The Craft and Trade of Bookbinding

The Lonely Tree

I have always appreciated the multi-dimensional aspect of bookbinding. It is neither solely a creative outlet of beautiful works of art, nor solely a trade producing an object that must be usable and durable (and saleable): for me it us both of those things at once. I love that as bookbinders, we are creating something that is nice to look at, to touch, and to hold (and listen to: I love the sound when I snap a book closed, or the sound of a finger tapped on a closed book’s cover, dok dok dok), but also serves a definite purpose as an information repository, a place to pour out one’s heart through words or pictures, or as a vehicle transporting one to another world via a great story—books are there to be used.

In days gone by, bookbinding by hand was a big trade, with lots of workers all performing separate tasks in big factories. All this has now been mostly superseded by some amazing machinery (and amazing people who run them), and has now become a niche trade with only a few companies around maintaining the old ways, some of whom also maintain the old books. Mostly, hand bookbinding has become an art-form, a hobby for people like me and perhaps you. Nevertheless, I believe it is still important that we who practice this trade–craft as a hobby learn the skills, techniques, and methods of traditional tradesmen and women.

Since starting my Bookbinding and Restoration course at Sydney Institute of TAFE, this trade aspect of bookbinding has really been made apparent to me, because that’s how bookbinding is taught: as a trade. So we learn all the ‘right’ ways to do things, practices that with practice (!) will become second nature, and will result in a high-quality, well made book. We are not really given much opportunity for creativity (unless you’re a rebel like me and use random bits of waste paper as end-sheets!) but it is only the first semester of the course. I am not complaining. As I mentioned above, I think it is a good thing to know all the rules and the right ways of doing things—after all, doesn’t one need to know the rules to break them?

I yearn for the chance to create a book beautifully bound in leather with a beautiful design tooled into the covers. I also yearn to create books that are well-made and that will last. I look forward to learning the more decorative skills, but I look forward with as much eagerness to learning better bindings, and to bettering my skills.

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Blocking a Title and Stabbing a Spine

A Tantalising Taste of Foil Blocking

As I may have said before, one of the great things about having a different teacher is that they have different ways of doing things, and it’s great to have one’s eyes and mind opened by them. One of the things we’ve been working on was an adhesive binding of the free ebook Bookbinding and the Care of Books. It’s taken three lessons to bind it, make the case, block the title, and finally case the book in.

Foil Blocking is where the title of the book is impressed into the cover and spine. It is a similar process to letterpress printing but instead of ink, we use foil of various colours and types. In times past actual gold foil was used, but today a plasticky type of foil is the medium of choice.

For this project, the instructor set the type into the chase, using furniture to space the lines, and a quoin to tighten it all together. Don’t you just love the language? A chase is a kind of tray that fits into a blocking press and is used as the carrier for the type. Furniture are spacers of certain thicknesses that are used to evenly set spaces between lines. Finally, a quoin is an ingenious little device that expands and contracts as an inset screw is turned one way or t’other.

I was naïvely hoping to be able to set my own title, but this of course is not practical in a class of 8 novices. After the type was properly set, the instructor set up the blocking press, which had been left to heat up, so that it was all very easy for us novices to put our cases and foil in and pull the lever to leave behind a lovely title in gold or silver foil. The next thing we did was a little surprising: we got some oil from our skin—around the nose or forehead—and rubbed it over the title to get rid of any little bits that were out of place. Who said bookbinders weren’t a weird bunch?

So during the demonstrations and construction, I learnt a few new ways of doing things, and some better practices. One was that when the you’ve made the case, put the text block into it in its proper position, close the case then rub along the hinges with your bone-folder to help set the joint. Once the case dries, it will be easier to case in the text. Another was that it’s OK to use PVA to case the book in. I had always stuck to paste (no pun intended!), just because that’s how I was first taught. One of the main advantages of PVA is that it dries much faster than paste, so once the book has been nipped in the press, it can be opened and inspected. No more waiting overnight for a book to dry, no more getting up in the morning and hurrying into my bindery first thing to see if the book turned out OK. I like that paste is reversible, but I think that it is a bit over-the-top for what I do, at least for the moment.

A Colourful Stab Binding

My first experience of this type of binding was a few years ago now when I made a 10-page A5 journal with A5 card covers and decorative endpapers. A couple of things were different this time around: the cover is a wraparound instead of single sheets of card, the pages are A4 folded in half with the folded edge at the foredge instead of single A5 sheets, and because of its thickness, the holes were drilled on the paper drill, not punched with an awl.

Folding, Bundling, Sewing, Smashing

We were given 10 pages each of 5 different colours, and commenced folding. Once we had folded everything, with all the colours together in separate bundles, we stacked them with pressing boards between each colour, then gave them a half-hour-long squeeze in the nipping press.

Our instructor told us that the process above was referred to as folding and bundling. If the book were to be sewn in sections, it would include the steps of sewing and smashing—smashing referring to knocking out the swell caused by sewing with a hammer. Once again, bookbinding terminology is simply wonderful.

