Category Archives: bookbinding machines

An Ornate 17th Century Bookbinding Press

Bookbinder’s Stretcher [sic]. Possibly French, Walnut, 1670-1700. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the most ornate finishing (?) press I’ve ever seen, as well as being one of the earliest dated ones. It is inaccurately described by the V&A as a book stretcher in the catalog, because in the early images (above and below) the tightening nuts were on the wrong side of the cheek. Usually tightening nuts like these are found on German or Netherlandish presses.

It would be nice to have a book stretcher on occasion, though.  Need to turn an octavo into a quarto?  No problem!  But was this really a book press, or a press intended for some other purpose? The 29 inch long cheeks are very, very thin in profile, and I imagine would deflect quite a bit even with just hand tightening.

Bookbinder’s Stretcher [sic]. Possibly French, Walnut, 1670-1700. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A later image shows the press assembled correctly, but it is still described as a book stretcher. Almost every non-functional inch of this remarkable press is covered with relief carvings. The tightening nuts are especially elegant.  It is made from walnut, a wood traditionally used for press boards in 18th century France.

Bookbinder’s Stretcher [sic] assembled correctly. Possibly French, Walnut, 1670-1700. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many 17th century and earlier European woodworking tools, like planes, are encrusted with carving. Hand tools have became minimally decorated since the 20th century, all form deriving from efficient manufacture and use. The decorative deep carving must have taken a lot of extra time. Did the maker or consumer provide the agency? Was this a presentation piece, not intended to be used?  It seems to show very little wear, atypical of most presses. Or did the maker just want to make a beautiful tool? Do beautiful tools inspire binders to make beautiful books?

*****

Hats off to the V&A has a very progressive large image use policy.  You can download them instantly, share them widely, and even use them for publication. There are almost 750,000 searchable images on the V&A site. Let’s hope all institutions free their images.

V&A large image use form. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

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.

 

 

 

Why the Present High Costs of Bookbinding? Bindery Wages in 1920

It is often claimed that the most skilled, and highest paid position in a bookbindery was the finisher. However, in 1920, the J.F. Tapley Co. paid the head stamper $50 a week, while an extra finisher earned a bit less, $47. Even the casing-in machine operator earned $2 more than the hand casing-in position, at $44 a week. Wages varied between $37 and $50 for skilled male work. At least for this company, machine operation was apparently valued more highly than hand work, likely because it was more profitable.  All the workers are referred to as “operatives”, whether engaged in machine or hand work.

The argumentative title of this company produced pamphlet, “Why the present high costs of bookbinding?” indicates some defensiveness and weariness when asked this question. I can totally relate. And since I work alone I can’t blame it on rising employee wages. The pamphlet cites increases in other costs, such as materials, as additional factors. The rise in wages between 1917 and 1920 is startling, but apparently there were no increases between 1911 – 1917.

Why the present high costs in bookbinding? J.F. Tapley Co.: New York, 1920. Bernard C. Middleton Collection of Books on Bookbinding, Cary Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Below is the breakdown for the women operatives. Women’s positions in trade binderies were very stable at least since the eighteenth century. This is a surprising to me, given how much books changed during this time. They primarily did the folding, gathering, sewing, and laying-on of gold. The highest paid woman’s position was the head gold layer, at $27.50.

Women also operated the machine that replaced their traditional hand work. I can’t quite understand why the work itself was more gendered than operating a machine. Usually men operated the machines in factories at this time.

Why the present high costs in bookbinding? J.F. Tapley Co.: New York, 1920. Bernard C. Middleton Collection of Books on Bookbinding, Cary Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Of course there were many women hand bookbinders making fantastic books around this time. One of my favorites is Sybil Pye, and her hallucinatory take on traditional book design still looks fresh today. She was an aunt of David Pye, the wood carver, turner, and craft philosopher. David Pye’s “Nature and Art of Workmanship” is a common entry text for bookbinding students interested in exploring larger questions of Craft. The circle grows smaller.

