The Most Important Tool for Most Crafts

A couple of months ago, I asked a number of colleagues what they considered the five most essential bookbinding tools. But nobody — myself included — mentioned what I now think the most essential tool for any craft is.  Ok, it may not *technically* be a tool, but it is fundamental to most crafts.

Many animals use tools like this, for example the chipmunk that used the wood stairs below to break open an acorn. The tool or piece of equipment?  A workbench.

A chipmunk used these wood stairs as a workbench to crack an acorn.

Workbenches are important to book conservators, both practically and conceptually.  A wobbly or insubstantial bench makes the most common activities much more difficult. The term serves as a shorthand for how one was trained: bench trained, apprentice trained, program trained. Every book conservation lab I’ve seen has a dedicated bench space for all full time technicians and conservators. Bench time is often specified as a percentage of work time distinct from other duties in job descriptions, though I’m always interested to hear from colleagues how accurate this turns out to be!

Why are workbenches are called benches. Aren’t they really worktables?

It turns out not to be a big mystery. Scott Landis, in his wonderful out-of-print book The Workbench Book, traces the workbench to an Egyptian carpenter’s bench from  ca. 1475 B.C.E. And guess what, early workbenches look very much like a modern bench, not a table.

Roman workbench from Scott Landis, The Workbench Book, Taunton Press, 1987, p. 8.

Landis describes a Roman bench ca. 250 B.C.E. that looks pretty much the same: a solid wood surface (about 2.75 x 14.5 x 102 inches, four splayed wooden legs, mortised into the top. Both appear roughly  knee height. In other words, a bench.

Very similar workbenches continue until the 18th century for many trades, with subtle variations. Woodworking benches often had mortices for bench dogs or vices attached.

Bookbinders are often portrayed working at one of the three fundamental tools of the trade: a lying or cutting press, a sewing frame, or a standing press. In the second quarter of the 19th century, the shift to case binding as the predominate structure likely created a need for a more table like work surface.  Many trades have different names for similar tools. For example, what most trades call a “tommy bar” bookbinders call a “press pin”. But the term workbench may have been borrowed from other trades.

Match That Workbench Contest 4
Workbench from Diderot. Do you know what trade? Source: https://toolsforworkingwood.com/store/blog/201

Joel Moskowitz of Tools for Working Wood had a fun quiz on his blog a couple of years ago, trying to match seven workbenches found in Diderot to the trade associated with them.  Although the prize is long gone, it is still quite fun to imagine  how each bench may was used. And as he mentions, no cheating by looking it up!

The Conservation of Leather Bookbindings Workshop Review by Kasie Janssen

One month ago, I was able to attend The Conservation of Leather Bookbindings at the University of Notre Dame. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC) supported this 5-day workshop that was taught by book conservator and tool-maker Jeff Peachey. Conservation is a field that requires a constant love of learning new skills and techniques, so when I saw this workshop was hosted not too far from Cincinnati, I jumped at the opportunity to increase my knowledge on the conservation of leather bookbindings.

Jeff demonstrating a leather reback.

Leather is an interesting topic in book conservation, as many of the historic books we work on have full or partial leather bindings. Leather, like paper, comes in a variety of qualities, and has inherent issues as it ages over time. And we, as conservators, have many ways to combat these issues to make the books in our collections accessible to all.

This workshop offered an in-depth look at the many ways leather can be conserved, while also discussing the pros and cons of the various types of treatment options. This level of understanding is crucial part for us.  Think of it like taking a test – you can simply have the list of answers, or you can study and understand why the answers are in fact correct (any teacher will tell you they prefer the latter of these two options, and we do too!).

Joint tacketing and sewing extensions.

While the leather on the outside of a book is what most of us see when we look at our books and bookshelves, a large portion of the workshop focused on how those books are put together. If you’ve seen a leather book, you have likely seen a book that has its covers detached or missing. We talked about reattaching covers using techniques such as joint tackets, sewing extensions, slitting and slotting the boards, and tissue repairs. These are techniques that need to be considered before a leather reback, which was the final technique we learned, would take place.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the workshop was that we were able to practice these techniques on our own books. (I’ll take this time to note that these were not collection items! We like to practice on models or personal books first.) Being able to learn about the techniques and then practice them was a great way to use the hand skills needed for these types of treatments. Having our own personal examples that were treated also provides an application of how these techniques work and wear over time.

