Category Archives: Classes I’ve taught

With appreciation

Recently at the Center for the Book where I teach, the Studio Manager received a phone call from the family of a bookbinder who had passed on. Instead of selling her tools and materials, the family wanted to donate these precious items to a place where they would always be used and appreciated. As one of the Center’s many bookbinding instructors, I have a deep appreciation for this impulse. Any additional tools and materials available in the classroom save time for students, who are ever eager to dive into the next step in a project. It is a critical part of my job as an instructor to show students the correct use of these tools and equipment to ensure their longevity. This will also (I hope) widen the understanding of these tools so when the students see similar items out in the world, they will know how to properly use them.

As someone who has been involved in bookbinding for over 15 years now, I have seen the tools and materials of binderies change hands. Occasionally I have been the beneficiary, though more often not, but it’s always interesting to see what other binders save and what they use. There are always little home made or DIY jigs, guides, workarounds, and even whole pieces of equipment that people have fabricated to achieve the highly specialized goals we need to attain in our work. These are the unpaved footpaths of bookbinding. Often a secondhand piece of equipment is covered with notes or markings (usually on dried-out masking tape) based on the settings a repeat job has required. Sometimes I think I could write a whole separate blog on this topic alone.

For all these reasons, I have a strong need to be a good steward of the tools and equipment I use, and a need to use the highest quality materials I can find and afford. This principle affirms high quality work all around. But it also allows me to repay the debt of trust I owe to the people who have given, sold, or traded their items to me. Bookbinding is not possible, or at least not feasible, without highly specialized equipment that is generally no longer manufactured. With few exceptions, everything I use daily in my work is something handed down from the past.

One example is this wooden sewing frame. I did not look for one of these for my bindery for many years, not really needing one too much, or at least, not believing I did. But since I have had this one, I have found reasons to use it, and it has been amazing! When it first came into my possession, I immediately purchased 5 sewing keys for cord and 5 for tapes, to make sure it had the correct accessories. I know not everyone in bookbinding likes using sewing keys, but once I got used to them, I have never looked back.

wooden sewing frame

this bad boy

In the past, I have not often had a need for a sewing frame; sewing on external raised supports, or even sunk cords, is not something I do too often professionally, so I have never pursued finding one. Even when sewing multiples, I have often used a simple hobby-frame I acquired while in bookbinding school, and that’s worked well.

However, by hook or by crook, this beautiful old sewing frame seemed determined to find its way to me, and I must admit it has cracked the doubting facade of even this stubborn bookbinder. I found an excuse to give it a whirl, and while it has its challenges, it has a strong draw. I have to be careful in using it, and navigate around its highly charactered nature. But I wanted to share some pictures of it to give you an idea of how important it is (to me, anyway) to preserve and respect the tools of the past.

a little beausage on the bar

Just a little beausage to remind me I’m not the only one who really uses stuff! I’m not even this bad.

Another item is the giant press and plough which takes up the bulk of space in my tiny bindery. It was passed on to me from a bookbinder who had stopped practicing, but had learned from Bob Futernick in years past. Bob, a bookbinder and woodworker both, made the tub for the press. A press this large is highly susceptible to damage without a proper tub, and this tub is proper! When this came into my possession, I knew right away it needed a plough to go with it. As luck would have it, a student had emailed me some months prior to let me know she had one that she was looking to sell. At the time I thought in the back of my mind, “Good luck! That plough is humongous; you’re not likely to find someone with the right size press for it.” Well…

Wooden press and tub

This side gets the most use

Press, plough and tub

Press, plough and tub

Traditional joinery by Bob Futernick

Traditional joinery by Bob Futernick (a bookbinder!)

Another set of items for which I will be forever grateful is from fellow bookbinder Margaret Johnson. She has been a great friend and mentor to me. She sold many of her tools and equipment when she decided to stop binding at 92 years of age. Always concerned with the future of her favorite craft, she generously donated the proceeds from the sale to the Jane Aaron Scholarship Fund, which provides scholarships to Hand Bookbinders of California workshops. There were many odds and ends left over, and those she offered to me in exchange for wrapping up some of the bookbinding projects she couldn’t finish.