Samson Paper Press

The Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking in Atlanta has one of the largest — and oldest — papermaking presses I’ve ever seen. Look at the size of the top beam, which is about two feet square!

The entire museum is fantastic. It started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, consisting primarily of Dard Hunter’s papermaking books and artifacts. Then it moved to the Institute of Paper Chemistry in 1954, was added to over the years, and finally landed at Georgia Tech in 2003.

The “Samson Paper Press”, constructed in 1790, was used by Hodgkinson and Co. in Wookey Hole England until the early twentieth century, according to the label. I’m not sure if the name refers to this press in particular, or is a generic term for any massive press.

It has an iron thread which generates much more power than a wooden one, due to the reduction of friction. I’m starting to think that all images of early nineteenth century presses with a ball above the platen also have iron thread.  Samson has a ratchet wheel and pawl mechanism to prevent the platen from backing off when fully tightened.

The tommy bar, or press pin, is lying on the black plinth in front of the press and is about six feet long! Not visible is the iron renforcement on the end of the bar which fits into the four holed iron ball. I imagine Samson securely attached to the ceiling or wall, and three or four men working together to fully tighten it. The daylight is roughly 3.5 feet, which would be about the height of a typical post (a stack of the newly formed sheets and felts). Possibly a century of use might account for the deterioration on the lower wooden platen, or it may have been sunk into the earth under the floor. The uprights are iron faced on the two short sides. A few decades later, by the 1830’s, most presses were made completely or iron or steel, making Samson an interesting transitional press, incorporating both wood and iron.

Around the same time, the French papermaking press depicted in Diderot’s Encyclopédie appears to have wooden threads, but a similar iron ratchet mechanism to prevent it from backing off. I have a hard time believing a small wood pawl could withstand the compression.

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds), http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/.

 

Using a Modified 151 Spokeshave to Bevel Binder’s Board

Designer binders, conservators who replicate wooden boards with laminated museum board, and others sometimes have to create a bevel or chamfer in book board. Often this is accomplished by sanding, which is at best a very slow process, and at worst an easy way to create a disgusting amount of dust.  A downdraft table and PPE is recommended.

Beveled book boards were very common in the nineteenth century. Various contraptions were invented to do this, including a specialized board shear that cut at 45, rather than a 90 degrees, a jigged foot clamp and large chefs knife, and a machine that used a woodworkers jack plane running in a track. Large production shops sometimes had a board beveling machine with a rotary blade, but most of us are not so lucky.

As the video below illustrates, it is also possible to bevel binder’s board quite efficiently with a modified 151 spokeshave, a tool which is usually used to thin leather over large areas. Note how much I skew the spokeshave, and how it is in motion when I start the cut. Also listen to the sound: this is what a properly adjusted sharp blade sounds like. Even after spokeshaving, it may still may be necessary to refine the board edge a bit with some coarse sandpaper.

If you are laminating your own boards (de rigueur for high end work), it is a good idea to paste a few layers of colored paper to the level you intend to bevel, in order to judge how deep you are spokeshaving. Since binder’s board is quite abrasive, an A2 or PM-V11 blade is a necessity. And the blades do wear more quickly than when shaving leather. It would be smart to dedicate one blade just for board.

 

If You Desire Perfect Fitting Covers; or, the Joint Groove

The International Bookbinder, Vol. 2, No. 4 April 1901.  p. 14

This is an odd looking machine. The stand it is on resembles a typewriter or sewing machine table, which suggests to me it was used while the operator was seated. The foot clamp must open or close the jaws, which were also heated, if it is a gas line coming in from the back. The heat and pressure would soften the animal glue to define the cloth case on the bookblock. I’m not sure if 32 machines in use is impressive, or just a good start, or if any still exist. The cabinets under the table might contain different thickness of jaws for defining the joint groove.

