Category Archives: Around, About, and Through

Modern Shop Talk

The bookbinder’s trade has evolved in a rather solitary way these days, at least in North America. It hasn’t always been such. Depending on the size and region of the shop, there would be enough workers to support a division of labor into separate departments such as folding, sewing, forwarding, finishing, paper beating, paper sizing, ploughing, and edge treatment. Binders in European seventeenth century encyclopediae and manuals show jolly shops with generally cheerful workers all doing his or her own part. (For more on those, see Mirjam Foot, Bookbinders at Work, Oak Knoll 2006.) Even as late as 1906, we see the roster of the Doves Bindery in this photo, happy together and probably fresh off one of their lunchtime croquet matches. (If you made books as finely as the Doves, one might say you’d earned your afternoon croquet.)

Doves personnel

By comparison, this oft-published etching of Roger Payne from 1800 shows what happens when a bookbinder works alone in a garret for too long, though Payne took the status and skill level of bookbinding much farther than anyone working in the trade at the time.

rogerus payne

Is there some kind of line to be drawn between happy bookbinders working in concert with one another and unhappy, solitary, dark souls, hammering out reading material fit for the bookshelves of a king? I don’t think it’s quite that simple these days; however, one thing I do know is that it’s great to get together with other bookbinders and swap horror stories, tall tales of glory, and of course, just a sliver of plain old-fashioned gossip. Some might call this “shop talk”, but since no bookbinder I know works in anything similar to what is known as a “shop”, perhaps we can call it kvetching? Venting? Or just the modern bookbinding version of shop talk.

My old friend and compatriot in bookbinding from Chicago, Karen Hanmer, visited San Francisco for a few days in October to teach her brilliant way of doing things, and I was ultralucky enough to host this Famous Bookbinder while she taught here. Karen’s formal training in bookbinding is from the American Academy of Bookbinding, but my immense respect for her stems from the fact that experience is her guide, and she is constantly working and trying new techniques and binding styles. The space race of the 1950s, the early history of computers, and midwestern prairie imagery figure heavily in her work, and I must confess some envy of her quirky creative perspective. She and her husband travel by train almost everywhere they go, and they’ve taken some pretty neat trips together.

I also like Karen’s unpretentiousness, her humility about her own work, her uncompromising work ethic, and her desire to learn something from every project regardless of how well it turns out. Over the years I have seen Karen’s work evolve and her focus change and change again, and it is fascinating to me how dynamic the field of bookbinding seems when I think about the range of projects she has taken on. Typically I am not a “content guy”, as some have noted– rather more interested in technique and structure, but Karen’s creative work inspires me to devote more time and energy to design, color, and maybe even one day, content. That is one quality of a great friend– he or she likes you as you are, but will also draw you outside your comfort zone and encourage you, either literally or by example, to try new things. When we both lived in Chicago, we would show each other our worst binding mistakes, the most embarrassing boo-boos or bad design choices, and we assuaged each others’ guilty feelings as only the best friends do. Will do better next time and keep soldiering on.

While Karen was here, we didn’t have too overmuch time for hanging out– she taught classes over four full days, mostly to full groups of ten students. It is exhausting to be on stage all that time for anyone, and I also had to work each day she was here except Saturday.  We would eat dinner together and pretty much pass out just after! On her last day here in San Francisco, we went to see the mural by Diego Rivera at City College. It’s something I’ve always meant to do, but never devoted the time to doing it, and it was amazing. It’s remarkable that the mural is open to the public, viewable anytime the theater is open (11-4 Tuesday through Saturday). There was a student docent (history major, no less!) sitting near the mural to answer questions about it, and he was really helpful and informative.

Thanks for visiting, Karen! I’ll miss you! And thanks to Hand Bookbinders of California and the San Francisco Center for the Book for arranging for Karen to teach here.



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Books with Friends

The Friends of the Public Library giant spring book sale at Fort Mason Center happened a couple weekends ago, and I helped out this year again as a volunteer cashier.

So many books! So little time to shop…

Compared with antiquarian book fairs such as last weekend’s in New York (for a bookbinder’s-eye-view, see Gavin Dovey’s post here), the offerings at the Friends sales are somewhat more humble (though I have seen some rare editions go out the door for the mere $3 for a hardcover). But what I love about the Friends sales is that they are for people with a Serious Reading Habit, who have to have the real deal: a Book. I like to work the checkout lines at these sales to see what people are buying and chat with them about the thing that has brought us together: reading!!! That way, I also get to pair up with another volunteer, which makes the time go by quickly. Laurie, who I worked with, is a retired math teacher from San Jose, and was superfun to work with. When our shift was over, I got to pick out some things for myself (as well as for my Intermediate Bookbinding class). I love to see all the books at the sales that reflect life in the San Francisco Bay Area: tons of back issues of Sunset magazine, hiking books up the wazoo, coffee-table photo books of highway 1, and tables full of books about Linux and other code- related endeavors. I was pretty happy to find a rare vintage copy of the 1971 Anybody’s Bike Book, published by Berkeley’s own Ten Speed Press.