Bone folders and brushes are what it's all about

Bone folders and brushes are what it’s all about

I was honored to have this opportunity. It’s a rare thing when you get to do work for another bookbinder. I always do my best work of course, but it’s got to have more meaning when you know the recipient will recognize the things you did to make the work shine.

13 Clocks (before treatment)

13 Clocks (before treatment)

Margaret had peeled the decorated pastedown from the board

Margaret had peeled the decorated pastedown from the board

13 Clocks after treatment

13 Clocks after treatment

I was able to save and remount the original pastedowns that Margaret had peeled

I was able to save and remount the original pastedowns that Margaret had peeled

One small piece of news this month somewhat related to the topic of Appreciation: bookbinding supplier Colophon Book Arts has recently changed hands. This is a big piece of news to me, since I’ve been making a point of purchasing from this small, dyed-in-the-water (the former owner was a marbler) bookbinding supplier for years. I’ve been very happy with her choice of stock, and her way of doing business. I thank Nancy Morains for her many years of service to the bookbinding community, and wish her well! The new owner is also someone very active in the bookbinding community, and although the business is moving quite far away from me to Indiana, I look forward to continuing to order from Colophon. You can see some pictures of the move here on her Instagram.


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In the studio

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to update this blog too much over the past year, but I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve been working on. I wish I had more time for blogging, but there has been no rest for the wicked (bookbinder), as I’ve been teaching or doing private work nonstop. I’d like to use this space to catch up a bit with some of the exciting projects I’ve been very lucky to have worked on over the past year. I hope my sharing something about them will make others feel inspired.

Custom box for memorial cards

One of my dearest repeat clients, a photographer who specializes in family portraits, came into my studio one day with a small paper bag filled with remembrance cards, other mementos, and a beautiful glass framed portrait that all needed to go into a box for a local family. This was a challenging project, since all the items were of widely varying sizes and shapes. I made a drop spine box with two separate compartments, a four-flap, and created a new frame out of contrasting book cloth for the portrait.

Remembrance Box Compartments

I created two side-by-side compartments to house most of the cards and letters. They were in honor of a woman who had a deep connection to the area’s redwood forests, so I felt a bit of a connection to her, too.

Remembrance Box Inside View

This is how the inside of the box would be viewed when opened.

Remembrance Box Front

This was the front of the box, with the woman’s name stamped in gold.

Working large

Last year I ended up doing a series of three oversize repairs for completely unrelated clients. At the outset, the complexity and challenging nature of each one seemed overwhelming, not to mention three at once. Here are some anecdotal photos of them, with brief explanations, though I might like to post an entire entry at some point, just on these projects.

Illustrated Atlas of Alameda County

This was an illustrated atlas of Alameda County from the 1800s. There were foldouts, text folios, single sheets and even a few double foldouts. The inside of each foldout had a map, and the outer sides of the map had charming illustrations depicting farms or other points of interest in the area of that map. Each page was a slightly different width, calling for the complicated series of stubs, hinges, and guards you see in this detail photo.

Big Book Board

This picture shows the mind-bending immensity of the largest book I have ever repaired (one cover board of it, anyway). I weighed the cover and a single board alone weighed over 6.5 pounds. The main challenge in repairing this particular book was to handle it throughout the repair process with the care it needed in spite of its heft. Good thing I exercise!

Monograph of the Ramphastidae before

This was the initial state of the third of these large books I repaired. All three books also presented challenges simply in the documentation I do for my internal record keeping. I had to move the camera so far away that I couldn’t get very clear photos at times. I took a lot of detail shots to fill in the gaps.