Once we had folded and bundled our pages, we gathered them together into the right order—in this case the order is arbitrary as the pages are blank. After folding the cover, we drilled the holes, and sewed the book together. I enjoyed making this book because it was a bit different to what I had done before.

Madame Guillotine

Last time I posted about my TAFE course, I promised that I would wax lyrical about my experience using TAFE’s electric guillotines. Let me just say that it is amazingly fun, and that my fascination with sharp stuff has reached another high. The mechanical noise that emanates from the machine when you operate the foot pedal to lower the clamp and then when you strike the knife…ah! such unstoppable power. It is also about the accuracy of the machines—down to 1⁄100th of a millimeter. Accuracy is my other vice, although its pursuit does not always result in it! When working with wood—especially when I made my chicken coop—I have learnt to try to not be too accurate, but to lower the standard from 100% to 95%, which still provides an excellent result, but not at the expense of the whole project itself. Often I would try to be so accurate that my inevitable failure would result in me being completely downhearted and not even finishing the project.

…And On

That’s it for another post. This one took me 10 or 11 days to complete. Hopefully my next one will be a bit sooner, but two weeks is fairly OK I think between posts. At TAFE, I continue binding a really thick (23mm) slab of paper in the Japanese style, but this time with a hinged hard cover. Photos to come.

Book Binding and Restoration Class

Geometrically Compartmentalised

I ♥ Learning

I am 5 weeks into a Book Binding and Restoration class at Sydney Institute of TAFE. The instructor is Carolyn Kenney, a binder with a long history in the trade. She is the second instructor I have had, having first started with Rosemarie Jeffers-Palmer at Amazing Paper in Enmore. One of the wonderful things about learning from multiple people is seeing different ways of doing things. Already I have learnt a few different, more efficient methods for things such as a method of tipping end papers that work for many at a time.

We’ve started off pretty simply, and are getting into sewing soon with a Japanese-style stab-bound book (first introduced to me as an Oriental Side Stitch). If you want some inspiration with your Oriental Side Stitching (or stab binding), check this out on Becca Making Faces’ blog. It is amazing.

Last class, we finished rebinding a paperback, and continued to create a case for an adhesive-bound printout of the free e-book Bookbinding and the Care of Books by Douglas Cockerell. An ePub format—among others—e-book is available from Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg is an awesome resource, and if you want to bind something instead of blank paper, print an e-book from PG and bind that. You will probably find a PDF version set up for printing on commonly sized paper—for example, Pride and Prejudice is available as a PDF imposed 2-up on A4, so that you can just print it and fold it and there you have it!

I’m not sure what legal issues—if any—stand in the way of using the PG stuff in your own work. I think you are free to use any e-books as you like. Can anyone shed any light on this?

A Lovely Gift

One of my compatriots of the course gave me a surprise the other day when at the end of the lesson she presented me with a beautifully crocheted cardigan vest with a hood for my little boy. It is so cool. As I told her, I love handmade things, and the knowledge that she took time out to create something for my little son personally is really special. It’s a little big, so I can’t wait for him to grow into it. Thanks Eleni!

TeX, or Tech, or Whatever It’s Called

A little while ago, I hit on this excellent page, outlining the process of printing a text and binding it. This was my introduction to the arcane and mysterious world of TeX. TeX is a system that allows the user to typeset a document into a high quality book. It is a cross-platform, free, and open source bundle of software. It is not as easy as plugging a Pages publication (or something from the other word processor) into it and, ‘Hey, presto!’, you have a book. It is pretty much a programming language all in itself, so there is a pretty steep learning curve: only the most intrepid computer savvy nerd will want to go there. I generally use it for imposing pages for creating booklets where that option is not available on the printer itself.

I started on converting Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into a TeX document a little while ago, with the idea of binding and giving it as a gift for my Mum, but never actually got to the printing and binding stage. If you want, you can email me and I’ll send you a copy. You’ll need a working install of TeX, and a bit of knowhow and a certain amount of bull-at-a-gate-ishness.

Anyhow, I got bogged down with technical TeX stuff, in particular: getting a nice typeface to use (in this case Minion) which was not at all easy, and the way the pages were imposed, and how laser printers’ duplexing units (that allow printing on both sides of a sheet of paper) often are hopelessly inaccurate at getting both sides of the page to line up correctly (the registration). If anyone know how to improve this, please let me know!

I really want to give this a better go, because I can think of so many gifts I could make by printing classic novels. Imagine a set of hand-bound Charles Dickens or Jane Austen novels! The mind boggles.

A Random Post

So this was a not-so-directed post; or, a little bit random. I’ve been wanting to post about TAFE for a while, so I’m glad I finally got to do it. The impetus for that of course was the excellent cardy Eleni crocheted. Next time I post about TAFE I will wax lyrical about the wonderful experience of using an electric guillotine.