Category Archives: bookbinding

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Book Production Magazine, May, 1960, p. 19

What is a Conservation Binding?

The term “conservation binding” gets thrown around a lot. It certainly sounds different than just rebinding a book. But what does it really mean?

It is unknown who coined the term, and a google ngram search shows its use beginning in the 1960s, and peaking in the 1980s. It wouldn’t surprise me if it actually started in the 1950s in England. The 1980s were the peak of rebinding in book conservation, which resulted in many treatments that we would now consider too invasive. But the ethos then was to treat a book so that it would last 500 years. Of course, the correlation between the use of the term and making a conservation binding is not known.


The trouble is, it doesn’t have any agreed upon meaning, similar to the even more ubiquitous term “archival”. All the usual suspects for bookbinding terminology — Language of Bindings, Carter, Etherington, The Multilingual Bookbinding and Conservation Dictionary — don’t have an entry for conservation binding. In practice, it can simply mean a binding done by a conservator. And anyone can call themselves a conservator. Or it can often mean a reversible layer of paste and Japanese tissue on the spine of a fine binding. Or it can imply the use of durable and modern conversationally accepted materials (i.e. linen, handmade paper, tawed skin) incorporated into a binding, with minimal attention paid to decoration and finishing.

So here is my first stab at a definition:

A conservation binding is a rebinding that is structurally similar and aesthetically sympathetic to the time the text was printed. It is durable, easily reversible, non-damaging and alters the original binding materials as little as possible. It does not fool someone into thinking it is an original binding, though it is harmonious with actual historic bindings.

Jonathan Ashley-Smith on Hand Skill Pedagogy

The most recent Journal of the Institute of Conservation (Vol. 41, No. 1, 2018) is a Festschrift for Dr. Jonathan Ashley-Smith. Ralph Steadman drew the cover, especially for this issue. Ashley-Smith is officially a conservation rock star!

The coolest conservation journal cover EVER. Journal of the Institute of Conservation (Vol. 41, No. 1, 2018)

You need to be a member of ICON to read the whole journal on-line. So join.

Selected articles from other issues are open access, including Ashley-Smith’s important 2016 article,  “Losing the Edge: The Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills.”  Although the title implies a depressing state of affairs (losing, declining) it is actually filled with empowering techniques to reverse some of the trends he anecdotally observes. There is much worth reading and discussing in this article: he considers a broad swath of issues surrounding conservation, handwork, craft, how we learn hand skills, and even how we loose them. Some of my own thoughts about losing hand skills are here.

At the risk of overusing the comparison between conservators and surgeons, I’ll offer an example of my own then one from Ashley-Smith. When teaching a sharpening workshop, we look at the first two plates from Joseph Pancoast’s Operative Surgery. They are great reminder for the students that hand skills need to be learned, and for me to make the subtleties explicit. Many students pick up a tool, turn it over a few times in their hand, hesitantly try it out, find it doesn’t seem to work, and set it down, convinced that they don’t have good hand skills. But hand skills need to be learned, and there are easier and more difficult ways of manipulating tools.

Learning traditional techniques of tools use are often easier than trying to figure it out on your own, which is why they became traditional in the first place. Just consider the variety of hand positions Pancoast instructs the surgeon to learn in order to control the bistoury, pictured below. There is a following plate of even more advanced moves. I doubt many of us could come up with these on our own. Even though I have not used a bistoury, the hand positions make sense for the tasks I can figure out, like depth control (Fig. 2) and extra power to make an incision (Fig. 3). Perhaps it is better not to interpret all of them.

Pancoast, A Treatise on Operative Surgery, 1844.

In “Losing the Edge”, Ashley-Smith describes an even more relevant surgical analogy to conservation, found in  J.W. Peyton’s 1998 “Teaching and Learning in Medical Practice”. Peyton offers a pedagogical model for learning hand skills. I will try it out on the graduate students enrolled in the Historical Book Structures Practicum this summer. Traditionally, hand skills are taught by the monkey see, monkey do  approach: the instructor demonstrates (sometimes with verbal descriptions of what their hands are doing), then the students copy what was done, often with little understanding why.