Monograph of the Ramphastidae After

This is the previous book after treatment. Two of the three books required a technique known as a leather reback; the Atlas got a brand new set of covers, since its original covers were severely water damaged.

Prelinger Treasure

Some of the first book conservation I did after moving out to the bay area was for the Prelinger Library, and last year, I was able to do some more work for this innovative collection. They house certain volumes of government publications discarded by other libraries for lack of space, and have happened on some interesting books. One of these that happened into my studio for a time was a record of a US military expedition from Missouri to San Diego conducted in 1841, passing through and reporting heavily on the region now known as New Mexico and Arizona. A researcher at the Prelinger felt the book was important enough to donate the funds to have it repaired, and so I did my best.


This was the initial condition of this book, with ragged folds at the spine, broken sewing in several places, an odd section of stubs with no pages deforming the rest of the textblock, and many tipped-in illustrations in various stages of attachment.


I carefully took apart the entire textblock page by page, then applied paper made from kozo fibers with wheat paste to give the folios a stable footing to be resewn and rebound. Note that only about two thirds of the signatures are in this photo-there were over 40 that all needed extensive guarding.


Typical illustration from the text, one of many. Old Santa Fe. If you think the illustration is interesting, you should read the text! For a military report, it is a real page turner, filled with encounters with Native Americans of several different tribes as well as investigations of plants, geological formations, and animals that were completely foreign to the group of topographical engineers authoring the report. This book is available to see, read, and handle at the Prelinger Library. No academic credentials required.

Prelinger After

This is the spine after treatment.

Prelinger After Cover

This is the cover after treatment.

New bookbinding class at SFCB

I have been teaching classes in bookbinding at the San Francisco Center for the Book since 2011, and have most often focused on offering a foundational series of classes to give students a slice of what I got at the North Bennet Street School. I don’t see any use in hoarding what I know. I have met so many fascinating people while teaching, some becoming clients, friends, or both! So last year, I decided I wanted to push things a step further and offer an additional advanced class in leatherwork for bookbinding. This would be an idealized (for me anyway), traditional style of binding in many ways, though the class would be limited to two or three days of in-class time, depending on which option the Board of the SFCB voted to approve. Lucky for me, they approved the longer three-day version, and the class was held two weekends ago, over the holiday weekend to allow those who travel from long distances to take the class in three successive days.


This binding included lining the boards, sewing on four raised cords, using loose guards, ploughing, sprinking the edges, sewing silk endbands, lacing the boards through twice, and of course covering the spine in specially-pared leather. We also did some blind tooling around the raised bands for a traditional look.

Quarter Leather Binding x6

These were all of our books at the end of the class! Everyone survived, and I think we all had a good time, too.

Life has been full; I look forward to more fun on Book Island!


Filed under Classes I've taught, My projects

Teaching and Learning

Everyone has his or her favorite cultural icon, right? I do too, and mine is John Cage. He grew up in southern California, lived most of his life on the east coast of the US, and was a composer, among many other skills and specialties. His music is sparse, abstract, noisy, at times loud and harsh and at other times perfectly quiet and peaceful. In some ways a product of American culture and history, in others a radical departure, Cage was at all times a hard worker, completely devoted to creating music and bringing sounds together. He brought this same focus to his side pursuits, such as mushroom gathering and macrobiotic cooking, as well. His whole life, as a synthesis of all of these dynamic activities, went into his compositions and recordings.

Cage's mycological collection is at UC Santa Cruz!! Let's go!!

Cage’s mycological collection is at UC Santa Cruz!! Let’s go!!