Detail of sewing extensions that come out under the original sewing supports.

The workshop also covered leather dying, as well as knife sharpening – a crucial tool for working with leather, and leather paring techniques and tools.

I have to say, the workshop happened in the week before Covid-19 began impacting the United States on a massive scale. All of the attendees remained in contact with their home institutions and families throughout the week as news progressed. The workshop, though, provided a sort of conservation utopia where we could turn off the news and focus on the profession that we all love. Jeff Peachey was an incredible instructor, offering vast amounts of knowledge and insight that we can apply to our day-to-day work. And the staff and facilities at the University of Notre Dame provided the perfect environment for our leather conservation deep dive. A sincere thank you to Jeff, the University of Notre Dame, AIC and FAIC for the wonderful workshop.

While I continue my work-from-home, I will be finishing a few of the treatments I had started during the workshop, and also practicing things like leather paring, leather dying, and repair techniques. This will ensure that when we are back in The Preservation Lab, I’ll be able to provide assistance on many of the damaged leather books that are waiting for our tender loving care.

Paring leather for a reback.

In the meantime check out some more photos from the workshop on our @ThePreservationLab Instagram!  And follow us if you don’t already to see what we are up to in our work-from-home spaces.

 

Kasie Janssen (PLCH) is the Senior Conservation Technician of The Preservation Lab, a collaborative hybrid lab of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and the University of Cincinnati Libraries in Ohio. She works on both special and general collection items for both institutions. She holds an MSLIS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has been working in the field of conservation since 2014.

Upcoming Workshop: The Conservation of Leather Bookbindings

In this variant of sewing support extensions that I came up with,  new thread is carefully looped in signatures and under or through existing cords, without having to lift the leather on the spine.  Unlike joint tacketing, this method does not restrict the movement of the book spine at the shoulder.

 

I’ll be teaching this week long workshop for at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana, March 9-13, 2020. The workshop will be devoted to a wide variety of contemporary book conservation techniques to deal detached boards, arguably the most common place books fail. There was much lively and informative discussion when I taught this two years ago at Emory University, and plenty of demonstrations and hands-on work time. The workshop details forty-six methods — although many are combined in practice — organized into five basic groups.

This workshop is offered through the American Institute of Conservation. More info and registration here.

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In this week-long intensive workshop, students will be introduced to a wide variety of current techniques used to conserve leather bookbindings. Book conservators, technicians, and bookbinders who wish to learn, expand, refresh their treatment skills are all welcome. Previous bookbinding or conservation experience is required.

Detached boards are the most common place leather bookbindings fail, and all five of the primary methods of treating this will be taught: mechanical sewing extensions and tacketing, inner hinge repairs, outer hinge repairs, interior-board repairs (both splitting and slotting), and several styles of rebacking. Many treatments involve a combination of these techniques. Questions concerning methods of consolidating older leather, the archival qualities of modern leather, and leather dyes will be discussed. A variety of methods to pare, consolidate, and lift leather will be introduced. Since a sharp knife is crucial to success in leather work, sharpening and easy ways to maintain a sharp edge will also be taught.

Participants should bring six to eight non-valuable leather bound books to practice on. It would be best to have a mix of tightback and books with hollows, and avoid case bound books. Skills to be learned include leather paring with a knife and paring machine, how various tools and machines for leather paring including a modified 151 spokeshave, and how to choose an appropriate lifting knife or tool for the task at hand.

There will be individual consultations with students before the workshop to discuss potential treatments for their chosen books, and determine if extra materials or tools might be required. Decision making based on the actual books brought to the class will be foundational.

The primary goal of this workshop is to equip participants with a more nuanced understanding of the pros and cons of currently practiced leather conservation techniques, gain supervised experience while performing them, and feedback when they are completed.