Tag Archives: bookbinding manuals

Review of 18th Century French Bookbinding Workshop

Constant Lem, Book Conservator at the National Library of the Netherlands, reviewed my 18th century French Bookbinding Workshop from last summer, which I taught in the Netherlands. Constant studied Medieval History at the University of Amsterdam. In the 1980s and 1990s he worked as a bookbinder. Since 2004 he is a book conservator at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague (The National Library of the Netherlands). Constant is very interested in historic bookbinding manuals and has long been intrigued by the peculiarities of the special French tradition of leather binding.

Translation by Herre de Vries.

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The reconstruction of an eighteenth century leather ‘French’ binding with Jeff Peachey
Workshop organized by Restauratoren Nederland, May 2016
Constant Lem

Making models of historical binding structures is a source of knowledge about the old book. The best way to make such a model is by working from contemporary manuals. The oldest known sources have a Dutch origin: Beschrijvinghe des Boeckbinders Hantwerck [Description of the bookbinder’s handcraft] by Anshelmus Faust (1612) and Kort Onderweijs van het Boeckenbinden [A short instruction in the binding of books] by Dirc de Bray (1658). These manuals however are written in such a manner that they contain many unclarities to the modern reader. These can be somewhat clarified by repeated empathic reading and by studying the historical examples of the described bindings: historical bookbinding manuals are a wealthy source of knowledge about the old and rare book, but these bookbinding manuals only allow for a good and thorough understanding through the study of actual books.

The most fruitful recreation of an historical model from an historical manual can be done under the guidance of a tutor who has profound knowledge of the manual and who has come across many of its unclarities before, who has solved some, but is continuously open to solutions seen and understood by others, people who have also dug into the subject or people who are completely oblivious yet and can approach it in open-minded fashion.

This type of workshop is exactly what the American bookbinder, conservator and tool maker Jeff Peachey offered. The subject of the workshop was the type of tight-back full leather binding which has been employed so ubiquitously on books in eighteenth century France. The place of action was Wytze Fopma’s studio in the Frisian town of Wier, the Netherlands. It was fascinating and instructional from day 1 through to 5.

Working in the company of book conservators — professionals from library, archive or private practice,  and bookbinders  — to construct a tight-back full leather binding, with raised sewing supports and a flush joint was recreated following the eighteenth century French manuals by Dudin, de Gauffecourt, and the plates accompanying Diderot. During the course long forgotten, unused techniques were employed, like the beating of text block and boards with a 4 kilo hammer and trimming the edges using a plough. One not only understands the nature of the work of the bookbinders of let’s say 1750, but one also gains insight into how different materials and a different way of processing them results in a different book. The tactility of the book is remarkably different compared to the models made without the use of mock old materials and without resorting to those obsolete techniques. You understand why boards are being laced on prior to backing and trimming and what is the consequence of backing a book in-boards. You get to understand how the final result contains closely observable and for this binding type very characteristic, but detailed differences. Some of those are described explicitly in the manuals, others can be deduced from what can be seen manifold on the historical examples.

Jeff’s teaching method is different to what particularly modern bookbinders will be used to. A cover’s square for many a modern-day trained bookbinder should be exactly 3 and not 2.5 mm, and a 90 degree backing shoulder is 90 degrees, and that’s just the way it is. While Jeff knows his sources damn well and he knows what he is doing, he seldomly gave clear, complete and compulsory instructions. He was well aware of the incomplete, sometimes deficient descriptions in the manuals and invited us continuously to ask questions — without necessarily always being able to answer them — and to make remarks and attempt to clarify up to a point, unclear parts of the descriptions. This ‘open’ approach and the pre-final result — the bound and covered, but unfinished book — seemed to bewilder some of the participants,  probably used to clearer guidelines, more stringent instructions and straight lines. This bewilderment evaporated abruptly when the book underwent its final treatments and by applying a simple dotted-pattern surface decoration with iron gall ink and a finish of glaire and paste-wash it suddenly transformed into a historical binding quite convincingly. It suddenly looked all too familiar and many of its previous deficiencies seemed to have disappeared. In reality though they had contributed largely to the satisfying final result!