We also have just a few books containing his lectures and poems, such as Silence and Indeterminacy. There is so much more to explore about Cage’s life, music, and philosophy, but this is a bookbinding blog. What I wanted to share about Cage is one of his writings I happened across, very much in chancy Cage-like fashion, at the Prelinger Library. Cage had mixed opinions about formal schooling, having dropped out of Pomona College as an undergraduate, though he was valedictorian of his high school class. I think it can be comfortably said that he continued to learn, study, and teach throughout his life, and that the concept of lifelong learning–questioning assumptions, gathering data, and growing and adapting–was central to his thinking. I wanted to share the following piece in light of the classes I will be teaching soon, as well as the classes I have been taking lately. The past year has been a very active one for me, filled with growth and change. It has been over eleven years now since I received my diploma in bookbinding, and so I have had nearly adequate time to begin to practice and reflect on what I learned there. But now, it is time for me to resume my pursuit of learning, growth, and adaptation. Last summer, I took the Design Binding Intensive class from Dominic Riley. I think Dominic is a very Cage-ian instructor: eccentric, with unparallelled skill, completely engaged in his classes, often taking us on field trips and giving us lots of concrete information.

Dominic demonstrates board chamfering

Dominic demonstrates board chamfering

I also taught some classes, some at home and others further afield.


Creative interpretation by a student in one of my classes. Brilliant!!


This summer, I will be taking some classes at the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation in northwestern Illinois. And last weekend, I took a class in finishing with gold leaf taught by Gavin Dovey to refine my skills. I believe there is always more to learn in any field, but especially in a field like bookbinding, and I am grateful to have found a profession for which there is always room for expansion.

I have been teaching bookbinding for years, and feel that I often learn more from my students than they learn from me… Perhaps these few lines from Cage explain why.

 Some Rules and Hints for Students and Teachers
John Cage

RULE #1: Find a place you trust and then, try trusting it for a while

Pull everything out of your teacher
Pull everything out of your fellow students

Pull everything out of your students

RULE #4: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE #5: Be self disciplined.
This means finding someone smart or wise and choosing to follow them.
To be disciplined is to follow in a good way.
To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE#6: Follow the leader
Nothing is a mistake.
There is no win and no fail.
There is only make.

RULE #7: The only rule is work
If you work it will lead to something.
It is the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things. You can fool the fans but not the players.

RULE #8: Do not try to create and analyze at the same time.
They are different processes.

RULE #9: Be happy whenever you can manage it.
It is lighter than you think.

RULE #10: We are breaking all the rules, even our own
How do we do that?
By leaving plenty of room for ‘x’ qualities

Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read everything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully and often. Save everything. It may come in handy later.


…and speaking of “Come or go to everything,” here is an event not to be missed for anyone who was ever curious about how fine bindings are made:

HBC Codex Event

It is sponsored by my local bookbinding organization, and will be a great way to begin the festivities relating to Codex and the Antiquarian Book Fair. I’m hoping we will record it in some way, but the best way to experience it will be in Cage-ian fashion: be there.

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This is my job.

Yesterday and today, I have been working on a special project: making lifting knives for my Intro to Book Repair  students. I have to make seven of them, which is twice as many knives as I have ever made at once, and seven times as many as I have ever made of one type. It takes a long time to make even one good knife by hand, so it’s a fair job for me. I began by visiting Noisebridge, a local hacker space which also happens to have a wood shop, to use their bench grinder to grind the high-carbon Sheffield steel blanks down to the right shape. A few of the young computer guys would come in and chat with me from time to time about what I was doing, and I got a lot of raised eyebrows. It turned out one of the guys who keeps up the wood shop is from Madison, so we got to talk about how much we miss a good cheese curd. Two other dudes came in to use the router in order to make a slit drum, and there was a lady making phoenix stencils and painting and sanding pieces of wood. Meanwhile, outside the wood shop, Noisebridge is having its weekly 10 minutes of fame event, where people share what they like to do. The place is packed! I heart SF.

The blanks having been shaped, I progressed to the actual sharpening process. We learned to make our own knives when I was at North Bennet Street School, as I have mentioned in this blog before. Although that process was painful, frustrating, and time-consuming, filled with lots of whining, crying, and the sharing of disturbing nightmares among my fellow students (Mark, I’m so sorry we put you through all that!), now I feel totally confident when dealing with anything knife-related, from small hand tools to board shears and guillotines. Since then and now, I have had a lot of time to think about steel, its uses, types, and qualities, and observe the tools I see in the field. I can appreciate the extreme hardness of the steel we use for our bookbinding tools. I have experienced tools that hold their edges and tools that don’t.

