Category Archives: conservation treatment

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.


An Easy Way to Strain Wheat Starch Paste

Wheat starch paste is widely used as an adhesive and size in bookbinding and conservation because it is long lasting, strong, reversible and non-yellowing.  After making wheat starch paste, it is generally strained, thinned, aged, or otherwise worked to give it the appropriate working qualities for the task at hand. A horsehair (or other non-metalic, ie. silk screen fabric) strainer is commonly used, however the technique below is quick, easy, fun and impressive. It results in a paste suitable for many bookbinding and book conservation purposes.





-Use an undyed, unbleached, natural fiber square of cloth that does not shed fibers.

-The cloth can be prewetted, to various degrees, to alter the final consistency of the paste.

-Rinse and clean the cloth immediately after use.

-Note the use of the thumb during the final squeeze.

Caution: Too vigorous a twisting and squeezing motion can cause the paste to fly out, in equal proportions, into your eye and onto the floor.

-I imagine different weave tightness or thread counts could change affect the consistency of the paste.

-The main drawback of this technique is that it is best suited for small quantities of paste.


Thanks to Clare Manias, Rare Book Conservator of the Museum of Biblical Art for sharing this tip.

Conservation of the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation: Results of a Survey and Treatments

A paper copy of Setbacks, Vol. 3., No. 1., 1990. Oddly, this paper volume is easily accessible in my library, while the more recent, online digital only version is difficult, if not impossible to find.  All three early volumes are indispensable.

I originally published the article linked to below in “Recent Setbacks in Conservation Online” in 2004.  In the intervening years, many of the problems discussed are, regrettably, as yet unresolved. Sadly, Setbacks Online seems inactive and inaccessible. Please be aware that the conservation techniques mentioned in this article are possibly somewhat dated, and are presented for historical and informational purposes only, and the author takes no responsibility for their efficacy or lack thereof. Caveat Conservator!


In-situ Book Conservation Fixture

Added 15 March 2016: A newer version of this fixture:

A jig guides a tool, whereas a fixture supports the workpiece – in this case is a bound book. Increasingly, much of a book conservator’s work involves working in-situ without disbinding a textblock. This fixture safely and securely supports the parts of the book not being worked on while treating pages. The idea for this fixture was originally developed by Raymond Jordan, Senior Book Conservator at Trinity College, Dublin (for an image of his version in use, see Preservation and Conservation in Small Libraries, ed. Hadgraft and Swift, 1994), with additional improvements by Chela Metzger, Conservator of Library Collections at Winterthur Museum, Delaware.

Many conservators construct impromptu assemblages, but this fixture professionally, safely, and securely holds printed books and manuscripts, even those with heavy wood boards, bosses and other furniture. It supports the text-block and board, so that the spine and sewing structure is not stressed while work is done on the pages; repairing tears, media consolidation, flattening dogeared corners, dry cleaning, etc…. It can also be used to support the text-block when flattening warped or distorted vellum bindings. Text-block are rarely planar: working in-situ enables the conservator to repair tears that conform to the natural undulations of a particular place, on a particular page. The hinged bar allows the pages to be quickly turned, yet is braced so it cannot fall down onto the page. Perfect for books with fragile sewing, brittle pages, or any time gentle, secure support is needed when working on bound items. It simplifies and speeds up the treatment process when many pages of a text-block need attention.

The bed size is 12 x 17 inches, a heavy anti-tipping 1.5” thick, and the maximum supplied thickness books is 6 inches. Fits octavo through folio books. If a thicker book is encountered, extension pieces can be purchased for a nominal charge. This support can be used with oversize books with slight modifications, instructions included. Adjustable arm levers allow a full range of clamping angles, no tools necessary. The front page bar is hinged to allow quick page turns. The uprights hinge from 0 degrees (parallel to the bed) to 180 degrees. Constructed out of aircraft grade plywood with a 1.5” thick base to resist tipping, polypropylene and clear anodized 6105-T5 aluminum. Custom sizes available.