The joint groove is the term Nicholas Pickwoad uses in his Language of Bindings dictionary of bookbinding terminology, and one that I especially like.  It is succinctly descriptive, yet comprehensible to users of older terminology (the French joint, the American groove) without attributing it to a specific nationality or time. It would sound odd to refer to a 17th century Dutch stiffboard parchment binding as having an “American groove”, for example. Reportedly a book based on the Language of Bindings website is forthcoming from Oak Knoll Press.

I recall from a college linguistics class that prescriptive language changes have a poor track record, since language tends to change transactionally and dictionaries usually record usage. Possibly it is different for a very small group of book people using specialized terminology. Will fuzzy language searches and the ease of sharing images negate some of the need for a very strict terminology?  Time will tell.

Peter Verheyen’s Research on Ernst Collin. A Forthcoming Letterpress Edition

Peter Verheyen recently announced his translation of Ernst Collin’s Pressbengel will soon be published in a letterpress limited edition. If you have not encountered his omnipresent online presence, you are the last. Start here: philobiblon.com.

Peter answered three questions about this project:
1. Why did you call this “The Bonefolder”?
2. What do you see as the role of tools in this work?
3. Why should someone purchase this limited edition when you have already released a version online for free?

 

Bone Folder title-2

Title page of “The Bone Folder”

 

Peter writes:

I’ve actually received questions about the choice of title since I first started with this project back in 2008/9. Collin was writing from the perspective of one for whom the German bookbinding tradition was their DNA, despite the anglophilic predilections of the firm of his family – the court bookbinders of W. Collin in Berlin. All binding traditions have their own unique tools or techniques, and in the German tradition the pressbengel seems to be one of those. The image below from Paul Adam’s Lehrbücher der Buchbinderei: Die einfachen handwerksmässigen Buchbinderarbeiten ohne Zuhilfenahme von Maschinen (1924), a very basic introduction to binding without the use of „machines“ shows the binder tightening the screws of a German backing press using a pressbengel.

The Pressbengel had been translated into Czech (1925) and Italian (1996)  before I started with my mine. In Czech the title translates as “Wrench” and in the Italian it was given as the “About the Art of Bookbinding,” so there was precedent for a retitling. Collin’s text is iconic in the German bookbinding literature and was meant to introduce the bookbinding trade and its traditions to a lay audience. What tool could be more iconic in bookbinding than the bone folder and recognizeable to todays book workers and bibliophiles.

Collin’s iconic Pressbengel focuses on the core set of German binding techniques that a bibliophile would encounter, describing these in a fair level of detail including describing differences with other national traditions, largely French. Throughout, as he describes these techniques he discusses tools and how they are used, but not with much detail given to the tools themselves. What he does do in this dialog is to juxtapose the quality of the hand-bound book with that produced by machines. In an example from the last day on tooling and finishing, the Bibliophile insists that the Master do all his tooling by hand – no machines…

BOOKBINDER: Well, even then it might not be possible to avoid using a blocking press to form some larger, more complex designs, for example a coat of arms or some specialized text elements.

BIBLIOPHILE: No, Master, under no circumstances. In a work whose distinguishing character is determined by the work of the hands, there is no place for machines. If binders are so quick to switch back and forth between handwork and that of machines, they shouldn’t be surprised if their work becomes devalued. The masters of old were able to put large seals or coats of arms on their bindings, too, without resorting to a blocking press.

There are two things that set this new edition apart from the past one. The first are the photographs of John (Hans) Schiff depicting the bookbinding process and taken after the publication of the Bremer Presse’s Faust being bound in 1925 and the emigration of Schiff to the US in the latter half of the 1930s. The photographs are also part of never published series of 34 original negatives, so publishing a selection of them is significant, especially as they are very rich tonally with a great detail.