In any case, now I use a combination of Jeff Peachey’s sharpening system, a dry system which uses disposable sheets of progressively-smaller grit microabrasive papers, and my good old Japanese water stones from school.

The 6000 grit water stone with nigura stone in the foreground. Finishing strop is to the right, and three knife blanks at the back (with my own lifting knife in its sheath on top).

The 6000 grit water stone with nigura stone in the foreground. Finishing strop is to the right, and three knife blanks at the back (with my own lifting knife in its sheath on top).

Although the adhesive-backed papers are really easy to use, and much cleaner than the water stones, I used the water stones to create the edges on my seven students’ lifting knives.

From left to right: a Hewit paring knife I use as a blank; two right-handed lifting knives after being sharpened on a Peachey slab of 80-micron sandpaper, left-handed knife after same.

From left to right: a Hewit paring knife I use as a blank; two right-handed lifting knives after being sharpened on a Peachey slab of 80-micron sandpaper, left-handed knife after same.

The cleanup is worth it when you make multiple knives, and I try in general to stay away from disposable stuff unless the convenience really makes a difference. Well, the water stones really came through for me today, and though the knives are all a little irregularly- shaped, I am really happy with the bevel angle and the fact that they’re all sharp enough to shave. Ready for a class full of eager future book conservators!

It's shaving! You can see here the hair on the bevel. Game on, bookbinders!

It’s shaving! You can see here the hair on the bevel. Game on, bookbinders!


Filed under Classes I've taught, Tool Talk

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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New Work, New Classes

I am excited to be doing some work for Dana Smith and Steve Macdonald. I’ll be binding a total of 27 copies of their book Sweet Call and Response. I love this work and how the printed imagery combines with embroidered shading, blocks of color, and detail work. They’ve dropped off two giant stacks of raw pages for me to sew and bind into hard covers just today, so I’m about to get cracking at it! I’ve already bound some advance copies for them, and here are some images of those books that are already complete. You can see more of this book, and Dana’s work, here.

Printed cover cloth

Fly fishing with satin stitch edge

Geometric pattern with full moon

Embroidered shading outlines this black and white palm tree

Detail of embroidered edge– you know how I love edge decoration…

Local Interest

Soon another round of Beginning Bookbinding at the San Francisco Center for the Book will begin. As of today, there are only three spots left in this class, which runs on Wednesday evenings in June and July. Beginning Bookbinding is the first half of the certificate program at SFCB, and is structured to provide a hearty, solid foundation in bookbinding, focusing on hand sewn books with hard covers. It is heartening for me to work with such students as I have been extremely lucky to have! It’s been a lot of fun, and much has been learned by all.

Lovely *and* fun

Various styles of books we make in Beginning Bookbinding, all sewn by hand with hard covers

Speaking of classes, I just completed a round of calligraphy classes (as a student!) through the Friends of Calligraphy. Judy Detrick was our amazing instructor for (you guessed it) Book Hand. I love the legible, circular shapes of Book and Foundational hands and their connection to greater developments in the history of the book. I’ve tried to learn Book Hand on my own, reading, absorbing, and practicing for a few years, but nothing compares to personal attention from an extremely skilled practitioner of the craft. My writing is still pretty humble, but much improved, and much easier and enjoyable to practice now that I know some tips from a pro!

Practice, practice, practice… and more practice, and perhaps some. more. practice

However, it is now time for me to, as they used to say, “return to our regularly scheduled programming” (live television broadcasts seem so far removed from me these days, yet ingrained my memory!)… Anyway… back to the books!

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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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Filed under Around, About, and Through, Classes I've taken, Classes I've taught