The point being that while making historical models you should avoid observing with the modern eye and from modern concepts. You should put aside — nearly impossible — all you know and can do, the result of two centuries of a bookbinding tradition constantly working more set and more straight, and to try and settle into the old knowledge, attitude and methods with an unencumbered mind and let it work from within you. With his experience and knowledge Jeff Peachey has given us access to that knowledge, learned how to interpret sources and to work according to methods of that period and as a result of that process has given us moments of great satisfaction.

 

Louis-Sebastien Lenormand: Scientist, Professor, Daredevil, Author of a Bookbinding Manual.

One may safely assume that most of the authors of bookbinding manuals tend to be somewhere between mild-mannered and introvertedly geeky. There are some starteling exceptions to this rule, however. Witness one Louis-Sebastien Lenormand. In the image below, he is hanging from the wood framed parachute, which he invented and publicly demonstrated.

From the wikipedia entry for Louis-Sebastien Lenormand

He coined the name para-chute (Greek-against, French-fall) and intended it to save people that had to jump from tall burning buildings. He also was a professor of physics, chemistry, and technology. In his spare time he was an editor of 27 volumes of Dictionnaire Technologique (1822-1827). And he wrote one of the best bookbinding manuals of the 19th century.

His 1827 Manuel du Relier  (Nouvelle Edition, 1833) was in print for over one hundred years.  He credits Dudin and Lesne as predecessors.  It is comprehensive and is especially concerned with technique. In addition to bound books, it also covers cartonnage allemand, or Bradel binding. There is a tremendous amount of interchange between English and French technical descriptions of bookbinding throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Hannett, in Bibliopegia, 1835, thought that Lenormand’s illustrations of the man ploughing and the disembodied beating hammer were good enough that he copied them. Even if you do not read French, the fold out plates are worth spending some time with, though unfortunately they were not opened when Google scanned Nouvelle Edition….

I won’t even attempt to speculate about the relationship between parachuting and bookbinding, other than that both fascinated Lenormand immensely. I can only applaud his life and work, like the cheering crowd in the image above.

Temple Thorold on Quality in Tools

“Good tools are necessarily expensive, nevertheless our apprentices must use none but the best; for in the end they are the cheapest. Always remember the old and true saying, “A workman is known by his tools.”  A good workman may do a tolerable job with indifferent tools, but a beginner should never attempt to use any but first-class implements, or he will never become a first-class craftsman. If you use bad tools, and try to cast the blame of bad work on them, recollect that “A bad workman always complains of his tools.” A really clever mechanic cherishes his reputation far too highly to allow his tools to lapse into an inefficient condition; therefore, next to his character, the honest workman prides himself, and justly so, on the superior quality of his tools.”      -Temple Thorold, Out Workshop, 3.

Temple Thorold may not be a household name, but his book, Our Workshop: Being a Practical Guide to the Amateur in The Art of Carpentry and Joinery is the earliest (I think) woodworking manual written for or marketed to amateurs. Gary Roberts, publisher of Toolemera Press, who reprinted and sells this book, writes:  “Our Workshop is taken from Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual where it was serialized, along with Thorold’s serial on wood turning. Only Our Workshop became a book. Both were serialized in 1866 and 1867.”  Keep in mind the earliest bookbinding manual I have found written for amateurs is Crane’s Bookbinding for Amateurs from 1885, over 20 years later.

Of course I have a vested interest in selling high quality tools, but Thorold makes several valid points.  Many getting into a craft fear they might not stick with it, so purchase cheap tools, thinking they might buy better ones later, once they are “good enough” for them.  Not only does this make learning the craft almost impossible, but cheap tools are almost worthless on the second-hand market. High quality ones maintain their value. Additionally, high quality tools are much more pleasureable to use: isn’t having fun a big reason why we choose a hobby in the first place?