Unbelievable Book Sewing. The American Bookbinders Museum. Petition Against the Closure of the Greek Conservation Department.

sewing in the air

Chase, A. and Clow, Stories of Industry, Vol. II. (Educational Publishing Co.: Boston, New York, Chicago, 1891), 174. Author’s collection.

I can’t quite believe the above image reflects an actual practice. Sliding the books up after they are sewn? This would seem to cause extreme abrasion to the cords, thread and signatures. Cords from this time are often very weak, though. There are other suspect elements; the title is wrong and the sewing frame uprights are incredibly tall. The whole frame would likely be very unstable and the tension on the cords would be extreme; could three weak, thin, late nineteenth century cords support this weight?

Generally this image is believable, though. The body and hand positions of the women are accurate. Women from around this time could sew very fast, 2-3 thousand signatures a day. Being able to sew a large number of books without having to restring the frame would likely be a time savings. Is this image the result of artistic imagination, ignorance or possibly an accurate description of an unusual trade practice?

Whatever the case, I wouldn’t have found this intriguing image if it were not for the wonderful online bibliography of bookbinding manuals from The American Bookbinders Museum. It is annotated, so can save anyone a lot of time searching through less useful sources. The American Bookbinders Museum was also incredibly gracious host when I taught my 18th century French class in San Francisco, letting us closely examine a first edition of Dudin’s 1772 L’Art du Reliure, followed by a reception. Their collection of books, tools and machines is unique and irreplaaceable.

But The American Bookbinders Museum is currently in crisis, due to two water leaks in recent months. They need to raise a lot of money to relocate their collection.  I chipped in. How could you not contribute to a Museum that contains possibly the coolest bookbinders ticket ever?

bookbinder and taxidermist

Collection of The American Bookbinders Museum

If you would like to send a check please  make the check out to “The American Bookbinders Museum” and send it to the following address:

Bookbinders Museum Relief
c/o Taurus Bookbindery
2736 16 th street
San Francisco, CA. 94110

The Museum is a 501-(c)3  organization and all donations will be tax deductible.

For further questions contact Tim James anytime  9:00 AM-9:00 PM PST at 415-710-9369  (Tim James)   or email: Tim [at] Bookbindersmuseum.com

If you are interested in helping to find a permanent home for the Museum and insuring its future please leave your contact information at: info [at] bookbindersmuseum.com


And since you are doing one good deed, how about signing this petition to help save the Greek Conservation Department as well?

Dear friends and colleagues,

The Department for the Protection and Conservation of Cultural Heritage in Zakynthos, Greece of the Technological Educational Institute of the Ionian Islands is threatened with unjust and unreasoned closure by the Greek Ministry of Education.

The profession of conservation is suffering a blow yet again, following the closure of several courses throughout Europe over the last few years and job cuts in museums, libraries and institutions, putting our cultural heritage at greater risk.

Please read our petition and if you support our cause sign it and forward it anywhere you can.


[NOTE: The appeal for money after you sign the petitions is for ipetitions, not Greek Conservation]

Thank you for your help,

Nikolas Sarris

Nikolas Sarris, PhD
Book Conservation, Assistant Professor
TEI of the Ionian Islands
Dep. for the Protection and Conservation of Cultural Heritage
Zakynthos 29100 – Greece

Big Bamboo Folders

Finally, the perfectly shaped bamboo folder?!?

Hand tools, in particular, need to be tested and evaluated by using them. A poor design aspect quickly becomes apparent. The simpler the tool, the more critical each aspect is. And tools don’t get much simpler than a smooth bone or wood folder.

Folders are used by bookbinders to fold paper, smooth covering materials, shape leather, and evenly adhere various covering materials. Bone, ivory, teflon, and sometimes wood, are the usual materials for western style folders.  Teflon has an extremely low coefficient of friction, making it ideal when you want to slide the tool over a surface that you don’t want to mark. Bone has a density and feels—for lack of a better term—traditional. I especially recommend the higher quality ones made by Jim Croft from wild elk and deer. Bamboo has been used in the east for many purposes. It has a higher coefficient of friction to it which makes it useful for pulling a covering material. A light touch or protective covering sheet must be used if marking is suspected to be a problem.

Bone folders —like most tools— have become smaller over time (technically known as ‘dinkification’).  Evidence from the eighteenth century France suggests folders, commonly wood at this time, may have been 12 -18 inches long.  The bamboo folders I’ve been experimenting with are a more modest  9-10 inches, though.

I keep tweaking and altering small aspects of these folders with successive iterations. The long straight sides can be used like a case folder, for turning- in. The flat areas at the pointed end are useful for pressing and forming headcaps. The angled tip useful in box making. The rounded end handy when defining joints or adhering board edges. The relatively long length makes them more comfortable to hold. This is the theory, at least. Quite likely there is no ideal shape, but what we prefer and use changes with our working habits. Or we choose tools to break us out of habituated working methods.

Bamboo is quite easy to shape and fun to work with.  I’ve written up some tips on working with it in an earlier post. If you discover the perfect shape, please let me know. I’ve already started on the next one, which will certainly be the absolutely most perfect….

A French Beating Hammer

french beating hammer

Thanks to a tip from James Tapley, a Florida based bookbinder and winner of the prestigious DeGolyer bookbinding competition, I was able to acquire something I’ve wanted for a long time: a real French beating hammer. Beating hammers were used for pounding signatures before sewing. Early Christmas! But I will wait until Christmas morning to actually smash some paper with it on my beating iron. Seven interminably long days from now….

Anyway, it is typically French with large and small square shaped faces and a cylindrical handle that ends in a bulge. The heads also have a significant amount of ‘belly’, or camber, which I have not seen in images and photographs of other French hammers, though this may or may not be common.

What is not typical about this hammer are the nine holes drilled into it. The only explanation I can think of is that a previous owner wanted to lighten the weight, like I did on the chainrings on my racing bicycle in the 1980’s. Another unusual aspect is a small pin on the side of the hammer that was presumably intended to secure the head, though of course this has loosened.  The hammer was used quite—for something— a bit judging from the dings on the faces.

The hammer currently weighs 4.5 lbs with the handle. I’ve calculated that if the nine holes were filled in it would weight about 5.25 lbs. which is the same as my small sized Hickock beating hammer.  The large face is roughly 2.5 inches square, the small one 2 inches. Given the relatively small size and (presumably original) green paint, I’d guess a mid-twentieth century date. The handle is 8.5 inches long and 1.25 inches in diameter, and turned on a (copy?) lathe. This is the original length judging from the ends, both marks from a headstock spur center and the tailstock are intact.

Predictably, this hammer arrived a few weeks too late to be included in my forthcoming article about beating hammers, “Beating, Rolling and Pressing: The Compression of Signatures in Bookbinding Prior to Sewing” in Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding, which will be published in early 2013 by The Legacy Press. Grrr.