Ashley-Smith observed that surgeons are not ashamed to use the word “craft” in the context of their work, instead they are proud of it. Peyton presents a refined method of teaching craft skills: not only does the instructor demonstrate three times, but before the students perform the action, they are required to describe each step in advance. Another advantage of this method is that the student is exposed to seeing the action performed at real speed. Old timer conservators sometimes complain about how slowly younger conservators work: could part of it be they were never exposed to work done at real speed, only the slower, linguistic heavy, demonstration speed?

These are Peyton’s four steps:

1. Demonstration of the skill at full speed with little or no explanation.
2.  Repetition of that skill with full explanation, encouraging the learner to ask questions.
3.  The demonstrator performs the skill for a third time, with the learner providing the explanation at each step and being questioned on key issues … the demonstrator provides necessary corrections. This step may need to be repeated several times until the demonstrator is satisfied that the learner fully understands the skill.
4.  The learner carries out the skill under close supervision describing each step before it is taken.

— J. W. Rodney Peyton, Teaching and Learning in Medical Practice (Rickmans- Worth: Manticore Europe, 1998), 174–7.

Excessive? Maybe for most bookbinding operations, but certainly not for medical operations. His model really forces the student to observe what they are doing and why they are doing it, and to think ahead to the next step. Ironically, it is all to easy for students to gloss over important aspects of hand movements during a demonstration. This is understandable, since most of the motions are not all that interesting, or even important. Invariably, they miss the most important part.

Sometimes in step 3, it is more relevant for the student to draw or diagram the process, if it is cumbersome to verbally describe. I doubt Peyton’s pedagogy can be adapted for every stage in bookbinding, but some steps — like sewing, forming headcaps, cutting corners — lend themselves easily to his procedure. Since many specific operations in bookbinding are similar, this method could be spread across a longer format workshop.

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.

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 Method of Brushing Glue onto Paper

I’ll be teaching a hardcover pamphlet binding workshop to a group of undergraduates later this week, and wanted to include a diagram illustrating the technique of gluing paper.  I couldn’t find anything useful on the web, so had to draw my own. Is it considered too basic to bother describing? Clean and efficient glue handling is one of the most fundamental skills in bookbinding, and a common place to make mistakes.

The sequence of applying adhesive to paper for a right hander. Click on the image to enlarge.

If your adhesive is the right consistency, your brush the right size, and it is charged appropriately, you should be able to cover the entire sheet without adding more. This is how I was taught by Thea Hamman, a German trained bindery supervisor who worked for many years at Columbia University.

A.  Apply the adhesive to a large area in the center of the sheet of paper, which is placed on a larger waste sheet. Press down firmly with your index finger and thumb to keep the sheet from shifting. If the paper is large or highly reactive to moisture, you might want to relax it by misting with water. I usually jigger the brush back in forth in Area 1 during application. Make sure to put enough on to later drag it over the edges.  Most commonly, I use a 1 inch Princeton 5450 Natural Bristle Brush. Since the adhesive is not on the waste sheet yet, if the paper happens to shift or expand a bit, the good side of the sheet remains clean. Next, brush the adhesive in Area 2, off the top and right side. If the paper expands or warps, hold it down so that it moves towards the left, so adhesive doesn’t get on the good side. 

B. Move your hand and place your ring, middle and index finger on the bottom of the sheet, in the area where there is not adhesive, then brush the top left side. This can also help keep the sheet from curling into into itself. On small sheets, 1, 2, and 3 can be done at the same time. All of this depends on a balancing how fast you are working, how reactive your paper is, and how much moisture is in your adhesive.

C. Now place your fingernails fairly flat on the top edge, making sure not not to dent the paper. By using the flat parts of your nails, the adhesive doesn’t get on your fingertips. If you do happen to get a little glue on your fingers, it is useful to keep a damp rag nearby to wipe them clean. Finish spreading the adhesive and lift the paper near two opposite corners, and stick it in place. Smooth it down, starting in the center, working outward, with the part of your hands that is opposite your thumbs to eliminate any bubbles.  This avoids your fingertips which now have adhesive on them. Then achieve firm adhesion by burnishing using a Delrin folder, or your weapon of choice.

