Bookbinding 4

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of taking Bookbinding 4: Focus on Leather at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was basically a day to practice the basics of paring leather so that when we go on to Bookbinding 5 we aren’t having to learn a bunch of new stuff all at once.

At first, I had a lot of trouble with it. Paring the edges of leather pieces takes precision and care, and I am not good at being patient when learning new stuff! I could see how it worked in principle, but couldn’t get my coordination to actually do what I wanted. By the end of the day, though, I was doing all right.

We learned to do edge paring with our leather knives (and edge pare is where you make the edge of the leather taper instead of just being a squared-off cut) and also how to use a Scharf-fix machine to thin pieces of leather down to the desired thickness. It was all extremely messy, but pretty fun once I got the hang of it.

I’ll tell you, though, by the end of class my hands were killing me. Lots of unfamiliar motions, done over and over, with a fair amount of strength totally pwned me. Yeow. I wasn’t the only one who had that problem, let me tell you!

The other awesome thing we learned was honing and sharpening blades. My knife was new enough it didn’t need sharpening, really, but I practiced anyway. Honing, though, is pretty much a constant — leather is so tough that you have to hone your blade every few cuts or it gets so dull that it’s almost impossible to use. How do you know if it’s sharp enough? You try shaving your arm. I am not even joking. I now have bald spots on my arm from testing my knife.

I managed to go the whole day without cutting myself, my classmates, or anything I didn’t mean to cut, so I consider it a win overall. I didn’t take very many shots, but have put the ones I did get down below. I can’t wait to do Bookbinding 5 now!

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Today I’m donating a pair of blank journals to a charity auction supporting Gemini Crickets — as befits a donation to a parents-of-multiples support group, they are matching but not identical. Check it out!

It was fun making them — they’re pretty much the same as the books I made in Bookbinding 1, although I used a couple techniques I learned in Bookbinding 2 and 3.

Now I’m starting a run of blank books to sell on Etsy! Woot.

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Zen and the Art of Paper Cutting

One thing I absolutely adore about bookbinding work is getting to work with really good paper. I’ve always loved paper — I used to collect stationary and write lots of physical letters, and the feel of really high quality paper under my fingers has always been something that has a lot of appeal. I already knew that working with paper (like doing a collage) easily turns into a meditative, relaxing activity, but oh, man, when I get to work with really good paper? Best. Thing. Ever.

The paper I am currently smitten with, Mohawk Superfine 70lbs, pretty much only comes in parent sheets (which are enormous) or in 8.5″x11″ reams, which are pretty useless for the blank books I want to make. Thankfully, I learned how to tear down parent sheets in one of my bookbinding classes, and the San Francisco Center for The Book will rent out access to their workshop, so I went ahead and ordered a bunch of parent sheets. Check it out:

The stack of parent sheets sitting on my couch

Those babies are 25″x38″. To get them into usable pieces, all you need is a bone folder and a good paper knife. I wound up enjoying the process so much that rather than just do a few and do the rest at the SFCB with one of their guillotines, I’ve been doing all of them — and that means hacking up almost 40 parent sheets into either eight sheets (for medium sized journals) or into 12 sheets (three for a large journal I’m making for myself and nine for little pocket notebooks). That’s a lot of cutting, but boy howdy,  I’m really enjoying it! It works like this:

Fold the paper along the line you want to cut, and crease it well with the bone folder.

Carefully use the knife to slit along the fold.


Repeat until you have the size of sheets you want.

It takes a bit of care to slit right along the fold — it helps to line the fold up with the edge of the table and use the surface of the table beneath the paper to keep the knife flat, but you don’t want it to be totally flat, it needs to point up just a teensy bit or you wind up scalloping into the bottom side of the paper. It requires total attention, which is part of what makes it so enjoyable for me. I can’t get distracted by whatever I’m worried about or let my mind wander down some random avenue of thought or I’ll ruin the cut. A little scalloping isn’t a huge problem, since I’m going for a handmade look and anyway, some of these blank books will get trimmed on the huge book guillotine at the SFCB. But still, a perfectly straight cut makes the paper easier to work with and is a lot more satisfying.