In selecting the images, Don Rash and I felt that it was important to show the hands of the binder at work in order to personalize the process. The images selected, one for each “day” in the text, depict: Sewing by hand over raised cords on the sewing frame; Sewing by hand over raised cords on the sewing frame; Attaching the boards to the textblock using the frayed ends of the raised cords; Sewing the headbands; Shaping the headcap on a leather binding; Gold tooling the board utilizing gold leaf and a decorative roll. The image of the bone folder working the leather over the cords is exclusive to the prospectus and not used in the text.

 

Schiff, Hans John - Bremer Press Series - 24

Photo courtesy Peter Verheyen, http://pressbengel.blogspot.com

 

The other thing that sets this new edition apart from the past edition, that yes was published open access online, is the completely new and greatly expanded introduction that provides much greater familial context to Ernst Collin and his background as the grandson and son of the last German court bookbinders describing their origins beginning with the early Jewish migration to Berlin in the first half of the 1800s, their growth as a significant trade bindery with close ties to the court and leading advocates for a new German bookbinding trade and tradition. Wrapped up in all this was the creation of the German empire, World War I, to the rise of Nazi Germany.

The introduction also corrects several errors in Collin’s biography that were introduced in national bibliographies, edited correspondences, and elsewhere, disambiguating him from “the other Ernst” that lived in Berlin at the same time, and his fate of being murdered in the Shoah. It also gives a much better sense of the broad range of Collins writings, including describing the other translations and editions of The Pressbengel. In addition it provides a description of the life and work of John (Hans) Schiff, the photographer.

This project became deeply personal to me when I was contacted by a geneologist who believed she was related to the Collins by marriage, and whose questions made me dig deeper into the history of the family and the writings of Ernst Collin. It was only appropriate that these findings be included in a new edition. Pairing this edition with the exquisite photographs of Schiff (who was able to escape Collin’s fate) makes the Don Rash’s Boss Dog Press edition even more special, and builds on the other titles he has issued on the topic of the German bookbinding tradition that to date have focused on the writings of his mentor Fritz Eberhardt who trained with Ignatz Wiemeler, among others.

The prospectus provides more details on the edition of 100 copies that will be available in quarter leather, full paper, and sheets for binding – an edition that is seeing interest (and orders) from libraries, bibliophiles, and binders. I would love to see an exhibit of the bindings that our peers create with the sheets, something more than the successful Bind-O-Rama on the downloadable sheets that have been available since the publication of the first translation in 2009. Ultimately, what is more attractive than a fine hand-bound book paired with original illustrations – no online/”e” text can duplicate that haptic experience.

 

Schiff, Hans John - Bremer Press Series - 18

Photo courtesy Peter Verheyen, http://pressbengel.blogspot.com

 

This has been one of the longest research projects I have undertaken, and the findings have been shared “in real time” via my Pressbengel Project blog under “Colliniana” and more formally in the The Collins: W. Collin, Court Bookbinders & Ernst Collin, the Author of the Pressbengel that I published online open access in English and German. Though I grew up bilingual, lived and worked in Germany for several years, and converse in German quite a bit verbally and in writing, doing this project bilingually was a real and significant challenge.

In the end I am quite happy with the outcome as these texts include much more of Ernst Collin’s familial context, images of bindings and other items that W. Collin produced, and a “history of the life” with description of Ernst Collin’s writings that describe the German bookbinding trade, its practitioners, and the economic and political context of a dynamic yet turbulent time in Germany. The texts also include a title-level bibliography with chronological and subject lists of Ernst Collin’s known writings. None of this would have been possible without the digital collections that have come online, so the bibliography is also online on the Pressbengel Project blog along with links to a spreadsheet that includes links to the digital content where available.

Together I hope that these contribute to closing the dearth of information on German bookbinding traditions lamented by Tom Conroy in his section on the “German Influence on American Hand Binding” that was published as part of his “Teaching Genealogies of American Hand Bookbinders” in the Guild of Book Workers’ Journal, Vol. 28, 1990.