Please comment if you have another preferred method!

New Tool For Sale! The M2 Hybrid Paring Knife

Traditionally, leather paring knives either have round or straight cutting edges.  I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each in this post. I usually use an English style straight blade, but became tired of the fact it could only be used for edge paring. Partially inspired by the rounded corners of a spokeshave blade, I made a couple of other modifications to a standard M2 English style knife so that it can be used for more than edge paring.

A slightly curved cutting edge on essentially an English style knife allows it to scoop out leather, necessary for the spine area, headcaps, and decorative work. The blade is oriented at a 45 degree angle, like an English knife, so right and left handers need to purchase different knives. The corners of the knife are rounded so that the tip or heal will not cut through the skin while performing this scooping action. The tiny secondary bevel allows quick resharpening.

This knife can be used for all types of paring necessary in bookbinding: edge paring, reducing spine and caps, paring deep into a skin (similar to a spokeshave’s action) and even for overall scraping, if you are into that.

M2 Hybrid Knife. Around 8 – 9 inches long, and 1 inch wide. Since the grind marks on the primary bevel go along the length of the blade, the primary bevel is not apparent when looking at the top of the knife. The exact curve of the cutting edge varies a bit from knife to knife.

A lower angle primary bevel cuts down on the amount of time it takes to resharpen the blade, since there is less metal to remove. The 13 degree cutting edge is only a millimeter or two. The disadvantage is that there is not a large enough bevel that you can feel when you put your knife on the sharpening substrate; you have to trust your hands and the angle you are holding it at. This is quite similar to sharpening a kitchen knife by hand. Another advantage of the small secondary bevel is that it can be stropped back into shape very quickly, again because not much metal has to be removed. This is a perfect blade for sub-micron stropping. M2 steel seems easier to strop than A2, for some reason.

Cross section of primary and secondary bevels.

The slightly curved blade creates more opportunity to find a sharp area as the knife dulls, so it can be used longer. Straight blades, as they become dull, don’t seem to bite the leather enough to get started with a cut. The disadvantage is you can’t just rub it back and forth like a standard straight edged knife when resharpening. Stropping takes a slight twist of the wrist, to keep parts of the cutting edge in contact with the strop throughout the stroke.

The rounded areas allow you to work into a skin, for headcaps and the spine. But the shape also allows you to use it like a standard English style knife for edge paring.

The third change is that the tip and heel of the cutting edge are rounded.  This prevents the knife from cutting through the skin when you are working away from the edge, similar to how a spokeshave blade works. In practice, I don’t miss having a pointed, sharp tip. A rounded tip also makes it less likely to dig into your paring surface.

The M2 Hybrid used like a standard English knife for edge paring.

All of these aspects combine to make a sensitive and versatile knife intended for professionals. An analogy for cyclists might be this is more like a track bike than a road bike. This knife, in addition to edge paring, can do most of what a spokeshave can do, albeit with more “workmanship of risk”. If you want the most versatile knife on the market, look no further.

Close up of a piece of goatskin feather pared,, so that the valleys of the grain are cut through. The middle of the blade was used for this, almost parallel to the edge of the leather..

Progressively paring towards the center. The rounded edges keep the blade from cutting through the leather as it stretches.

M2 Hybrid Paring knife. M2 Steel. The handle is hand carved wood, covered with vegetable tanned goatskin, and ergonomically shaped. The metal is .040″ thick, the handle around 5/8″ at the thickest point. It is about 1 inch wide and around 8-9″ in overall length. The secondary bevel is 13 degrees.  Hand sharpened to .1 micron.

The M2 Hybrid Paring Knife.  $250.00.  Order here.

Small M2 Hybrid knife. The best knife for onlays and intricate leather decorations. Also great for paring paper. M2 Steel. The metal is .025″ thick, about 5/8″ wide and 6-7″ long. Leather covered wood handle. The  secondary bevel is 13 degrees. Hand sharpened to .1 micron.

The Small M2 Hybrid Paring Knife.  $150.00.  Order here.

Small M2 Hybrid knife bottom left, regular size next to it.