I practice sitting meditation regularly, and can tell you from experience that it is a lot easier to enter a meditative state when you have something to focus on. Just sitting there, zazen-style, and trying to clear your mind and slow the chatter is really, really hard. It’s even harder when you’re exhausted or cranky or generally in need of a little meditative-style soothing! Something like a mantra or paying very close attention to your breathing (usually by counting each breath) can be really helpful, and it turns out that paper cutting is doing it for me — which is awesome, since it has an actual, tangible output!

Plus, the resulting page edges are lovely: soft, with an almost fuzzy or torn-looking edge, except they’re nice and straight (if I do them right, anyway). They remind me of old books I’ve read — my Mom’s cheap book club books from the fifties full of stories about The Saint. But they also remind me of books from a few centuries ago, when the pages didn’t get slit down until after they’d been bound. The parent sheets got printed on both sides and then folded up carefully to make each signature, and once the book had been bound the pages had to be slit apart. It was actually a special thing to slit the pages yourself, because it meant you bought the book brand new and nobody else had read it.

Regardless, I’m enjoying the process immensely. It’s not terribly efficient, but I’m doing it because it helps me unwind after a long day rather than to make money.

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Paper Mending

Over the weekend I took another class up at the SFCB — this time on basic paper mending. It was really interesting to learn a few methods of cleaning and repairing mangled pages. We also learned how to reattach pages that had fallen out of a trade paperback.

One theme that the teacher kept coming back to was considering whether you’d be doing more harm than good by trying to repair the object in question. For example, if you’re trying to mend a document that has water-soluble ink on it, the chances of the paste making the ink run are very high (we learned how to test for water-solubility while minimizing the chance of damage to the object, which was cool). Plus, even the best mend is visible – creases and tears can’t be completely eliminated, just minimized. Reattached pages usually involve a hinge of some sort, which is visible. It’s just not possible to make the object exactly what it was before. There are always trade-offs. You have to consider why you want to mend the  item — are you trying to make it usable again? Trying to make it look nicer?

We used high-quality wheat starch paste and a variety of thicknesses of Japanese paper to mend tears and cuts, and learned to fill in spots where a tear had left a hole. We also learned how to uncrumple paper with the least amount of damage to it. It was a rather slow class in the beginning but the afternoon was really interesting and I had a good time.

The teacher works at UC Berkeley doing restoration/conservation on materials in the university’s library system, and she said that often the best course of action is to try to stabilize the item rather than try to make it be just like it used to be. Old books that are falling apart can be stored in specially-made boxes, documents can be sealed into mylar sleeves, and so on.

One thing that complicates the decision-making process is that book conservation is relatively new — less than 100 years old — so it’s not entirely possible to know how your additions will change over time. Apparently a lot of mending techniques that were considered safe in the fifties are now causing damage as they age. Chemicals in the adhesives, mending materials, and the objects themselves can react in surprising ways, given enough time.

At any rate, it was really interesting and I had a great time. Plus, I learned how to make the kind of wheat paste that requires cooking! I’ve ordered the materials to make a batch of my own and will let you guys know how it goes!

Here are some images from the class:

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Powell's City of Books. Photo by lwy, under cc.

Every so often, I get to visit Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. When I was little, I always asked my parents to buy me issues of Asterix the Gaul that I didn’t already own. Now, I buy my own books, and endeavor not to bankrupt myself in the process.

The last time I was there, I got so many books that I could barely fit them all into the generously-sized baskets they provide their shoppers. The clerk said, as she rang me up, “you’re not from around here, are you?” When I said no, she said that she could always tell — it was the visitors who bought heaps of books, not the locals. “It’s almost like it’s a pilgrimage,” she said.

In a lot of ways, it is. For a gatherer, Powell’s City of Books is a sort of Mecca. Check out this map (pdf) and you’ll see why – over a million books are on the shelves. The place takes up an entire city block! What makes it particularly exciting to browse there is that used books are shelved right alongside new ones. You never know what treasures you’re going to find. I’ve snapped up reasonably-priced, good-condition copies of out-of-print books I never thought I’d get my hands on, sitting quietly next to the latest trade paperback. Plus, there’s the Rare Book Room, which is the sort of collection that inspires hushed reverence from book collectors. I’ve seen some amazing things up there — not that I could afford any of them, but man. Getting to see them was almost as awesome.