Another thing I did that same weekend was take a printing class at the San Francisco Center for the Book! As an instructor, I get credit to sign up for their other classes, and I never miss an opportunity to do so. This time I picked Double Trouble: Type and Image on the Vandercook with Adam Ewing. Check out his work here. So beautiful! In the class, we all carved linoleum blocks with images, then used the Center’s wood type as a base to transfer from and carve letterforms in our lino as well. With just two inkings, we made these cool posters.

The field of printing and printmaking is totally new to me, and it’s a great learning experience for me to branch out a bit from bookbinding. Next week I will start one of the Friends of Calligraphy classes– of course I had to choose Bookhand. Typography, calligraphy, graphic design, and printmaking as well as bookbinding truly flourish here in the bay area– there is always more to learn.

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Another Installment: Pleasure Reading, Summer Updates

artwork by Vanessa Renwick

artwork by Vanessa Renwick

Last night I had the great good fortune to visit one of this fine land’s most fascinating libraries. It has no formal cataloging system nor many of the usual finding aids, inhabits a single room, and yet is one of the best-organized and most expansive collections I’ve seen. How can this be? For the answer to that riddle, you just have to visit… It’s located at the corner of Howard and Eighth Streets in San Francisco. You could also read Megan Prelinger’s own statement about how the library is organized and how it came to be.

Lucky for me, it’s just a short bike ride away, but for those of you who can’t make it in person, the Prelingers have digitized many of the materials in their collection.  Did I mention they’re appropriation- friendly? That’s what “Free Speech, Fear- Free” is about. Thousands of their books and other materials are available for viewing or downloading for free through the Internet Archive. One of my favorites is here: who knew that another term for shipwreck is ‘submerged cultural resource’?

Since I am able to visit the library in person, and since the Prelingers are so encouraging of snapshots, I’ll share some of my own here. They’re just from a very small section I browsed. I came upon many more happy coincidences while I was there—some recipes from Nance Klehm on sourdough bread starters turned up in a small publication on Soil that was hanging out on the Returns shelf.  I also found articles from the 1940’s journal Modern Industry with titles like, ”Six Ways to Tell if Your Employees Are Doing Their Jobs” opposite the biography of Frederick Winslow Taylor and other labor history and Situationist International books. So here’s just a little smattering of front covers and shelves I found…

…a page of Cage…

…some really great tips here!…

…Whole Earth Catalog… a few pages before this one had some very precise instructions for removing porcupine quills from your dog’s fur. aww…

…more Whole Earth Catalog…

…mightn’t everyone need these books someday?…

…vast shelves to be explored…


In early August, a friend and I took a road trip up the coastal highway of northern California. It was mysterious, magical, and so new for me, as I had never travelled it before.  Unfortunately I can’t come up with a single connection to bookbinding… though maybe that’s the point. I finally did something totally unrelated to bookbinding, and I actually had a great time! There are too many pictures to post here, so visit my flickr page for views.

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New News

Hello there, and sorry I’ve been so horrible about keeping in touch.  …And me, with so much news to share! Late last January, I interviewed for the position of production manager at Taurus Bookbindery in San Francisco. I spent an entire day talking to Tim James, who has owned the bindery for 20 years. Some weeks later, he offered me the job, and I decided to close up shop in Chicago and head out to San Francisco. My first day here was March 8, over three months ago, and I’ve been learning a ton! We have had some really terrific work come into the shop, and I’ve been able to use some great labor- saving equipment, much of which is powered by an air compressor. And what may be to the chagrin of many reading this, I’ve come to really understand– perhaps, even love– the gluing machine. Amazing! Here is a photo of the bindery on a Saturday (which is why you don’t see anyone working). Several skylights offer good natural light, which is a nice plus.

All the binders I’ve met out here have been very kind,  generous, and welcoming. Here’s a meeting of the Hand Bookbinders of California, in a lush setting under some beautiful trees in Palo Alto, about an hour by train south of San Francisco:

It seems there is a very vibrant printing and bookbinding scene here in San Francisco! I’m really excited about being here, and hope to keep learning as much as I can.

Before leaving Chicago, I was able to finish a binding for an Estonian bookbinding competition. It involved binding Lauldud Sõna/ The Word Was Sung, a set book centering on Veljo Tormis, an Estonian composer of modern choral music largely based on folk song structures. I tried some new things, including sprinkling leather dye through stencils on the leather after covering, and using stencils to sprinkle patterns on the edges.  I used leather I got at the Guild Standards this past October, which was in San Francisco– the first time I ever set foot here, in fact.

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Death of a Bookbinding Organization, Birth of a Bookbinding Supplier

I just received in the mail the following cards:

CHB Farewell

(As the type appears somewhat small, I’ll paraphrase:  Sadly it seems we must declare that Chicago Hand Bookbinders is no more. Please join us to say farewell… In order to legally dissolve the organization, we must have two- thirds of the membership vote for dissolution. Please use your rsvp to cast your vote. If you wish to keep the organization alive, please only do so by indicating which office you wish to assume. –There are options for President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer.)

