have easily become inconsequential and dull. With Langlands firm narrative, however, they are engaging and even exciting. For example, the chapter on making a thatch roof is almost pornographic in detail; from sharpening the scythe, selecting the stubble thatch, twisting the thatch, augering the rafter peg holes, pegging it with a square greenwood trenail, driving the spars, and more. After reading, I felt exhausted and relieved to get off the roof and have the day’s work finished.

Each chapter has a similar recipe. He starts by placing a particular craft in a historical context, mixes in a bit of etymology, describes the importance of the materials, then narrates his own experimental recreation. His background as an archaeologist and British television personality (The Victorian Farm, The Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm) serve him well in presenting the information in an engaging and readable manor. The chapter on weaving and hurtle fence making, for example, is exemplary: he unites these two disparate appearing crafts through a fundamental commonality of warp and weft. All the while he emphasizes the respect he has for the abilities of earlier craftsmen.

Though the book is filled with interesting factoids — who knew that the tines of traditional wooden French pitchforks are made out of trained branches! — the real value is in Langlands’ underlying conception of craft, “… a vehicle through which we can think, through when we can contemplate, and through which we can be.” (343)  He continues a philosophy of craft born in the arts and crafts movement, then overlaid with a bit of Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, my review here), David Pye (Nature and Art of Workmanship), and Howard Risatti (Theory of Craft). Another great strength of this book is the explication what he feels is the “craeft” way of knowing: evaluating and sourcing raw materials, working within constraints of cost and time, using your hands, and working towards a specific means. Craft, to Langlands, is not just a final product, but the sum total of the involvement in the process by the craftsman with the environment. Is this just a slight variation of farm-to-table cooking applied to objects?

For all of practical and engaging description, and his extensive experimentation, he has a romanticized view of craft, likely because he is an amateur.  “Perhaps harshly, I would not consider a topiarist who uses electric hedge trimmers a true craftsman on the simple grounds that the tool mutes their level of engagement with the material properties of the entity they are working.” (36) Attitudes toward work — even for a real craftsman —  change quite a bit when doing something day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. Pecuniary pressures can also negatively impact a craftsman’s enjoyment of work. David Pye would also take issue with this statement, though on the grounds that an electric hedge trimmer takes a great deal of hand skill to operate, and the source of the power is irrelevant.

Langlands pays little attention paid to how craft skills are passed on or inherited. For all of his emphasis on craft as a integrated system and way of thinking, this is a significant omission. When discussing a Viking longship, he theorizes “It’s a craft that relies on building something relative to the materials employed… allowing the materials to speak for themselves, to answer back, to tell you what the natural shape must be…” (333) This sounds more something you would hear from an exercise guru or in a Monty Python skit, not the way a craftsman would think about constructing a ship in the ninth century. “Thor, let the keel timber be what it wants to be!”

There are several chapters where he describes the actions of a skilled craftsman, but he does not investigate the transmission of knowledge. Re-enactment, etymological history, and the study of extant artifacts are his primary methods of inquiry. But this was is not how craft was taught and transmitted for most of human history.

At the risk of coming across as a mystic, but I do believe Craft (with a capital “C”) resides outside of objects. Craft objects are the result of Craft. Learning or experiencing this way of thinking is traditionally taught through close contact with skilled practitioners. But I also think you can get there on your own, it just takes a lot more time. Before the nineteenth century this took place in apprenticeships; now it is more commonly acquired during internships. The transmission of craft knowledge is an important part of the entire craft ecosystem.

A W.O. Hickok Press

On the one hand, I am happy to see this beautiful Hickok press, apparently still functioning, was not thrown into the trash heap. The repurposed aspects of this press appear easily reversible, simply by removing the wine box.

However, many artifacts are totally destroyed by being “repurposed”, which is often code for sold in the interior design marketplace. The Retrofactory blurb dates this press to ca. 1860’s, which seems like a wild guess. Hickok started in 1844, there are very scanty records pre-1930. If this date is correct, this press is the earliest known transitional Hickok book press I’ve ever seen. I’d love to see the documentation.

Transitional presses have metal and wood components. I used to sneer at them, so old fashioned!

Then I used one.

They develop wonderful creaking noises when gradually fully tightened, which gives some auditory feedback on the amount of compression. Look at the intelligent engineering of the thick cross-bracing on the upper platen — this is where rigidity is necessary in a press. The whole press is elegantly built for maximum lightness. The wood and iron elements interact complexly and organically. I think this helps prevent the press from backing off as much as all metal ones. The wood moves a bit, and the steel threads can settle in more parellel? The size of this press is very nice, the tightening wheel at a comfortable hand height. The wooden base is convenient to brace a foot against to keep the press from twisting in operation.

One of my pet peeves are presses that are not attached to a workbench or floor. You know who you are! If you have to hold onto the press while tightening it, you loose at least 30% of the compressional power, and are much more likely to damage whatever you are pressing.

Looking at the image of the press above, I bet a lot of shoes have braced themselves against it, though it was likely also bolted to the floor at some point, note the small slots at the ends of the feet. Given the distinctive shape of the four knobs on top of the wheel, there must have been a specialized press pin designed to fit them.

It irks me to see this beautiful press being removed from the functional bookbinding world, and co-opted into the interior design world, where its only value is to feed the appetite of the 1%. An unnecessary and silly wine storage rack for $3450.00.

More broadly, is sad when our collective culture values one of a limited number of remaining functioning 19th century Hickok presses more as a decorative object than functional one. Tools have become so invisible that we no longer even notice them, or value them.

Even though the W. O. Hickok Manufacturing Company is still in business, they have transitioned into primarily a job machining shop due to lack of demand for bookbinding equipment. Their web site mentions they still make presses and job backers on special order. The genuine Hickok 001/2 is my favorite press for general bookbinding and book conservation, much nicer than the copies of it. Please support them!

W.O. Hickok
Manufacturing Company

900 Cumberland St.
Harrisburg, PA 17103
ph 717.234.8041
fx 717.234.2587




The Origin of Mohawk Superfine

Quite likely, every bookbinder and book conservator located in North America has used Mohawk Superfine paper.  It’s a wonderful paper for many applications: textblocks for models, endpapers for circulating collections, lining boards and spines, labels, and so on.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the name does not come from 1970s urban slang, or the 1960s Garage Rock band The Superfine Dandelion, but was coined in 1946.

Mohawk originally developed Superfine as the result of a challenge from Yale University Press to produce an attractive, archival text paper for their reprint of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. A Mohawk representative showed a sample of the new paper to a customer in Boston, who reportedly said, “this is a superfine sheet of paper.