I’m going to be going there again next month, and I can’t wait!

This is probably a symptom of my bibliomania — after all, I haven’t finished reading the books I bought last year! But even so, it’s hard not to feel a thrill at the thought of tracking down rare books I don’t have yet. I’ve started making a little list of things to look for when I’m there, and looking eagerly at the money I’ve been saving the last few months. I’ve even got a count-down widget on my smartphone (34 days!).


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Bookbinding 3

Over the weekend, I went up to the San Francisco Center for the Book again and took Bookbinding 3. It was really fun! We did a bigger, more traditionally-bound book — just one rather than two — and it came out pretty well!

There are a number of things we did differently with this book than the ones I made in Bookbinding 2.  For one thing, this one is a lot bigger — 18 signatures instead of 10. For another, we learned to handle the greatly increased swell (the increase in thickness at the spine of the book you get from the fold and from the thread used to sew the signatures together) with a much more curved spine. You can see in the photos below just how curved it turned out! The process requires using a piece of equipment called a job press — you basically put the book in once it’s a little rounded and crank it tight so that the swell is concentrated all at the end rather than making the whole book sort of wedge-shaped. It gives the book shoulders, where the curve is wider than the rest of the text sheets (almost like a mushroom shape, if you look down at it from the top). The cover boards sit in against the shoulders, so ideally the covers and pages are all flat, while the spine curves out on the edge.

We also learned to sew our own endbands, a process some of my classmates hated but which I really liked. It’s a bit tricky, but the product is so awesome that I don’t mind. I am planning on doing sewn endbands for all my books from now on!

We also used wheat paste for some steps instead of using the synthetic stuff we’ve used in the past. Every glue has advantages and disadvantages. Wheat paste takes longer to set, which can be a real advantage (you can move stuff around a bit after putting it together to get things perfectly lined up, for example) but is also a liability in a classroom setting, because it takes so much longer to dry. The biggest advantage to wheat paste in my eyes is that it’s totally reversible. You can melt it with some care and attention, enabling you to undo serious mistakes or redo a project once you know a better way. Once I get into conservation and restoration, I will probably be using wheat paste exclusively because a book precious enough to be restored will be worked on again in the future, for sure, and it’s good to make that future work a little easier when you can!

Wheat paste does have to be mixed fresh every time you want to use it (it molds very quickly when it’s wet, since it’s basically just flour and water) and you have to mix in calcium carbonate to make it pH-neutral, but it’s easy enough to do both those things that I don’t mind.

Finally, we added a lining to the inside of the cover so that there wouldn’t be a bump from the paper and bookcloth turn-in. This required some precision cutting, but wasn’t too hard, and I may add that to my own books in the future. The result is really nice.

So, here’s a look at the book!

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I made a book!

I know, I know. I’ve made books before. But this one I made all by myself!

It’s smaller than the ones I did in class, and I used a different thread (one that’s bright orange, to match the cover!). For bonus win, I made it for my boyfriend, whose favorite color is orange — as you can probably tell from the photo — and he loved it.

I made the text block from printer paper, and used regular book board and book cloth for the cover. I made matching endbands, and used the curved-spine technique I learned in Bookbinding 2 (I don’t have a book hammer yet, but wound up being able to do it with just my fingers, probably because it’s such a small book).

My new nipping press is awesome and I actually cranked it down a little too hard – you can see some denting from the press being too tight if you know where to look in the photos. But it came out great for a first solo book! I’m very pleased.

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Flog your blog!

In response to Junglemonkey‘s generous invitation to allow people to plug their blogs on her own, I’m doing the same – giving anyone who comments here the chance to sell their blog to the handful of bibliophiles (and Ealasaid-ophiles) who read this blog!

So, make a comment! Leave your name and let me know what kind of stuff you write. Do you portion out slices of life? Practice amateur comedy? Dissect current events? When you comment, there are a couple of rules:

1. You must be following this blog to make a comment.
2. You must do this on your blog too in order to give your followers a chance to gain new folks.

