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 All this has now been mostly superseded by some amazing machinery (and amazing people who run them), and has now become a niche trade with only a few companies around maintaining the old ways, some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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