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.







Dr. Christopher Clarkson on Conservation Education

I could write a number of posts just introducing Christopher Clarkson. This is the very,very short version. He graduated from the Royal College of Art, London, then worked for S. M. Cockerell, and Roger Powell. In 1966 he was sent to Florence after the flood & taught in Italy and England till 1971. In 1972 Clarkson moved to the Library of Congress, concentrating in Special Collections. In 1977 Clarkson moved to The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore to set up a book conservation studio, he also helped Dr. Lilian Randall, adding many of the parchment & binding descriptions  to her great manuscript catalogue. He returned to England in 1979 as the first Conservation Officer at The Bodleian Library Oxford. Concerned about training, in 1987 Clarkson moved to West Dean College, where he ran an internship programme & worked on many medieval manuscripts. Most recently Clarkson has reported on the early 5th century Ms. Syriac 30 & the ‘New Finds’ of Codex Sinaiticus for the Monastery of St. Catherine’s. Currently he is conservation consultant to Hereford Cathedral Chained Library & Mappa Mundi, The Bodleian Library & to The Wordsworth Trust.

Quite likely, he has done more to create awareness of traditional materials, research the context of older structures, and impart sensitivity to treatments than any other book conservator.  And he generously shares this knowledge through teaching and in publications. Many of his articles form the foundations of the field. In July, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from The University of Arts London. Chris describes that he “was given two minutes for a speech in which he wanted to try to heighten the profile of conservation within the University also to stress why an art school system is probably still right for the  subject.”

Like most of his writing, the speech below is quite dense and warrants reflection.



“It is a great pleasure to be back amongst art school people. I started at Camberwell School of Art in the 1950’s when I was thirteen, when it was still very much academic & Arts & Crafts based. The observational, painting techniques & graphic printing skills I learnt there have been essential in my later career as a conservator.

Conservation is a subject that bridges many disciplines – history, chemistry, engineering, material science etc. Possibly because of this, specific educational committees have said, “this is not ours” & passed it on to other committees. Above everything, it is a discipline which requires a high level of visual & craft skills plus ‘historical awareness’, my phrase, meant to express a deeper knowledge, sympathy & thus respect for the integrity of a period artefact. The danger in poor restoration/conservation training is ‘facsimile’ – the misconception that past cultures & their artefacts can be recreated – they cannot.

What I have tried to develop and teach are the principles of conservation as applied to period book structures, the diversity and the unexpected is what I am trying to preserve. This means teaching a wide and ever growing variety of techniques, utilizing a wide variety of materials and treatments out of which imaginative and historically sensitive young people can begin to find the answers to the problems that damaged books will present.

I am very interested in the choices conservators make in their treatments and how these decisions may influence our interpretation of an object. Thus observational skills are central to any conservation programme, I mean traditional drawing skills – to train the eye is to train the mind.

Conservation belongs in the Humanities, which are suffering badly in the present educational climate. I do hope the University can continue to support, & if possible broaden its commitment to its conservation course. It is a resource intensive discipline, expensive in time, training & quality materials, tools & equipment; a high percentage of bench-work is essential.

There has never been a greater need for well-trained conservators who not only know the techniques but also the cultural significance of what they will be working on. The support that the University gives to such courses is of enormous value.

I would like to congratulate all the students receiving their degrees today & wish you a bright & interesting future.

To the University I thank you for the honour you bestow on me.”

-Christopher Clarkson, 16 July 2012

Letter From a Young Bookbinder Who Maybe Needed More Discouragement

Jen Johnson sent me this letter, in response to last weeks blog post, “letter to a young bookbinder”.  I felt she summed up her experiences thus far quite well, and also hints at some of the larger questions facing the field as a whole.  It is interesting for me — exactly a mid-carrear conservator, 43 years old, 22 years in the field —  to hear from someone at the beginning. Some of the questions are still the same.  She also thought it might be of interest to others to hear her story.  Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is a blog and resource worth checking out for those considering or entering the field.  Jen is a self described “Bookbinder, Pre-program Conservation Optimist.”  Jen writes:
“Dear Jeff,
I read your recent blog post regarding the dissuasion of eager, and optimistic young binders from entering bookbinding and conservation fields. In light of the upcoming AIC panel discussion,  “Models for Educating Library and Archives Conservators”  I thought you may be interested in briefly hearing about my experience as it pertains to this topic, as you have been tangentially involved.
You may not recall, but we met briefly during the 2008 AIC conference in Denver. You joined the three of us for a drink during one of the evenings, and at some point in the conversation we discussed the pros and cons of being apprentice trained, versus program trained. At the time, I had been considering conservation school, but was still employed as a technician, and looking for a way to move up the ranks. In summary of our discussion, I believe you supported the idea of attending a conservation training program, in particular because the two main programs at Buffalo and Winterthur, were well funded, and it seemed the opportunities for less formal, and less available apprenticeship models were waning. You were not the only conservator I spoke with during the conference who shared this view. While not exactly encouraging, I did not get the sense of any warning regarding attempts to enter the field.
Needless to say, I was not discouraged, and upon returning from the conference I began plans to prepare to apply to conservation schools. I left my technician position in order to take pre-program chemistry, and some other minor coursework. I took unpaid internships. I paid visits to museums, conservators, book repair facilities, sent emails, asked questions and did my homework in the process. I would hardly say I was naïve to the difficulties of entering the field.
The work paid off. I was invited to interview by both schools to which I had applied. I shelled out for airfare, hotel fees, and additional expenses. I was ultimately accepted by the Winterthur program, which I felt was a great accomplishment my first time out.  Then, following years without full income, debt accrued from coursework, and the fact that I have a four-year old son to care for (to be fair this was what did me in) I had to turn Winterthur down, because I couldn’t afford to go.
Now, I am not sharing this with you as an embittered student, chewed up by the realities of the field. Truthfully, I would have liked a better outcome (I am expressing this very mildly), but I am expecting that I will have one next year when I reapply. Oh yes, I am not done yet. What I wanted to say was that, I think there are still those of us out there, who know the realities, who understand the profession (at least as much as one can from the outskirts) and who are as yet, undaunted.
I am so pleased to see this panel discussion on the agenda for this year’s meeting. I feel like the conservators I have come in contact with have gone to every length possible to portray the profession honestly, and also to support those of us who, for whatever reason, insist that we still belong there. I hope that AIC and conservators such as yourself can continue to support emerging conservators. It is an elite field to be sure, and not for the feint of heart, but perhaps that is what makes it so fascinating and special for those of us who want to get in the door.
During my interview at Winterthur I heard someone make a comment about the applicants, and that these people don’t have back up plans. I think that’s true, most of us don’t. Still unlike other professions involving intense commitment for the promise of success, one can wind up failing at pretty much anything, and in this economy who really knows where the pitfalls lie? At least bookbinders pursue their trade with the knowledge that it’s going to be hard, and there will never be enough money to compensate one’s education, efforts and skill. We do it anyway.
I will not be in attendance at this year’s conference because I cannot afford it. I imagine a lot of the folks that are the subject of this panel’s discussion will not be in attendance for similar reasons. This is why I wanted to share this in response to your post. I am really looking forward to hearing the discussion through your blog, and while I have no doubt my story is a common one, you are welcome to share it as part of your discussions. This is what is going on for those of us out here waiting in the wings. Thanks so much for participating in this discussion and helping to promote the issue on our behalf.
I appreciate your taking the time to read my response. I hope to see you in the field in the next few years.
Jen Hunt Johnson
Bookbinder, Pre-program Conservation Optimist
jen (at) redletterbindery (dot) com”