Come on – you have nothing to lose and perhaps a few friends to gain!

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I’m working on doing bookbinding at home now, and having to get sneaky about my equipment. A lot of bookbinding tools are kind of ridiculously expensive. Fortunately, I am pretty handy, and the internet is full of ideas.

Here are two items I made recently so I could get my work done:

On the left, we have a piercing jig (or trough, or cradle). I built this one out of bookboard using this design. To see how fancy (and expensive!) they can get, hit Google. Or look at this. Gorgeous!

This particular piece of equipment is used to hold a group of folded pages (a signature) open while you use an awl to make holes in them for stitching. The V-shape helps make sure the holes go straight down into the fold. It’s perfectly possible to do the punching without a cradle (or trough, or jig), but the trough (or jig, or cradle… can you tell I’m amused by all the names?) makes it a lot easier. This cost me about half an hour and maybe $3 of materials to make. It’s not as sturdy or pretty as a wood one, but it’ll do until I have the inclination (and money) to buy a nice one.

On the right is a basic finishing press (sometimes called a lying press), made following these instructions (roughly. I did some tweaking here and there to suit my own preferences). This is a very important piece of equipment, and one that you can’t really do without (unlike the piercing… thing). The finishing press holds a book while you work on its spine, pressing the pages together so the glue doesn’t seep down between them.

There are absolutely gorgeous wood presses out there, but they are pretty pricey and also difficult to find. They require precision wordworking (traditionally, the screws between the two sides of the press are made of wood as well as the press itself) and not many people are able or interested. There’s a local carpenter who makes the presses for the San Francisco Center for the Book where I’m taking classes, and I’m on a list of people he’s going to call when he has another batch done (this gives me time to save up!).  Here’s a photo showing one of his presses. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on one for my workbench!

In the meantime, though, I have my ersatz tools and am chugging along. I’ve added handbound journals to my list of services, as you can see, and am enjoying working on creating them at my little workbench:

I’ve ordered a nipping press, since those are essentially impossible to build ersatz versions of, and I’ll have lots of photos once it arrives! I can’t wait.

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As you’ve probably heard, Borders is closing a number of its stores as it files for bankruptcy.

Part of me is doing a small, vindictive, schadenfreude-laden dance of EAT IT SUCKER! I remember when there were a fair number of independent bookstores in my area, charming little bookstores which started struggling and many of whom eventually closed as Borders and Barnes & Noble moved in. Admittedly, this is when I was a kid and didn’t have enough disposable income to do much book shopping, but my parents took me with them to bookstores, so I did notice the shift.

After college, I spent a lot of time in my local Borders where a guy had organized a regular Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game night. Every week, a handful of us would gather around a table the store kindly set up for us back in the music section, buy drinks from the store’s cafe, and stay until the store closed, gaming our little hearts out. I had a lot of fun — as a second-generation Tolkien nerd, I love LotR. The game was well crafted for the first few years, and a major championship game even made it to ESPN2 (one of my gaming group guys was on the commentary team for that broadcast, and had me coach him in correct pronunciation of the card names).

The group disbanded when the Return of the King release of the game was so bad that it made the game almost unplayable, but I always look back fondly on that time. Seeing the Borders when I drive past makes me smile. Even a corporate bookstore can be a positive location.

You’ll note, however, that I don’t smile because of hours spent buying books there.

I like to buy from indie bookshops when I can, and hopefully now that Borders is shrinking its reach the indies will start to thrive a little more. There’s even a handy list of indie bookstores near closing Borders stores you can consult for new places to go to get your hunt-or-gather on.

There’s something particularly charming about small indie bookshops. They don’t tend to have coffee bars or enough space for local gaming groups to hang out in them, but they tend to have knowledgeable employees and a rather more eclectic selection of books. Plus, the atmosphere just strikes me as me as more bookish! Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather browse in a bookshop that looked like this:

Fields Books in San Francisco, photo by Ellen Francik

than like this:

Borders Books in Seattle. Photo by Ruthanne Reid

I’ve done a lot of browsing in Borders over the years, but I can while away a lot more hours in a much more enjoyable way in indie bookshops. Long live indie bookstores!

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