I’m not sure if I was sent two ballots with the intention that I might stuff the ballot box for dissolution, or whether I was being asked to nominate myself for two board positions, but I’m only returning one, whatever I decide. The imminent demise of this thirty- year- old organization has been in my awareness for some time now, possibly even a year (since the last election, when no one ran for President). Kind of a bummer, I guess, since as the sometime secretary, newsletter- producer, and evangelical recruiter, I had something of a stake in keeping it alive. Of course, I would not have any regrets if CHB had to dissolve. It is not easy to maintain an organization along with all the things we all have to do to keep our lives going. The field of bookbinding in Chicago has dissolved in many ways, too, since the inception of Chicago Hand Bookbinders.

The big excitement for me about Chicago Hand Bookbinders was that it was born in what seemed to be a golden age for bookbinding in Chicago. Bill Anthony’s studio was in the Old Colony building at that time.  Several people I know or have met studied with him there, including Mark Esser, who established the program at North Bennet Street School in Boston, where I studied.  All kinds of bookbinders and others in the bookbinding- related arts (particularly paper marbling) were doing great work then– more than I can name here, and I discover more all the time. There was a supportive and highly- skilled community– many were professional bookbinders,  some not. It seems they showed their “extra” or fine work relatively often, especially after CHB came into being. Chicago Hand Bookbinders also hosted the Guild of Book Workers Standards Seminar that was held in Chicago in 1988.

This time period is one that bears much further research, and anyone who was around at that time is warmly invited to chat with me about it as I continue to collect more information. For the moment, I am taking CHB underground. If you are interested, contact me. I know who you are.

…   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   … …   …   …

I received word through Book Arts-L last week that a new conservation supply company has been formed. Their products have obviously been carefully picked by the founders, as they seem to be of the highest quality.  I think we all breathe a sigh of relief to know of a plurality of suppliers to our trade in order to have a range of options available to us. Just to clarify: I have not been paid to offer this observation, and I don’t know any of the people at the firm! But something I truly loved about their website for its nerd appeal was the fact that in each photo of each product being offered for sale, a color- bar strip with ruler was included. Do visit:

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Bookbinding lore and its collectors

Hello again! Sorry for being away for so long! It’s been an incredibly eventful couple months! And it’s going to take several posts to catch up with all the things I’d like to post for your very own pleasure- viewing.  Ooh, that sounds prurient, doesn’t it? Well, I do have some of that (bookbinding- related, of course!!), but for later. For now, I’ll just ease back into blogging by showing some recent projects and some items from the special private gallery of Ken Grabowski.

I’ve been waiting a looong time to share this one…

How to Bind Books for Fun and Profit

Yes, those are coins and dollar bills inside the words ‘Bind Books’. Look closely, ladies and gentlemen, for this is the only time you will see money and bookbinding so close together!

Its companion being…

Absolutely fantastic business!

I may joke about the business of bookbinding lightly, but perhaps this is a good opportunity to mention a new book coming out soon about bookbinders in private practice, called The Thread That Binds by Pamela Leutz and published by Oak Knoll. It comprises 20 interviews with living, breathing bookbinders in private practice. I’m really looking forward to it.

But in the meantime, here’s one more item from the Grabowski Collection for those of you who may enjoy a spin down the pines from time to time:

Bookbinders bowlers


I still need to get back to work for the moment– that is, this kind of work:

Sewing tapes

Yikes! But luckily, I have the help of some of my trusty elves:

Kittens helping!

(Many thanks to Ken G. for his fierce ability to collect bookbinding manuals. I am really hoping that with some gentle pressure, he will publish his results eventually.)

Another book about bookbinders I’ve been reading is The Journal of Dora Damage. Published by Bloomsbury, it’s been really keeping me in stitches lately. I highly recommend it to anyone in the craft of bookbinding, especially sole proprietors. I haven’t finished it, though, so I can’t give a full review yet.

So, finally, here’s a small sampling of some of the things I’ve been doing over the past couple months. Some portfolios, some book repair, some calligraphy, even.

Doolin Portfolio

How nice when a portfolio can be sewn through the fold!

Johnson's Dictionary box label

Leather label for drop spine box for…

Johnson's Dictionary repair

Minor hinge repair for a copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, 1794

One of the place cards I did for a small benefit dinner:


And finally, I’ve also continued to volunteer at the Field Museum Library, where I’ve been working on a book about les grenouilles


There’s a lot more where all this came from, so… stay tuned!

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Read to me!

I recently made a book for an organization called K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore, which encourages kids to read aloud to therapy dogs! Kind of funny? Check out the great press about this terrific idea:,04npaws0707.article

I’ll post a photo of the book I made as soon as I have one.

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