In-situ Book Conservation Fixture   $750.00

The Use of Parchment to Reinforce Split Wooden Bookboards

I was quite pleased to receive the new Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2010, since Alexis Hagadorn and I have an article included in it titled “The use of parchment to reinforce split wooden bookboards, with preliminary observations into the effects of RH cycling on these repairs”

Here is the abstract:

Split wooden boards are a common problem in early book bindings, and treatment can be complicated by the need to disturb original components as little as possible. A technique used to reinforce or rejoin fully or partially split wooden boards using parchment has been evaluated. A reinforcing parchment strip has sometimes been employed to treat cracks in wooden musical instruments and examples of reinforcing strip repairs to wooden bookboards have also been observed. The books considered in this article presented an opportunity to use this technique and make observations about its merits. With favourable results but some questions, the authors undertook a systematic study of this method, considering and comparing several options for re-joining split wooden boards. Samples of some common repair techniques were made and subjected to relative humidity cycling to compare how each method might withstand extreme RH fluctuations at a constant temperature. The response of reinforcing strip repairs to RH changes showed a negative impact on join adhesion within the sample group, which may indicate that modifications are necessary to improve this technique. When re-examined after three years, the treated boards were intact and stable.”

It took over four years from the start of the project until the revised manuscript was accepted for publication, but it is gratifying to see the results of our research, and images of a couple of my treatments in a peer reviewed journal.  Unfortunately, the journal is not available online yet, although I have heard it is in the works.  And if you are not a member of ICON, this single issue costs, gulp, $228.oo!

Book Conservation in the US and the UK

The practice of book conservation not only changes over time, but some of the ethics, underpinnings and treatments vary in different countries.  In November 2009, I had the opportunity to install a board slotting machine in England, teach a three day workshop on its use, and give a presentation on the history of board slotting.  During the course of a week,  I had time to talk shop with conservators from a number of institutions, and recorded some of my impressions from these conversations.


Currently, it seems slightly better in the UK than in the US.  No one I spoke to experienced hiring freezes or a forced four day work week during the summer, like many institutional conservators experienced here.  Many of the jobs in the UK are short term or part time, but these were often to get renewed.  Because of their National Health Care system, this employment uncertainty is much more doable than here.   It is a nightmarishly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to rapidly change health care providers here.

Salaries, traditionally lower, seem to be catching up and in some cases equal to what a conservator would make here in the US. Perhaps this is due to ICON’s efforts to establish minimum accepted salary standards.  The cost of living is higher, however.  Salaries for conservators in private practice, however, seem to lag well behind the US, likely because of a much longer craft oriented bookbinding tradition that competes for rebinding and restoration type jobs. Overall,  there seemed to be a less alarming reallocation of funding for digital projects at the expense of treatments. Perhaps the bulwark of a longer tradition of caring for cultural objects provides a buffer against the current rush, at least here in the US, to digitize everything by noon tomorrow.

Because there are so many older books in Europe, the general public considers them commonplace and functional, rather than treasured relics.  I’m not suggesting Europeans don’t value their cultural heritage, but for them, a 19th century book is not all that old; additionally these books can be somewhat slighted because they are a product of technology, not craft.

Conservators tended to be much more international than here.  I’ve met conservators working in the UK from the US, Canada, Serbia, New Zealand, France and Italy. Additionally, I have to confess a degree of jealousy when examining the overall age and quality of materials that my English peers were treating–generally they get to work on better stuff.


