2018 Historical Book Structures Practicum: Demonstrating, Draw Knives, and Paring Tawed Skins

I recently finished teaching a month long workshop on historic bindings for the Library and Archives Conservation Education Consortium of Buffalo State University, New York University, and the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. LACE for short. Seven MA students in conservation completed six historic models from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

This year it was hosted by The Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and took place in the first year student classroom, which is a really great space to teach in. The room has individual work stations for the students, as well as a group area with moveable work tables for lectures, ppt’s, discussion, and demonstrations.

One configuration of the classroom.

It is important that the students can be comfortable and close enough to observe details during demonstrations. In this configuration, students could sit to watch and take notes, and I could stand, which is how I like to work. Having a task light would have made it ideal.

Edge of a bookblock cut with a drawknife. Photo Nicole Alvarado.

For our late Gothic model, some of the students wanted to try out a drawknife instead of a plough for edge cutting. Nicole Alvarado worked the edge in the above image. We found it quite difficult it is to achieve an edge that looked like historic examples. We had to start with the sides of the bookblock in order to shave it down. The resulting edges did not look like the example depicted in Fig. 9.14 from J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding or on a first first folio of Shakespeare.

The edges on the Shakespeare and in Szirmai were presumably cut with a skewed and sliding stroke of a drawknife, with one stroke at a time advancing a significant amount through the book. It is easy to imagine this when looking at the images. We found it impossible to replicate this, though. Was our drawknife too small, the blade angle too obtuse, modern paper too hard, or our arms too weak?  A combination of all of these? Or was a different tool used? In both of these examples, each chop could have been caused by an aze or adze, in order to penetrate so far through the thickness of the bookblock. Time for more experimentation!

Paring and scraping a tawed skin with a round knife. Photo Karissa Muratore.

In bookbinding, usually vegetable tanned goat is the easiest leather to pare, followed by vegetable tanned calf, then tawed goat or calf. Tawed pig the most difficult. Tawed skins are quite abrasive, and quickly dull any knife. Karissa Muratore did a wonderful job of paring an alum tawed calfskin for her Gothic Model binding. Although tawed pigskin would have been traditional, all of the major bookbinding leather producers are no longer offering them, citing difficulty in obtaining quality raw skins.

Karissa’s image illustrates how a rounded blade knife can be used for edge paring (note the pieces in the foreground) and scraping (note the shavings in the background). Scraping is a safe, but slow way to even a skin out, as well as thin the spine and headcap area. I think that 15th century binders would have received the skins the appropriate thickness overall from the tanner, and only had to edge pare.

This late Gothic binding — clasps, alum tawed skin, wooden boards, double cord sewing —  is a satisfying final project, combining bookbinding, woodworking and metalworking skills.

By the end of the month, the students were more than happy to demonstrate what they learned about safe, professional, and thoughtful tool use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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”

 

Others?

Boards Bindings, Temporary?

A collection of boards bindings from a circulating library is being sold by Antiquates. Considered together, it forms pretty strong evidence against the traditional view boards bindings are entirely temporary structures, since the books contain circulation records.

Bookbinders might be interest in several other items in this catalog, particularly a run of The Bookbinding Trades Journal, or a fascinating book (I have a reprint) that details the murder of a bookbinder’s finishing tool maker by a bookbinder: Cook, the murderer, or the Leicester tragedy: Being a Full and Faithful Account of the horrible assassination of Mr. John Paas, of London, On the 30th of May, 1832, perpetrated by James Cook, of Leicester; with an authentic detail of the cruel means adopted by the murderer to accomplish the bloody deed….  A short summary of the incident is on the British Library Blog.

Lurid scenes of the murder, dismemberment and burning of Pass by Cook. This is also one of the earliest English images of an actual bindery. Source: https://www.antiquates.co.uk/images/ListBbPrintFinalCompressed.pdf

And if a reader of this blog is feeling the holiday spirit particularly strong this year, I confidently recommend that any of these items would make a wonderful Christmas gift for me. Thanks in advance!

A collection of publishers’ boards bindings for sale. Source: https://www.antiquates.co.uk/images/ListBbPrintFinalCompressed.pdf

Boards bindings are traditionally regarded by bibliophiles as rude, drab, ugly, and temporary. This disparagement alone perks my interest.

“Unfit for a gentleman’s library!”  I imagine a Victorian barrister exclaiming, hurtling the ugly blue paper volume towards the marble fireplace, in the process tearing the spine and detaching the front board. “See, see,” he triumphantly states, pointing with his fat forefinger at the vile, dirty, weak and damaged paper covered binding.

Reading list of Clitheroe Ladies’ Book Society Source: https://www.antiquates.co.uk/images/ListBbPrintFinalCompressed.pdf

Although there are a number of differing definitions of what temporary means, a common one regards them as a weak and non-permanent. This was a book meant to be rebound once a purchased — preferably into a “real” leather binding — so the traditional bibliophiles say.

What makes this collection fantastic is that it documents the use of each book, though likely this is somewhat less than the actual use. Twenty times, at least for this volume, as well as an unknown history since the documentation. These books are not in great shape, as the first image illustrates. But they are still functional.

This and other evidence of boards bindings being used many times, refutes traditional assumptions concerning their temporary status, which may have roots in elitism and classism, rather than physical properties.