The novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf married fellow writer and Bloomsbury Group member Leonard Woolf, and together they started their own publishing house, Hogarth Press. For Virginia and Leonard, being publishers was more than just dealing with manuscripts; it also entailed the drudge work of setting up the presses and binding the books. In a letter to her sister Virginia lists bookbinding as just one of several household chores to be addressed on a daily basis:
“One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner, ordering dinner, writing orders to Mabel [the maid]; washing, cooking dinner, bookbinding…”
I took up bookbinding a few years ago, but for me it wasn’t drudge work. Perhaps it would have been if it had been a daily chore, something that had to be done, in quantity and on time, but for me it was a hobby. I’ve always been interested in books, and took a fancy to the idea of learning how to conserve and rebind old books. At the time I lived in a suburb of Boston, and Massachusetts is a hotbed for book-related arts. I found a class taught by Daniel Kelm in Easthampton, an hour and a half drive away, where for ten Saturdays I would learn the basics of book conservation.
I hadn’t had any experience before in binding, which could have been a prerequisite, but ended up learning that as well. We started with dismantling a book, pulling the covers, stripping the glue from the spine and separating the signatures until all that was left was the pages. Then washing the pages if necessary, creating new end papers, then re-sewing the text block back together.
Head and tail bands can be sewn by hand using a variety of simple to fancy stitches, or you can take a shortcut and glue on manufactured bands. Next is preparing the covers, hard laminated-paper boards that are cut to size then shaped by sanding the edges. Sewing the signatures back together into a text block can include attaching bands or cords for attachment to the covers, or fabric could have been included in the end paper assembly; any of these could be used to attach the boards to the text block.
Finally, the book is covered either in leather or fabric, or a combination of leather and marbled paper as shown here. Everything so far is called forwarding, to be followed by finishing, which is the addition of decorations such as lettering or gold foil stamping.
The techniques for all of these steps can vary significantly; there are a wide variety of methods and procedures, some historical and some modern, resulting in a large number of different results. Book artists use their skills and talents to combine the various techniques to create beautifully bound books prized by collectors.
“After this to a bookseller’s and bought, for the love of the binding, three books.” — Samuel Pepys
The conservator, rather than creating a new work of art from a new or existing block of text, seeks to restore or preserve an old book, in as original condition as possible, to preserve the book as an historical artifact. From 18th century novels to one-of-a-kind priceless artifacts such as the Book of Kells, a conservator will use period-appropriate techniques and a mix of old and modern materials to create a binding that will preserve the book for centuries to come.
I’m not much of an artist, and haven’t had much desire to creating books for exhibition. I’ve ended up binding a couple dozen books mostly in a traditional style with cords and leather, and have had quite satisfactory results with medieval style binding of cords, heavy oak boards, and tawed pigskin covers. I ended up rebinding some of favourite books — a few different Odyssey translations, Walden, some Arthurian books, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
For a time I got a bit obsessed with the idea that I could do this for a living, but even the best trained and experienced bookbinders make probably less than half of what I’ve made in my career, and it took them several years to reach their level of expertise. So I reluctantly gave up that idea. But I did, while still living in Massachusetts, take advantage of every opportunity I could and took every weekend class I could find, from private instruction with a couple of different conservators, and classes taught at the North Bennett Street School in Boston. After a couple of years, though, I found that to progress any further I would have to quit my day job and start an apprenticeship or fulltime training; this also wasn’t practical for me, so my training stopped, just about the time that I moved away from Massachusetts the availability of classes.
I’ve done a bit more binding, but after a couple more moves and now having very limited space for my supplies and equipment, everything remains packed up in the basement. I really need to dig the stuff out and do it again; I had a lot of fun, got great satisfaction from what I produced, and have some gorgeous books sitting on my bookshelf.