Once again, possibly due to the demise of the Kilgarlin Center,  more Americans are choosing to get their conservation training in England.  Camberwell and West Dean both seem to have bumper crops of new students.  There is even a US/ UK alliance between North Bennet Street School and West Dean, though I am unclear if it is official or not: complete the rigorous two year NBSS program, with its emphasis on bookbinding craft skills, then enter into the 2nd. year MA at West Dean for conservation training. It is almost like training in the US is back to where it was in the early 1980’s, with potential conservators forced to devise their own conservation education based on a variety of sources–bookbinding courses, on the job training, internships, an MILS and countless short term workshops.  In some ways this is nothing new– book conservators have always had to be proactive in their education. Given the lack of new, entry level jobs, coupled with the lack of training opportunities and the decrease in funding for treatments, I am growing increasingly apprehensive about the future of book conservation.  Books are rapidly loosing their unique status as interactive, movable functional objects, and becoming more like any other museum object. Will  future book conservators only learn how to safely house and display them?  Will future book conservators be trained in the various MA art conservation training programs; Buffalo, The Institute of Fine Arts, Winterthur, Queens?  The conservators I have met from these programs have been top notch, highly skilled and very professional.   Since book conservation, historically, has been so closely linked to its craft roots, emerging initially in the working library, not in a museum setting, should we consider the preservation of these craft skills a necessary part of an overall book conservation training program?  In many ways, this shift in book conservation education mirrors the shift of the societal role of books themselves.


The EU also brought in stringent (and to my mind sometimes ridiculous) health and safety rules.  Board shears (called ‘board choppers’ in the UK) are retrofitted with a large Plexiglas fin, similar to a Kuttrimmer, to prevent users from putting their head under the blade to align material to be cut.  This often results in a nasty cut on one’s forehead when, out of habit, one tries to align the material under the blade.  Even a Tormek (slow speed water cooled grinding stone) had to be outfitted with an ’emergency’ on-off switch.   Since it is possible to touch the wheel when it is in motion without abrading your skin, I am suspicious about the necessity for this switch.  Quite fortuitously, UK conservators never use sharp knives and scalpels, otherwise they might be required to wear kevlar gloves, a thick leather apron and safety glasses!


The sacrosanct ritual of tea time seemed to promote employee bonding and encourage a general sense of well being,  as well as providing a respite from the sometimes tedious nature of performing  conservation treatments. In general, Europeans have a more nuanced understanding of work. One gets the sense that the workplace was made for people, not people made for the workplace. I suggest this attitude be more widely emulated here, and vow to start with my studio!


Many of the frustrations expressed are quite similar on both sides of the pond.  The most common being the lack of time to actually do treatments, given the amount of administrative duties.  Another is the amount of time that exhibitions and loans take, often to the detriment of treating serious, complex problems on other books.  And there is a persistent sense–sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken– that book conservators, because they work with their hands in a profession closely related to a craft,  are somewhat closer to shoemakers than other museum professionals.

Most book conservators, attracted to this low paying field for a variety of reasons, are personable, intelligent, practical, curious, decent people.  They are the kind of colleagues  one chooses to socialize with outside of professional obligations, often sharing a love of good food, as well as a deep, often thankless commitment to preserving the most perfect and durable technological invention of all time:  the book.

I suspect there are many familiar with both the US and UK conservation worlds, and am interested to hear some other comparisons and perspectives.

The American Institute for Conservation has also compiled information about conservation education.

Temporary Binding

temporal binding



The terminology may be debatable, but I doubt there is a simpler method of “binding” a pamphlet.  These 32 pages were printed  in 1858, and presumably the pin was inserted around that time as well.  A pin may be less damaging than a staple, since the ends of a staple turn in on themselves and often pierce the inner folio.  Both staples and pins are prone to rust, though pins are more easily reversed.  If the head of a pin is too large, it can damage the adjoining pages.  Pamphlets from this time are often side stitched in a figure of eight style, which restricts opening. Some of the horizontal creases in the paper may have happened when the pin was inserted 150 years ago.  Of course, sewing through the fold is the best method of attaching pages together.

In this case, however, the pin was not causing any apparent damage, the owner (thanks for permission to post these images!) and I decided to leave it in place.  Later, I will do some minor surface cleaning, flattening and paper repairs.

Perhaps because pins were on my mind, last weekend I purchased a box of  NOS at the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market . I was intrigued by the fact that the pins were not described as merely plated, double-plated, triple-plated, but were in fact “Superplated”.  

After opening the box  and seeing them gleam, I decided this is to be a truthful description– well worth the $2 price.

pin box


pins inside